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by William Osborne


Published as Chapter 3 in Women Making Art (New York: Lang, 2000) pp. 65-86.


Biographical Introduction

General Introduction

Some Central Concepts of Deep Listening as Embodied by the Sonic Meditations

Nonjudgmental Perception

Global and Focal Listening

Indeterminacy and the Witness/Universe Relationship

The Egalitarian Leveling of Status in Musical Relationships

Listening As the Cultivation of Empathy and Compassion

The Development of New Modes of Awareness

The Desire of the Unfathomable

The Understanding of Folly as Central to Artistic Experience

A Critical Assessment: Discerning the Ironic Separation of Interpretation

Works Cited


Fathom: to measure deepness by sounding. 

—Webster's Dictionary


Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts. 
All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.

—Psalm 42  


Biographical Introduction:

Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932) in Houston, Texas, is a composer, performer, humanitarian and an important pioneer in American music.  Acclaimed internationally, for four decades she has explored sound, forging new ground for herself and others. Through improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching, and meditation she has created a body of work with such breadth of vision that it profoundly affects those who experience it and eludes many who try to write about it.


Oliveros has been honored with awards, grants, and concerts internationally, including the SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the US) Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1999;  ASCAP Standard Award, 1982-98; and NEA fellowships in 1990, 1988, and 1984. She has performed in the world's most prestigious venues, ranging from the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. to the studios of the West German Radio. Through her Deep Listening Pieces and earlier Sonic Meditations (1971), Oliveros helped introduce the concept of incorporating all environmental sounds into musical performance.  This requires focused concentration, skilled musicianship. and strong improvisational skills, which are the hallmarks of Oliveros' form.


 She has also provided leadership within the music community from her early years as the first director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in 1966, to becoming director of the Center for Music Experiment during her fourteen- year tenure as professor of music at the University of California at San Diego, 1967-81.  She has served as composer-in-residence at many colleges including Mills College, Oberlin College, and Northwestern University.  She has also acted in an advisory capacity for organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council for the Arts, and many private foundations.  top  


Historical Background 


 The 1960s and early 1970s were shaped by the sociocultural movement sometimes referred to as the "new sensibility."  Among other things, the term reflected the revolutionary spirit of the time as embodied in the civil rights, antiwar, and women's liberation movements.  In the popular imagination, it represented hippies, flower children, and free love.  In the arts, it was given voice by people such as Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Susan Sontag, and Andy Warhol. It was also quite notable for explorations of expanded consciousness through new-found uses of meditation, eastern religions, and psychedelics. The new sensibility was one of the most important social revolutions in American history and left an indelible impression on its cultural landscape. 

In 1974, during the final stages of the new sensibility, Pauline Oliveros published one of the most important works of her career, the seminal Sonic Meditations.  The work broke radically from the traditions of western music.  Instead of using standard music notation, the composition consisted of twenty-five Roman-numeraled prose instructions, ranging from one sentence to a few paragraphs, which presented strategies for listening. The example below, Sonic Meditation X, illustrates their general character:


“Sit in a circle with your eyes closed.  Begin by observing your own breathing.  Gradually form a mental image of one person who is sitting in the circle.  Sing a long tone to that person.  Then sing the pitch that person is singing.  Change your mental image to another person and repeat until you have contacted every person in the circle one or more times (score).”


Oliveros wrote the Meditations while involved in teaching and research at the University of California, San Diego.  To a certain extent, her involvement with meditation synthesized academic research with the revolutionary, consciousness-expanding characteristics of the new sensibility. 

A hallmark of her work in San Diego was a fascination with long continuous sounds, such as the drones of motors, fluorescent lights, and freeway noise.  Oliveros discovered that through processes of relaxation, she could listen more closely to drones, and that relaxation also helped her to gain insights into the phenomenology of listening itself.  In the spirit of the new sensibility, she became interested in forms of meditation that increase awareness, such as those used in Buddhism and T'ai Chi Chuan (Oliveros, Software for People 148).  She learned she could apply these forms of meditation to music making and listening with profound effect.  


By 1970, several other women had joined her (many of whom were not professional musicians) to form the (“fem”) Ensemble—an all-woman improvisation group devoted to studying long sustained sounds, both vocal and instrumental.  Oliveros' phenomenological analysis of listening led her to a special interest in the involuntary changes that occurred while the Ensemble sustained tones.  Based on her involvement with various forms of meditation, she began to lead improvisations that encouraged spontaneous, subconscious transformation through de-emphasizing mental constructs such as "opinions, desires and speculations" (Oliveros, Software 149).

