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Remembering the Sounds of the World’s Most Iconic Deep Listening Pioneer: Pauline Oliveros

Acclaimed internationally, Oliveros’ career spans 50 years of boundary dissolving music making, where she has explored sound—forging new ground for herself and others. Simply put, Oliveros always said that, “Deep listening is my life practice. Deep listening is a way of listening in every possible way to everything to hear no matter what you are doing.” Photo credit: Vinciane Verguethen

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November 30, 2016

Remembering the Sounds of the World’s Most Iconic Deep Listening Pioneer: Pauline Oliveros

A Composer, Performer, Humanitarian, and Rensselaer Professor Who Changed the Way the World Listens

Troy, N.Y. — Deep Listening is a creative, meditative practice developed by one of America’s most important composers of the 20th and 21st century, Pauline Oliveros, who served as distinguished research professor of music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the School of Humanities, Arts, and School Sciences. Oliveros, who described the practice as “listening with your whole body,” passed away at her home on Thursday, Nov. 24 in Kingston, N.Y. She was 84 years old. Her death was confirmed by her spouse, Carole Ione Lewis, a writer and performance artist known as Ione. Acclaimed internationally, Oliveros’ career spans 50 years of boundary dissolving music making, where she has explored sound—forging new ground for herself and others.

“Professor Pauline Oliveros helped to establish Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a place that supports tremendously interesting work at the nexus of art, technology, immersive experiences, and human perception,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “We are so grateful for the time she gave us, and for the inspiration she provided to our students and to our faculty in many disciplines. Her influence can be seen in the many ways Rensselaer now incorporates artistic concepts throughout the curriculum.”

A leader of the avant-garde and a pioneer of improvisatory music, alternate tuning systems, contemporary accordion playing, electronics, and multimedia events, Oliveros was a vital force through continuing performances, and through Deep Listening®, a lifetime practice fundamental to her work.

“As a musician, I am interested in the sensual nature of sound, its power of synchronization, coordination, release, and change,” said Oliveros. “Hearing represents the primary sense organ—hearing happens involuntarily. Listening is a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture. All cultures develop through ways of listening. 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, 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.”

In the 1950s, Oliveros was part of a circle of iconoclastic composers, artists, and poets who gathered together in San Francisco. Through improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching, and mediation, 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, according to her artist’s bio.

“Pauline was a humanist who rejoiced in the mysterious beauty of the sonic world that surrounded her,” said HASS Dean Mary Simoni, who is also a composer, author, teacher, pianist, consultant, arts administrator, and amateur photographer. “She was a generous and kind-hearted spirit who understood the power of forgiveness. I am proud to count myself as one of her students. Her legacy of Deep Listening will be stewarded by Rensselaer’s Center for Deep Listening under the leadership of Professor Tomie Hahn. We will strive to uphold her humanitarian and artistic values in all that we do.”

In 1970, Oliveros wrote an essay that appeared in The New York Times titled, “And Don’t Call them ‘Lady’ Composers,” which “enumerated some of the causes that had prevented female composers from achieving the success and renown afforded to their male counterparts, among them sex-based prejudice and societal expectations.”

Later, Oliveros said in a 2012 Times profile, that in 1971, after a period of intense introspection prompted by the Vietnam War, she changed creative course, eventually producing “Sonic Meditations,” a set of 25 text-based instructions meant to provoke thoughtful, creative responses.

In 1988, Oliveros and two colleagues—the trombonist, didgeridoo player, and composer Stuart Dempster and the vocalist and composer Panaiotis, along with audio engineer Albert Swanson—squeezed through a man-hole sized opening with their instruments to climb down a 14-foot ladder into a dark underground cistern in Port Townsend, Wash. According to Oliveros, to the musicians, “echo and reverberation could be fascinating.”  

As an acoustic space, the cavernous cistern where the recording was made is remarkable for its smooth frequency response, lack of distant echoes, and, most notably, a long reverberation of 45 seconds at low frequencies.

Their drone-based improvisations were recorded, and selections issued on CD under the title Deep Listening in 1989, according to a recent New York Times article noting her passing. The Times article further noted that, “beyond a self-evident pun referring to music played 14 feet underground, ‘Deep Listening’ signified Ms. Oliveros’s emerging aural discipline: a practice that compelled listening not just to the conventional details of a given musical performance—melody, harmony, rhythm, intonation—but also to sounds surrounding that performance, including acoustic space and extra-musical noise.”

