Critical Theory And The End Of Noise – Post #4 of 6

Lucy of Peanuts.


“Listening is not the same as hearing and hearing is not the same as listening” ~ Pauline Oliveros


In an earlier post we touched on the essay Some Sound Observations written by Pauline Oliveros where it is included in the book  Audio Culture – Readings In Modern Music, an anthology of writings that trace the genealogy of current musical practices and theoretical concerns.  Below we are going to dig into Oliveros’ book Deep Listening – A Composer’s Sound Practice.  I enjoyed this book very much.  Whether you’re a musician or not, if you enjoy music or sound, in any of it’s multi-faceted manifestations, do yourself a favor and read this book.  It puts you in the moment.  In the now.  A place of stillness.  And fosters a practice to enhance one’s listening skills.

Book Review #2:  Deep Listening –

A Composer’s Sound Practice

by Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros is a composer, accordionist, and pioneer in electronic music. Oliveros coined the term “Deep Listening” as the CD title for her 1989 release (xi) and soon Deep Listening Retreats and shorter workshops followed. Her book, Deep Listening – A Composer’s Sound Practice, which details new ways to focus attention on sound and music, is the subject of our attention.

    To begin with, Oliveros develops a rationale about how humans hear by tracing sonic stimulation to the nature of consciousness. Addressing auditory latency, Oliveros quotes the MIT Press noting, “evoked potentials appear in the brain up to a half-second before the individual is aware of a stimulus” (xxi). However, the brain perceives the stimulus as happening in the present moment, i.e. the immediate instant in one’s own sense of time. Therefore, Oliveros concludes, “perception in time is an illusion” (xxi). There is a Zen component to this rationale and argument that this author finds intriguing. Moving forward, despite the auditory latency and time allusion, Oliveros states, “consciousness is awareness of stimuli and reactions in the moment” and that “consciousness is acting with awareness, presence and memory” (xxi). From here the rationale continues to develop as Oliveros curiously notes, “Listening is not the same as hearing and hearing is not the same as listening” as “listening takes place voluntarily” (xxi). For Oliveros, “to hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically” (xxii, italics mine). Furthermore, Oliveros observes the importance of recognizing the most subtle nuances of sound as Deep Listening is “learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound – encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible” (xxiii). Learning to follow the “trail of sound” is a cultivated practice, as “one ought to be able to target a sound or sequence of sounds in the space/time continuum and to perceive the detail or trajectory of the sound or sequence of sounds” (xxiii). From this intense form of activity we recognize that Deep Listening is a mode of meditation (xxiv).

Pauline Oliveros performing on accordion.

Oliveros performing

    Deep Listening employs training exercises that further one’s awareness of sounds in the environment in which one is engaged. Oliveros names these training exercises energywork, bodywork, breath exercises, vocalizing, listening, and dreamwork. Each exercise is designed to set a listening process into motion and detailed explanations accompany over a dozen breath and bodywork exercises.

    Oliveros notes that focal and global attentions are examples of the ways that humans listen (13). The former is most sensitive to the details of a specific object. The latter is more diffuse as this type of attention takes in the “whole of the space/time continuum of sound” such as the crowd noise at a baseball game after the initial focal crack of the bat against the ball, to use the example given by Oliveros (13). Distinguishing focal and global attentions facilitate one to promote “multi-dimensional” and “inclusive” listening (15).

            Oliveros suggests that keeping a journal about one’s experience of live or recorded sounds can help the development of one’s memory and imagination for sounds and silences (17). Additionally, new creative sound relationships may be triggered when very subtle and quiet differences in previously familiar sounds are recognized (17). Oliveros suggests a field excursion, the “Extreme Slow Walk”, as a way to learn how to listen and describe sounds that are often taken for granted (20).

    Oliveros references a perspective proposed by psychoanalyst C.G. Jung (22). “Four Modes of Thought” are described so that participants in a group dynamic may better learn how to be more sensitive to themselves and each other. The modes of thought include sensation, feeling, thinking and intuition. After defining each mode, Oliveros offers several points to help one be more aware of these “direct sensations (21-22).

pauline oliveros performing on accordion

Pauline Oliveros

    Oliveros engages a group rhythm circle to help people learn to listen and improvise with rhythms. A variety of clapping exercises are suggested including clapping along with one’s own heartbeat, group unison clapping at 60bpm, group unison clapping in multiples of 60bpm, exploration of simultaneous multiples, exploration of hemiola rhythms (25). All of these studies encourage group expression of complex polyrhythms (26).