In 1973, Oliveros founded the Meditation Project with funding from UCSD made possible by a Rockefeller grant, and spent nine weeks examining the role of meditation in music with the help of psychologists, kinesiologists, and specialists in the martial arts and T'ai Chi Chuan. The Sonic Meditations, which Oliveros wrote for the (”fem”) Ensemble, were studied as part of the project. 


 The actual sound making in the Sonic Meditations is primarily vocal, but sometimes includes hand clapping or other body sounds.  Occasionally, sound-producing objects and instruments are used.  Since many members of the (“fem”) Ensemble were non-professionals, the approach is radically egalitarian.  Special skills are not required, anyone can participate. The principle focus is on the cognition of sound. In the second "Introduction" to the work, Oliveros writes that each Meditation is a special procedure for the following:


1.  Actually making sounds

2.  Actively imagining sounds

3.  Listening to present sounds

4.  Remembering sounds  


 Through her research, Oliveros concluded that the Sonic Meditations could produce healing, heightened states of awareness and expanded consciousness, changes in physiology and psychology, and new forms of communal relationships ( Sonic Meditations, "Introduction II").  "In the process a kind of music occurs naturally," she wrote. "Its beauty is not through intention, but is intrinsically the effectiveness of its healing power."  

Oliveros continued this work, and by the 1980s, it led to an aesthetic philosophy she refers to as Deep Listening, which redefines listening as being an art in itself.  She speaks of hearing as the "primary sense organ," and has summarized Deep Listening as follows:


"Deep Listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one's own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is. As a composer I make my music through Deep Listening"  (Oliveros, Website).


Oliveros' aesthetic of Deep Listening thus encompasses a very wide, somewhat undefined area of musical thought and consciousness developed over four decades of composition and research.  In their practical applications, the forms of Deep Listening embodied in the Sonic Meditations hint at new types of music making, new concepts of social order, and new forms of spirituality.  As the New York Times music critic, John Rockwell, has noted, "On some level, music, sound, consciousness and religion are all one, and she would seem to be very close to that level" (quoted in Oliveros, Website).  top


Some Central Concepts of Deep Listening as Embodied by the Sonic Meditations.


The Sonic Meditations can be quite fun to perform. They are often more intimate than normal chamber music and create unusually intense feelings of rapport among the participants. They also create a sense of safety and creative freedom since there is no "right" or "wrong" way of performing them—the bane of both professional and non-professional musicians.  

The Sonic Meditations embody the concepts of Deep Listening, which include nonjudgmental perception, the development of empathy through listening, the creation of nonhierarchical social relationships in music making, the expanded use of intuitive forms of internal and external awareness, and new understandings of sensuality and the body.  These practices are fundamental to Oliveros' work, and shape both her music making and teaching.  She identifies creativity as fundamental to human dignity, and feels that helping others to be creative is an essential part of the artist's work.  To analyze the Sonic Meditations we will look at their relationship to some of the central components of Deep Listening.     top


Nonjudgmental Perception.  


Deep Listening cultivates forms of perception unhindered by preconceptions.  One of the Deep Listener's goals is to listen to each and every sound exactly for what it is, nothing more, nothing less.  The Sonic Meditations thus focus our attention on how listening is an act of cognition that can "filter" or shape auditory perception.  This is illustrated in “Sonic Meditation XXII,” which asks the practitioners to think of a familiar sound, listen to it mentally, and notice how it affects them differently in various imagined contexts.


By practicing these forms of consciously mitigated listening, one learns to remove cognitive filters in order to experience deeper forms of audition.  This form of "nonjudgmental perception" was first introduced to western art music in the 1950s by John Cage, who appropriated it from Zen Buddhism. Oliveros' first contact with Zen came in the 1960s, and she remains a practicing Tibetan Buddhist.

The purpose of nonjudgmental perception in Zen is to break down the boundaries between perceiver and the perceived.
  When the perceiver and the perceived are two, the ego persists in its function of differentiating and prevents the emergence of a full and creative awareness; nondifferentiation (or nonjudgmental perception) seeks to break down the boundaries between perceiver as subject and perceived as object.  The interpenetration of the two gives rise to a mind of harmony and the attainment of creativity (Suzuki, Chang, Herrigel, Cage). 

As the Deep Listener's discernment moves toward this form of nonjudgmental perception, he or she gains a particular form of dispassionate objectivity.  This, in turn, renders a unique kind of freedom and detachment which gives works of art their most profound meaning.     top

Global and Focal Listening.  


