In 1988 Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis descended into the Fort Worden Cistern in Port Townsend, Washington with their instruments (accordion, trombone, didjeridu, vocals) and started playing, recording the result.

Inside that echoic chamber, their instruments bounced and reverberated the sound in a way they’d never experienced (the reverberation decay was 45 seconds), changing the way they responded and listened. The echo itself had become another ‘instrument’ in their band, and this changed everything.

The recording was released as an eponymous album, the trio calling themselves the Deep Listening Band, and they went on to release more music, change formation and collaborate with many musicians and artists over the years.

The deep listening experiment was a culmination of Oliveros’ own personal journey into making and listening to music and sound. Starting out as an electronic music pioneer in the 50s, Oliveros was part of the San Francisco scene of composers, artists and poets. Moving away from that scene to work at the University of California in San Diego, Oliveros retreated into her own world of sound. She began to sing, experiment with extended drones on her accordion and start performing with small groups of women, combining music and sound with breath and movement. These frequent organised sessions of experimentation eventually resulted in the collected texts called Sonic Meditations and is, as Oliveros states, “the basis of deep listening”.

First published in Source magazine in 1971, the texts were a collection of exercises for people to perform in groups and alone and were intended to expand consciousness, improve awareness and most importantly work as a system of healing. The first publication coincided with Oliveros public coming out as a lesbian publicly, hoping her revelation would encourage others to be in tune with and true to themselves, to be heard and to listen to others with understanding and compassion.

Oliveros wanted to teach the difference between hearing as an objective, physical and measurable response and listening, a subjective, personal and mysterious response. With practise and cultivation of the senses anyone can do it. Deep listening isn’t confined to music or even created sounds and song either, but extends into the wider world to include the sound of a dripping tap, distant hums of machinery or vehicles, animals, birds, the rustle of wind in the trees. And while the key works associated with deep listening are generated electronically, electronic production or the use of drones is far from a criterion.

Oliveros dedicated her life to the practice and teaching of deep listening, going on to trademark the term, write books, perform talks, hold workshops, retreats and create a dedicated institute. However, the concept itself is never prescriptive. Oliveros was only ever trying to facilitate creativity, deeper awareness and a better understanding of ourselves and others. Composer, trombonist and activist Monique Buzzarté believes that, “Deep listening is found in all aspects of creative work, across all genre boundaries and artistic disciplines.”

With this in mind, here are 10 works to start your own listening discoveries which are by no means definitive, because after all, deep listening is utterly personal, experiential and ever-changing.

Deep Listening

Deep Listening Band [New Albion, 1989]

Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis formed the Deep Listening Band in 1988. The group would become known for seeking out resonant and reverberant performing spaces, with Deep Listening recorded inside the Fort Worden Cistern in Washington. A sonic amalgam of acoustic and electronic instruments and processes, Deep Listening is deeply musical and unsurprisingly haunting; with sweeping tones and sustained drones that went on to influence a generation of music-makers, thinkers and listeners.
 The album would be the first of many, with the band going on to change form and carry out various collaborations over a 25-year period.

Bye Bye Butterfly

Pauline Oliveros [1965]

Bye Bye Butterfly is a two-channel tape composition made at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Oliveros said this piece “bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalised oppression of the female sex.” Madame Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini, was at hand in the studio at the time and was spontaneously incorporated into the ongoing compositional mix.

The Secret Life of the Inaudible

Annea Lockwood and Christina Kubisch [Gruenrekorder, 2017]

For this record, experimental composers Annea Lockwood and Christina Kubisch made separate recordings and then exchanged materials, leaving the other to select and mix into new compositions. Lockwood recorded VLF chorus waves, solar oscillations, earthquakes, tree cavities, bats and gas vents and Kubisch recorded electromagnetic waves in the ultra and infra ranges using induction headphones, adjusted to make these sounds audible. The record contains two discs, each with two tracks of soundscapes ranging from loud rumblings and cosmic waveforms to repetitive clicks and ticks and a universe of unheard sounds.

