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Intro By Claire Chase

Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations

Deeper living through deep listening.

Listen to everything around you, and notice when you are not listening,” is the generous invitation extended to us through the composer and humanitarian Pauline Oliveros’ capacious, radically inclusive Deep Listening practice.

Can we imagine a musical ecosystem—or indeed a society—in which we commit ourselves daily to these two imperatives for sound-making and worldmaking? This is the universe of exuberant possibility that Pauline conjures for us. Her Sonic Meditations gives a road map for such a practice, through a series of exercises in individual and collective attention intended for musicians and non-musicians, young and old, hearing and deaf humans alike. She began working on the meditations at the University of California, San Diego in 1970 and continued to refine and expand upon them until her death in 2016. Here is an excerpt of Pauline’s own early writing about the development of this foundational body of work, published in the winter of 1976 in Painted Bride Quarterly, one of the longest non-profit, community-based literary magazines in the country. - Claire Chase

Painted Bride Quarterly cover photograph of John Giorno by Gerard Malanga
Painted Bride Quarterly cover photograph of John Giorno by Gerard Malanga

Pauline Oliveros, “On Sonic Meditation,” from Painted Bride Quarterly, 3, no. 3, Winter 1976, excerpt. Reprinted with permission of Painted Bride Quarterly:

The meaning of meditation is problematical in that it has accumulated many different associations and a broad range of diverse practices and techniques. It appears often in a religious context, for example Buddhism, Christianity, and Sufism. Its secular counterpart is usually called concentration Although all meditation, secular and reli-gious, is similar in that it employs attention, awareness, concentration, openness, and repetition, many contrasts among different systems arise Christian meditation, or contemplation, is usually a dwelling upon specific ideas, such as one's relationship to God, or the pursuit of an activity which is decided upon and directed intellectually. Certain Eastern practices are the opposite, advocating dwelling on emptiness of mind (Nirodha in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, "No Mind" in Zen Buddhism.) Some methods of meditation encourage mental imagery, others discourage all imagery, some promote the involvement of sense organs using visual, auditory, and somatic forms, others promote the abandonment of sensory modes. Further, there is action versus inaction, feeling versus indifference. In Taoism when action arises, it is spontaneous and natural, while in Confucianism, action is the result of ethics or intellect.

I use the word meditation, rather than concentration, in a secular sense to mean steady attention and steady awareness, for continuous or cyclic periods of time. Any of the above practices or techniques may be employed when appropriate.

While one's attention is focused to a point on something specific, it is possible to remain aware of one's surroundings, one's body, movement of all kinds, and one’s mental activity; in other words to remain aware of inner and outer reality simultaneously. Attention is narrow, pointed, and selective. Awareness is broad, diffuse, and inclusive. Both have a tunable range attention can be honed to a finer and finer point. Awareness can be expanded until it seems all inclusive. Attention can intensify awareness. Awareness can support attention. There is attention to awareness; there is awareness of attention.

Attention seems to be equated with mental activity and to be aroused by interest or desire. Awareness seems to be equated with the body's sensory receptivity. It is activated, or present, during pleasure and pain. Either attention or awareness can interfere with the other depending on the intensity of interest or the intensity of stimulation

When either attention or awareness predominates or gets out of balance, the other tends to drift or become unconscious: For example, after practicing a difficult passage (or even an easy one) over and over again, with or without success in execution, the musician discovers in some part of the body a cramp which has developed from a faulty playing position. Awareness had been sacrificed for attention and became unconscious, or very low level, returning only with the urgency of the cramping pain. With conscious awareness, the cramp might have been avoided by adjusting the player's relationship to the instrument without sacrificing attention before a cramp could develop. In this case aware-ness would be supporting attention rather than producing a delayed interference reaction. If the passage was executed successfully, one might consider the cramp a small price to pay or it might not be associa-ted with the activity. (It is also possible to sustain an inner muscular or visceral tension which is not noticeable or visible on the outside, so that the body appears to be in the correct relationship to the instrument.) If the passage was executed unsuccessfully, the faulty position disclosed by the cramp might be blamed and subsequently corrected. In the for-mer case, some musicians who remain unaware for a long time, even years, often end by paying a high price for success.

