When she laughs, Pauline Oliveros breaks into the most extraordinary smile.
I have never seen this smile in any of the many photos I have seen of her, whether from the beginning of her composing career, at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early sixties, or more recent promo shots for the performances of her group, The Deep Listening Band. We were talking about the origins of her concept of ‘Deep Listening’ with an album recorded two decades ago at the bottom of a fourteen-foot deep cistern in Port Townsend, Washington. Four and a bit metres underground – that’s some pretty deep listening.
“Humour is always part of our modus operandi,” she confides of her relationship with trombonist Stuart Dempster, her friend and collaborator of more than fifty-five years. “We’re always punning. Always. It gets really hilarious – probably most hilarious to us.” And she starts chuckling again, breaking into that grin that suddenly makes her look like Mia Farrow.
Perhaps, I begin tentatively to suggest, the ability to spontaneously make music with someone is a little bit like being able to crack jokes with someone. There’s an analogy there, perhaps…
“Well, sure, yeah,” she confirms. “I think it’s a good one too.”
Sharing a melody can be a bit like sharing a joke –
“Right. And sharing sounds is that way as well, because often we’ll be sitting like this and something will happen – a sound will happen that is amusing. But other people sitting there will have no relation to what it was. They’d probably think we’re nuts for laughing.”
From this simple pun, Deep Listening grew into something like a way, or Dō, in the sense used in the martial arts. “It’s a process and a practice,” she tells me. “So over a time period, as one practices, expanding their capacity to attend to the environment as a whole, and also to be able to focus attention to a point. These are two forms of attention: focal and global. But to become aware of how you are using these is part of what happens in practising deep listening: noticing how you are listening and noticing how it can expand and how it can be sharpened. That’s a part of the practice.”
So, it’s a learning process, I venture.
“Yes, deep learning.”
As much a form of education as a form of composition –
“Well, uh, you can put it that way, I suppose,” she begins in her rich Texan drawl. “I would say that my performing and my composing come from my listening. That’s the basis, rather than some outside form applied to the material.”
As a child, Pauline Oliveros would lie back and listen to the “incredible chorus” of the birds and the insects in the wilds of her native Houston. “It was amazing,” she recalls. “It was almost like a rainforest, because it’s low land and wet. I really loved those sounds.” And on long drives, she would listen from the back seat to her “parents’ voices being modulated by the car motor.” In a similar way, some of her first works for magnetic tape in the late fifties were really just recordings of live performances, and what sounded like complicated electronic processing would be a bath tub for reverb and a microphone inside a cardboard tube to act as a filter.
The tape machine has been fundamental to Oliveros’s development as a composer and performer. As a teenager, in the 1940s, she had a wire recorder at home. Having picked up the accordion at nine, and started French horn in high school, she used the recording machine to help her learn new pieces, laying down her practice sessions on a length of thin steel cable.
Later, having moved to California, she acquired one of the first magnetic tape machines to appear on the domestic market, in 1953. She started to record sounds coming in through her apartment window and found “the recorder was taking in things that I wasn’t. So that challenged me.” She knew she had to listen better, to pick up as much as the machine and develop an awareness of all the sounds in the spectrum. “That’s the way technology does influence our learning,” she says. “You find out things that you didn’t know – about yourself, actually.”
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