The Death of Boundary-Pushing Composer Pauline Oliveros Leaves Us a Big Lesson: Listen Deeply | Music Essay | Indy Week
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The Death of Boundary-Pushing Composer Pauline Oliveros Leaves Us a Big Lesson: Listen Deeply 

When composer Pauline Oliveros died last week at age eighty-four, I found myself caught up in a Twitter conversation about which recordings were the best points of entry for people wanting to learn more about her work. This isn't an unusual question after the death of such an accomplished musician: Oliveros was a pioneer of early electronic music at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the sixties, one of very few women composing in that genre at a time when access to electronic music equipment was extremely limited, and one of an even smaller (but growing) number of those women widely recognized today. As an educator, she directed electronic music programs at Mills College and the University of California at San Diego. She was also a celebrated performer, incorporating her training as an accordionist into her later work with live electronics.

And yet the question of which tracks or albums to listen to struck me as strange in this case, because Oliveros's music has always called for a very different kind of listening.

Unlike some academic mid-century composers of experimental and electronic music, Oliveros definitely cared if you listened—and how you listened. Listening is the cornerstone of her musical work, especially in her compositions and writings that deal with "deep listening," a concept she developed with several collaborators beginning in the late eighties. Oliveros described deep listening as an active practice involving both physical and meditative components—meant as a way to learn to better appreciate both sound and silence, in music as well as in everyday life.

The form of listening Oliveros describes in her writings is intensely personal, but is not meant to take place in seclusion or as a kind of taste making. It's accountable and participatory. It requires trusting yourself and your experiences, and learning about yourself through interacting with others. In one deep listening exercise, participants are divided into two groups that call back and forth, analyzing and imitating the sounds made by one another. In another, two partners sit back-to-back and sing tones to make each other's spines resonate. One meditative piece directs participants to "listen to everything you can possibly hear in the whole field of sound both inwardly and outwardly." Another asks, "Can you imagine your own resonance?"

These exercises can feel embarrassing. I've performed Oliveros's instructions many times with small groups, in public and in private, and it's common to notice nervous laughter or other signs that participants find the pieces a little uncomfortably personal. But this is by design: they are meant to challenge. Oliveros's work with deep listening grew out of a series of text instructions called Sonic Mediations. When she first published these meditations in 1971, she described a "feminine principle," a mode of female creative thought that had been suppressed by both men and women since ancient times. Sonic Meditations and Oliveros's other works were meant to push participants toward this feminine side, regardless of their gender, leading to a form of listening that emphasizes introspection and healing. Her language might come across as a little dated today, with wider societal acceptance of the idea of gender as existing on a fluid spectrum rather than as a firm binary, but the idea of prioritizing subjectivity and feeling in listening remains compelling and rewarding.

In recent years, Oliveros offered deep listening certification, personally training practitioners alongside her spouse, the writer and performance artist Ione. The process of certification requires substantial emotional, physical, and financial commitment, not unlike what might be expected of training to become an exercise instructor or even a spiritual leader. Both comparisons are apt, because deep listening reminds us that the act of listening is intensely bodily and personal, and that attending to it requires paying attention to yourself in ways that you might usually not. It is an intimate act that requires committed practice.

If you are just beginning to discover Oliveros's work, there is much to choose from: electronic pieces "Bye Bye Butterfly" and "I of IV," her 1982 album Accordion & Voice, and her work with the Deep Listening Band, to name a few. But the best place to start might be with yourself or a few friends. Following the first Sonic Meditation, you could try to "Teach Yourself to Fly." Seated with others in a circle, observe your own breath, and gradually allow it to evolve into vibrations of your vocal cords. Continue in this way for as long as naturally possible, until everyone falls silent. In this piece, as in Oliveros's listening practice, the cardinal rule is "Always be an observer." Observe, of course, but take care to immerse yourself in her work, too.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ears to the Ground"

  • In her decades of work, Oliveros explored new ground and taught us new ways to absorb the world around us.

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