When such things as severe chronic pains in the back or other parts of the body appear without apparent reason, they may be the result of some small but constantly repeated strain. The symptoms often do not respond to medical treatment, probably because the source of the now chronic ailment is continually repeated as an unconscious habit in asso-ciation with "correct" habits of playing music. It is therefore most difficult to correct in any way whatever. Besides the misery of such a situation some musicians are forced to give up playing or singing because of such ailments, but even worse, some never realize the relationship of such illness to inner tension, because the appearance of the playing position seems to be correct and the music may sound right.

The opposite can be true: while awareness of body sensations remains present, attention can lapse or drift attracted by the larger phenomenon of a painful awareness. The musical passage may become automated and sound mechanical, parts or all of it may be interrupted or forgotten as attention is divided or diverted by awareness of the cramp or some other strong sensation. Attention then refocuses and intensifies awareness.

The proper relationship of attention and awareness can be symbolized by a circle with a dot in the center. 

The dot represents attention and the circle awareness. In these respective positions both are centered in relation to each other. Awareness can expand without losing its balanced relationship with attention. Attention can be focused, as finely as possible, in any direction and can probe all aspects of awareness without losing its balanced relationship to awareness.

My Sonic Meditations are "sonic" in that sound and hearing, both active and receptive, are the foci of attention and stimuli of awareness, the enhancement and development of aural sensation are among their goals. The synchronization of attention and awareness, that is, keeping them balanced and conscious, is necessary. Also, the synchronization of voluntary and involuntary mental or physical activity is explored. The ear is the primary receptor or instrument, sound, both inner and outer, real and imaginary, is the stimulus of Sonic Meditations.

How and what does one hear? In order to answer this question, the mind must relax, as a muscle must relax, or the appropriate state of expectation must be present in body and mind in order to become receptive to both internal and external stimuli.

A Cup of Tea

Nan-In, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-In served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!" 

"Like this cup," Nan-In said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" (Zen Flesh-Zen Bones, Paul Reps, Tuttle)

As a composer I had to empty my cup: I became interested in dwelling on single pitches in my music at the end of the 1950's. There is a very long held note in the cello part of my Variations for Sextet (1959-60). The note lasts approximately half a minute and it is solo. It emerges from a hard attack, together with trumpet, horn and clarinet, with a few low level, evanescent piano harmonics. It is very long in the context of the Variations and other music of its style, which deal with radical shifts in rhythm and timbre. The long cello tone is a very brief meditation, although I was not thinking of it that way at the time. It had at least two functions: 1) It represented a very slow contrasting tempo, within a multiplicity of changing tempi 2) Its harmonic ambiguity increased as it stretched out in time, although the tone itself became an object of interest rather than where it was leading. It signaled my growing interest in timbral shapes and changes, the complementary opposite of chordal or harmonic changes.

Drones of all kinds, such as motors, fluorescent lighting, freeway noise are ever present. The mantra of the electronic age is hum rather than Om. These constant soundings influence everyone, whether consciously or unconsciously. Some adverse effects can occur when the influence is unconsciously received: For example, a musician who un-knowingly plays in tune with 60 hz. hum rather than B natural 61.735 in an ensemble. Or an ensemble which does not realize the out-of tuneness caused by the discrepancy between standard musical tuning in reference to A440 and 60 hz. hum.

I began to seek out drones of all kinds and to listen to them consciously, allowing myself to hear the myriad shifting, changing partials of a constant tone, or of broad and narrow band noise. My subsequent music, both electronic and instrumental reflected this interest. Whole pieces became single tonal centers or noise bands with characteristic timbral shaping. I was quite satisfied with this work, emotionally and intellectually, although I had apparently abandoned Western harmonic practice.

-the knowledge of sound can give a person a magical instrument by which to wind and tune and control and help the life of another person to the best advantage. The ancient singers used to experience the effect of their spiritual practices upon themselves first.

