Staying Sane While Staying Connected with Pauline Oliveros’s Queer Lineage of Deep Listening

In 1988, experimental composer Pauline Oliveros lowered herself and two musician friends into a cistern in Port Townsend, WA to collaborate with each other and with the unique reverberation of the space. The trio came to view the cavernous underground recording studio as the fourth member of what would come to be known as the Deep Listening Band. By that point, Oliveros had already spent decades in the avant-garde, pushing the boundaries of music with accordion drones and electronics. She had also spent time breaking down the walls between artist and audience through her Sonic Meditations, which The New Yorker described as “recipes for listening.” Deep Listening became a culmination of her various threads of exploration — a practice, a collaboration, an album, a book, and a philosophy. In a historical moment that seems both freshly chaotic and an extension of generations of systemic destruction, Oliveros has a lot to teach us about the relationship between listening and building an accessible and more livable world.

As a young girl growing up in rural Texas, Pauline Oliveros found herself attracted to what she would describe as the entire sonic field. The whole soundscape of wind, insects, and other natural sounds delighted her not as individual events but as a collective experience in which she was embedded. As she grew up she became drawn to sounds like the static between radio stations and would intentionally turn the dial to these fuzzy zones and tune in her attention with the same focus and joy you might give to a favorite song. The concept of listening became even more interesting to her as a field of study when she received a tape recorder. When she would record these soundscapes as she explored backcountry paths, she noticed later that there were always sounds present on the recording that she hadn’t noticed at the time. This triggered in her an understanding of the difference between hearing as an involuntary act, and the more intentional and selective act of listening. She decided she wanted to be a composer because she felt she had an internal music she wanted to express and share as external sound. This is where she began to really explore the connections between listening to the outer world of sounds in the environment, and the inner listening involved in a memory of a sound you once heard. She went to school for music composition but found that traditional notation couldn’t capture her own inner sounds, so she set about creating her own unique way to illustrate musical scores. As an out lesbian and ardent feminist, Oliveros approached her identity as a composer in a way she believed was uniquely queer. Instead of seeing herself as an individual genius creating work through divine inspiration, she viewed her work as cooperative and relational. She loved to collaborate with women and gender-expansive friends in different fields and to use these experiences to learn about their worldviews.

In 1968, Oliveros watched Robert Kennedy’s assassination on television. She had just moved to San Diego to accept a teaching job after years as an underground star of experimental music in San Francisco. By the end of the Sixties, she described an overwhelming sense of political despair in the face of American war crimes overseas and state repression against student activists at home. “I began to retreat. I didn’t want to play concerts. I began to turn inward,” she described in an interview in 1977. As described in The New Yorker, this is when she began to work on drones — a musical term for the minimalist practice of playing a single note or chord throughout most or all of a piece– in her case spending an entire year singing and playing the note A on accordion. She found this sort of music to be a refuge from the despondency she felt and that she sensed in the people around her. She became interested in healing and found herself drawn not just to soothing herself by diving into a single musical note but to movement practices and meditation as well. When she began to perform again, she did so in small groups, and eventually started offering her collection of Sonic Meditations not as an expert musician performing for an audience but as a circle of equals, musicians and non-musicians alike, sharing sounds and listening practices as an act of cooperation. This intimate form of group work would eventually come to be known as the theory and practice of Deep Listening, a community that Oliveros tended to until her death in 2016, and which continues through the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Almost everyone I know, myself included, is feeling burned out in one way or another. While lowering myself into a cistern won’t solve any of my problems, it sure sounds appealing to disappear underground for a stretch. The friends I talk to are also fearful that disengaging with the news and social media might leave them alienated from needed connections and missing important details about the pandemic, organizing efforts, and the election. It’s like we’re all hitting the gas as hard as we can while knowing the tank has been empty for months. Our time-spans shrink: it comes down to just getting through another day and hoping whatever we were able to do was enough. People ask me: does retreating and taking time to tend to myself mean I am giving up on the struggle for justice and abandoning the people who are vulnerable to the harm from these systems of white supremacy, domination and extraction? Nobody in any movement I have been a part of wants anyone to drive themselves into the ground by overworking themselves. But I understand the hesitancy to pull back and turn attention inward. Everything feels so urgent right now. Rest feels like an unnecessary risk. This is survival mode. Some of us have always been in it because there are systems in place that do not value our lives. Some of us are newer to this agitated exhaustion. In either case, it is not sustainable, and we have to help each other find refuge. While formal meditation and mindfulness apps work for some, there are situations where neurodiversity and the lived experience of trauma can make these practices inaccessible. This is why I have, in recent years, let myself gravitate to listening practices. It’s not so much what I listen to, but rather how I listen to it. So I can practice in a busy park, I can practice at a live performance, and I can practice in my apartment. Sound is always available to me. And since we’re talking about listening rather than just hearing, this sort of sonic exploration doesn’t require pitch-perfect hearing or a musically trained ear. Deaf folks and the hearing impaired can also listen, and in fact help expand what we think of as listening to include the entire body. Deep Listening isn’t about seeking a particular result, so practicing at the level that is accessible to you, with the tools available, can look like noticing when you zone out during a conversation, or really feeling it with your whole body when you play an instrument. It’s about what works for you.

