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Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening

The last Sudden Sound concert series of the year took place at the Krannert Art Museum on Friday, November 13th, sponsored by eDream , a University of Illinois initiative to study the arts and digital media. The Sudden Sound series showcases avant-garde composers and musicians. Pauline Oliveros was the evening's featured artist. Oliveros has been composing and performing music for over forty years. She currently teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where she heads the Deep Listening Institute.

Pauline Oliveros

Not knowing much about Oliveros and her performance style before the concert, I was open for anything when I went to the Krannert Art Museum.  I knew I wanted to attend because I did know that Oliveros was an accomplished, 77 year old woman playing radically creative music on a specifically modified instrument- a rare combination, something I did not want to miss. And that rare combination proved to be so much more.

The concert venue was the main gallery of the Krannert Art Museum, where surrounded by paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures, Oliveros had set up her low-to-the-ground, unassuming instruments. The instruments:  two computers with special sound software, various effects pedals, and a bright red accordion. Audience members where encouraged to lie down on the floor, walk around, and relax during the performance and many were already sprawled out when we arrived. After brief introductions Oliveros, a small, white-haired woman dressed all in black, came and sat down. She smiled briefly as she picked up her accordion and strapped it to her chest. What followed was, as one audience member said softly afterwards, "a gift."  

 We, the audience, did not passively absorb the composition. The experience can best be described as feeling, rather than listening to a concert. The sounds and tones produced by the improbable accordion were so powerful that I kept my eyes closed for the majority of the concert. Others walked around participating in the movement of sounds from one speaker to the next, while others stretched out on their backs and closed their eyes. I don't think it was possible to sit still in your chair for the entirety of the performance. Several speakers, I counted seven, but there were more behind walls that I could not see, were set up all around the museum, and Oliveros's dynamic composition flitted, shrieked, jumped, spat, skittered and hollered throughout the rooms. The composition was made from pre-recorded sounds, filtered through the computers and the special accordion. At least that is what I imagined about her process, from comparing the sounds to what was coming out of the surrounding speakers. It was a particular kind of concert-exquisitely terrifying and joyful. Oliveros completed her playing sat down the accordion and walked quietly away, leaving us with reverberating echoes as she shuffled out.

Oliveross practice is a hybrid one, producing not only new sonic combinations but also new intellectual combinations, as she does in her practice of Deep Listening. Deep Listening, as I understand it, was created by Oliveros and is part meditation, part feminist thought, and part collaboration tool. It is a way to become an active listener in a space and with one another. I participated in a Deep Listening workshop the Sunday after the concert.  A rainy night, over thirty people came out to learn from the artist. Much of the workshop was spent becoming quiet, resting inside our bodies, really just slowing down. Oliveros points out that we spend so much time rushing to and from appointments in an increasingly  crowded sonic space, that we have become disassociated with listening. So, we spent the evening trying to reconnect with our surroundings and reclaim that space.            

Oliveros uses Deep Listening as a composition tool, for many reasons including the way that it encourages heightened awareness of one's surrounding environment. The workshop was a brief introduction into how one might go about Deep Listening. As part of the workshop, we went around the circle of participants and said our names in the intonation and inflection that we felt most comfortable with. Some names became loud and long, some short and staccato. For example, Pauline became, Paaaaaauuuuuulllllleeeeeeeeaaan, turning up high at the end. Each name sound was more associated with the person than if they had just said their name, as in everyday conversation. We became aware of personalities much more rapidly. Instances like this make me, as an artist who works collaboratively, particularly interested in Deep Listening as a tool to facilitate collaboration.  An awareness of sonic surroundings seems to lead to a quicker connection with space and those that inhabit the space with you. Whether it is the attention to breathing or physicality, that Oliveros encouraged in her light instruction, I felt more open to the possibility of chance and discovery during the workshop.

The workshop was a lighter version of what her composition had done on the Friday before. Whereas the composition was designed to press in on me with a shifting sonic presence, drawing attention as each sound moved around the room, the workshop fell back on my own ability to be open to sounds and their implications. Listening leads to quicker emotional connections and awareness, which, in my opinion, points to the way that Oliveros is pushing and expanding feminist thought, by turning active listening into a tool for composition, collaboration, and creativity.





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