Pauline Oliveros and Philip Corner: Meditation Music May 24, 1976

One important genre of new music is consistently overlooked because it never takes place in widely advertised public events, but rather in workshops and relatively intimate gatherings, where everyone can feel free to take part. It involves meditation, and thus overlaps somewhat with the activities of meditation groups and sensory awareness groups, but it has been developed by composers and must be considered primarily a from of music.

In a way this is a new form of religious music. Of course, it has nothing to do with organized religion, but it does owe much to Eastern religious teaching, and it is oriented toward spiritual values. It is not a popular activity, and never will be, any more than Zen meditation or philosophical debate ever will. Yet it is an important development—particularly since it has independently attracted two of the most stimulating musical minds I have ever come in contact with—Pauline Oliveros and Philip Corner.

Oliveros is a California composer who has been working in this direction for some time. Several years ago I attended a session she led at the Cunningham Studio. Much of the evening was devoted to ‘Teach Yourself to Fly,’ an absorbing situation in which one is asked to breathe normally, very very gradually allowing one’s breath to become vocal sound. I gained some useful nonverbal insights that night, but one shouldn’t expect much to happen without an appropriate atmosphere and an experienced leader. I don’t think you can really ‘teach yourself,’ despite the title.

Recently I have been studying Oliveros’s ‘Sonic Meditations’ XII-XXV, published in the winter issue of the Painted Bride Quarterly. They are clearly expressed, and rich in implications. One meditation involves saying a single word very very slowly, others involve group chanting, some deal with imaginary sounds, and any of them could probably keep serious meditators busy for several sessions. One can be quoted in toto, since it is defined so briefly. But don’t confuse brevity with simplicity:

Re Cognition

Listen to a sound until you no longer recognize it.

Other recent Oliveros works are intended for formal presentation to an audience, but these, too, sometimes involve elements of meditation. In a large theatrical work called ‘Crow II,’ for example, part of the music is for four flute players, who are asked to determine which pitches to sustain by attempting to send and receive telepathic messages. The audience is also invited to try to tune in on any psychic messages and anticipate what pitch the flutist will play 1976/jon-deaks-dire-expectations. Regardless of whether any psychic communication actually takes place, the problem becomes an absorbing meditation, especially for the flute players, and brings an air of intense concentration into the performance situation.

Corner’s work with meditation music has gone on mostly in the context of ‘Sounds out of Silent Spaces,’ a group which he formed several years ago, and which I have been participating in this year. The format varies. Sometimes quite a few guests attend and participate, and sometimes only the regulars are there. Sometimes Corner’s ideas dominate, but a good many of the group’s activities originate with other individuals. The mood and profundity of the sessions can vary greatly, but my personal experiences with two of Corner’s meditations demonstrate what the high points can be like.

One afternoon about eight of us set about the task of simply sustaining a unison ‘oo’ for a long time. With the men singing in their upper range, the women in their lower range, and everyone remaining very soft, the blend was so remarkable that after a while it became difficult to distinguish one voice from another. On a material level, I became conscious of the way the tone moved around slightly in space, depending on who was taking a breath at the moment, and of the tiny fluctuations that occurred when someone would drift slightly out of tune. On a more spiritual level, the tone became something like a mandala, and after focusing my attention on it for some time, my whole self, as well as merely my voice, seemed to become part of that tone.

Another meditation sometimes done in ‘Sounds out of Silent Spaces’ has to do with trying to sing extremely low tones. Like most meditation problems, this is not easy, and one can’t expect results every time. But once, when my concentration was particularly keen, and the atmosphere particularly tranquil, I found a deep resonance somewhere in my chest that I had never found before and may never find again. Some would no doubt consider this a mystical experience, but being basically a skeptic, I simply considered it a minor triumph in a general quest for greater self-awareness.