I’ve always lived the double-edged sword of sensitivity to sound. I love music and can experience the bridge of a favorite song almost as a personal achievement, listening to a favorite song over and over again for that bliss when the beat drops. And I’ve found myself irritated and unable to focus because an upstairs neighbor was moving around erratically on the hardwood floor. When I first took a mindfulness class at a Buddhist meditation center, I knew I would have to figure out a way to make sound a part of my practice, because I would otherwise be engaged in a losing battle with the noises that fill even the most quiet of spaces. I learned, over years of practice, to stop experiencing the car honking outside or the person breathing loudly near me as overwhelming distractions. Instead, they could teach me a lot about my nervous system, my attention, and my connection to the world. I did this not by telling myself something that was untrue, like “you’re not mad that woman won’t stop sniffling! It’s fine! You feel compassion for her!” I had to acknowledge that there was some part of my body that felt helpless in the presence of that sniffling, and which reacted in anger. Because while those sorts of reframes would work for me temporarily, they did nothing to heal the underlying dysregulation that perceived so many sounds as threats. Instead, I started a daily practice of just listening to my bedroom. I would notice and be honest with myself about which sounds I liked, which I disliked, and I would also listen long enough to start hearing all those neutral noises that my mind would otherwise filter out, like the low hum of the refrigerator. Something about this practice seemed to bring me down out of agitation into a feeling of connection with the room. Much like a knot that loosens itself when you stop struggling with it, those sounds that I disliked didn’t drive me to anger anymore. And if I noticed that they started to bother me again, it was usually a sign that I was already in fight-or-flight about something else, and needed to use some tools to comfort or ground myself.

I learned to intentionally open to the entire spectrum of sound, to let in ambient reverberations all around me be a part of my experience, and this seemed to connect me to the present moment in a way that felt manageable. I started teaching this as a listening meditation practice, rooted in the Buddhist concept of The Three Poisons, which teaches that every action we take is driven by a sensation of like, dislike, or neutral non-response. By listening to which of those or which combination inspired a reaction of fear, anger, helplessness, or relaxation, I began to be able to have some choice in how I engaged with not just sound but with all of my perceptions. And it didn’t involve ignoring my emotions or suppressing my reactions. Just listening to my inner world with the compassion and inclusivity I might offer a good friend. The world stopped feeling like something that was happening to me, and shifted to sometimes feeling like an intricate flux to which I am inextricably connected. This is a capacity I can train in and build through regular practice, in a process that feels like building a friendship with myself that inevitably impacts how I interact with everyone else.

There is benefit to sitting in silence and meditating in a formal way. But I’m not someone who thinks that is the only way to observe your attention and build a friendly relationship with your inner experience. You can try it by listening to a song. Pick a song you enjoy, sit or lay down in a position that’s comfortable to you, and listen. Notice all of the activities your mind does: do you tend to picture a certain instrument as you hear it? Does the song remind you of an experience you had while this song was playing, or a particular person who you saw the band with? Maybe part of your body involuntarily moves with the rhythm of the song. Are there parts of it you don’t like? Just observe. And when you notice your mind automatically making all of these associations, see if you can guide your attention back to the direct experience of the music. Not suppressing your reactions or inner monologue but just noticing that you can drop it and come back to listening to the sound as it is happening. And maybe you notice that there are sounds in the room as well. A bird that happens to sing outside your window between notes. The crash of a glass your roommate drops in their room. Notice how this ambient sound gives you a sense of the space you’re in. Once the song is over, think of a memory you have of a comforting sound. Listen to your memory. Let the feeling that memory inspires linger in your body, if that feels possible. Then, just listen to the room for a few moments. These are all ways to listen deeply to that intersection between your subjective inner sense of things and the outside world with all of its activity and sound. Simple enough in description, but you might notice if you try it, really wild in practice.

The image of a dot inside of a circle is what Oliveros used to depict the practice of Deep Listening. The dot represents focal attention. This is the idea of concentrating on a single thing, like the feeling or sound of breathing. The circle represents global awareness, meaning being aware of all the sounds in the space in an open way. According to Oliveros, something really transformative happens when we can balance the two. It’s not easy! But if you try any of the listening practices above, you might notice short moments of focal attention in yourself and your breathing balanced with awareness of the entire space. Your attention will likely get pulled towards something specific like remembering that you forgot to send an email, or the sound of a car honking outside. But part of listening, rather than merely hearing, is to notice that you have some agency in re-directing and even expanding your awareness, over and over again. To Oliveros, this symbol of dot-within-circle represented more than just our ability to be aware of many things at once. It also references the relationship between the individual and the group. By listening in this way, she believed we could come to understand ourselves not just as individuals but as nodes in an interdependent web of life connected by the reciprocal back and forth of sound and listening. She believed that the space between us, like the silence between sounds, was a presence rather than an absence– a part of a continuum. And in that way, I think she makes the argument that our stillness, our not-doing, our listening, is as much a part of our engagement with the problems present in the world as our action, our expression, and our movement. Both are needed, and in listening we become aware of the relationships between the things we might think of as opposed. This is not to say that I think the problems of white supremacy, ecological collapse and economic inequality will be solved by just listening to each other. But I do think listening more deeply to our inner worlds and helping each other cultivate safe places for that work has a place in our healing and change strategies. Oliveros didn’t see her work as escapism, but rather recognized the importance of contemplation in inspiring action, a paradox social movements are still working over today.

