Pauline Oliveros – A deep listening to self-isolation

Pauline Oliveros-featured

” 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.”

While preparing a new essay on strings –emotional connections, analogies in reality, and the parallelism with Ellen Fullman‘s work– I wanted to rescue this article on Pauline Oliveros. I wrote it in 2016 as a tribute after her death, reviewing her history and artistic evolution until the practice of ‘Deep Listening‘. After 30 days of self-imposed solitude, I’ve been subjected to this profound process without even noticing it. When you tune into high states of consciousness, you need to try to make sense and use of this sensitive information. In my case, I want to turn my body and mind into a receptor of daily sound experiences. In the meantime, while organising my thoughts and bond them for my next post, here is an insightful piece on Pauline Olivero‘s history, artistic evolution, political persona and legacy.

Who is Pauline?

Pauline Oliveros was one of the founders of the Tape Music Center de San Francisco, the cradle of the sound and electronic avant-gardes of the 1960s, and the creator of the Deep Listening concept. A curious artist, feminist, political activist, avant-garde. Pauline was the only woman among a group of men made up of Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Terry Reily and John Cage, who ventured to experiment with drones (sounds or notes sustained and repeated over time) in the 60s, as well as with electronic instruments and frequencies.

Born in San Francisco in 1932, Pauline decided at 16 that she wanted to be a composer. The conventional method of teaching and learning music was not enough to express the sounds she heard, which made her venture with new technology and experiment with electronic instruments. This is how she meets Reily and Subotnick, and becomes one of the founders of the Tape Music Center.

Her piece Bye, Bye, Butterfly will always stand out. This deconstruction of Puccini‘s work, Madame Butterfly, performed in a single improvisation of 10 minutes, was more than a performative piece of music. In fact, it was a statement. In 1965, on the subject, she commented: “It is a small farewell to the music of the 19th century but also to the moralistic system of that time and its institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”

From San Francisco to San Diego

The American political climate of the late 60s was devastating for Pauline. She decided to move away from the scene in response to a crisis of political despair. Looking for a new way to focus her creativity, she accepted a job at a university in San Diego, California. During her stay, Pauline developed and participated in drone sessions that could last up to a year. A practice equally relaxing and healing. From these sessions, Oliveros created her Sonic Meditations. She would share her daily activities with sounds -which she claimed- had helped her expand her consciousness. The same year, she also started Tai Chi and Kinetic Awareness with the dancer Elaine Summer. During these practices, students learned to sensitise themselves with the signals from their bodies, including how they censored and controlled their movements unconsciously. She taught them how inhibitions and social restrictions could leave traces on them.

“Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”

In the seventies, Oliveros published her Sonic Meditations in the avant-garde magazine Source. She took advantage of the platform to make a public statement about lesbianism. Thus reactivating the feminist figure and declaring that the “personal is political“. She was referring to the laws imposed on the female body and the need for women to express what they really felt. “The cure can occur (…) when your experience is manifested and accepted by others.” In 1977, Pauline created The Sonic Meditation Group using the principles of sonic meditations and Kinetic Awareness. This group would be formed by only women -a manifest wish of Pauline- as women had long been musically relegated. The new group called The ♀ Ensemble experimented with sonic meditation as well as non-verbal communication.

Deep Listening

During the recording of an album in 1989, Pauline coined the term “Deep Listening”. This happened after her experience in an abandoned cistern 4 meters underground, located in Fort Worden in Washington. Producing sounds with a 45-second reverb, Pauline discovered a sound spectrum never addressed by the artist.

Later on, the Deep Listening Institute (DLI) was created by the composer to promote the music and practice of Deep Listening. The concept explores the differences between hearing and listening. We receive sound waves through our ears, and they are translated into electrical impulses. It is in the brain, where the listening process takes place. The ear does not listen, the brain does. Likewise, Deep Listening seeks to cultivate improvisation and appreciation of sounds at frequencies much higher than usual. By training our ears and mind to actively “listen” to all the sounds, our understanding increases. Same happens with our levels of creativity, empathy and connection with our surroundings.

“Deep listening is experiencing heightened awareness or expanded awareness of sound and of silence, of quiet, and of sounding – making sounds.”


Above all, as her knowledge expanded, her desire to explore new forms of sound also increased. Pauline had reached the point of wondering: What is the sound of cells multiplying? What does blood circulation sound like? What are the sounds of the cosmos? In 1980, she made Echoes of the Moon, a collaboration with Scott Gresham-Lancaster. The project consisted of inviting a network of radio amateurs to send their voice to the moon. Thus, 2.5 seconds later, they will receive an echo.

In her book Software for People: Collected Writings: 1963-1980, Pauline dedicated a chapter to women composers under the name The Contribution of Women as Composer. For Pauline, it was necessary to inquire if the difference between the opportunities for female and male composers were only cultural or methodical. Also, she wondered if it was possible to train intuition as a tool for creative activity. Reflecting on the origin of her unending curiosity about sound, Pauline said that her compositions were a combination of sounds:

All the music I have heard. The sounds of the natural world that I have heard, including my own internal biological sounds (…) of the technological world that I have heard. Sounds of my imagination.”

A precocious teenager who didn’t want to accept her reality or the status quo. An artistic evolution that began in San Francisco to unravel unimaginable sonic possibilities in a cistern four meters underground in Washington. The name of Pauline Oliveros is a legacy in itself. Resilience, perseverance, imagination and an unquenchable thirst to look beyond what it seems logical. Most importantly, your body is singing to you every day, as well as nature. Even the electrical cords of your kitchen appliances sing their own anthem. Even your feet can become ears if you try. I invite you to deeply listen to your self-isolation. What is trying to tell you?

Published by Cherry Adam

Moody experimentalist. Hypersensitive & Noir moments Poetry, Essays & Sound Experimentation Freelance Music Journalist

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