Broadcaster and journalist Emma Warren’s new monthly column on listening starts at the source, with the queen of deep listening Pauline Oliveros
Most of us hear, in the sense that our ears and bodies respond to the vibrations caused by speech or the Doppler-affected stream of music coming from a passing car stereo. But how many of us listen?
American avant-garde musician Pauline Oliveros, who died late last year aged 84, believed in listening as a way of life. According to the ideas she developed into music and a meditative practice, listening is an intuitive way of navigating the world. We tend think of listening as passive but under Oliveros’ guidance this changes and becomes active; alive. It’s Deep Listening, a form of communication where the act of listening changes both the environment and the listener.
The composer and accordion player was an original member of the pioneering San Francisco Tape Music Centre, alongside fellow luminaries of minimalism including Morton Subotnik, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. John Cage laid a tribute at her door in the late ’80s when he said she’d taught him something key about music: “Because of Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening I finally know what harmony is. It’s about the pleasure of making music”.
Oliveros described listening as ‘a mysterious practice that is not the same for everyone’. The second part of her phrase is evidentially true: a piano might sound brighter or more dull to me than they do to you because of the architecture of my ears or the quality of neural connections in your brain. Our life experience affects how we absorb music, too. Years of listening closely to grime and hip hop means I hear lyrics the first time they’re spoken and a clever bit of wordplay jumps out at me like a new phrase of music might to someone more tuned to symphonies. Sound engineers use their ability to hear a greater frequency range than most of us in their daily work. My friend Lisa says she’s going deaf.
Teach Yourself To Fly is one of Oliveros’ compositions from her 1970 work Sonic Meditations. There are no notes, bars or treble clefs, just a paragraph of text that describes what should happen. A group of people should sit in a circle, in a room illuminated by a dim blue light. “Begin by simply observing your breathing,” says the score. “Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal chords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally.” It then instructs players to increase the intensity for as long as possible naturally, until all others are quiet.
Watching an eight minute YouTube clip of a group performing this piece is strangely voyeuristic. The group close their eyes (caveat: in any situation which requires people to close their eyes there will always be one or two with their eyes open and there will be an exchange of glances, and recognition, and the group in this video are no different). Their breathing begins to sound like the weather outside your bedroom. The sounds begin to move together. It becomes rhythmic and harmonic, despite the great differences in the size and shape of the people using their breath and voice as musical instruments. It ends, by unspoken mutual consent.
Opening my ears to this short sonic mediation has brightened and amplified my own listening. As the clip ends I’m hearing a topline of birds, the soft decay of a car driving past my south London kitchen and I tune into a tiny solo from a fly stuck behind the glass. Voices and a window of music from outside roll in and out of hearing; there’s a bassline in the skies as a plane passes overhead. I notice the pulse of blood in my ears and my heartbeat, slower than you’d expect, and an engine idling outside like a tiny drum roll.
I’ve heard variations on these sounds thousands of times before and so my hearing them is layered on top of all my previous hearings. When I stayed at my friend’s flat in Lisbon I was exposed to different sounds – distant trams, a dog cooped up and barking, Portuguese radio drifting down like a basket on a string – and I heard them in relation to my everyday field of sound. I heard their difference, not their everyday quality.
“Listening is an interplay between the perception of the moment, compared with experience,” said Oliveros. “It is subject to time delays. Sometimes this is milliseconds, or many years later.”
To me, she’s talking about sound as memory and time machine. We’ve all experienced that special transportative quality to music where forgotten versions of yourself reappear and you remember who you were back then. Sound is the same. Soldiers or civilians who fled warzones will tell you that sounds can carry a terrifying echo, even when they’re divorced from terrifying situations and even when you’re miles or years from harm. The Japan Sound Portrait collects and records endangered sounds – cicadas, street sounds from Akihabara district of Tokyo, the 1983 Volkswagen Jetta Mk-1 car – because they believe that our sonic world can be a valuable source of comfort and context even if we’re not listening to it actively all the time.
I saw Pauline Oliveros play in a planetarium in Montreal, a few weeks before she died. She didn’t look like someone whose time was ending. She was nestled into her accordion like a mother holding a child and at the end of the performance she lowered her head and kissed it. It was a tiny gesture; one that summed up a life’s work in which listening and perhaps even love had become one.