    Oliveros suggests using a portable recording device to make “field recordings” because the process is “a great way to become more sensitive to sounds” (28).   Furthermore, as a collaborative compositional practice, Oliveros suggests combining one’s own field recordings with others (27). By comparing the results with others who do likewise, constructive compositional feedback may be elicited (27). Oliveros asks the reader to recognize pulses and patterns that may exist in one’s environment such as from machines, modes of transportation, other natural creatures, etc. Other experiments focus on specific post-recording processing techniques such as mixing, filtering, harmonizing, phase shifting, and delay (27).

illustration of hand behind ear

Do you hear what I hear?

   Throughout twenty pages Oliveros presents several “Deep Listening Pieces” which are designed to “set an attention process” or to guide one’s auditory awareness (29).   Each piece has unique distinguishing characteristics that this author found inspiring for improvisational exercises. Although commenting on each piece is beyond the scope of this paper, this author found “Ear Piece”, to be intriguing as it asks thirteen questions which do not guide to a single perception, or form of engagement, but invite diversity. Alternatively, the piece “We Are Together Because…” asks each participant to finish the title sentence. Finally, “Old Sound, New Sound, Borrowed Sound Blue, For Voices” asks each participant to express four different types of sounds, i.e. sounds referenced from a distant memory, sounds that have never been made before, sounds borrowed from someone else, and sounds that are subjectively “blue”, which this author interprets as potentially, mood, emotion or color.

    Also included in the book are thoughts, feelings and recollections of Deep Listening Retreats by former participants. Rather than offer new information about Deep Listening techniques, the writers express personal anecdotes that support the techniques and applied practice that Oliveros previously outlined. Near the end of the book, Oliveros offers a webliography, a bibliography, a glossary and several pages of in-depth references.

    Oliveros shares her rich lifetime practice through Deep Listening. This guidebook helped to focus this author’s listening practices in more than an introspective way. The book has a calming effect that simultaneously nurtures one’s inner awareness with one’s environment. This author has no doubt that anyone would benefit from the personal and group studies outlined in this book. Furthermore, even the most astute listener has something to gain as he or she is reminded of dynamics that shape one’s consciousness since aural awareness and understanding of acoustic phenomena may be ongoing throughout one’s life.



Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005. Print.

About admin

Bruce Eisenbeil is a composer, improviser, and guitar instrumentalist who has dedicated his life to the advancement of modern guitar techniques through the growth and evolution of modern composition and improvised music. He has twelve CD’s released on a variety of labels including: ESP, New Atlantis, Pogus, Nemu, Konnex, Cadence, C.I.M.P and Nine Winds. Eisenbeil has performed and recorded with some of the best musicians throughout the USA, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Brasil, and at many festivals. Eisenbeil has been living in New York City since 1995. In addition to his musical developments, Eisenbeil is trained in advanced mathematics, physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, computer languages, electrical engineering, acoustics, art history, philosophy and psychology. He has worked as an electrical technician, mechanical draftsman, auto mechanic and in construction. Although Eisenbeil was born in Chicago, he grew up in Plainfield, NJ which is where he began playing the guitar when he was 4 years old. He has been performing professionally since he was 15. Mostly self-taught, he studied with a few great teachers including Joe Pass, Howard Roberts, Joe Diorio, and Dennis Sandole – teacher of John Coltrane and Pat Martino. Despite the fact that Eisenbeil is singular artist with his own personal sound, those critics who write comparatively associate him not only with guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Grant Green, Billy Bauer, Derek Bailey, Sarnie Garrett, Sonny Sharrock, Curtis Mayfield, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck but also with saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and pianists McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. Eisenbeil’s ensemble writing has garnered a lot of attention for his unique counterpoint, textures, and sound masses. Because his work is tough to describe, critics have associated Eisenbeil’s writing with that of Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Brian Ferneyhough, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Revolutionary Ensemble. Eisenbeil has performed and/or recorded with some of the best musicians in the world including: Cecil Taylor, Katsuyuki Itakura, David Fox, David Murray, Evan Parker, Rob Brown, Ellery Eskelin, Aaron Ali Shaikh, Jimmy Stewert, Biggi Vinkeloe, Steve Swell, David Taylor, Karl Berger, Perry Robinson, Michael Manring, Alex Blake, William Parker, Kent Carter, Lisle Ellis, Wilbo Wright, Hill Greene, Tom Abbs, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Tom Hamilton, Charles Cohen, SKFL, Milford Graves, Badal Roy, Andrew Cyrille, Edgar Bateman, Nasheet Waits, Jay Rosen, William Hooker, Lou Grassi, Ian Ash, Lukas Ligeti, Shiro Onuma, Michael Lopez, and many others. In the 1980’s he worked with Jeff Buckley, Paul Gilbert and in R&B bands. His trio, TOTEM>, includes Tom Blancarte and Andrew Drury.