4. Reflecting Sound

Sonic Meditation XVIII: Listen to a sound until you no longer recognize it.

On the first page of her 1999 manifesto Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (To Practice Practice), Pauline Oliveros quotes Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche on putting meditation in an equation with the wisdom of listening and the depth of insight. At the time, the composer had realized that her own listening skills were still continuing to evolve – forty six years after she had first started to meditate on sound.

Pauline Oliveros – Lullaby For Daisy Pauline (1980), graphical score, “composed for a large group to sing with a tape accompaniment of natural sounds such as frogs and cicadas”

Having received a tape recorder on her 21st birthday in 1953, Oliveros had begun to record the outside world from her apartment window and noticed that the microphone was picking up sounds she hadn’t heard while recording. Her conclusion was: “Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening”.

During the early sixties, Oliveros was exploring the potential of tape recorders in combination with prototypes of synthesizers at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, along with artists like Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick. When the collaboratively run space got integrated into the renowned Mills College in Oakland in 1966, Oliveros became one of its three directors. 

While working there in a studio one night, sounds from the outside world coming in through a window taught her a lesson once more. The synthesizer pieces of Oliveros’ Bog series from 1967 are inspired by sounds from the frog pond outside the studio. There, she began to understand the importance of listening for creative music making.

Meditating on sound could bring changes in physiology and psychology from tensions to relaxations that would gradually become permanent

Pauline Oliveros – Sonic Meditations (Smith Publications, 1971)

Only four years later, Oliveros would come up with a series of exercises, designed to deepen people’s everyday engagement with sound by listening actively. In the introduction to her Sonic Meditations, she states that no special skills are necessary to perform them and that all persons willing to commit themselves can participate in them. Since Oliveros developed the series with her Women’s Ensemble, most exercises are for group situations, some, however, may get experienced alone. The instruction for Sonic Meditation V consists of just a few words: Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.

Oliveros’ sonic meditations aim at a heightened state of awareness and an expanded consciousness. But she had also observed that meditating on sound could bring changes in physiology and psychology from known and unknown tensions to relaxations that would gradually become permanent, i.e. mind and body could get tuned in a positive way by listening.

A pdf of Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations is hosted by Monoskop, the independent educational resource and research platform for arts, culture and humanities.

Pauline Oliveros – Alien Bog (1967), released on Pogus Productions in 1997

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