The Free-Reed Review
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CD Review: Deep Listening

CD Image

Total Time: 63:15
Released in 1989

Label: New Albion Records
584 Castro St. #515
San Francisco, CA 94114


Pauline Oliveros: accordion, voice, conch shell, metal pieces
Stuart Dempster: trombone, didjeridu, garden hose, conch shell, mouthpiece whistling, voice
Paniaotis: voice, whistling, metal pieces, pipes


  • Lear
  • Suiren
  • Ione
  • Nike

Review by Henry Doktorski:

When I first put "Deep Listening" on my stereo, I was totally unprepared for the amazing sonic experience which literally shocked me by its transparent beauty. My mind was mesmerized and my attention focused only on one thing: the undulating aural vibrations which radiated peace, joy and a cosmic timelessness. Within a few minutes, I put on my Sony headphones in order to mask outside distractions, lay down on the sofa, closed my eyes and entered another universe.

After an hour or so, when the album was finished and my journey completed, I lay there for some time tasting the silence, until finally an unexpected and unwanted phone call jarred me from my meditative reverie and brought me cruelly back to the material world.

Yet that was not my last shock of the day; I was completely dumfounded when I read in the CD booklet that the album was recorded completely with acoustic instruments with absolutely NO electronic processing at all! But what about the synthesizers I heard, the deep endless drones, the incredible reverb? I was stunned by the answer I read in the CD booklet: the recording was made under the earth, in the abandoned 186 foot-in-diameter Fort Worden Cistern in Port Townsend, Washington. The 45 second reverb was completely natural!

I listened to the entire album again, with a completely new appreciation; the sounds I heard were completely "natural" with no artificial electronic processing! Amazing!

Pauline Oliveros explained a little about "Deep Listening" in the liner notes: "Composition is frozen improvisation," said Igor Stravinsky. Improvisation could be called speeded up composition. The risk in improvisation is that you can't change your mind once you have performed a note, nor can you improve the piece afterward. This riskiness gives an edge to performing that can create an unusual excitement and attentiveness different from prepared performance. Each composer represented in "Deep Listening" has a very individual style of composition. As we improvise together, and listen intensely to one another, our styles encounter in the moment, and intermingle to make a collective music. I call the result "deep listening." In this recording, the acoustic space with its long reverberation time is an influential unifying presence. Listening, not only to one another, but to the transformative spatial modulations, is an essential process in the music. The cistern space, in effect, is an instrument played simultaneously by all three composers. The instruments—which are being played WITHOUT any electronic processing—are accordion, didjeridu, trombone, voice and found metal pieces. The tonal qualities produced by each performer are constantly changed by interaction with the cistern acoustics, making it seem as if many more instruments are present."

Co-composer and trombonist Stuart Dempster wrote about the cistern:

"We began to drop cables into the 14 foot deep cistern. We then rigged up rope and harnesses to lower chairs, accordion, sea shells, trombone, garden hoses, people, didjeridus, tarps, cleaning tools, and so on. While Pauline and I set up our instruments, Panaiotis examined the 186 foot diameter space, with its 45 second reverberation. It was very dark, contrasted with the daylight pouring in from the "hatch" where we had come down. . . . The cistern once held 2 million gallons of water... The cavernous cylinder is made of re-enforced concrete with more pillars per square yard than a skyscraper. The water tank, built in 1907 on an army base, was probably designed to withstand heavy bombing ...

"The remarkable thing about the acoustic space is the long reverb, which could approach 45 seconds, and the lack of slap echoes and distinct early reflections that are often characteristic of large cathedrals; only pure, smooth reverb, the type that can be simulated electronically but is thought to be unrealistic and fantastical.

"The space is real, and unique. A large cathedral will return slap echoes and uneven resonance characteristics. The cistern showed a very smooth frequency response and no echoes, only a smooth reverberation, the amplitude of which appears to begin at the same decibel level as the source. Consequently, it is impossible to tell where the performer stops and the reverberation takes over. One additional aspect of the reverberation field that does not seem to record easily and which makes simulation very difficult, is that it slowly moved from the sound source along the walls until it enveloped the listener: a most remarkable and beautiful phenomena."

Despite its novelty, the acoustics of the cistern are, however, only part of the beauty of Deep Listening; the more important part is the inspiration and talent of the three composer/performers who weave a web of tones into organized sound structures. Each of the four pieces on the album has a distinctive identity, characterized by the particular scales or modes used, the instrumentation, the various uses of the human voice as a musical instrument, the overall flow of sonic events leading to climaxes and cadences and the use of non-pitched sounds such as found metal pieces.

I believe Pauline Oliveros deserves much more recognition from the accordion community than she gets. She has already been (for decades) greatly respected and admired by the international new music community for her work in improvisation and electronic music techniques. (She was one of the early pioneers at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, where she worked with such famous composers as Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley).

Ms. Oliveros is also well-known for her work in teaching methods, myth and ritual, and meditative and physical consciousness-raising. In 1985 she was honored by a retrospective of her music at the JFK Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.

"Deep Listening" is an important album which deserves to be in your record collection.

Interview with Pauline Oliveros

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