Global and focal listening are forms of attention Oliveros employs in Deep Listening to increase awareness of the external and internal worlds, and of the cognitive processes that shape their relationship. These forms of listening are among the most important components of the Sonic Meditations.  In “Meditation XIII,” for example, the practitioner is asked to form all the sounds of her environment into a drone, and then to include internal sounds such as blood pressure and heart beat.  In effect, we listen to listening. We learn how listening is a form of conditioned discernment with profound cultural and existential implications.  

 Global listening helps us learn that all other forms of sensation are essentially directional, even smell, but that listening is innately spherical.  We thus associate listening with the all-encompassing, the universal, even the transcendent. Through such reflection, we discover that it is only through cognitive processes of listening that we give hearing a "sense" of direction. 

Global and focal listening meditations also make us conscious of our extraordinary ability to filter sounds, as when we are in a room full of noise and focus in on one person's voice. The ability to create "silence" selectively by focusing our listening is one of the greatest miracles of listening.

We also see that focal listening is a form of global listening, since there is an infinitude of detail in every sound.  One of the greatest mysteries of nature and human perception is that the infinitude of the microcosmic comes full circle and weds itself as a mirror of the macrocosmic.  Why do the structures of the atomic world bear a resemblance to the galactic world?  Why do ice crystals bear literal structural relationships to the erosion of coast lines?  Why do the swirls in the little creek outside have the same form as this galaxy?  How does an infinitesimal helix of DNA contain the entirety of human evolution?  One thinks of the words of Lewis F. Richardson:


                  Big whorls have little whorls

                  Which feed on their velocity,

                  And little whorls have lesser whorls

                  And so on to viscosity. (Gleick 119)


Through meditation on global and focal listening, we sense a unity in multiplicity that raises human folly above our finite and conditioned existence.  Mind and Nature reach for each other.  It is the infinite in the infinitesimal and the global in the focal that allows our finite religious beliefs and art works to touch the unfathomable.  Listen to the infinite details of one sound while listening to the infinite world of sound surrounding you.  A mysterious form of unity begins to exist.  It can be called beauty.    top


Indeterminacy and the Witness/Universe Relationship


The Sonic Meditations illustrate that Oliveros' focus is wider than musical; it attempts to embrace life as a whole.  Deep Listening thus includes our entire sonic environment as part of artistic experience. Oliveros refers to this as the "witness/universe relationship."  Since the environment is by nature unpredictable, Oliveros' music is indeterminate—that is, it is affected by elements of chance.  

 In the 1950s, the American composer John Cage developed an elaborate aesthetic based on indeterminacy. His work led musicians to focus more closely on the physiological and psychological processes of musical reception, and how they are changed by the infinite permutations of our human existence.  Musicians began to regard the audience as actively engaged in the process of creative listening, as opposed to the passive act of hearing.  This is revealed in Oliveros’ “Sonic Meditation VI” which asks the listener to observe the random variations of sound in white noise.  Oliveros' work is centered on this new-found meaning of listening as a creative act in an unpredictable world. 

Because Deep Listening focuses on our auditory environment and the processes of cognition that shape our perception of it, every new performance of the Sonic Meditations must be discerned anew, based on a multitude of factors in a state of constant transition and change. This same principle also defines the way we listen to life as a whole.  Oliveros moves us away from thinking of music in terms of an idealized aesthetic object in the form of a composition, to an understanding of music as a process of creative cognition in an ever-changing, unfathomable world.  We leave behind concepts of artistic experience as a given set of aesthetic principles, concepts, rules, perceptions, or critical evaluations, and move toward artistic experience as something intangible, something constantly transforming in time, something that can be listened to but never fully defined.      top

The Egalitarian Leveling of Status in Musical Relationships.  


Since Deep Listening focuses on listening itself as a creative act, it diminishes the hierarchies between the composer, performer, and audience. Each person who does the Sonic Meditations simultaneously fills the roles of creator, performer, and audience.  This differs from the patriarchal traditions of western music, which emphasize the aesthetic ideology of the composer as a "lone, transcendentally inspired genius" who is regarded as the musical creator, while performers are considered his instruments and the public a relatively passive receptor (Osborne:  See: “Symphony Orchestras and Artist-Prophets”).


This removal of hierarchical relationships encourages the development of community based on the interaction of every individual empathically listening deeply to the collective—as illustrated by “Sonic Meditation X” (quoted in full at the beginning of this chapter.) It also leads to an emphasis on music making through improvisation and meditation, forms that characterize the Sonic Meditations.  Deep Listeners feel these egalitarian concepts represent a new form of human dignity and community.     top


Listening As the Cultivation of Empathy and Compassion.  