This past Spring, just a few weeks into New York’s pandemic lockdown, a group called Music On The Rebound organized an online festival to help people cope with the impact of COVID-19 stress and isolation. I signed up for a session called The Pauline Oliveros World-Wide Tuning Meditation, hosted by Carole Ione, who was Oliveros’ spouse and creative partner for 30 years. I knew the Deep Listening practices could be very powerful in person but was skeptical that this impact could be captured on a video call. Once again, by dropping my judgment and just listening, I was surprised by what I encountered. Ione instructed us in an exercise called Teaching Yourself to Fly, where we would let out a single note for one breath, while listening to the other participants. We would pick a new note based on a note we had just heard someone else tone and do that note on our next out breath, on and on for twenty minutes. This required both the focal attention of making a sound, and the global awareness of listening to other participants. When Ione instructed us to unmute and begin sounding, it was ecstatic. My physical body was soothed by the resonance of deep breath and letting out a low sound, and listening to the cacophony of the zoom call skipping across hundreds of participants and their own sounds sent me into a kind of meditative trance. I felt joy when I recognized people as they flashed across the screen, like queer multidisciplinary artist and friend Colin Self, or vocal mentor Silvia Nakkach, who first taught me about Deep Listening. In those first few weeks of quarantining in my basement apartment I was running on pure adrenaline while feeling completely alienated from the friends and connections that keep me resilient in my work. The online Deep Listening gathering felt electric, experimental, and communal– all things Oliveros hoped would help us find our way in the world. As people signed off and said hello to old friends in the chat, I felt struck by what completely relational beings we are, and how the pandemic has been emphasizing the valuable and the painful aspects of that interdependence. Though the doom and the fear might be louder as my mind scans for threats to keep me safe, I can choose to listen to what is quieter but still present, and let in the whole spectrum of possibility to see what might come out of being present with the world as it is at the intersection of solitude and community.

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Caroline Contillo is a writer, community manager, and meditation teacher who lives in Queens, NY with her wife and an excessive number of books and plants. She tweets about climate justice, meditation practices and pop culture as spacecrone. Her movie/TV reviews can be found at spacecrone.com.

Caroline has written 4 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for reminding me to listen – distant motors, a neighbor hammering, wind, airplane, my house settling, the cat snoring in a sunbeam, my stomach…
    I’ve been binging Netflix, podcasts, the Petrol Girls and other sounds. Listening to “silence” is refreshing. Also, I should eat.

  2. wow, damn, i loved and needed this:
    “I had to acknowledge that there was some part of my body that felt helpless in the presence of that sniffling, and which reacted in anger. Because while those sorts of reframes would work for me temporarily, they did nothing to heal the underlying dysregulation that perceived so many sounds as threats. Instead, I started a daily practice of just listening to my bedroom. I would notice and be honest with myself about which sounds I liked, which I disliked, and I would also listen long enough to start hearing all those neutral noises that my mind would otherwise filter out, like the low hum of the refrigerator. Something about this practice seemed to bring me down out of agitation into a feeling of connection with the room. Much like a knot that loosens itself when you stop struggling with it, those sounds that I disliked didn’t drive me to anger anymore. And if I noticed that they started to bother me again, it was usually a sign that I was already in fight-or-flight about something else, and needed to use some tools to comfort or ground myself.”

    i was honoured to take part in a deep listening workshop with pauline oliveros one time. the exercise i remember most was that she asked everyone to each sing a song that they loved or that had meaning to them, as slow as we possibly could, while walking around the room. i think of it often.

  3. This is so beautiful!!! Pauline Oliveros’ work has shaped the way I view and interact with the world and I love anytime I get to think about Deep Listening.

    I have been considering doing some Sonic Meditations via virtual calls, but have been hesitant- I am glad to know that they worked as beautifully as in person.

    I am excited to delve more into the idea of the three poisons.
    Thank you for a wonderful piece.

  4. Hello. I came across you and this piece by chance and its really inspiring. I practice meditation here in Ireland in the Thich Nhat Hahn zen tradition, I love Pauline D’Oliveros and I’m a jazz musician just about to record a new album with my trio next weekend. I’ve introduced my jazz comrades on previous recordings to deep listening, to space and silence being integral. I love the image of ever expanding circles of listening, responding, connecting.Feeling enriched by your post as we approach the studio. Gratitude. Carole

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