One way into Sonic Meditation

We met at the Yurt Café on Thursday 8th February 2018. Four of us arrived early to discuss a website for the group and someone proposed that we go on to start with a Sonic Meditation called “The Greeting”. I did not know what to expect. Coming from the work of Pauline Oliveros, this was not, of course, simply going to be a “Hello how are you?” verbal kind of greeting.

I am fairly new to the Sonic Meditation Study Group in London, which has been my introduction to the work of Pauline Oliveros. I came across the group in a park near Goldsmith’s college in New Cross last summer when I thought I was going to hear a performance. I did hear a performance, but what I hadn’t expected was also to be a part of it. We are so steeped in music we can’t help but carry ideas about what it is around with us, even if we are not particularly conscious of them.

The Study Group has given me a practice-based way of exploring (and largely overturning) my assumptions about music. Notions such as the packaging and commodification of music, the gulf between performer and listener (or between performing and listening yourself) and what actually constitutes music itself have all arisen - to be examined, pulled apart and put back together again. One of the first things I noticed in the group was that these matters are not discussed in a theoretical or analytical sense, though the practice means that they are constantly present “in the air”. Another unexpected facet of participating in the group has been the extraordinary feeling of well-being that bubbles up during the pieces and endures long after the meeting is over. The simple sounding scores (which take the form of verbal and/or written instructions in the Sonic Meditations) are clearly underpinned by profound, resonant and significant ideas.

Back to the 8th February, the Yurt Café and “The Greeting”. The instruction here (and I don’t

remember the precise text) is that the first person to arrive in the place where the meeting will be imagines* their sound, then vocalises or sounds it as a greeting when the next person arrives and so on for every subsequent arrival. Each new arrival does the same, so the sound greeting builds up as more people arrive to swell the number of greeters. I immediately felt a (very slight) tinge of disquiet about this, because although the four of us (Hannah, Artur, Stephen and me) all knew the instruction, any subsequent arrivals would not, and might be confused or taken aback. Surely all should be advised in advance if it’s to work properly. In a by now familiar way, this sense of uncertainty quickly became a sense of anticipation – how will this work? What will happen? In a well-meaning group of people, voluntarily collaborating, everyone contributes to optimising the experience, so nothing can really go wrong. As Pauline Oliveros said, the only mistake is not to listen.

Sure enough this proved to be a fun way to start the meeting and we continued with another text score by Pauline called “Sex Change”. Here you imagine your voice, then imagine your voice as the/an other gender, then imagine other voices and then sound and continue sounding all the voices you’ve imagined. This started rather quietly then gradually became an extraordinary tumult of sounds, vocalisations, voices, snatches of song, monologues and dialogues – a rich, one-time-only soundscape that lasted some time. The Sonic Meditation scores seem often not to specify a duration, but sometimes employ such phrases as “continue until everyone has finished”. After this piece there was some discussion about what we had brought to the piece and what we had heard of others’ contributions. Everyone present appeared strongly engaged in the piece and the discussion. Perhaps we did another score - I took no notes at the time and can’t really remember - and then we finished with something called “Earth Sensing Meditation”. Hannah kindly sent me the image below as a reminder:

The above was the instruction read out at the meeting. We decided to lie on the floor with our heads pointing into the centre of the circle, so our bodies radiated out like the struts of the Yurt’s roof structure.


* Pauline Oliveros points out that words like imagine and imagination are used to refer to the inward calling to mind of sounds as well as images. She proposed to expand the vocabulary associated with sound (as heard, remembered and called to mind) and to adopt the word “auralization” (coined with a slightly different meaning by architect Mendel Kleiner) to describe the “imagination” of sound.

I did not take notes but drew the image above at the end of the meeting.

It is now two weeks since the meeting described here, and each meeting leaves a long after-image. The last two weeks have been coloured by that and also by three events I attended. Firstly, the day after, I went to King’s Place to hear a panel discussion with Jem Finer talking about his 1000 year long piece of music called “Longplayer”. This was followed by a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Stimmung” by the Theatre of Voices. This performance had a strong link with the piece we did at the group meeting – the six performers vocalising unaccompanied sounds, tones and text while sitting in a circle, it was  described also as a 70 minute meditation. A few days later I went to a performance of John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” at the British Library Knowledge Centre theatre, performed by Loré Lixenberg, Robert Worby and Andrew McGregor. The link here lies in the spirit of the piece and the fact that Pauline Oliveros and John Cage were friends and collaborators.

(Ben, February 2018)