Deep Listening seeks to develop empathy and compassion through listening, and this is a central focus of the Sonic Meditations.  Once again, this reflects the discipline's Buddhist influences, and is related to the philosophy of brahmavihara.  Brahmavihara represents the "four noble practices" through which humans can obtain subsequent "rebirth" in the Brahman heaven.  The four practices ("apramanas") represent the perfection of:


1.  Sympathy, which gives happiness to all living beings

2.  Compassion, which removes pain from living beings

3.  Joy, the enjoyment of the sight of others who have attained happiness

4.  Equanimity, being free from attachment to everything


Since Oliveros views creativity as fundamental to human dignity, she expands the role of the artist, assigning to her the specific function of helping others to be creative—a goal central to the Sonic Meditations.  The Deep Listener's renunciation of the artist's solitary, "transcendental" expression (and its special status) in favor of aiding the creativity of others, is specifically related to the second element of brahmavihara, which is compassion.  The ultimate expression of compassion in Buddhist thought is embodied by the "bodhisattva," who postpones his or her entry into "Nirvana" to work for the "salvation" of others.


Similarly, even if the goals of most Deep Listeners are considerably less grandiose than a quest for "enlightenment," they nevertheless create works or processes which allow both the artist and audience to reach for creative (or possibly transcendental) experience together as a community.   Sympathy, compassion, and joy at the sight of happiness in others formulate works of art which help the performer/audience achieve creative expression.


Compassion is also reflected in the empathic forms of communication that are a central focus of Deep Listening.  This is illustrated by “Sonic Meditation XV,” entitled Zina's Circle, which cultivates deep forms of empathic awareness between the participants through ritualistic forms of hand contact and chant.  Music, for the Deep Listener, is a form of empathy that creates authentic community.  This empathy is based as much on the creative power of the listener/audience as on the composer or performer.       top

The Development of New Modes of Awareness.  


Deep Listening attempts to create, expand, and deepen new or overlooked modes of awareness.  This ideal is illustrated in “Sonic Meditation III” which experiments with forms of "telepathic transmission."

Deep Listeners also expand their awareness by developing their sense of kinesthesia through training in Tai Chi and yoga. Kinesthesia is a sense mediated by nerves that lie in the muscles, tendons and joints. Our kinesthetic sense is stimulated by bodily movements and tensions, and gives us awareness of our body's presence.  Since kinesthesia allows us to refine movement deeply, its mastery is important to most forms of artistic expression, such as musical performance, dance, sculpting and painting. 


One Deep Listener, the cellist and composer Anne Bourne, plumbs the depths of what might be referred to as "meta-kinesthesia."  She describes this as a form of "discernment" which allows her to "find distinction within the dense sonic chaos" of existence, a spherical awareness without spatial limitation "open to the cosmos and beyond," a form of sensation without a "literal affirmation in meaning" (e-mail to author, 15 April 1999).  This same sense of metakinesthesia might be reflected in "Sonic Meditation V", which suggests walking at night so silently "that the bottoms of your feet become ears." (score). 

Another form of expanded awareness explored by Deep Listening might be referred to as empathic resonance--a type of non-verbal communication through sound or music that allows people to form strong bonds of communal identification--such as illustrated by “Meditation X” quoted at the beginning of this article.  The processes of empathic resonance through music are readily observable, though they remain undefined.

Kissing might be an example of empathic resonance that shares mechanisms of discernment used in some forms of music-making.  Why do we experience such intimate and ecstatic forces of togetherness through a kiss?  Even to put our lips near another person's brings sensations beyond mere touch and the quickening of the body and emotions. What is this sensual discernment that seems to shine for a moment a diffuse beam of light into our desolate separateness?  Even pursing the lips can create a billion textures of ecstatic sensuality, and their gentle opening reveals the intense longings created by the unfathomable abyss of our otherness.

This might explain why the breath and lips are so central to many forms of music making.  Through what appear to be forms of synesthetic kinesthesia, the discerning sensuality of the lips and the "breath of life" are transferred to our hands and ears through music-making with a wind instrument.  We have all seen how artists can make music with the same ecstatic power of empathy, passion and compassion as a kiss. Can we listen so deeply that we sense the other's sounds as ecstatically as if our lips and breath of life were touching?  Can we listen so deeply we sound the depths of otherness, and light the abyss of our separation? 

