The Deep Listening Issue
Welcome to Sound American Issue # 7
Deep Listening Founder Pauline Oliveros: Photo by Aimee Friberg
This is the fifth time I've rewritten this opening; not edited, mind you, but rewritten. I began with a pseudo-historical overview of the idea of purpose in music making, then a series of questions about what music adds to a person’s life. Finally, after a series of increasingly abstract and increasingly Marxist openings about use versus surplus value, I find myself here, expressionless and lost in silence again.
Somehow this inability for me to articulate what I want is fitting for this issue exploring Pauline Oliveros’ practice of Deep Listening. I admit that I entered into my research with a certain amount of skepticism, expecting to find a gap between Oliveros’ music (which I love) and a morass of self-reflection couched in meditative language. It was because of this skepticism that I wanted to find out more about Deep Listening practice and practitioners. I wanted to be able to understand it, to put the concept into words, to make it into some sort of latter day dodecaphony complete with grids and lists of rules. What I discovered is that trying to force a concept like Deep Listening into a grid, a set of rules, is as offensive as it is ridiculous.
Where do you go, then, when your task is to put ideas into, hopefully objective, words? I went into the research for this issue in the same way I undertake the study of all of Sound American’s previous topics …forensically… with the hope of uncovering a correct answer or definitive “this is that” to fill the following pages. I went back to every conversation I had with musicians that had been involved with Pauline and Deep Listening. I reread her text. I did some of the meditations. What I realized is that there are a few general truths that, when taken together, start to give one a feeling of what Deep Listening is to those that practice it.
Notice I used the word feeling, as opposed to definition. While Oliveros does make sure to explain concepts like focal versus global listening (see On Deep Listening), it seems more satisfying to try and find a way of articulating the feeling of Deep Listening was by finding out how other musicians, involved at varying levels in the practice, would grapple with the same problem.
And so, that’s what I did. This issue of Sound American has become more about how we experience or explain our experience of an idea than how we objectively define it. My thinking had to change from researcher to explorer. Is it a place I’m comfortable with? No. Is it the right direction to go? For this topic, yes, I think so.
In the following pages, you will read about (and listen to) the ways in which different musicians have experienced the concept of Deep Listening. Their experiences range from the completely initiated to those who, like me, are trying to grasp the concept of Deep Listening for the first time. Their approaches will differ radically as they view the practice, not as a stylistic construct to build Deep Listening pieces in, but as a new way to broaden their own musical experience: a practice.
There are essays by collaborators with Pauline that explain their own ideas and how they relate to the broad practice of Deep Listening. There is an interview with Pauline’s former students about how the practice has affected their decisions about programming and how to approach contemporary repertoire. You’ll find a group of young artists that used Deep Listening as a sounding board for experiments that expanded their musical world. There’s a discussion about the business of music by Al Margolis, one of the people that helps keep Deep Listening (as well as any number of other amazing experimental music ideas) in front of the listening public. And, finally, there is Pauline.
While I don’t expect you to walk away from this issue with an understanding of what Oliveros’ practice and concept in an intellectual sense, I hope that exploring this issue of Sound American gives at least some sort of feeling of what Deep Listening adds up to. If you get nothing else out of the content here, please just take a moment to stop and pay attention to the sound. Read a little bit about Deep Listening in On Deep Listening, read Pauline’s words or listen to her music. See how it affects other people and use that as the inspiration to focus your attention on the sounds around you, find out how they affect you and, later, think about how you can use that kind of attention in music making, listening, and daily life. - Nate Wooley