We can all surely recite some version of the difference between listening and hearing. It’s usually explained by a parent or guardian, with the intent of making us better at following instructions. On the whole, it’s for our own good as children that we pay heed to our elders. But genuine, critical listening is about so much more than perceiving gestures of authority. The avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros, who died this past Thursday at 84, would argue that true listening, what she called “deep listening,” opens us up in radical ways to the world around us, and frees us from the sociopolitical constraints that hem in our senses. “Take a walk at night,” says one Oliveros’ 1974 “Sonic Meditations,” a set of 25 instructions for deep listening, “Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.”
“Sonic Meditations” emerged after “a period of intense introspection prompted by the Vietnam War,” writes Steve Smith in a New York Times obituary, during which Oliveros “changed creative course” to begin favoring improvisatory works. “All societies admit the power of music or sound,” she wrote in the preface.
“Sonic Meditations,” wrote Oliveros, “are an attempt to return the control of sound to the individual alone, and within groups especially for humanitarian purposes; specifically healing.” Her approach represented the composer giving up control and the primacy of authorship in order to play other roles: healer, guide, and teacher, a role she inhabited for decades as a college professor and author of several books of musical theory.
As you can see in her TEDx lecture at the top of the post, Oliveros always returned from her sonic explorations—such as the 1989 recording titled Deep Listening (hear an excerpt below)—with lessons for us in how to become better, more engaged and empowered listeners, rather than distracted consumers, of music and sound. Even before the 70s, and her turn to music as a meditative discipline informed by Buddhism and Native American ritual, Oliveros’ work disrupted the usual hierarchies of sound. An early adopter of technology, she “was quickly at the vanguard of electronics,” wrote Tom Service in a 2012 Guardian profile, but her “relationship with technology is philosophically ambivalent” given the role of research and development in creating weapons of war.
In early compositions like 1965’s “Bye Bye Butterfly,“ the composer “manipulated a recording of Puccini’s opera ‘Madama Butterfly’ on a turntable,” Smith writes, “augmenting its sounds with oscillators and tape delay.” In the beautifully moving results, further up, she aimed for a critique that “bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th century,” she wrote, “but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.” Music has always been produced and consumed within the social constructions of gender binaries, Oliveros maintained. In a 1970 New York Times essay “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers,” she observed that “unless she is super-excellent, the woman in music will always be subjugated, while men of the same or lesser talent will find places for themselves.”
Throughout her long career, Oliveros created a place for herself, with as much theoretical rigor, playfulness, elegance, and sophistication as her friend and contemporary John Cage. That her substantial body of work has received a fraction of the attention as his may offer an instructive gloss on her contentions of persistent bias. But Oliveros’ work was not reactive; it was constructive, such that her concepts gave rise to what she called a Deep Listening Institute, an “ever-growing community of musicians, artists, scientists, and certified Deep Listening practitioners,” who strive “for a heightened consciousness of the world of sound and the sound of the world.”
But you don’t need specialized certification or training to experience the meditative, consciousness-expanding techniques of Oliveros’ music. On the contrary, she sought to foster “creative innovation across boundaries and across abilities, among artists and audience, musicians and nonmusicians, healers and the physically or cognitively challenged, and children of all ages.” In the Spotify playlist above, hear—or rather listen to—20 hours of Oliveros compositions, many featuring her early experiments with analog electronics, her “expanded instrument system,” and her signature instrument, a digitally-enhanced accordion.
As in the orchestral movement of Deep Listening, the album, Oliveros frequently dialogues with musical traditions, but she refused to allow them any particularly elevated authority over her work. “I’m not dismissive of classical music and the Western canon,” she said in 2012, “It’s simply that I can’t be bound by it. I’ve been jumping out of categories all my life.” As listeners, and readers, of her work, we can all learn to do the same.