The Thing Itself and Not the Myth

Kate Carr [Glistening Examples, 2018]

While Kate Carr’s music doesn’t require feats of extended listening, it does invite the listener to pay attention. Adept at highlighting the musicality of environmental sounds, Carr is primarily a field recordist and with this recent release, she gathered sounds from underwater and along many shorelines. Drones played by a synchronised-swimming speaker broadcasting into a fjord, spluttering radios, morse code, and geese sounds are layered to a narrative inspired by Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. Newcomers to deep listening will find this record accessible and yet find endless opportunities to open their ears and let the sounds in.

Disintegration Loops

William Basinski [2062, 2002]

In the 1980s, composer William Basinski taped looped recordings of unrecognisable and haunting snatches from easy listening radio. When he digitised the project in September 2001 the tapes slowly disintegrated as they played through, creating an eerily spellbinding sonic ambience. Days later, Manhattan was burning after the 9/11 terrorist attack and Basinski captured the crumbled buildings and smoking city on video from a rooftop in Brooklyn. Basinski played his new compositions as he watched the ruinous footage and the project took on a whole new meaning. Disintegration Loops was released in four numbered parts, of (mostly) two tracks of extended length ranging from about 10-63 minutes; an elegiac meditation on repetition, decay and the ravages of time.

Bitchin Bajas

Bitchin Bajas [Drag City, 2014]

Cooper Crain, Dan Quinlivan and Rob Frye are the Bitchin Bajas and this self-titled release comprises eight hypnotically meditative tracks. Shifting eastern tones and entrancing rhythms are explored with organ, synthesiser, winds, xylophone and autoharp, a 1″ eight-track tape machine and contributions from strings, keys, guitar and field recordings. Layering sound and texture which unfolds at a pace conducive to experiential relaxation, Bitchin Bajas’ become the masters of flow. The patient, focused listener will experience a convergence of the deepest concentration and calm.

The Expanding Universe

Laurie Spiegel [Philo Records, 1980]

Laurie Spiegel’s computerised version of Johannes Kepler’s Harmony of the Worlds (1619) is floating in deep space somewhere on one of the Voyager Golden Records, launched by NASA in 1977. The debut album by the composer and computer music pioneer, The Expanding Universe was reissued by Unseen Worlds in 2012 and again this year to include Harmony of the Worlds and other tracks. Spiegel preferred the term ‘slow change music’ over ‘minimalist’ or ‘ambient’ and Spiegel’s coded compositions are warm and lively, with tonal shifts that evolve slowly and reward an attentive ear.

String Quartet No. 2

Morton Feldman [Mode, 1983]

It seems incongruous that a brusque and audacious New Yorker wrote some the most delicate music of the 20th century. Morton Feldman’s longest composition, String Quartet No. 2 is six hours long and contains subtle, large-scale patterns of tone, timbre, rhythm, loops and repetition. Not for the novice, this piece – considered his greatest feat – requires almost unattainable demands of the listener. British composer Tim Maryon says that this work “completely alters your perception of time. As we’re drawn in by the slowly repeating patterns, time itself begins to slow down, leaving you transfixed in a meditative state. Like breathing, the piece expands and contracts as you float through the closest sound to silence.”

Trilogie de la Mort

Éliane Radigue [Experimental Intermedia Foundation, 1998]

French composer Éliane Radigue is a pioneer of electronic music who worked exclusively with tape and the Arp 2500 modular synthesiser until 2000. Radigue originally studied under Pierre Schaeffer, the pioneer of musique concrète, but soon broke away from his methods, preferring to use microphone feedback and tape loops, processes which would go on to define her compositions. Inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Buddhist notions of transcendence, Trilogie de la Mort is a work in three parts, evolving almost imperceptibly, so the listener must approach this work with patience and a contemplative ear.

Treetop Drive

Deathprod [Metal Art Disco, 1994]

Deathprod is the musical pseudonym used by Norwegian artist and producer Helge Sten, and Audio Virus is the collective name of his production techniques and sonic toolbox comprising homemade electronics, digital samplers and analogue effects. Treetop Drive is the first fully-realised work using the Audio Virus with contribution from Hans Magnus Ryan’s violin. Originally released as three tracks on tape, a later reissue by Rune Arkiv includes a fourth track titled Towboat, Treetop Drive is series of complex, tonal clusters sounding repetitively for the duration of each track; each different in colour, texture, timbre and tone. The gift of this work is the way the listener can slowly differentiate the various harmonics, echoes and textures as the tonal bursts loop continually, consistently and with ritual pleasure.


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