Music entails listening. This may be a truism, but it is one that Pauline Oliveros’s music considers from every angle. What is listening? How is it different from hearing? Can we activate it, and then shape it at will? Can we compose music with it?
Listening needs stillness. As does reading. ‘First imagine silence’ begins the score of One Sound Once. Oliveros’s scores are written as texts, rather than musical notation. Some are just a few lines long, some several pages. Klickitat Ride is a list of 108 instructions that are to be read out loud. David Tudor is a two-line epigram. Although often poetic, they are not poems. Oliveros has called them ‘attentional strategies’ – ways of listening and ways of responding. They don’t attempt to express anything as such, but invite the reader/listener to find out for herself what might happen if they pay attention in a particular way. They rarely require specialist musical knowledge: they can be read, and performed, by anyone. But to perform them properly requires discipline, attention and concentration.
Stillness entails breathing. Even at our stillest and most attentive, we are breathing. There is a meditative aspect to Oliveros’s work that applies to both performers and listeners. She calls this aspect ‘Deep Listening’, a form of listening practice cultivated through the sort of concentration and discipline her scores require, and intended to expand consciousness into ‘the whole space/time continuum of sound/silences’.
Breathing means movement. As we inhale and exhale our chest rises and falls. If we are practising Deep Listening, our mind similarly expands and contracts. Inner becomes outer; outer becomes inner. The sounds we are listening to exist in spatial relation to us and to each other. Quintessential and Pebble Music present catalogues of sounds, arranged by the performers like objects in a museum. In Rock Piece movement is even more explicit, with performers moving into, out of and around the space.
Movement means making. As the performers in Rock Piece move, they click pairs of stones together in their hands, ‘sounding out the environment in all directions’, attending to its different resonances and the relationship between their clicks and those of their colleagues. In Word Sound the movements are more abstract – ‘Say a word as a sound. / Say a sound as a word.’ read two lines of the score. Moving from words to sounds, turning one into the other makes a particular type of sound production, and a particular type of listening. When does a sound become a word?
Making entails music. As words and sounds transform into one another, or as clicking rocks echo around the performing space, we start to make music. Like John Cage, Oliveros blurs the boundaries between life and music: Deep Listening is inclusive listening, in which everything one might possibly hear is attended to. The pieces themselves are ways to reach that state. Deep Listening can only be intellectualized so far; in the end you have to do it. You have to listen.