These new modes of awareness are some of the speculative doors of perception opened by Deep Listening.     top

The Desire of the Unfathomable. 


Oliveros feels that the forms of meditation and improvisation used in Deep Listening allow one to create music with a complexity difficult for notated music to achieve.  It is the undefinable in music, the desire to touch the unfathomable, that distinguishes the Sonic Meditations.


Oliveros' trio, the Deep Listening Band, which includes the trombonist, Stuart Dempster, and the electronics specialist, David Gamper, is devoted to the exploration of these undefinable regions of music.  Since their music is made "by ear," it freely creates nuances of rhythm, timbre, pitch, and inflection which cannot be captured by any known system of notation.  Even though we can discern the profundity of this music, its exquisite discernment remains unfathomable by its nature.  The music maintains an extraordinary clarity, logic, precision and originality to the discerning ear, even though it is for the most part beyond analysis or definition (Deep Listening Band, Suspended Music).  These same qualities can be achieved through the Sonic Meditations.


Our capacity to discern the unfathomable brings into being many aspects of human consciousness that would otherwise not exist, such as artistic and religious experience, as well as the capacity to experience the irrational aspects of our human psyche, such as dreams and emotions.  Jungian forms of dream analysis, conducted by Oliveros' collaborator, the psychotherapist Carole Ione, are thus an important part of the training in Deep Listening retreats (Ione).  These techniques of Deep Listening have allowed the composer Norman Lowrey to make dream-consciousness a central part of his work. Using his dreams as a reference, he meticulously recreates global sonic environments as part of rituals using highly poetic texts and astonishingly beautiful masks to make profound commentaries on society’s relationship to its natural environment (Lowrey website).  His works help us gain a deeper respect for the many levels of human consciousness and the insights they can provide. Through discernment, the witness/artist is able to feel and channel the unfathomability of life, and this is a central focus in Deep Listening.      top

The Understanding of Folly as Central to Artistic Experience.   


One of the most unusual aspects of Deep Listening is the element of folly that is part of its practices, a form of radical playfulness that Oliveros feels is essential to fostering creative expression. This explains why some of the Sonic Meditations involve the participants in seemingly ridiculous acts, such as engaging in mental telepathy with aliens (number IV), or why orchestra musicians are dispersed in row boats on a lake (number VIII).


By definition, folly is an act or instance of foolishness, an undertaking having an absurd or ruinous outcome.  Folly can also be a perilously or criminally foolish action, associated with evil, wickedness, lewdness, or lasciviousness.  There is also a performance genre referred to as follies, an elaborate theatrical revue consisting of music, dance, and skits.


Art in its best sense is related to folly, an undertaking that is seemingly absurd and foolish, something that allows us momentarily to break out of the controlling and stultifying paradigms of our social and cultural conditioning.  (That is also why it is sometimes called criminal, evil, and  lascivious.)  One of the values of Deep Listening is folly, the way it leads us to listen with abandon, to transcend the deafness of cultural conditioning. It moves us beyond such constructs as "logical" discourse, rationality, and traditional music.  In a sense, Oliveros takes us on a date to the biggest show on earth, The Follies of Life, the three-ring circus of sound.


The forms of folly and playfulness inherent in Deep Listening are not new to cultural history.  We see that what begins as fatuous, gradually becomes the new paradigm we live by, the powdered wigs, the fox trots, or the Cadillacs with big sputnik fins. Then by the same path of rivers within rivers, cultural paradigms (follies) return to their fatuous status, this time as outdated. What, for example, is more "folliful" than Gothic cathedrals?  We look at the infinitude of gargoyles, saints, Popes, and angels and acknowledge not so much God as the folly of the human spirit.  Righteousness is temporal, but folly is eternal.  History is a kind of chronicle of human delusions.


Such folly has always shaped the history of music as well.  Sixteenth century Italians, for example, decided to rub horse tail hairs over cat intestines stretched taut over poorly varnished pine boxes to make music using a tonality created by a harmony of spheres revolving around the earth like a big, godly clockwork.  One of the most ironic paradoxes of being is that our lives are given deep meaning by the sheer folly of our existence.  Folly is part of the preciousness of life, and this leads to the humanism of Deep Listening: it celebrates the folly of life and being.      top


A Critical Assessment: Discerning the Ironic Separation of Interpretation

Inspite of the dangers of essentialism, one could suggest that Oliveros' work is an interesting example of "cultural feminism."  The concept of cultural feminism was discussed by Alice Echols in 1983 in an article entitled "The New Feminism of Yin and Yang."  Cultural feminism asserts that certain traits are innate to women, and that those traits must be revalued and reintegrated into society as a whole in order to bring a balanced gender identity to western culture.  Deep Listening's nonjudgmental perception, empathy, egalitarianism, intuitive awareness, and new understandings of sensuality and the body, are all forms of consciousness we might associate with the feminine, and in many respects they embody Oliveros' notions of cultural feminism.  They are qualities of being that allow us a fuller, more balanced realization of gender and human identity. 


