Music at 14 Below

Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening

The Dan Harpole Cistern at Fort Worden State Park (<a href="">Centrum Foundation</a>)
The Dan Harpole Cistern at Fort Worden State Park (Centrum Foundation)


A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about an English birdwatcher, writer, and radio producer named Tim Dee, who for some time now has been obsessed with recording the sound of the wind. Dee’s attempts are chronicled in a documentary film (Into the Wind), which shows him taking his large woolly microphone into the expanse of lonely marshland situated along The Wash, an estuary in the east of England. To isolate the wind from everything it comes into contact with, however, is no easy matter. When we hear the sound of the wind, Dee says, we are actually hearing

moving air colliding with—and playing—the surface of the Earth. It is the grass that is singing and the trees that are soughing. When the wind blows, each thing creates its own distinctive sounds, from the swells of the sea to the sands of the desert, from the rolling mountains to the vast ice-sheets, from our blocky buildings to the cables that connect them overhead. But we’ve simplified all this—we just call it wind, hoping to encapsulate in one word a great singer and all of its songs.

The recognition that so ubiquitous a phenomenon as the wind can produce varied music—that we are surrounded by this magnificent, unceasing song—would have thrilled the late Pauline Oliveros. An inventive composer and performer, Oliveros was also a respected teacher. She died late last fall at the age of 84, having spent a lifetime in deep communion with all the sounds around her. To “listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening”—these were the words by which she lived, and she would repeat them to her students with incantatory power. For Oliveros, listening was not the same thing as hearing. When we hear, we merely take in the audible vibrations impinging upon us, perceiving them as sound. Listening means interacting with and interpreting those sounds, experiencing them as music—a mysterious process that, as Oliveros explained, requires both sensitivity and careful attention. Our reward for such patient, thoughtful listening is not only a better appreciation of music, but a heightened consciousness, as well.

Oliveros grew up in Houston, where, she would later recall, the sounds of neighborhood frogs bewitched her, as did “all those wonderful stereophonic cicada sounds.” As a teenage musician, she became increasingly obsessed with reproducing the noises of insects and animals—following in a storied tradition of such composers as Vivaldi, Beethoven, Frederick Delius, and Olivier Messiaen, the last being the great master of depicting birdsong in classical music. But Oliveros was equally interested in mechanical noises, which were an integral part of her sound world. She found that the traditional materials of music were ill-equipped to render what she heard and wanted to transmit. And so, in the 1960s, she sought out the avant-garde technology of synthesizers and magnetic tape, establishing herself at the forefront of the electronic music movement at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which she helped establish. The Vietnam War, however—and the long period of self-reflection that followed—profoundly affected her musical style. She immersed herself in the study of Eastern religions and American Indian traditions, and began to view meditation as essential to her art. Perhaps above all, she wanted to liberate art music from the clutches of the elite and help anyone, of any socioeconomic class or level of expertise, to experience it. Music, she intoned, is everywhere. It can heal the damaged soul. You simply have to train yourself to accept all those oscillating sound waves, to sense in each sound, in each pattern of sounds, a beginning, a middle, and an end. In one of her so-called “Sonic Meditations,” she gently implores us: “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”

In the 1970s, Oliveros started to improvise almost exclusively, mainly on her accordion. Indeed, her masterpiece—for me, one of the most profoundly affecting works of the 20th century—came out of a single audacious improvisation session. In 1988, Oliveros and two colleagues—the trombone and didgeridoo player Stuart Dempster and the composer and vocalist Panaiotis—carried their instruments down a 14-foot ladder into the defunct Fort Worden cistern in Port Townsend, Washington. There, in that strange and desolate space, the three of them began to play. And there, the album Deep Listening was born.

All performance spaces affect sound. In an earlier age, the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra had to overcompensate for the famously dry acoustics of the old Academy of Music—thus the ensemble’s fabled, lush string sound. Performing outdoors introduces all sorts of challenges, humidity being just one. The cistern, however, was unlike any concert hall or studio. For one thing, it produced a stunning 45-second reverberation time, meaning that echo became as fundamental to the music as the notes themselves. As a consequence, the musicians were forced to listen more deeply, more attentively; they began to experience sound in new, innovative ways. As listeners, we can too. Each time I return to Deep Listening, I sense the illusion of synthetic, electronic manipulation—an effect both disorienting and seductive. But there are only those three instruments—accordion, trombone, and didgeridoo—as well as the human voice; has a work ever been created from so seemingly incongruous a combination of timbres? The music seems timeless, without any obvious geographical borders. Perhaps I am responding to the sonority of the didgeridoo (a tube-like instrument that is blown into but that exists outside the Western tuning system known as equal temperament), a sound “as deep as the sound of the earth with a long mysterious decay,” as the composer Toru Takemitsu once described it. I get the same feeling hearing this music that I do at the beginning of the Ring Cycle, in which Wagner rendered the dawning of a world in nearly 140 measures of glowing E flat major. We are partly in the realm of ambient music, yet unlike many ambient works, during which we can blithely drift in and out without missing a whole lot, this work requires focus, constant engagement. Lasting longer than an hour, Deep Listening reveals more every time I engage with it, yet it continues to pose new questions. I have tried to describe a bit of it here, yet this primordial soundscape almost resists explication. Is it any wonder that the slim booklet accompanying my CD contains no text at all?

In the work’s final part, the musicians begin striking found objects in the cistern, creating new sonorities—an unsettling clanging and hammering now combine with the eerie voice and trombone lines. The feeling verges almost on terror, as I start to hear oddly familiar sounds that I know cannot be present: a foghorn, the whistling of the wind, a bell being struck, distant birdsong. My imagination has created these illusory sounds, with my sense of perception both enhanced and altered. Such is the magic of this protean world, and surely one of Oliveros’s intentions: when we listen deeply enough, we not only consume music, we help invent it, too.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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