Deep Listening is a creative, meditative practice developed by one of America’s most important composers of the 20th and 21st century, Pauline Oliveros, who served as distinguished research professor of music in the School of Humanities, Arts, and School Sciences. Oliveros, who described the practice as “listening with your whole body,” passed away at her home on Nov. 24 in Kingston, N.Y. She was 84 years old. Her death was confirmed by her spouse, Carole Ione Lewis, a writer and performance artist known as Ione. Acclaimed internationally, Oliveros’ career spans 50 years of boundary dissolving music making, where she has explored sound—forging new ground for herself and others.
“Professor Pauline Oliveros helped to establish Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a place that supports tremendously interesting work at the nexus of art, technology, immersive experiences, and human perception,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “We are so grateful for the time she gave us, and for the inspiration she provided to our students and to our faculty in many disciplines. Her influence can be seen in the many ways Rensselaer now incorporates artistic concepts throughout the curriculum.”
A leader of the avant-garde and a pioneer of improvisatory music, alternate tuning systems, contemporary accordion playing, electronics, and multimedia events, Oliveros was a vital force through continuing performances, and through Deep Listening®, a lifetime practice fundamental to her work.
“As a musician, I am interested in the sensual nature of sound, its power of synchronization, coordination, release, and change,” said Oliveros. “Hearing represents the primary sense organ—hearing happens involuntarily. Listening is a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture. All cultures develop through ways of listening. Deep Listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, or one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is. As a composer, I make my music through Deep Listening.”
In the 1950s, Oliveros was part of a circle of iconoclastic composers, artists, and poets who gathered together in San Francisco. Through improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching, and mediation, she has created a body of work with such breadth of vision that it profoundly affects those who experience it and eludes many who try to write about it, according to her artist’s bio.
“Pauline was a humanist who rejoiced in the mysterious beauty of the sonic world that surrounded her,” said HASS Dean Mary Simoni, who is also a composer, author, teacher, pianist, consultant, arts administrator, and amateur photographer. “She was a generous and kind-hearted spirit who understood the power of forgiveness. I am proud to count myself as one of her students. Her legacy of Deep Listening will be stewarded by Rensselaer’s Center for Deep Listening under the leadership of Professor Tomie Hahn. We will strive to uphold her humanitarian and artistic values in all that we do.”
In 1970, Oliveros wrote an essay that appeared in The New York Times titled, “And Don’t Call them ‘Lady’ Composers,” which “enumerated some of the causes that had prevented female composers from achieving the success and renown afforded to their male counterparts, among them sex-based prejudice and societal expectations.”
Later, Oliveros said in a 2012 Times profile, that in 1971, after a period of intense introspection prompted by the Vietnam War, she changed creative course, eventually producing “Sonic Meditations,” a set of 25 text-based instructions meant to provoke thoughtful, creative responses.
In 1988, Oliveros and two colleagues—the trombonist, didgeridoo player, and composer Stuart Dempster and the vocalist and composer Panaiotis, along with audio engineer Albert Swanson—squeezed through a man-hole sized opening with their instruments to climb down a 14-foot ladder into a dark underground cistern in Port Townsend, Wash. According to Oliveros, to the musicians, “echo and reverberation could be fascinating.”
As an acoustic space, the cavernous cistern where the recording was made is remarkable for its smooth frequency response, lack of distant echoes, and, most notably, a long reverberation of 45 seconds at low frequencies.
Their drone-based improvisations were recorded, and selections issued on CD under the title Deep Listening in 1989, according to a recent New York Times article noting her passing. The Times article further noted that, “beyond a self-evident pun referring to music played 14 feet underground, ‘Deep Listening’ signified Ms. Oliveros’s emerging aural discipline: a practice that compelled listening not just to the conventional details of a given musical performance—melody, harmony, rhythm, intonation—but also to sounds surrounding that performance, including acoustic space and extra-musical noise.”
In 2012, in celebration of Oliveros’ 80th birthday, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer hosted an exceptional concert on May 10, 2012 that featured a digital simulation of the acoustics within the cistern, made possible with software developed by Rensselaer professor and acoustic architect Jonas Braasch.
