Ways of Listening

In her life and work, Pauline Oliveros practices a simple yet extremely difficult discipline: “Always listen.”

I admire Pauline’s discipline very much. But there are times when I choose to listen to no music at all. I feel this as a physical need. After intensive periods of performance, recording and teaching, my ears sometimes tell me they need a rest from music.

Although this might seem to be a retreat from listening, I savor these music fasts as a time for listening more carefully to other sounds, and – especially in winter – to silence. Most of us are continually inundated with music and sound, these days. I feel very fortunate to live in a place where silence endures as a pervasive, enveloping presence.

In my own music, I’m still involved in writing scores. But the most difficult thing is not knowing what to write down. It’s knowing what not to write down.

I want the music to sound and feel elemental and inevitable. And before beginning to write out notes, I want to hear as much as I can of the new piece as it begins to sound in my mind’s ear. This can be a slow, sometimes difficult process. But over the years, I’ve learned to trust it. I spend a lot of time thinking, reading, looking at art, walking, listening to birds, sketching, trying to understand the essence of the new piece and what it wants to be. This can sometimes go on for weeks before I start writing out the score.

When I’m not actively working on a new piece, I sometimes listen intensively to recordings. I’m especially drawn to music I haven’t heard before, to music that I think I don’t like, and to music that’s very different from my own. When I’m listening to a recording, I don’t do anything else. I want to give my full attention to the music.

When I’m listening to a “live” performance, if the music doesn’t hold my interest I shift my attention to the sounds of the instruments themselves and the complex and subtle ways they resonate in the unique acoustics of the space. This never fails to absorb me. I learned this from Pauline.

What about you?

How do you listen? What do you listen to? Where? When? And why?