“When you feel disconnected from your body, you are inevitably disconnected from Earth.”
Close your eyes for a moment and focus on the sounds occurring around you. What are you hearing? What is near? What is far away?
I can hear cars outside my window. I’ve never noticed before how their wheels smoothing over the pavement sound just like waves lapping up the shore. Occasionally an engine growls or an exhaust pipe coughs giving them away. Birds sing in the distance. My flatmate’s coffee whistles from the kitchen. After doing this a little while I start to feel a funny sensation. Is this what it feels like to be in a body?
This small exercise is an example of what the late Pauline Oliveros called Deep Listening: “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear, no matter what you are doing.” By tuning your ear into the various frequencies of daily life – whether that be sounds of nature, the noise of a city, a piece of music or your own thoughts – this activity of acute listening, Oliveros believed, can allow us to reach “a higher state of awareness and connects to all there is.” Simply put, it is a form of meditation.
Oliveros’ ideas have enjoyed renewed attention in recent years partly due to her passing in 2018 but also because we as humans, I believe, have lost our sense of connection – to each other and to the planet – and are desperately searching for a way back. Thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton argue that we have created a false separation between humans and nature, that there is no such thing as nature – we are nature. While Angela Davis argues that capitalism has colonized our mind. In relation to the cruelty much of our food belies she writes, “we look no further than the commodity itself, the fact that we refuse to understand the relationships that underlie the commodities that we use on a daily basis.“ bell hooks wrote of a collective lovelessness. “Schools for love do not exist,” she wrote in All About Love. “Everyone assumes that we will know how to love instinctively. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
“If it has a spiritual component, I’m very glad.” Oliveros said in one of her last interviews. “It’s because we’re not listening to one another that things are in a mess.” At this moment in time, learning to listen to ourselves, each other and the Earth has become a matter of urgency.
Oliveros coined the term Deep Listening in 1989, though her “contemplative practice” began in the 70s. It was a time of great political unrest in America. The violent atmosphere created by the Vietnam War impacted her deeply. “I felt the temper of the times. I felt the tremendous fear,” she recalled. It brought about a period of introspection and musical experimentation for Oliveros. She began exploring extended drone sounds and listening intently. When focusing her attention on a single tone, she found herself becoming distinctly aware of the layers within it as well as those in her own thoughts.
In interviews Oliveros often evaded giving an explicit explanation of the effects of deep listening. Why? She doesn’t say. Perhaps for similar reasons to Nina Simone’s reluctance to describe freedom. It’s a feeling. “You can’t describe it, but you know it when you feel it.” After one interviewer pressed, Oliveros expanded somewhat: “I guess if you find your own centre of your own being and connect with it, that you feel balanced and certain things are not necessary. You can simply be and experience the world, as it is. That is to me, what centering must mean.”
As a naturally introspective person, Oliveros was acquainted with the limitations of language. There is so much we can’t say in words. This gap is why art exists. To quote Olivia Laing, art can be “a route to clarity, and it can be a force of resistance and repair, providing new registers, new languages in which to think.” Recognising the potential to use what she had learned to tap into the social power of sound, Oliveros began developing strategies for Deep Listening in group settings.
Oliveros formed ♀ Ensemble, an all female group, and held weekly gatherings at her home in San Diego where the group experimented with nonverbal communication through text scores, journaling, discussion and Kinetic Awareness exercises. These sessions would form the basis of her 1971 seminal text, Sonic Meditations – a collection of 25 healing exercises or “recipes” for listening which combined breathing, bodily awareness and sound. Through continuous practice of these scores, one could experience “expanded consciousness”, a permanent release of physical and physiological tensions and greater understanding and sensitivity among group members.
Published in 1971, Sonic Meditations continues to be highly influential. Her ”‘Tuning Meditation” is the most broadly used, often in artistic or healing settings and even of late, over Zoom. It invites people, often strangers, to improvise together using just their voices. Beginning with a single pitch, it builds as other participants pitch and tune in unison, and contribute new pitches. The result is a strange and meandering but beautiful harmony. These meditations are symbolic in many ways of what it means to be human. We are individual but together our actions create a chorus. “Tuning Meditation” allows for the creation of a common ground outside of language or experience or identity in which we see and hear each other in a different way. As bell hooks writes in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.”
Another score simply reads, “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.” This deceptively simple instruction is definitive of what I believe to be the core of Oliveros’ legacy and one that is becoming ever more urgent – a sense of ecological (and bodily) interconnectedness to the world around us.
In An Ecotopian Lexicon, Sofia Ahlberg discusses the word “fotminne”, a term invented by the Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman which loosely translates to “foot memory.” Ahlberg describes “fotminne” as primal awareness, a sense of groundedness – the foot “strikes a deal with the ground.” What Oliveros is positing is a fully embodied kind of listening.
In Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, adrienne maree brown writes of the benefits of Somatics. The word comes from the Greek root soma which means “the living organism in its wholeness.” A somatic approach to movement is a practice which cultivates self-awareness of our bodies – or as brown describes it, “learning to drop in and feel myself from within.” From a collective perspective brown’s experience of Generative Somatics is similar to the effects of Deep Listening in that it “feels into how, in a collective or group, patterns of pain indicate the mass, or intergenerational, trauma people are surviving.” An embodied understanding of our senses, which are ultimately the filter through which we experience the world, is crucial in shaping or reshaping our relations to and in it. In this way, Deep Listening is ecological in the sense that “ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness,” as the writer and philosopher Timothy Morton says, “Ecology is profoundly about coexistence. Existence is coexistence.” Oliveros understood this.
Angela Davis once said, art can teach us about the interior life and in doing so “propel people towards social emancipation.” Deep listening isn’t just an art form, it’s a tool to move through life – to free oneself and to give each other permission to be free.
Now, as Oliveros would say “Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you’re not listening.”
Try again: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
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Author: Róisín McVeigh
[Featured Video: Sound by Pauline Oliveros, Audio-Visual by &&OR Visual]