1. Fascinated by Sound – Deep Listening

How we listen creates our life. Listening is the basis of all culture. An introduction to composer Pauline Oliveros’ ideas about sound.

A huge abandoned cistern in Washington State, built in 1907, is the location, where composer Pauline Oliveros, trombonist Stuart Dempster and vocalist Panaiotis decide to improvise together in May 1989. The special acoustics of the reservoir provide a challenging and fascinating listening situation that’s new to the performers.

Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, Panaiotis – Deep Listening (1989), detail cover art (RE: Important Records, 2020)

Due to the 186 feet the space measures in diameter, it provides 45 seconds of reverberation – thus becoming “an additional instrument being played simultaneously by all three composers,” Pauline Oliveros states in the liner notes of the album that captures the trio’s results.

Its title Deep Listening is not only a reference to the cistern being 14 feet below ground level. Deep Listening would become a term applied for a new way of conscious listening according to Oliveros’ standards.

For her, listening is to be aware of one’s self, not just in the current moment, but also when reflecting one’s position in the “collective whole” that includes the universe.

Oliveros has built her career as a composer, musician and researcher since the early fifties, when she first started to think about the perception of sound.

What is heard is changed by listening and changes the listener

Over the years, she’s been developing a variety of techniques and strategies to explore the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening. In her 1999 manifesto Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (To Practice Practice), she mentions:


Pauline Oliveros – Wind Horse (1989), graphical score
  • Deep Listening is a life long practice. The more I listen, the more I learn to listen.
  • Deep Listening is active.
  • Deep Listening involves going below the surface of what is heard. This is the way to connect with the acoustic environment, all that inhabits it, and all that there is.
  • Deep Listening is exploring the relationships among any and all sounds whether natural or technological, intended or unintended, real, remembered or imaginary.
  • What is heard is changed by listening and changes the listener. I call this the listening effect or how we process what we hear.
  • Listening is directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting and deciding on action.
  • How we listen creates our life. Listening is the basis of all culture.

The shortest improvisation that Oliveros, Dempster and Panaiotis recorded in the cistern is ten minutes long. Suiren is a meditative piece based on voice, whistling and a garden hose as wind instrument. It’s moving slowly all the time, thus making listening a rewarding and riveting experience. There’s always something to discover.

Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, Panaiotis – Suiren (1989), released on New Albion

The Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute provides a link to Pauline Oliveros’ 21-pages manifesto Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (To Practice Practice)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.