Pauline Oliveros is one of electronic music’s most important early figures. A trained accordionist from Houston, she found herself experimenting with new methods and technologies in the 1950s. As an early member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, she rubbed elbows with figures like Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and became the program’s first director at Mills College. She also did lengthy stints at UC San Diego and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, which houses her Center for Deep Listening.
Throughout it all, Oliveros has continued to experiment and explore, guided by the notion of deep listening: an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. Oliveros has worked with many artists within this aesthetic, but her connection with vocalist, author and sound artist Ione is special. A fellow deep listening advocate, Ione has channelled her knowledge of dreams, mythology and divination into a collection of plays and artistic works, the vast majority of which feature music and sound design by Oliveros.
Ione’s principles could also describe much of the music created by Rabih Beaini, a Lebanese artist who first began producing in the early ’90s. Relocating to Venice for a time in 1996, he later founded Morphine Records, releasing a string of high-quality techno offerings along with his own increasingly hard-to-describe hybrid creations as Morphosis. In recent years he’s moved from Lebanon to Berlin, and continues experimenting under his own name.
Oliveros and Beaini hail from wildly different backgrounds, but they’re both committed to the advancement of sound. In this conversation, guided by Hanna Bächer as part of RBMA Radio’s ongoing Encounters series, Beaini and Oliveros and Ione discuss the power of sound, silence and performance.
A notion that comes up in the talks that I’ve watched you give is that of the musical mind and how to train it. Could you explain what you mean by the term “a musical mind”?
For me, a “musical mind” is the mind that is open to all music: that is able to relax with the music, and not worry about whether you understand it or not; to simply feel it. With repetition of experience you come to know it in deeper ways, but it takes time.
In the time that you’ve been performing and composing music, have you realized a change in your own “musical mind”?
I would say so, yes, but the core for me is listening to and being fascinated with sounds. It’s not only what we value in the Western canon, but also the value of textures, timbres, and different ways of presenting the music.
You teach at the Center for Deep Listening. Would you say that teaching people about their own musical mind is part of this deep listening?
As Pauline has said, all minds are musical minds. It’s a question of opening the mind to listen to what’s coming in, in a “musical manner.” I understand the broadening of the term “musical,” and even of the term “music” itself, but what I teach is how to listen 24 hours a day. I’m particularly interested in teaching related to listening in dreams.
How does that work?
Everyone has dreams, and we know that dreams are visually exciting, but when we begin to pay attention to them we realize that there are sonic elements to dreams, too. If we reflect on that, we begin to practice a 24 hours a day awareness of sound.
Do you feel that this is a subject that becomes more difficult because of how our environment is shaped? That it may be prettier, but much noisier?
I think the contrary. People are becoming more interested in the variety of sounds: from small, low sounds, to big, high sounds. I think it’s expanding rather than contracting.
Rabih Beaini: I know that you often perform in extremely loud environments, but I don’t know about your composition process. How much time do you take to listen to silence, and how much of this listening precedes and prepares you to compose?
You can’t have silence without sound. They’re reciprocal.
I’m actually famous for being very loud when I perform, but only with the environment. If I’m not working with music, or intentionally wanting to listen to music, I normally don’t [listen to music]. I don’t have music devices that I carry with me on trains or planes. I like to listen to and take from the environment. I think that music is liberating. It’s not something for you create a cocoon to hide yourself inside. I feel sad when I see people that close themselves in with their headphones.
I’m curious about listening during your composition processes, in regards to overdubbing. How important is it to you to listen to tracks that you’ve laid down with the musicians that you compose with, and how does that influence what comes next?
Recording is, by definition, a process of memorization. I see it as a platform to keep music alive. The process is immediate. I very rarely overdub when I record and I mostly perform live. I don’t recall my live sessions. I like them to be memorized in people’s heads, but I tend to go even more abstract and therefore trying to cancel that memory in people’s heads, too. So people don’t carry a memory of my music with them. It’s only an instant experience.
On the other hand, the process of recording and re-producing is necessary and essential in music performances such as Pauline and Ione’s. The audio processing that Pauline is using on stage, it’s central. Let’s call it a “short memory lapse”: music comes, I remind you of it for one second, and then other music comes in that replaces it and creates a short memory lapse.
Well, I have an expanded instrument system that I call EIS. I have up to 20 delays for each hand, but the reason that I call it an “expanded instrument system” is that the sound that I play in the so-called present is recorded, and can come back in the future at a different time. When it does come back, I’m playing with the past, present and future simultaneously. That’s the core principle of EIS.
I like this idea that Rabih just touched on, of immediacy, and the conscious creation of a moment that will never come back. You have started performing and recording music when recording was a lot more difficult and took a lot more to set up, and then through the time when it became an instant, ready-to-use feature. Can you explain how the development of recording technology changed your idea of composing?
In the early ’60s, we had tape machines with playback, record hit and playback hit. You could record a sound, play it back, and then monitor both the recording and the playback. That means that you get a brief and immediate memory [of the sound], but when you combine the two – if you adjust the volume or the amplitude of the playback – then you get a different feeling of space. That’s what was interesting to me.
I started playing with that [idea] on tape recorders, then stringing a tape from one machine over to another, and then finally to three machines so that I’d have three playback hits operating at different distances. Then, I could send the signal from any one of those playback hits back into the recording hit, which gave me the basis of what I do now (except it’s on the computer now, and I can do much more with it all). I also do what’s called a modulation of the sound, so that when it plays back another waveform pushes against it and changes its shape.
Is silence part of the deep listening meditation? How do you bring silence across as a musician – or, what is silence when it’s embedded in pieces of music?
You can’t have sound without silence. You have to have it before and after a sound.
And it works the other way around, too.
