This year’s World Listening Day celebrates Pauline Oliveros, the late pioneering electronic musician who conceived Deep Listening, a practice of intentional aural concentration incorporating aspects of meditation and improvisation. Often, Deep Listening is coupled with evolving electronic or electroacoustic music to strengthen its effects. The point is to pause and observe minute changes in the music, or if music is absent, the listening environment.
Oliveros’ Deep Listening Institute (now the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer) was set up at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Troy, New York, where she had been teaching since 2001. I took Oliveros’ Deep Listening class while attending the school, and was struck by her calm, gentle demeanor and her positive outlook on life. The course opened possibilities for experiencing music in new ways, and in effect taught me how to listen to listening itself.
While at RPI, I also had a chance to meet Stephan Moore and Scott Smallwood, two of the three performers at a recent Issue Project Room show that is part of the New York Electronic Arts Festival organized by Harvestworks. The third is Suzanne Thorpe, a composer and sound artist who is the only one of the three to receive a Deep Listening certificate. All three were close friends and collaborators with Oliveros and are heavily influenced by her work, making them the perfect trio to commemorate her recent passing in 2016. Moore, who led a monthly concert series at the Deep Listening space in Kingston, NY, is forthcoming about the impact Oliveros has had on his life and career. “She made a profound impact on my thinking about sound, listening, improvisation, composing, consciousness, and generally my conduct and interface with the world.”
An intriguing aspect of tonight’s event is the seating. Chairs are scattered about the space, diverting from the typical auditorium layout as well as displacing audience expectations. The main attraction is a set of six speakers clustered together and pointed outwards in different directions. Because of the wide spread of the sound, there really aren’t any bad seats. It also means the musicians must learn to play the space as their music unfolds. Listeners are encouraged to walk around during the performances to study how the sound waves travel through the vast space. In fact, neglecting to do so misses the point of the three-dimensional sonic experience.
During the first set, helmed by Smallwood, walking around the room with other listeners creates a sensation of traversing a bustling street. Smallwood invokes various natural environments with recordings of the seashore, city noise, and birds chirping, placing Oliveros’ signature instrument, the accordion, atop the thrum. People find themselves drawn toward the speakers in the center of the space, soaking in the pleasant soundscapes to transport themselves elsewhere.
Thorpe’s piece is a meditation on statehood. Her sound source incorporates forty people singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in different languages. The voices become a dense mix that makes it difficult to discern individual singers, in essence creating a political sentiment of unity.
Lastly, Moore joins Smallwood and Thorpe to perform a completely acoustic set. Their instruments consist of rotating cymbals placed on turntables. Microphones are placed in proximity to amplify the cymbals’ interaction with metal, glass, and plastic objects. The sounds buzz, crackle, and hiss around the space, a composition elegant in its simplicity.
If you missed the performance, there’s still a chance to engage with Deep Listening. An exhibit called “The World is Sound” at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City includes Oliveros. Of note is that the exhibit is not relegated to one part of the space. Instead, its curators have chosen to envelop the entire building with sound so that paintings and artifacts contain sonic dimensions. The installations, consisting of electronic drones, listening stations, and audio interviews, permeate even stairwells and elevators. Also, primitive musical instruments and a Deep Listening room outfitted with acoustic foam padding provide other engagements with sound. The exhibit runs until January 2018, so there’s plenty of time to explore Oliveros’ legacy.