What are you listening to right now? Doom metal? Beethoven’s Fifth? Afro-Cuban hip-hop? Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” on repeat?
There’s no single right answer to this question, but there is a wrong answer: if you tell us that you’re listening to “nothing,” then you’re not doing deep listening. There’s sound all around us, from the bass tones wafting from the air conditioning vents to the creaking floorboards from the toddler birthday party upstairs, from the cacophony of car horns on South Congress, to the crunching granite under your sneakers on the Hike and Bike Trail.
Houston-born composer Pauline Oliveros has been one of the most influential figures from the last 50 years in contemporary music. The idea of “deep listening” is central to her work as an artist. As we anticipate the world premiere of a new piece written by Pauline Oliveros, to be presented at the Blanton during SoundSpace on September 13, here’s an overview of the composer and her importance to contemporary art and music:
Who is Pauline Oliveros? One of the most influential figures in contemporary music and art, she’s primarily known as a composer but is the rare musician who’s just as likely to be profiled in Yoga Journal or Artforum as in Pitchfork or The Wire. You’ll find her compositions performed in concert halls and on recorded anthologies, but you’ll also find her teaching, writing, and interacting with a wide range of collaborators from any discipline you can imagine. She’s shared the stage with Cecil Taylor and DJ Spooky but also with karate instructors and entomologists.
She’s also notable for her committed political stances on feminism (see her provocative New York Times editorial from 1970, “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers”) and environmentalism, and for her prolific writings as well as her long career teaching at Mills College and Oberlin College.
What is “deep listening”? Oliveros has described deep listening as “the seemingly impossible task of listening to everything all the time.” As a young composer of electronic music in the 1950s, Oliveros discovered that the act of recording found sounds (via a tape recorder placed on the sill of an open window) focuses our attention on the ordinary sounds during our everyday lives that we’ve missed because we weren’t paying attention. Deep listening, similar to other forms of mindfulness, seeks to make us more closely aware of our environment. It draws on traditions of meditation used for physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits, but it also ties those traditions to creativity, collaboration, and experimentation. Deep listening can be calming but it can also help you to think more creatively.
Where can I hear this? On September 13, we’re producing a program in our award-winning series SoundSpace that explores deep listening. We’ve assembled a large cast of Oliveros’s collaborators and students, performing classic pieces as well as a new, world premiere piece written by Oliveros specifically for SoundSpace, with the whole program culminating in a massive site-specific piece that will fill the entire museum with sound. Several of these pieces are interactive, allowing audience members to participate in the sonic experience.
Turning the Blanton into a 124,000 square foot chamber of sound fits into the tradition of past Oliveros performances in unique spaces—the album of the Deep Listening Band was recorded inside a massive cistern near Seattle. She’s also written compositions that are not only site-specific but time-specific: for instance, her pieces written for accordion, clarinet, and live singing cicadas, performed outdoors. It’s only possible to recreate this piece while the periodical cicadas are active, which happens only once every 17 years.
Okay, but how can I hear this on my phone right now? Well, of course you can visit Oliveros’s website, bandcamp page, etc., but you can also hear her influence all over experimental and pop music of the last 50 years: Brian Eno’s site-specific compositions in the 70s, the droning cello of Arthur Russell in the 80s, 90s British IDM like Autechre and Boards of Canada, doom bands from the 00s like Sunn O))) and Earth, and contemporary ambient artists Grouper and Actress. These musicians are very diverse, but all share an interest in developing their compositions through tone clusters held for extended periods of time, in which the development of the entire piece relies upon the listener’s close attention to how notes, chords, pitches, and tempos mutate and shift.
A simpler pop song might repeat the same chords—Taylor Swift’s ”Bad Blood‘s” F/C/G/A minor—so that you’ve figured out the entire 3-minute song in the first 10 seconds. The deep listening approach, by contrast, is more about giving the listener a sonic palette that develops and envelops, repaying focused attention over the duration of the piece.
I’m not a musician—can I practice deep listening if I can’t read music or play an instrument? Yes! There are a number of text-based deep listening pieces that you can perform at home.
Here’s one you can use to warm up for the participatory pieces at the Blanton this month or simply to cultivate mindfulness and creative engagement with your environment. It’s titled Urban and Country Meditations:
Listen to a roadway–eyes closed–distinguish size shape make of car by sound–also speed and health of engine.
Sit by the trees–what kind of tree makes what kind of sound?
Make sure to drop the Blanton this Sunday, September 13 from 2-4pm to experience SoundSpace: Deep Listening.
Adam Bennett organizes the music, film, and lecture series at the museum in his role as the Blanton’s manager of public programs. He also writes about arts and culture and practices law in Austin.