The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

All Issues
SEPT 2022 Issue

Deep Listening To Pauline Oliveros Across The Internet

Left to right: Alan Courtis, Roberto Conlazo, and Pauline Oliveros. Photo courtesy of Reynols Archive.
Left to right: Alan Courtis, Roberto Conlazo, and Pauline Oliveros. Photo courtesy of Reynols Archive.

Internet-based collaboration may feel contemporary, but it is established. One of the artists at the forefront of this movement was pioneering composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros, who began working with the internet in the ’90s and 2000s. She saw technology as something that could open the door to new avenues of music making, and something that could extend musical partnerships across borders. “It is heartening to think that I can connect with my many friends throughout the world and strengthen our relationship with global culture,” she wrote in a 2009 essay in the Leonardo Music Journal #19. “Making music together makes friends.”

Current projects highlight both the origins and present realizations of Oliveros’s virtual collaboration and the ways the composer bridged art and technology and forged relationships across the internet. With Half a Dove in New York, Half a Dove in Buenos Aires (Smalltown Supersound), an archival release of a 1999 improvisation between Argentinian experimental band Reynols, Oliveros, and others, the sound and process of early telematic music making—music made over the internet, simultaneously, in different locations—comes to life. Other programs like The Center for Deep Listening’s A Year of Deep Listening bring Oliveros’s text scores to a virtual, global, and cross-disciplinary sphere. Projects like these illuminate Oliveros’s early interests in technology and how they continue to manifest today.

Oliveros, who would have been ninety this year, is most known for codifying the term “deep listening,” which is a practice that encourages actively listening to our surroundings. “Listening is directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting and deciding on action,” Oliveros once said. Deep listening can be practiced through a variety of methods: Sonic Meditations, for example, are often born from simple text scores that ask participants to interact with the sounds around them; all paths to deep listening encourage creativity and interaction with the self and others.

One of the tools that Oliveros used to promote collaboration, and to try out new methods of making art, was technology. She was an early adopter of the virtual world, oftentimes using it to encourage artists from many different places to perform together. In her Leonardo Music Journal essay, she noted that her first internet collaboration came in 1991, when she worked with artists from six cities across the United States, using a video telephone bridge. These early technologies came with a great deal of latency and delay, but instead of seeing glitches as hindrances, they became part of the experience and gave the music color. 

While Oliveros began working with telematic music before 1999 with artists across the United States, Half a Dove in New York, Half a Dove in Buenos Aires marks her first international collaboration. To make the two-sided album, Reynols, Oliveros, trombonist Monique Buzzarté, and artist Kevin McCoy improvised together through the internet—Reynols tuned in from Buenos Aires, while the others tuned in from New York. This technology showed the artists they could play music together while living in different countries, and opened doors for later performances, like a 2009 live concert that Alan Courtis of Reynols and Oliveros gave during her life and work partner Ione’s 14th Annual Dream Festival.

The album was born out of a long musical partnership and friendship between Oliveros and Reynols. They first met on Oliveros’s trip to Argentina in 1994. On this trip, Oliveros heard the group improvise on brass instruments they’d never played before, and she became intrigued by their creativity. “It was clear that they understood and negotiated the element of risk in the kind of improvisation that I value,” she wrote in a short August 1999 essay accompanying the album. Although the two were often far away from each other—Oliveros in Kingston, New York, and Reynols in Buenos Aires—the artists still found ways to connect, often by sending faxes to each other. Of their continued relationship and remote collaborations, Courtis and fellow Reynols member Roberto Conlazo said: “We felt Pauline very close to us despite the distance. And to this day, although she is no longer physically on this planet, we feel Pauline's soul is still resonating in our hearts.”

Their shared experimental impulse would continue to bond them and to serve as a throughline for many of their projects. Works like Half a Dove in New York, Half a Dove in Buenos Aires still feel futuristic when listening to them today. Much of the album’s motion is sustained, hanging in eerie stillness as siren-like sounds bristle around every instrument. Accordion snippets fall into a bed of high-pitched whistles, deep hums echo underneath. Courtis and Conlazo recall that the experience of recording it was “a bit chaotic” due to the streaming quality of 1999, but it was a “highly inspiring experience.” Its sound certainly reflects the early internet; a little grainy, a little alien. But decades later, in a time in which the internet is an inextricable part of our lives, it still conjures a feeling of otherworldliness.

At The Center for Deep Listening, an institute founded by Oliveros that’s based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, a yearlong, virtual celebration marks Oliveros’s ninetieth year. A Year of Deep Listening presents daily text scores that artists from all over the world, and a variety of disciplines, have contributed to and can access. The scores all take on different forms: Ione’s The Memory of Now opened the project with a meditation on time, memory, and the present, while scores like Stephen Chase’s Ear Syrinxing asks participants to improvise with the sound of poster tubes.

The project came about to both celebrate Oliveros’s work and to unite people interested in the practice of deep listening. It’s for everyone, from people involved with Oliveros’s work for years to those who are just discovering it, professional artists and hobbyists alike. Stephanie Loveless, the director of The Center for Deep Listening, describes it as “a way to build community.” The scores were chosen by a panel of adjudicators and were culled through open calls using tools like social media.

For Loveless, inviting people to contribute text scores in celebration of Oliveros’s life and work was a way to engage a plurality of voices in a main process of Oliveros’s teachings. Sonic Meditations have always been at the core of her practice and experience of deep listening.

The ways that I teach deep listening—and my own artwork—is centered on really accessible scores that are almost like pedagogical tools, or entry points, for both musicians and non-musicians to deepen their own listening experience, and their connection to the world around them.

With these scores available online on The Center for Deep Listening website, anyone can access them and begin to explore their own relationship to listening.

Other deep listening projects have also recently taken a virtual approach. In April 2020, a weekly Zoom performance of Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation, led by Ione, flutist Claire Chase, and Raquel Acevedo Klein, reached thousands of people on all seven continents. The piece guides participants to make a variety of vocalizations and sounds based on directions and what they hear around them. Along the same lines, Lawrence University Conservatory—an affiliate campus of The Center for Deep Listening—and Fifth House Ensemble teamed up to offer weekly Deep Listening jams on Facebook Live throughout 2020 and 2021 to foster community.

Zoom meditations continue today through programs like Michael Reiley’s weekly Sound Sangha, which he began hosting to connect with his community after moving to Europe. For Reiley, who’s a member of The Center for Deep Listening community, hosting Zoom meditations allows him to see the differences in soundscape between a variety of locations. Everyone calls in from their home, ranging from Philadelphia to the Arizona desert. “We’re meditating on the sound of our environments,” he said. “People are having different seasons, urban environments, rural environments, and we get to imagine these different sound worlds together.” 

Though these projects provide several access points into Oliveros’s past work and legacy, they’re all bound by a similar desire to unite a global community through music and the tenets of deep listening. We didn’t know in the ’90s how technology would develop, but Oliveros had a vision. “I am interested in helping in the evolution of the INTERNET as an international venue where diverse collaborators can engage with one another,” she wrote in 1999. That dream has only continued to grow.


Vanessa Ague

Vanessa Ague is a violinist and writer who runs the experimental music blog, The Road to Sound, and writes for publications including the Wire, Pitchfork, and Bandcamp Daily. She is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

All Issues