They used to sing one note for about half an hour and study the effect of that same note upon all the different centers of their body: what life current it produced, how it opened the in-tuitive faculties, how it created enthusiasm, how it gave added energy, how it soothed and how it healed. For them it was not a theory but an experience. (Sufi Inayat Khan, Music, Ashraf Press, Pakistan)

I continued to empty my cup and follow my secular way: My interest and fascination with long tones was centered in attention to the beauty of the subtle shifts in timbre and the ambiguity of an apparently static phenomenon. Why was a tone which went nowhere so seductive? My awareness was adrift.

In 1969 I began to work with dancer, Al Chung Liang Huang, and with him I began the study of Tai Chi Chuan. The work with Huang in this Chinese form of meditation movement involved breath rhythm, synchronized with slow, circular motions of torso, arms and legs. I had been playing and singing with my accordion, slow lingering improvisa-tions on a tonal center. I began to translate the breath rhythms and the slow natural motions of Tai Chi to my solo improvisations. I noticed that I began to feel better physically and mentally, I began to crave more retreat to the calming influence of these drone-like improvisations, from what seemed to be a nervous, frantic music world, full of hasty rehearsals, and constantly noodling performers with up-tight vibrations.

By 1970, some other women had joined me to form The ♀ Ensemble, an improvisation group, both vocal and instrumental, devoted to un-changing tonal centers with emphasis on changing partials. After a long period of working together a profound change occurred: rather than manipulating one's voice or instrument in a goal oriented way in order to produce certain effects, we began to allow changes to occur involun-tarily, or without conscious effort, while sustaining a sound voluntarily. It is an entirely different mode; and like the professor for whom Nan-In poured continuous tea, opinions and speculations have no place in this activity.

My first conscious recognition of this change resulted in the articu-lation of "Teach Yourself to Fly", Sonic Meditation I * I say articulated rather than composed because the instructions were transmitted orally many times before being committed to paper.

We could no longer call our activity improvisation.

Teach Yourself to Fly

Dedicated to Amelia Earhart

Any number of persons sit in a circle facing the center. Illuminate the space with dim blue light. Begin by simply observing your own breathing. Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity of the vibrations to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible, naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own breath cycle. Variation: Translate voice to an instrument.

Pauline Oliveros and the ♀ Ensemble performing Teach Yourself to Fly from Sonic Meditations, 1970, Rancho Santa Fe, CA, (foreground to the left around: Lin Barron, cello, Lynn Lonidier, cello, Pauline Oliveros, accordion, Joan George, bass clarinet. Center seated foreground to the left around voices: Chris Voigt, Shirley Wong, Bonnie Barnett and Betty Wong). Pauline Oliveros Papers. MSS 102. Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.
Pauline Oliveros and the ♀ Ensemble performing Teach Yourself to Fly from Sonic Meditations, 1970, Rancho Santa Fe, CA, (foreground to the left around: Lin Barron, cello, Lynn Lonidier, cello, Pauline Oliveros, accordion, Joan George, bass clarinet. Center seated foreground to the left around voices: Chris Voigt, Shirley Wong, Bonnie Barnett and Betty Wong). Pauline Oliveros Papers. MSS 102. Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

Sonic Meditations Sampler

Following are a few of Pauline’s Sonic Meditations originally published in 1974 by Smith Publications, and featured here with the generous permission of the Pauline Oliveros Trust.

Pauline Oliveros' (1932-2016) life as a composer, performer and humanitarian was about opening her own and others' sensibilities to the universe and facets of sounds. Her career spanned fifty years of boundary dissolving music making. In the '50s she was part of a circle of iconoclastic composers, artists, poets gathered together in San Francisco. In the 1960's she influenced American music profoundly through her work with improvisation, meditation, electronic music, myth and ritual.


Claire Chase, described by The New York Times recently as “the North Star of her instrument’s ever-expanding universe,” is a musician, interdisciplinary artist, and educator. Passionately dedicated to the creation of new ecosystems for the music of our time.