This kind of feminism, however, is often objected to as essentialist.  Essentialism is a form of biological reductionism that defines certain kinds of behavior as "natural" to specific genders, races, or cultures.  Racists, for example, might have an essentialist belief that a certain group is biologically disposed toward criminality.  Sexists might code certain behavior, such as intuition, as innately feminine, while coding logic as masculine and superior.  Cultural feminism, which also codes behavior according to gender, could thus be ironically turned around by patriarchy to reaffirm and consolidate its oppression of women (Przybylowicz 259). This does not change the fact, however, that Oliveros' work makes many important responses to the monolithic cultural paradigm of patriarchy.  The ironic essentialisation of her work comes more from limited interpretive theories than from her beliefs and compositions themselves.


One such irony derives from western culture's tendency to essentialize gender by categorizing "doing" as masculine and "being" as feminine.  Traditionally, we esteem men for what they accomplish in life, and women only by the nature of their being, such as their grace, charm and beauty.  If Deep Listening were to be theorized as feminine, it, too, would follow a similar essentializing pattern, since it focuses on profound concepts of being, and de-emphasizes music as a "virtuosic" form of doing.  This essentializing irony, however, stems from a reductive interpretive theory rather than from the practice itself.  Deep Listening reveals that being and doing are fundamental parts of all human behavior, and that the well-integrated personality balances both “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics simultaneously.


This illustrates why Oliveros is not always comfortable with reductive categorizations of her work as "feminine," although its feminism seems very important.  In 1970, she published an article in the New York Times which strongly rejected the label of "lady composer," a demeaning slang term still common at the time.  The article was not an attack on the masculine, but rather an attempt to end terminology that leads to biased, unbalanced views.  Discussions of the identity of women who compose, and the confusing terms used to describe them, are still an important part of her classes at Mills College thirty years later.  She has also consistently stood for the rights of lesbians, even from the early 1960s when such stances were still quite uncommon.


Even though Oliveros is strongly aware of the feminist elements in her work, she notes that her goal has not been so much social opposition, as the manifestation of her inner identity:


“I didn't mean to oppose the mainstream so much as to express the inner values that I have and that I feel have to come from the inside, rather than taking the imposition of structures from the outside which tend to support what's going on inside.  And I'm looking not necessarily to oppose or overthrow but to balance out, and come to a different understanding of what can be done.” (Taylor 392)


Again, the ironies of an overly reductive interpretation would be apparent.  Her life and work take a more feminist stance than that of any other major composer, yet her goal was not to "oppose", but to "balance out."  Her desire was "to come to a different understanding of what can be done," and she did this by remaining true to what "comes from inside."  By holding to her own personal vision, she has made a profound contribution to the identity and autonomy of women in culture and society.


In an article entitled "Breaking the Silence" written for a music festival in Cologne, Germany in 1998, she referred to this rebalancing as a healing of society:


"Music created by women could have a special function...for healing separations that cloud the spirit of humanity. ...Music cannot go on as a lopsided affair belonging only to men.  As music changes so will the world as we know it.  We need a balanced society with equal representation for both women and men and support for all composers and musicians" (Website).


In the same article, she includes recommendations for creating a balance that would "break the silence and change the paradigm of [male] exclusiveness in music” (23). These would include:


·         Encouraging the performance of music by women.

·         Using teaching materials written by women.

·         Researching the lives of women and writing their history.

·         Encouraging journalists to write about the music of women.

·         Keeping a list of women who create music in your community or city.

·         Listening to music by women and commissioning them.

·         Joining organizations that support women who are musicians.


She also stresses that composers should emphasize community building over career building, and question their relationship to the forms of music they are writing.  "Are you listening," she asks, "to your own inner voice and answering its call?  Are you expressing what you need to express, or what you have been taught to express by the canon of men's musical establishment?" (22).