“Our dream after that first experience recording in the cistern was to take the cistern into the concert hall,” said Oliveros. She turned to Braasch, director of the Communication Acoustics and Aural Architecture Research Laboratory (CA^3 RL) at Rensselaer, and his team to develop software that would simulate the acoustics of the cistern for two performances.
Through Deep Listening pieces and earlier sonic meditations, Oliveros introduced the concept of incorporating all environmental sounds into musical performance. Her primary instrument was the accordion, an unexpected visitor to the musical cutting-edge, but one that she approached in much the same way a Zen musician might approach the Japanese shakuhachi, according to her artist’s bio.
The Center for Deep Listening was established at Rensselaer in June 2014 to steward the continued development of artistic expression, humanitarian scholarship, and understanding of human perception and cognition begun by Oliveros with her innovative Deep Listening practice decades ago. Oliveros, who taught a course in Deep Listening at Rensselaer since 2001, described it as a form of meditation that opens an expanded world of sound that helps students with learning in all disciplines. The center also assumed stewardship of the Deep Listening Institute that Oliveros founded in 1985 and has been working to expand its educational and research mission on the Rensselaer campus and beyond.
On March 11, 2015, the Center for Deep Listening, based in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS), hosted its opening at in the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). The program began with a “Sonic Meditation” led by Oliveros followed by a performance of “Waterfall” (an early piece by Oliveros) by all attendees. The audience was treated to a “Dream Incubation” led by Ione.
“As an ethnomusicologist, I study music within its cultural context,” Hahn said. “This kind of research requires broadening and heightening one’s awareness of sound, as well as learning from community members how sound functions in their culture. It is clear to me that Deep Listening offers an extraordinary practice for research in the humanities and sciences, as well as for individuals’ sense of well-being. In honor of Pauline’s vibrant life and love for sonic arts, listening, and all of those around her, please imagine what you can do right now to honor her. Please listen to each other. Listen to all that surrounds you.”
Deep listening is my life practice. Deep listening is a way of listening in every possible way to everything to hear no matter what you are doing. Often people are not as open, for example, to the environment of sound around us; people often try to shut sound out instead of opening to it. What I’m trying to do in my practice and in my work is to open awareness of listening and of sound.”—Pauline Oliveros
Hahn noted that the center will work hard to continue Pauline’s humanitarian and creative visions. Already the center has hosted a series of classes, workshops, and conferences, and established Deep Listening-related courses in addition to courses Oliveros taught. By the end of this year, the center will have over 75 Deep Listening Certificate Holders, and 30 students are lined up to participate in the online class that will be offered in 2017. In addition, there are three Deep Listening archives at Rensselaer that the center is processing.
“Under the guidance of Tomie Hahn, and in partnership with the Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture, the Center for Deep Listening continues to establish and expand education and research programs that support Deep Listening and bring Pauline Oliveros’ groundbreaking work to new audiences,” Simoni said. “As stewards of Pauline Oliveros’ unparalleled body of work, Tomie and I are deeply committed to ensuring that the theory, practice, education, and research of Deep Listening flourish at Rensselaer.”
In addition to her work at Rensselaer, Oliveros served as the Darius Milhaud Artist-in-residence at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
In a 2012 New York Times interview, Strange Sounds Led a Composer to a Long Career, Oliveros said that she was “not dismissive of classical music and the Western canon.” During the wide-ranging interview at the office of her foundation in Kingston, N.Y., where she lived with her longtime partner, Ione, she noted that: “It’s simply that I can’t be bound by it. I’ve been jumping out of categories all my life.”
One of Oliveros’ last public appearances was in October 2016 for an edition of the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal. The 90-minute lecture includes a detailed look at Oliveros’ career, her innovations, including the Expanded Instrument System, and the beliefs and practices underpinning her “deep listening” approach and philosophy.
For five decades, Oliveros has been a pioneer in American music, experimenting with so-called “deep listening” pieces which incorporate the environment of sound into musical performance. A celebration of her life will be held on the anniversary of her birth on May 30, 2017, at McGill University in Montreal. Additional arrangements are forthcoming.
Simply put, Oliveros always said that, “Deep listening is my life practice. Deep listening is a way of listening in every possible way to everything to hear no matter what you are doing. Often people are not as open, for example, to the environment of sound around us; people often try to shut sound out instead of opening to it. What I’m trying to do in my practice and in my work is to open awareness of listening and of sound.”