Pauline Oliveros’s Listening Questions

I am sorting out my studio. This may be the best Messy Tuesdays photo to date.

It has been unusable since November 2010 when I moved back into Mark’s house and commenced with an insane quantity of projects. I simply have had no time, energy, or inclination to sort through all the piles of stuff… until now.

I shall be assailing you with details and tidbits from the studio sortage in coming days, and there will be infrequent ebay listings here, while I rid myself of surplus possessions. There is also going to be The Mutha of all badge-listings in my Etsy shop, as I have several new ranges of found-material badges coming out in the next few weeks!

I shall begin the de-cluttering process by posting Listening Questions by Pauline Oliveros, which I have wanted to blog about forever. This piece of paper has been hanging around for a long time waiting to be discussed and after I have written this post, it can finally go into the recycling bin.

Some background: Pauline Oliveros‘s book – Deep Listening – includes some of my favourite texts on listening, art-making, and sounds. It also contains some of my least-favourite texts on the same, and I am often disappointed by the disparity I perceive between the playful, participatory nature of her writings vs. the austere tone of her recorded works. I also am uncomfortable with Oliveros’s adoption of elements of Eastern spirituality into the practice of listening.

Why does listening attentively have to be spiritual?

When I say I am interested in listening to the everyday, in paying attention to the sounds which surround us all the time and go unnoticed, people – searching for a frame of reference – will often say “oh, you mean like meditation?” and I explain over and over again that sometimes listening to the banal sounds of the everyday is just listening to the banal sounds of the everyday. Listening can be a secular activity, disassociated from aspirations towards enlightenment or self-improvement. Active listening and all the creative sonic practices which derive from it are for me part of a conceptual and imaginative practice, and not part of a search for a more wholesome existence.

Oliveros is one of the composers who has most influenced my work because I am in turns inspired and irritated by her approach. On the one hand I want to emulate and develop the ideas which I find totally exciting in her texts, and on the other hand, I want to more successfully bridge the gap between what she writes and how her recordings sound to me. Her texts – as we shall shortly see – are full of suggestions for an imaginative, inquisitive, playful relationship with the everyday world. I feel her words are enabling, presenting a toolkit or framework for differently experiencing the world. In contrast, the experience I can have from listening to my CD of Pauline Oliveros improvising on her accordion in a very resonant underground water tank, for example, is more limited. I can be impressed by her attention span, I can be transported to the resonant chambers of the underground tank, and I can have a somewhat “transcendental” experience of drifting off into the otherworldly tones sustained within the recordings. However, listening to the CD of DEEP LISTENING by Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster seems to me to be a far more escapist experience than engaging with one of her texts and putting her ideas into practice in my daily life, and this gap fascinates, irritates, puzzles and intrigues me.

How can the experience of active listening in daily life be transmitted to an audience? This is a key question for me in my practice, and Oliveros lies near the heart of it.

I led a listening group at SARU last Autumn where I presented this text to other post-graduate students exploring sonic practices, and I asked them to consider the relationship between Listening Questions and a track on Deep Listening. I re-present that same question here for you today.

What is the relationship between this recording:

…and this text?

And what would your answers be to Listening Questions? It would be amazing to read your responses to the questions if you wanted to copy and paste them…

Listening Questions, by Pauline Oliveros

1. What is your earliest memory of sound? How do you feel about it now?
2. When do you notice your breath?
3. What is attention?
4. Can you imagine composing or improvising a piece based on breath rhythms?
5. What sound reminds you of home?
6. Do you listen for sound in your dreams? What do you hear? How does it affect you?
7. The distinguished historian, William H. McNeil, has recently argued in his book Keeping Together in Time that “coordinated rhythmical activity is fundamental to life in society.”
Can you imagine tracking a rhythm pattern in your daily life and writing about it?
8. Can you imagine a rhythm pattern for the rhythm circle with your own form of notation?
9. Can you imagine composing or improvising a piece for voices using attention patterns?
10. What is sound?
11. What is listening?
12. What action(s) is usually synchronised with sound?
13. When do you feel sound in your body?
14. What sound fascinates you?
15. What is a soundscape?
16. What are you hearing right now? How is it changing?
17. How many sounds can you hear all at once?
18. How far away can you hear sounds?
19. Are you sure that you are hearing every thing that there is to hear?
20. What more could you hear if you had bigger ears? (or smaller)
21. Can you hear more sounds if you are quiet? How many more?
22. How long can you listen?
23. When are you not listening?
24. Can you not listen when something is sounding?
25. Try not listening to anything. What happens?
26. How can you not listen if your ears never close?
27. What meaning does any sound have for you?
28. What is your favourite sound? How is it made? When can you hear it? Are you hearing it now?
29. What is the soundscape of the space you are now occupying?
30. How is the soundscape shaped? or what makes a soundscape?
31. What is the soundscape of your neighbourhood?
32. What is the soundscape of your city?
33. How many different soundscapes can you imagine?
34. What would you like to have in your own soundscape?
35. What would you record to represent your soundscape?
36. What sound makes you speculative?
37. What sound gives you chhills?
38. What sound ruffles your scalp?
39. What sound changes your breathing?
40. What sound would you like whispered in your ear?