Right. You can’t have silence without sound. They’re reciprocal.
Is silence part of the meditation?
First of all, silence is not possible unless you can have zero vibrations, and if you have that, then you won’t exist.
I asked a dancer yesterday, “What is silence in dance – is it like standing still?” She said that silence is actually the “loudest,” when you do nothing. How do you feel about silence in regards to singing, Ione?
Silence doesn’t enter into it for me. There’s quiet, yes. There’s always something “sounding,” so it’s relative. When I stop speaking and I listen, there are other things happening. The very air is making sounds. I love and take cues from that to make my own sounds. The entire body is sounding. We have inner sounds that we are always hearing as well as external sounds.
Silence is probably the opposite of deep listening. It’s the research of how to listen to anything that surrounds you: your breath, your heartbeat. This is a process to eliminate silence, because I think silence is a condition. It doesn’t exist unless it’s in an environment that has zero vibration, and that is non-existence. Even space has its own sound.
I think that complete silence is a state of mind, and whoever is searching for that is kind of searching for an abstract form of existence. My approach is completely the opposite; I capture any vibration and feed my spirit, my ears or my dancing body with it. As long we exist on this planet there’s going to be this frequency feeding us, so I’m not searching for silence at all.
Maybe silence is an inaccurate term – one that people use as a way to learn listening? For most people, realizing that you can actually listen to silence leads to the realization that silence is just noises and sounds that they don’t have a word or concept for yet.
It’s probably more like “quietness,” like Ione suggested. I think that silence is more of a condition than an actual, physical thing. Silence has a sound, like Simon & Garfunkel suggested. When you are in a condition where you want to search for the point zero – where you start your activity as a listener, musician or as any presence on this earth – that’s the condition that people are searching for.
I want to take us back to a very non-abstract subject. Could you speak about how you came across each other’s music, and your journey from there to the release on Morphine Records?
I came across the figure of her, rather than of her music. I only learned about her music three or four years ago – I came across her as an academic figure in the music environment first, and through her pioneering work on the tape scene – so I must admit that I didn’t know much about her musical achievements [at that point]. I then got in touch with her and heard a lot of her music, and it was quite surprising for me when the material for this album arrived. I was not expecting this at all. I was expecting to hear the more meditative, drone-ish stuff that I was used to hear.
It’s quite curious when you realize that you’re listening to the room and every person in there, too. There’s a mystical element to it.
It opened a completely new dimension by listening. It was probably the easiest and fastest process of putting out a record on Morphine Records, ever. We got in touch through Charles Cohen. Pauline and Ione told me they had this performance at Live Ideas Festival in New York, and they said, “We’re going to do the performance – we’ll send you the material, and you will see.” A couple of weeks later, I had the material mastered and mixed. It was really fast.
It was completely improvised. I’ve heard Pauline say often that she’s listening to everything when she performs. If there’s an audience, clearly she’s also listening to the audience as well as listening to her internal sounds. She is the most surprising player and performer. You never know what’s going to happen, and I love that.
What role does your instrument play in all of this?
It’s an extension of my body. I’ve been playing the accordion since I was nine years old. It’s a very old friend.
It’s quite curious when you realize that you’re listening to the room and every person in there, too. There’s a mystical element to it. There’s no actual sound coming from the audience, but the presence and energy of the audience is so loud. When you spoke about the reaction of the body, I think that improvised music has this quality to it. In that instant – where the brain reacts with the body for a gesture, and then has to recollect a sound coming out from that gesture – it’s not very clear. This process is abstract, and that instant is everything in improvised music. It’s quite enlightening.
Another thing that’s special about improvised music is how people react to the music and to each other. If someone makes a mistake, or changes the timing at one point, it will continue for the whole piece. The music is alive. I feel that this is a realization that people are coming to more now: that music actually plays to people in a situation; you’re right there once, and the situation that you play in is crucial. The situations that you have played in, Rabih – it’s often not even possible to listen to the audience and achieve silence, right?
What are the different mental states that you have to reach to DJ in the club, compared to playing a concert?
In a club context I feel the presence of the crowd much more – and I feed much more off that environment, actually. I started as a DJ so that the whole process was about keeping an eye on the floor and having to have the floor always full, otherwise you’d lose your job. That’s it. Once you learn this, you have to read between the crowd: looking into their eyes, having them caught up by what you’re doing, and having fun.
All this is communication, and this communication is 80% of my job. Playing the music comes from the feeling of this communication. I choose what I play based on what I have in front of me – the crowd. I think it’s much louder for me there. When I play live I have the same approach to it [as DJing], but the communication is a little bit quieter.
You, Rabih, say that you want people to have fun during your performances, but what do you, Pauline, think about them achieving a different kind of feeling or mental state?
What I hope for is that people coordinate their listening and their feelings, so that there’s a feeling for the whole of the music. By the end, if they’re quiet, I know I’ve succeeded.
Isn’t this the opposite of what you see as success, Rahib?
I didn’t mean that the crowd is talking or screaming necessarily. The energy that I was talking about before – that quiet presence of a crowd in front of you, a presence that is literally manipulating your senses – I feel it much more in the club environment, but that’s me. That’s not universal. The word “fun” was related to the right of recreation that every human being has. It’s absolutely related to gathering and listening together.
It’s just different levels of understanding.
I’d like to end on an idea by the French acoustic composer, Jean-Claude Eloy. People at his concerts were not allowed to cheer. He didn’t want them to add any noise to that experience, so he always made sure that his music was playing when they entered the room and was still playing when they left. What is your take on people adding noise to your concerts?
It’s really nice when there is a silence or a quiet for a while, because I know that something has happened. Immediate clapping and cheering is all right, but it’s not the same as the effect of having brought people to a certain kind of quiet in themselves.
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