Hear a 20 Hour Playlist Featuring Recordings by Electronic Music Pioneer Pauline Oliveros (RIP)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Meet Four Women Who Pio­neered Elec­tron­ic Music: Daphne Oram, Lau­rie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue & Pauline Oliv­eros

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

Hear Steve Reich’s Min­i­mal­ist Com­po­si­tions in a 28-Hour Playlist: A Jour­ney Through His Influ­en­tial Record­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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