Arts & Culture

Deep listening, walking with a master

By
Contributing Writer

As part of this year’s Pixilerations, the FirstWorks Festival’s new media showcase, accordionist and composer Pauline Oliveros visited Providence to give a concert last Friday and lead classes on her work and her unique artistic process.

Oliveros is “an American master,” said Kathleen Pletcher, executive artistic director of FirstWorks, an organization that brings prominent artists and premieres of their works to the city. “Her pioneering in sound is just astounding.”

FirstWorks prides itself in presenting firsts in the arts: musicians, dancers, filmmakers and visual artists with interests in experimentation. The organization evolved from First Night Providence, a New Year’s Eve festival that began in 1985 and now offers programming throughout the year. Each fall, FirstWorks coordinates the FirstWorks Festival, a seven-week event filled with gallery openings, performances and musical concerts.

Last Thursday, Oliveros spoke to students in MUSC 0200: “Computers and Music” at Grant Recital Hall. She said she has been fascinated with “in-between-the-cracks music,” even when she was young. She enjoyed listening to her family’s Victrola phonograph stretching and distorting the music. She listened to the static between channels on her grandfather’s radio and to the cracks and pops of her father’s short-wave radio. When Oliveros entered the world of electronic music, she enjoyed the feeling of “inventing (her) way through it.”

In 1953, Oliveros got hands on a tape recorder, and, listening to the playback, realized how much more the tape recorder’s microphone picked up than she heard consciously. She concluded that she was not really listening to the environment around her. That insight  became the starting point for her philosophy of “deep listening.” 

Deep listening, as Oliveros explained it, can be practiced by anyone, even those who know little about music. Oliveros called it a form of meditation — listening to listening, expanding attention and awareness to the “whole space-time continuum of sound.”

This idea and practice took off in many directions, including workshops in deep listening, one of which Oliveros ran Saturday at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Memorial Hall.
Oliveros opened with her definition of deep listening and an explanation of the practice.

Nearly 50 participants — a mix of Brown and RISD students, at least one Brown professor and some Providence residents — spent the first half of the workshop trying two exercises: the “extreme slow walk” and the “extreme slow song.” The extreme slow walk was just that — walking extremely slowly, becoming aware of the floor and recognizing how a person’s balance shifts when moving. Oliveros then asked everyone to think of a song they knew exceptionally well, and to sing it as slowly as possible (walking at the same time). The participants, though sleepy, awakened with each activity.

After singing his extreme slow song, Zach Alterman ’12 said the exercises reminded him of how words are only “one of a trillion forms of communication” and helped him think about all those modes of communication people don’t normally use.

Though Oliveros will not be giving any more performances or workshops, Pixilerations will continue through Oct. 11, and the FirstWorks Festival through Nov. 15.  Upcoming events include a performance by the all-male Taiwanese dance company HORSE on Oct. 24, and, as part of the FirstWorks Festival finale, Cirque Mechanics on Nov. 14.