14-Day Songwriting Challenge: DAY 4

#4. Listen deeply.

This task is excerpted from the wonderful book, ‘The Art of Noticing,’ by Rob Walker:

“The composer Pauline Oliveros was known, among other things, for a practice she called deep listening. This evolved in part from her experience performing with a couple of other musicians in an abandoned cistern in the state of Washington, fourteen feet underground. The group shared a weakness for bad puns and titled a 1989 CD of their recordings in the space Deep Listening. 

But the extraordinary reverb in the cistern really had forced the musicians to listen with deep and extraordinary care to their environment. Thus the performances (there was no audience) prompted them to think in new ways about the relationships between the sonic and the spatial. This led to the Deep Listening Band, Deep Listening workshops and “retreats,” and eventually the Deep Listening Institute. Oliveros later explained that the practice developed into something that “explores the difference between hearing and listening.” 

Hearing is a physical process involving sound waves and the body. We know about it because it is easy to study; listening, the interpretation of those sound waves, is harder to quantify. 

“To hear is the physical means that enables perception,” Oliveros continued. “To listen is to give attention to what is perceived, both acoustically and psychologically.” 

Oliveros’s version of listening encompasses remembered sounds, sounds heard in dreams, even imagined or invented sounds. Elsewhere she referred to auralization (a term borrowed from architectural acoustics) as a kind of sonic corollary to the visual spin we tend to put on imagination. “Listening is a lifetime practice that depends on accumulated experiences with sound,” she asserted, one that encompasses “the whole space-time continuum of sounds.” 

Well before arriving at the term deep listening, Oliveros had experimented with many of these ideas, and notably produced a short but influential 1974 text called Sonic Meditations, offering various sets of rather poetic instructions:

“Take a walk at night.” 

“Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.” 

Most of the highly inventive prompts also involve making sounds, particularly in groups, consistent with her belief that musicality shouldn’t be restricted to musicians. For example, “Choose a word. Listen to it mentally. Slowly and gradually begin to voice this word by allowing each tiny part of it to sound extremely prolonged. Repeat for a long time.” 

You can piece together and modify some of Oliveros’s suggestions to explore deep listening without worrying about compositional goals. Here is one approach to experimenting with the kind of expansive listening that she advocated, borrowing from a few sources, but most notably a “meditation” that was part of a 2011 Deep Listening Intensive in Seattle. Think of this as a means of exploring your aural identity: 

In any space you wish, “listen to all possible sounds.” When one sound grabs your attention, dwell on it. Does it end? Think about what it reminds you of. Consider sounds from your past, from dreams, from nature, from music. 

Now think of a sound that reminds you of childhood; see if you can find something reminiscent of that sound now. Dwell on what you find. Stop here or follow the instruction of that 2011 meditation for as long as you wish: “Return to listening to all sounds at once. Continue in this manner.””


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