5 Responses to Pauline Oliveros’s Listening Questions

  1. Eleanor says:

    I can hear the link between Oliveros’ track and the questions about breathing. And in answer to her question about what sound changes my breathing – most unexpected sounds do, but the sound that most affects my breathing is the sound of my breathing.

    Question 6 is really interesting. I think there are two types of sound in my dreams. There are the sounds that come from inside my head – which sometimes leave me awestruck – like fluent conversations in French which, when I try to recall and translate them in the morning make perfect sence. But I am definitely not fluent in French. At other times these sounds are frustrating – like dreaming of the sea, but the sound of the sea isn’t accurate or isn’t there at all.
    The other type of sounds are outside my head but filter into my dreams. Often when I wake up I know exactly what the sound is, but in my dream it had become something very different.

    I never thought listening could be so interesting. Thank you.

    • Interesting comments, Eleanor. I too sometimes find that sounds in my dreams are a sort of fuzzy translation of sounds in waking life. I am fascinated by the fact that our ears never close, and by the idea that sounds which occur in the night feed into our open ears and are interpreted by our dreaming brains…

  2. Philippa says:

    I started trying to answer these questions, and I could not. I actually wrote you most of a very long email, and then fell at the hurdles of questions like ‘Can you imagine a rhythm pattern for the rhythm circle with your own form of notation?’ (Um, ?).

    The answers I could come up with were either mundane (Question 5: The heavy swing and squeak of the closing of the oven door at my parents’ house, the pingly splash and drop of rain falling down the flue of the stove. The deep roar of the ancient Volvo they had, the drawn-out sound of my mum parking on a steep hill wihout power steering, inching closer to the curb, nearly home. Rain pouring outside, feeling warm and snug indoors; the gentle whoosh of a gas boiler igniting; the soft crackle and faint hiss of wood burning; these make me feel ‘at home’ wherever I am) or technical (Question 3: Tubes in my ears, diaphragm of the stethoscope pressed against a patient’s skin, listening carefully to see if what I suddenly thought I might have heard was really there. Is this patient well or ill? Is this sound the sign of something worrying which would change the thing I was about to do? Is this normal for them? Is it new? Has it been heard by someone else before? Do I need to do something about?).

    I am really grateful, though, for the opportunity, because in spite of reading your blog and listening to the fantastic episodes of Cast-On in which you made such beautiful soundscapes, I had never really thought about listening before.

    I have always thought of myself as cloth-eared. I do not, for example, have any favourite bands, and I can never remember the names of songs I like. I cannot tell you what genres of music I like – just, when I hear something, whether I would like to listen to it again. I have never, in spite of a degree in literature, read a poem for enjoyment: I like fiction. I don’t really listen to musical radio much, I like hearing people talk.

    I once went to the doctor to see if my hearing was impaired because I felt that I missed so much of people’s conversations, but the crude hearing tests she did were absolutely normal and she decided it was probably that I didn’t pay attention. This I am convinced is not the case, because it was often the conversations I wanted to hear *most* that I missed parts of. I have never been very good at tuning out background noise – in fact, it is often what I am most interested in. The conversation someone else is having next to me rather than the one I should be engaged in, a bird singing outside while I am supposed to be explaining something to someone. I also find background noise immensely irritating: the emergency siren screaming past as I try to have a conversation with someone on a mobile phone who is out and about, the sound of someone else’s computer game while I am trying to think about something else and *cannot* because of said computer game – in spite of the fact that I could easily tune out the radio – my boyfriend’s parents’ parrot in all his wily guises.

    On the other hand, I use my ears to do my job. I feel naked at work without my trusty ‘tubes’ looped around my neck. Using my stethoscope, to compare the sounds of breath entering and leaving the lungs at different locations with each other, and against my learnt version of normal, checking for added sounds such as crackles (fine and coarse) and wheezes; listening to the opening and closing of heart valves to check if there is any possible leakage of blood or inefficency of opening; checking for the normal tinkling sounds of bowel or an abnormal rush of blood while examining a tummy: these are things I do every day, and without them, I would be lost. And useless.

    So, thanks Felix! Food for thought. A great start to the weekend!

    • Great comments Phillipa – thank-you for taking the time to reply in such depth to Pauline Oliveros’s listening questions.

      I love all the mundane sounds which you have listed for your first memories of sound; I imagine many of us can relate to such sounds – gas heating going on, the sound of our parents’ car when we were small, rain outside and being snug indoors, etc. – those kinds of sounds are very interesting, because they are integral to how we remember people, things and places, and they are also extremely personal somehow.

      I was particularly interested in everything that you said here about how sound plays a key role in your work as a Doctor and all the body sounds you mention. I have a stethoscope which my Dad gave me after I pestered him for one, but I don’t know how to listen properly with it as you do!

      Thank you also for your kind words on the sounds I have recorded for Cast On; I am glad you enjoyed the recordings.

      What you say about background sounds and foreground sounds and the issue of focussing the ear is very interesting. I don’t know a lot about this field, but it seems to me that the process of focussing in on a sound is a complex one and that the loudness or the nearness of the sound source are not the only factors. Attention is part of the puzzle, but why is it that sometimes when I am deliberately trying to listen to someone, I – like you – find I sometimes cannot focus my ear properly?

  3. colleen says:

    Nearly finished my comments which I will email. There are some demanding questions in there.

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