Are you listening mindfully? How meditation is changing music

Published in The i on April 19, 2018

I am sitting on the floor of a church in Shoreditch, a shaker in my hand, attempting to respond musically to a series of abstract, contradictory statements: making a hard sound that is soft, a private sound that is public, and so on. Initially self-conscious, as others join in, I soon find myself fully focused and absorbed.

As I should be: this is mindful music. The exercises vaguely remind me of my hippie upbringing, but mindfulness has become a buzzword in recent years, in music as elsewhere; this weekend, Occupy the Pianos music festival in London will be exploring the relationship between music and meditation.

The notion of being truly present has obvious benefits for both listening and playing; really getting in the zone – immersed but listening closely – is surely the ideal state for a concert-goer. Not that mindfulness is entirely a new trend in music: many Western musicians have been influenced by Eastern philosophies since the 1960s – think of John Cage and Terry Riley.

And one lesser known pioneer of meditative music, Pauline Oliveros, has been garnering new attention since her death in 2016. The American electro-acoustic composer developed Deep Listening, a mindful practice for really engaging with sound. Alongside compositions, her work includes “sonic meditations”, and it was one of these that has me waving a shaker so solemnly during a concert by the London Contemporary Orchestra.

These interactive exercises are intended to help musicians and audiences attain a “heightened consciousness of the world of sound and the sound of the world”, according to the Deep Listening Institute, set up in 1985 to promote her work. LCO co-artistic director Robert Ames explained that it’s “rare to see Oliveros’ music performed publicly – a lot of the time it’s a private thing. One of her Deep Listening exercises is cooking dinner and listening to the sound that process creates. Since she died there has been a resurgence of her music being performed live.”

Several concerts at Occupy the Piano will also feature Oliveros’ listening exercises, while her pithiest, prettiest instruction – “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears” – went viral on social media recently.

Ames groups Oliveros with other female experimental electronic composers of the same era, pointing to the meditative quality of the works of Éliane Radigue, who embraced Tibetan Buddhism in 1974, and Laurie Spiegel. Their slow-moving, synthesised music is what really belongs under the tag ‘minimalism’ for him, rather than the more familiar names of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

The repetitive early work of those composers is also considered meditative by many. Phelim McDermott recently revived his production of Glass’ 1979 opera Satyagraha, about Gandhi and his non-violent protest movement, at the ENO, and sees the work as being meditative in form, content, and practice.

“Satyagraha is about the deeper spirit levels of connection that large groups of people find when they work together,” he says. “The content, what the piece is about, is mirrored in the music. In the process of singing it and playing it you have to give up some of the your ego. You have to give in to this bigger thing.”

The impact of the opera on both performers and audience can be profound (and on its director: McDermott began regularly mediating when first directing the show in 2007). Singing Sanskrit, or playing its endlessly repetitive score, requires performers to be both extremely present, and to surrender to something beyond their conscious mind – just like meditation.

“You go on a journey: you get incredibly frustrated, but you do also have moments of ‘oh wow, this is just happening, I’m nothing to do with it,’” he suggests. He also created movement to match Glass’s music. “You have to give [the performers] a set of tools for being present. People are sort of meditating about what’s going on inside them as they’re moving very slowly across the stage.”

Using opera to access a more profound plane was also an intention in Lost in Thought, a “mindfulness opera” by Rolf Hind. Over four hours, it recreates the experience of a meditation retreat, only with a live musical component.

“For some people, it was a very useful way to think about meditation; for some it was a very relaxed chance to hear my music with a lot of space around it,” he says. “It’s nice for a composer to have that degree of concentration, and a very intense audience.”

Meditation, and a belief in Hindu philosophy, is crucial to Hind’s life as well as his work, but he says that “bringing it together with art had a strong impact on me.” He’s the man organising Occupy the Pianos, and has recently written a new piece that will also function as a guided, walking meditation during the festival.

“Obviously mindfulness is becoming a big ‘thing’ in society, but if you go back to its roots it has a very radical message,” he suggests. And when it comes to mindfulness and music, the interplay between them may not only help us listen more closely, but actually allow music to take us on a collective or internal journey. Pretty deep.

‘Occupy the Pianos’ is at St John’s Smith Square, London, 20 to 22 April

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