Such statements illustrate that to theorize her stance solely in terms of opposition would be too simple.  As she has noted, her ultimate goal is not merely opposition and activism, but also the realization of balance and inner-identity. These ironic tensions between intention and effect, or between reductive interpretive theories and actual practice, make it difficult to analyze the aesthetic concepts of Deep Listening and the Sonic Meditations. On the one hand, Oliveros advocates radical egalitarianism, but some of Deep Listening's proponents almost place her on a pedestal.  This results in a mild personality cult surrounding her with something of a spiritual aura.  She is quite down-to-earth in her human relationships, advocating a form of music making that requires no special abilities, and yet she occupies, and perhaps even cultivates, a position in society similar to the "artist-prophets" of western patriarchal traditions.  Due to changing historical contexts and the essentializing characteristics of cultural feminism—which theorizes only certain behavior as ideologically true—ironies abound.  The lives and work of women who are artists can seldom be explained by theory alone.                                                                               


Similar theoretical ironies also affect the concept of compassion in music making.  In society as a whole, notions of compassion are often dispensed from the privileged position of the "enlightened" and imply a system of power and authority that is anything but egalitarian or compassionate.  Far from being a "feminist" leveling of hierarchies, the political concept of compassion might represent overtones of patriarchal "forgiveness" in which the "penitent" pays a heavy price in loss of status.  In the actual practices of Deep Listening, which are almost impossible to capture with theory, these ironies are resolved.


Ironies between intention and effect also influence the notion of nonjudgmental perception—the first component of Deep Listening discussed in this article. Perception and judgment are so deeply interconnected in the human mind that we have no proof they can be separated.  The forms of perception that presumably move us beyond judgment cannot be revealed through language, since, as first postulated by the French postmodernists, language itself is a morass of implicit values. "Enlightenment," for lack of a better word, is beyond words, methodologies, and rationality.  It is beyond the status quo, and it is beyond rejecting the status quo, since both are implicit judgments. There is thus an ironic danger for those striving toward the "suspension of judgment," because the perception of a presumed absolute reality might just be another form of absolute idealism.


This irony affected John Cage's ideal of nonjudgmental perception, which did not emancipate auditory perception to the extent its proponents claimed.  Instead, it channeled listening toward a rarified modernist aesthetic. Cage's formulation of nonjudgmentalism in the 1950s divided the new music world into two opposing factions, which came to be labeled according to their geographic centers in Manhattan: the "Uptown" (which was against Cage), and "Downtown" (which was for him).


Such aesthetic encampments are the stomping grounds of orthodoxy, and ironically, nonjudgmentalism thus became a stylistic ideology whose foil was the equally stubborn and closed Uptown. If the Downtowners had really suspended judgment, they would not have been inclined to wall themselves into highly specialized, dualistic modernist ideologies, and the closed co-dependent professional networks it took to support them.  The aesthetic of nonjudgmentalism became a cognitive filter in itself—an ideal that often made its proponents quite opinionated about which new music was "best."  Such forms of ideologically deafened elitism were a hallmark of modernism.  Once again, in the discerning practices of Deep Listening, these ironies are resolved.


In some respects, the postmodernists have been more successful in freeing listening—at least in regard to style.  By employing methods of analysis developed during the 1970s by psychologists such as Jacques Lacan, and literary critics such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, the postmodernists challenged the authority of knowledge, and thus the ideologies that place evaluations on stylistic differences in music. Through increasing our awareness of the modalities of cultural conditioning and how it arbitrarily shapes our concepts of "truth" (and thus aesthetic belief), postmodern thought has helped us develop a wider appreciation for musical styles crossing cultural, gender, and high-brow/low-brow dichotomies (Jencks 11-12). 


In order to keep pace with these changes, Oliveros and other proponents of Deep Listening will need to strengthen and clarify its theoretical foundations. This will help Deep Listening's value in musical practice and education become apparent to a wider spectrum of musicians.  It will expand Deep Listening's influence, and enable it to more successfully fulfill its mission of nurturing creativity by taking the preconceptions out of listening. 


As Deep Listening continues to evolve in these ways, it might eventually provide useful additions to postmodern thought.  It offers, for example, a form of authenticity lacking in postmodernism's almost nihilistic landscape of non-commitment.  A central part of postmodern aesthetics is based on a distanced assemblage of cultural artifacts, an "irrealistic constructionism," an ironic "carnivalisation" of experience (Hassan 196-198).  Some typical examples in music range from John Zorn's collaging of spaghetti western sound tracks to Michael Dougherty's symphonic works alluding to comic book heroes.  The artifacts used by postmodernists often have an exaggerated quality, a tone of bombast, artificiality or distortion that leads us look at the nature of culture, often with a subtle tone of ridicule. Postmodernism is often characterized by this ironic distancing, this element of intentional inauthenticity and noncommitment.


