Pauline Oliveros
Big Deep

April 12, 2009
Suzanne Thorpe

Those hearing Pauline Oliveros' name for the first time may think they don't know who she is, but really, deep down, they do. Her groundbreaking approaches to composition and forward thinking development of technical applications with musical tools have seeped into the collective creative consciousness of so many artists and musicians today that one can't help but know just a little of Oliveros' work. She is a composer, performer and educator whose pioneering work has won her great prominence amongst the landscape of the American canon and international academia, as well as unfaltering loyalty from a cross-generation of admirers.

Much of her work, past and present has evolved out of a practice she has developed, now officially termed 'Deep Listening'. Deep Listening is a philosophy and practice that distinguishes the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary selective nature of listening. The result of the practice cultivates appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, and expands the potential for connection and interaction with one's environment, technology and performance with others in music and related arts. The practice of Deep Listening provides a framework for artistic collaboration and musical improvisation and gives composers, performers, artists of other disciplines, and audiences new tools to explore and interact with environmental and instrumental sounds.

In order to share and educate others about Deep Listening, Oliveros has formed the Deep Listening Institute, Ltd. The Institute fosters Oliveros' unique approach to music, literature, art and meditation, and promotes innovation among artists and audience in creating, performing, recording and educating with a global perspective. DLI holds workshops and retreats; performs and publishes new work; and develops new performance technologies.

On Saturday, April 18, 2009 a benefit concert will be held in support of Deep Listening Institute. BIG DEEP - A Benefit Concert for Deep Listening Institute, Ltd., will be held at The Kitchen in New York City, and will feature the Deep Listening Band (Stuart Dempster, David Bamper and Pauline Oliveros), Roscoe Mitchell and DJ Olive. The occasion will celebrate Deep Listening Band's 20th anniversary and award legendary musician/composer Roscoe Mitchell with the 2009 Deep Listening Golden Ear award.

How did all of this get started? How do electronics and meditation come together? Where is it all going? I asked these questions and a few others in a lovely Saturday morning chat with Oliveros, kitchen-to-kitchen, Brooklyn-to-Kingston, NY, via Skype. Following are some excerpts from our talk:

Pauline Oliveros

ST: Pauline, you have a unique ability to synthesize technical and scientific information with the spiritual, and have identified benchmarks that have that have acted as catalysts in the development of the Deep Listening practice. Can you talk about them?

PO: The first benchmark is a technological aspect. It began when I got a tape recorder back in 1953. I found that the microphone was hearing more than I was. When I realized this, I gave myself what I call a meditation, which was to listen for everything all the time, and to remind myself when I wasn’t doing that. It’s very informative to be mindful of that, and I have practiced it since 1953, which is a fairly long time!

The second benchmark was when I formed a group of women in 1970, an ensemble of about six women. I composed my first sonic meditation for that group, and for a Nature of Music class I taught at UCSD. I composed more and more sonic meditations and we would practice them on a Tuesday night meeting, where we would get together and do a number of different exercises, dream telling, journaling, practicing silence and sonic meditations. Little sonic meditations were the core of the practice, and got elaborated on over the years.

ST: Around that time, didn’t you begin to incorporate the study of Karate as well?

PO: Yes, that was another benchmark. The reason is that in 1970 the scientific community did not admit consciousness as a scientific study, so the word was out there without any scientific support. Then, they held a conference on consciousness at UCSD, where I was teaching. I went because I was studying what I thought of as consciousness, which was part of the spawning of sonic meditations. Lester Ingber, who was a theoretical physicist, gave a demo. He had formed a non-profit called the institue for the study of attention. He wanted to revolutionize education, and I did too! At that time I had said to myself I would like to do a physical discipline, so I started studying with Lester. He was teaching a Karate class, being a high master in Japan Karate Association, via the traditional point shodakon style, but he was teaching physics at the same time so that you learned Karate in terms of energy and mass and momentum.

ST: Which is interesting, because in your experience as an electronic musician, you are concerned with similar principles when developing signal processing.

PO: Absolutely! That’s right. Same thing. We collaborated on a number of levels, with mind-body studies and taking brain waves, and using them to trigger pitches, making pitch sets and things like that. I got interested in his research projects, which were all about the structure of the brain. All of this stuff was very interrelated, and I got a completely different perspective.

ST: But he must have gotten some reciprocity in the relationship, right? Contemporary focus on the convergence of art, science and technology shows us that the disciplines go through similar processes of theory and practice, and the disciplines are informing each other a great deal.

PO: I always think for musicians the scientific approach of theory or hypothesis to practice is in reverse. Musicians practice or perform, or whatever they do, that’s the test, and then they have a theory about it. I have an article, Deep Listening: From Practice to Theory that talks about the topic.

Pauline Oliveros

ST: Right. So what was the next benchmark?

PO: The next benchmark was in 1991, which was the first Deep Listening retreat, at Rose Mountain, New Mexico. I coined Deep Listening when the Deep Listening Band went into a cistern and made their first recording for New Albion. That was when I first begin to use the term, which has become a mime now. It’s very widespread as all kinds of groups are using those two words to describe activity.

ST: I think of your current research and performance practice in Telematics, or Distance Performance, as another line of demarcation in your career. (For those of you who are new to the term, Telematics is a method of playing that utilizes the Internet as a communication tool between musicians.) You have created the Telematic Circle, an organization that supports the creation of new art that specifically addresses broadband transmission systems as a new medium, and have even incorporated Second Life as a platform. How does Deep Listening fit into this up-and-coming medium?

PO: Well, there’s no other way! I mean your listening is expanded when you are working across virtual space, you’re inhabiting more than one space, multi-dimensional listening. We do this all the time. We’re listening inside, outside, you are wherever you are, I’m at home in Kingston. The way of listening is what bridges the space between us, and I’m very conscious of that.

This summer we hope to combine real space and virtual space even further, using virtual mic software. With this you can construct space by defining acoustic parameters, and they are adjustable and performable. You can actually morph the space as you are performing. You can put one space inside another as well.

ST: Lets hear a bit more about your upcoming benefit concert.

PO: It’s going to be a great event! Video Artists Benton C. Bainbridge is going to be doing the visuals for the entire evening, lighting and video. In the entrance of the Kitchen there will be video monitors showing past activities of the Institute. David Felton, who wrote some of Bevis and Butthead, is a trustee, and will MC the show. Roscoe and I will play, and Roscoe will be presented with the Golden Ear Award. Following that will be the Deep Listening Band. Benton has devised a method for the musicians of the Deep Listening Band to have their own video monitors, so that we all have access to the visuals that are happening during the show, taking the interaction into another dimension. After that we will segue into an After Party with DJ Olive. I’ll join him as DJ Oliveros at some point, with visuals from Benton as well. There will be a recession-special at the door, to, with tickets for either the show or after party at $35.00.

ST: Thanks Pauline, for your insight into your practice, and the information on the benefit concert. It sounds like a wonderful event and lots of fun.

PO: I know! I just can’t help myself from having fun!

For music by both Pauline Oliveros and Roscoe Mitchell, visit Electronic Music Foundation’s CDeMusic.

Pauline Oliveros

Roscoe Mitchell