In 2012, in celebration of Oliveros’ 80th birthday, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer hosted an exceptional concert on May 10, 2012 that featured a digital simulation of the acoustics within the cistern, made possible with software developed by Rensselaer professor and acoustic architect Jonas Braasch.

“Our dream after that first experience recording in the cistern was to take the cistern into the concert hall,” said Oliveros. She turned to Braasch, director of the Communication Acoustics and Aural Architecture Research Laboratory (CA^3 RL) at Rensselaer, and his team to develop software that would simulate the acoustics of the cistern for two performances.

The May 10 performance in the EMPAC concert hall was followed by a June 17 performance in New York. Later that summer, the International Contemporary Ensemble at Lincoln Center feted Oliveros with a performance called Pauline Oliveros at 80 at Lincoln Center’s Clark Studio Theater. The event was part of the Mostly Mozart Festival’s series Power of Ten: 10 Concerts performed by ICE featuring 10 world premieres by 10 New York artists.

In 2015, Oliveros delivered a TedX Talk titled, “The difference between hearing and listening,” in Indianpolis, Indiana. In the talk, Oliveros described the sound experiment that led her to found an institute related to Deep Listening, and develop it as a theory relevant to music, psychology, and our collective quality of life. “Sounds carry intelligence,” Oliveros said. “If you are too narrow in your awareness of sounds, you are likely to be disconnected from your environment. Ears do not listen to sounds; the brain does. Listening is a lifetime practice that depends on accumulated experiences with sound; it can be focused to detail or open to the entire field of sound.”

Through Deep Listening pieces and earlier sonic meditations, Oliveros introduced the concept of incorporating all environmental sounds into musical performance. Her primary instrument was the accordion, an unexpected visitor to the musical cutting-edge, but one that she approached in much the same way a Zen musician might approach the Japanese shakuhachi, according to her artist’s bio.  

The Center for Deep Listening was established at Rensselaer in June 2014 to steward the continued development of artistic expression, humanitarian scholarship, and understanding of human perception and cognition begun by Oliveros with her innovative Deep Listening practice decades ago. Oliveros, who taught a course in Deep Listening at Rensselaer since 2001, described it as a form of meditation that opens an expanded world of sound that helps students with learning in all disciplines. The center also assumed stewardship of the Deep Listening Institute that Oliveros founded in 1985 and has been working to expand its educational and research mission on the Rensselaer campus and beyond.

On March 11, 2015, the Center for Deep Listening, based in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS), hosted its opening at in the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). The program began with a “Sonic Meditation” led by Oliveros followed by a performance of “Waterfall” (an early piece by Oliveros) by all attendees. The audience was treated to a “Dream Incubation” led by Ione.

“As an ethnomusicologist, I study music within its cultural context,” Hahn said. “This kind of research requires broadening and heightening one’s awareness of sound, as well as learning from community members how sound functions in their culture. It is clear to me that Deep Listening offers an extraordinary practice for research in the humanities and sciences, as well as for individuals’ sense of well-being. In honor of Pauline’s vibrant life and love for sonic arts, listening, and all of those around her, please imagine what you can do right now to honor her. Please listen to each other. Listen to all that surrounds you.”

Hahn noted that the center will work hard to continue Pauline's humanitarian and creative visions. Already the center has hosted a series of classes, workshops, and conferences, and established Deep Listening-related courses in addition to courses Oliveros taught. By the end of this year, the center will have over 75 Deep Listening Certificate Holders, and 30 students are lined up to participate in the online class that will be offered in 2017. In addition, there are three Deep Listening archives at Rensselaer that the center is processing. 

“Under the guidance of Tomie Hahn, and in partnership with the Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture, the Center for Deep Listening continues to establish and expand education and research programs that support Deep Listening and bring Pauline Oliveros’ groundbreaking work to new audiences,” Simoni said. “As stewards of Pauline Oliveros’ unparalleled body of work, Tomie and I are deeply committed to ensuring that the theory, practice, education, and research of Deep Listening flourish at Rensselaer.”  

In a current project, Oliveros’ research group – Gender and the Body – within Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) was working to develop a series of musical instruments for use by people with severe mobility restrictions. The Adaptive Use Musical Instruments (AUMI) project involves researchers from universities including University of Kansas, McGill University-Montreal, Memorial University, and Lakehead University. Oliveros was also involved in the Creative Artificially Intuitive Reasoning Agent (CAIRA) project to create a computer program capable of contributing to avante-garde musical performances.