This stands in contrast to the forms of quietude and authenticity represented by the Sonic Meditations and Deep Listening.  Their humanistic ideals seem to be part of an earlier time.  In 1975, one year after the Sonic Meditations were published, the historian Gordon Wright declared,  "Our search for truth ought to be quite consciously suffused by a commitment to some deeply held humane values" (in Himmelfarb 141).  Such views no longer seem fashionable.  As Wright's colleague, Gertrude Himmelfarb, recently commented, "In 1975. . . it was still possible to speak respectfully of the search for truth-and, indeed, to speak of truth without the ironic use of quotations marks” (Himmelfarb 141).  And so one might ask, what are the Sonic Meditations in the light of postmodernism?  What are these studies of authentic "being" in a landscape of noncommitment?  What is Deep Listening in a world where truth is equated with coded cultural bias?


In its gentle, self-reflective way, Deep Listening might offer some responses.   Through its examination of cognitive processes, Deep Listening illustrates that artistic experience is not only the evaluation of objects, but also complex self-reflective evaluations of ourselves as the perceiver.  The forms of discernment characteristic of Deep Listening thus bring self-awareness and phenomenological analysis into the creative process similar to postmodernism's concepts of "deconstruction."


When trying to make something out that is at first difficult to perceive, discernment continually reevaluates and reshapes its own processes of perception until it is convinced of the validity of its observations. Discernment is thus innately self-reflective; it constantly reevaluates the modalities of the cognitive process as a whole.  This self-reflective evaluation formulates the witness/universe relationships of Deep Listening, and thus, the identities of Deep Listeners as artists. Deep Listening dissolves subject/object dichotomies into a process of transformation and growth which allows Mind and Nature to reach for each other.  Deep Listening's self-reflective discernment thus seems to show how we might move toward an authenticity and truth that are something more than culturally conditioned biases.


Seen from a larger speculative overview, Deep Listening's movement toward the unification of subject/object dichotomies is part of a newly evolving cultural paradigm with profound implications for a transformation of western society.  The subject/object dichotomy of idealistic, patriarchal transcendentalism, with its concept of the cultural-hero-as-redeemer, is being replaced with a holistic and participatory view of Mind and Nature (Bateson, Skolimowski, Tarnus) which balances the feminine and masculine in a sort of sacred marriage.  This seems closely related to Oliveros' statement that the goal of her work is to "balance out, and come to a different understanding of what can be done."  This balancing is created by the self-reflective discernment and empathic resonance of Deep Listening.  They are new unifying or connective modalities of perception that rebalance our obsessively dualistic, patriarchal culture. 


Due to its historical implications, the importance of this new paradigm is clear.  After the horrors of the twentieth century—such as the Holocaust and the post-nuclear Cold War—western culture has become aware that its dualistic values contain elements that are inherently genocidal.  On the most archetypal and metaphorical level, it seems to have something to do with the cultural-hero-as-redeemer wanting to annihilate all other patriarchs so that only "His" genes remain—the alpha-male as mass murderer.  This dark view lends a certain absurdity and ignominy to human life and cultural expression, when we sense, for example, that the mass graves of the Holocaust and the music of Beethoven are both "fathered" by patriarchy, and are so intermingled in a common ground of cultural manifestations, that no matter how hard we try, they cannot be sifted apart.


Deep Listening responds to this darkness by breaking down the paradigm of subject/object dichotomies and providing new ways of sounding the abyss of otherness. The openness of its nonjudgmental perception, its development of empathy, its creation of nonhierarchical social relationships, its expanded use of intuitive forms of awareness, and its new understanding of sensuality and the body, are all forms of consciousness bringing a new balance and vibrancy to western culture—something like, if you will, a prophetic foreshadowing of the return of the Goddess.  Deep Listening thus represents a sacred marriage of Mind and Nature in which the feminine and masculine elements of human identity are united.  Perhaps this "Sacred Marriage" and its implicit emancipation of "womanity" is a promise that is our hope.     top





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Oliveros, Pauline. "And Don't Call Them 'Lady' Composers." New York Times 13 Sept. 1970.  II: 29.


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____.  Pauline Oliveros Web Page. 30 July 1999.



____. Software for People. Baltimore: Smith Publications, 1984.


____. Sonic Meditations. Baltimore: Smith Publications, 1974.


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