“Real listening is the willingness to be changed by the other person.”
– Actor Alan Alda
‘Deep listening’, or ‘tuning meditations’ first came into my awareness while studying film and sociology at Simon Fraser University in the late 1980s. I took a music appreciation class given by Donna Zapf—open to anyone in the university. I loved her style and passion and in that class learned to listen to music through my body and not just with my ears. She encouraged me to experiment with different ways of communicating, to trust my personal voice and to deepen my thinking. And one day she brought in a guest performer who led us through an exercise that lives in me still.
Her name was Pauline Oliveros. Although she was an accordion player, that day we used only one instrument—our bodies. About 50 us sat in our chairs scattered about the room. Here’s what I remember: To start us off for the deep listening or tuning meditation, Pauline told us to first close our eyes and just listen. Then we were to start making a sound—a single note, like an ‘ohm’—and hold it for as long as we could. When we ran out of breath, we started again and made the same note (as best we could… I’m no singer). Then, as the instructions went, after a while (we’d know when), we were to listen to the sound that someone sitting near us was making, and we were to make their sound. Then, after a while (we’d know when), we were to listen to the sound that a different someone else was making and make theirs. And so on.
What resulted was spectacularly symphonic. It was stunning—the shape shifted and moved; it got loud, it got quiet; it danced, it paused. The voices diverged and converged, like a murmuration of starlings, swooping up and through the space. And then, just as Pauline had said it would, it ended at exactly the right moment, as if an invisible conductor had led us to a close. (I remember her saying that sometimes this exercise lasts about 2 minutes and sometimes goes on as long as an hour.)
Thirty years later, I can still feel that experience, deep inner stillness and connection I felt to the others in the room, the way I heard their bodies through mine and mine through theirs. The next day, Pauline gave a performance at the Van East Cultural Centre. I sat mesmerized as she performed her accordian and essentially did a similar thing—her playing was a response to the bodies in the room and to the sounds inside and outside the auditorium. At one point an ambulance siren passed by outside and then I remember smiling as I heard a strain of that pitch come into her playing.
Pauline Oliveros died in November 2016, which prompted me to write about this gift from her. In reading a bit more about her, I came across an article in the New Yorker that describes her Sonic Meditations in almost exactly the way I experienced my time with her: “Oliveros’s aims were clear: these works were intended to be transformational, even therapeutic, enacting lasting changes on the body and mind.” Deep listening, she said, is healing. It’s something that requires deep feeling. I certainly experienced its healing effect on that day, some thirty years ago.
More about Pauline:
The difference between hearing and listening | Pauline Oliveros | TEDxIndianapolis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QHfOuRrJB8
Tuning meditation https://youtu.be/uaLHfhJSFK8