During the 1960s, John Rockwell named her work Bye Bye Butterfly as one of the most significant of that decade. In the 1970s, she represented the United States at the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan; during the 1980s she was honored with a retrospective at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The 1990s began with a letter of distinction from the American Music Center presented at Lincoln Center in New York, and in 2000 the 50th anniversary of her work was celebrated with the commissioning and performance of her Lunar Opera: Deep Listening ForTunes. In 2012, Oliveros was honored with the John Cage Award, which is made in recognition of outstanding achievement in the arts for work that reflects the spirit of composer John Cage and also the GigaHertz Preis from ZKM Karlsruhe for lifetime achievement in Electronic Music.

Oliveros received the Resounding Vision Award for Life Time Achievement from Nameless Sound in Houston, Texas, in  April 2007. She received an honorary membership in the Society for American Music and an honorary Doctor of Music from Mills College, an honorary Doctor of Arts from DeMontfort University in the UK, and the William Schuman award for lifetime achievement from Columbia University.

While at Rensselaer, Oliveros participated in several notable programs held on campus. In October 2004, a two-day festival, titled “Wow and Flutter,” celebrated over 40 years of evocative creation featuring performances and the classic and contemporary works by the original members of The San Francisco Tape Music Center (Bill Maginnis, Tony Martin, Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, and Morton Subotnick), along with The Ensemble Sospeso and a percussion ensemble under the direction of Brian Wilson. Integrating the radical sensibilities of the avant-garde and the counterculture of the 1960s with the arts, film, and performance practices, the members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) created art with impact that is still being felt today. For the festival, the five principal members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center converged at the RPI Playhouse to perform concerts showcasing both celebrated SFTMC works and modern pieces.

On May 2, 2013, a program titled “The Films of Laurie Anderson” premiered with Oliveros serving as a special guest. One of America’s most renowned performance artists, Laurie Anderson’s genre-crossing work encompasses performance, film, music, installation, writing, photography, and sculpture. The presentation capped with a screening of a silent film to which Anderson and Oliveros played together.

In May 2016, the final EMPAC presentation of sound artist Tarek Atoui’s multi-year research and performance project to develop tools and techniques for performing sound to a hearing-impaired audience made its debut. Atoui worked in collaboration with Oliveros and her students from the New Instrumentation for Performance seminar to think through propositions for new instruments and performance techniques. 

In addition to her work at Rensselaer, Oliveros served as the Darius Milhaud Artist-in-residence at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

In a 2012 New York Times interview, Strange Sounds Led a Composer to a Long Career, Oliveros said that she was “not dismissive of classical music and the Western canon.” During the wide-ranging interview at the office of her foundation in Kingston, N.Y., where she lived with her longtime partner, Ione, she noted that: “It’s simply that I can’t be bound by it. I’ve been jumping out of categories all my life.”

One of Oliveros’ last public appearances was in October 2016 for an edition of the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal. The 90-minute lecture includes a detailed look at Oliveros’ career, her innovations, including the Expanded Instrument System, and the beliefs and practices underpinning her “deep listening” approach and philosophy.

For five decades, Oliveros has been a pioneer in American music, experimenting with so-called “deep listening” pieces which incorporate the environment of sound into musical performance. A celebration of her life will be held on the anniversary of her birth on May 30, 2017, at McGill University in Montreal. Additional arrangements are forthcoming.

Oliveros is survived by her spouse, the writer and performance artist Ione; three stepchildren, Alessandro Bovoso, Nico Bovoso, and Antonio Bovoso; a brother, John Oliveros; and eight grandchildren.

Simply put, Oliveros always said that, “Deep listening is my life practice. Deep listening is a way of listening in every possible way to everything to hear no matter what you are doing. Often people are not as open, for example, to the environment of sound around us; people often try to shut sound out instead of opening to it. What I’m trying to do in my practice and in my work is to open awareness of listening and of sound.”

The work of Pauline Oliveros exemplifies The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer. The foundation for this vision is the recognition that global challenges and opportunities are so great they cannot be adequately addressed by even the most talented person working alone. The New Polytechnic emphasizes and supports collaboration across disciplines, sectors, and regions to address the great global challenges of our day, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer. The New Polytechnic is transformative in the global impact of research, in its innovative pedagogy, and in the lives of students at Rensselaer.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in engineering; the sciences; information technology and web sciences; architecture; management; and the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Rensselaer faculty advance research in a wide range of fields, with an emphasis on biotechnology, nanotechnology, computational science and engineering, data science, and the media arts and technology. The Institute has an established record of success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace, fulfilling its founding mission of applying science “to the common purposes of life.” For more information, please visit http://www.rpi.edu