Reimagining Bodies, Identity, and Power in our Universities through Pauline Oliveros’ “Sonic Meditations”

Flirting with musicians over Tinder is strange. I often find myself in an effort to flex every intellectual muscle possible, and more recently, somehow wound up discussing the composers Hildegard von Bingen, Meredith Monk, and Pauline Oliveros. These women have been on my mind recently as I prepare to leave undergrad, remarking on my undergrad. Each of these women fashion embodied performance, stretching the boundaries of sound and composition, reimagining the physical body and the structure of storytelling, and a feminine perspective on creativity. To this, my cellist Tinder match (they/he) responded, perhaps also flexing a muscle:

“music to me is inherently abstract and not a corporeal activity even though the body is heavily involved which is a contradiction i hadn’t yet noticed”

Here’s where the “socialized as a man” concept comes in. Even though Tinder-match doesn’t see themselves as a man, they can see the ways in which their male upbringing impacts how they view their body in relation to other things. As we talked more, they discussed having the privilege to not reflect, unlike women, gender non-conforming people, people of color, fat folks, dis/abled people, etc. who are all un/intentionally socialized to notice how their identity impacts the space around them since they are in marginalized groups, and therefore lesser positions of power. 

I was typing back my rapport — if it could even be called flirting at this point — dwelling again on bodies, but more so Pauline Oliveros and her Sonic Meditations (1971). I had read them quite recently, and also remembered how she briefly taught at Oberlin. The Meditations intrigues me in my own modes of music making, and also as a college musician when met with the structures, competition, and gate-kept virtuosity that a conservatory upholds. When I think about Sonic Meditations, I wonder how an Oliveros ensemble might revolutionize “performance,” which is to say: reimagining the very relationships of music making.  

Upon its inception in the early 70’s, Oliveros invited female musicians and non-musicians alike (specifically the ♀ Ensemble) to participate in a consciousness-raising group that rehearsed a set of meditations now called the Sonic Meditations. The practice of these involved a profound sonic awareness of the environment. Instruction was originally given orally, and the meditations have since been printed in an unusual visual format, one that contradicts musical scores. Meditations could happen inside or outside. There is no conductor; Oliveros would often assign specific members of the ♀ Ensemble to lead specific meditations. Vocal sounds predominate in the form of vowels, breath, unusual percussive sounds, which is to say, there are no words. Sonic Meditations reimagine the very process of music making — music is a welcome byproduct of bodily meditation and deep listening. Somatic awareness first, music as a result. 

What would an Oliveros ensemble look like in our conservatories? How could instrumentalists begin to reevaluate their bodies? At Oberlin for example, there are surely visiting Alexander technicians, instruction on Yoga and Body Mapping, and also a course on Dalcroze’s Eurhythmics. These are a great start. Yet, an Oliveros ensemble is different in that it’s rooted in feminist identity politics. In an Oliveros ensemble, musicians would reflect on such questions: How have men been harmed by the patriarchy in learning such detached, dispassionate views of their body? How could students also reimagine community and lack of competition between one another? As Oliveros asks in her essay “Divisions Underground,”  

“Am I talking to myself? Do I think music?… Where is my body? … (What are we doing in our Universities?)”

As a vocalist and conductor, my body is implicated in every performance or rehearsal, especially as a woman. Throughout my conducting training, I had male professors literally stretch me to the brink of tears — so much of my youth and early adulthood involved contorting my body to feel as small as possible in any given situation. It really wasn’t any of my instructors’ fault. There was just a remarkable difference in the ways we navigated the world.  

I had developed an unknown muscle memory embedded so deep that it felt horrific to break on a pedestal watched by others. Thinking about the boundaries I had created for my limbs was probably a by-product of womanhood; the male gaze, internalized fat-phobia, “proper” mannerisms taught by the generations of women in my family, etc. These were all lessons nested deep into my bones. It was also something I realized as inherently feminine. Does everyone feel this way? Do men reflect like this? I started noticing how the very way I conducted a 4/4 pattern always involved peeling back my skin, revealing my timid skeleton, shaking in the eyes of men. 

Our bodies are legitimate ways of understanding our environment — they signal what our analytic brain can’t immediately put into words. Our bodies’ reactions to things can oftentimes reveal larger truths about our place in society. [1]  

My own experience is not an isolated one, and yet I’m surprised by what little discourse about the body is happening in our music schools. I’m especially curious about instrumentalists and how they regard the music they make as existing outside of themselves. Musicians who rely on musical appendages are, in some sense, more separated from their bodies, and while we can fashion psychological attachments to instruments and how they act as intimate extensions of our limbs, ask any voice major. They’ll tell you it’s different. With the body as the sole instrument, there’s nowhere to hide, no cello to wrap the legs around, no horn to rest on the knees. And this isn’t limited to only men, naturally. The more I type, the more I hope the reader realizes that a traditional music training disadvantages everyone, even those whom the classical music space was made for.

The issue with models such as Hildegard and Oliveros is that they fashion musical spaces as women only — Monk less so: in her words on feminism, “I am a woman, and I believe in both men and women being able to fulfill themselves as whole human beings.” The Benedictine abbess had her own monastic rules about virginity in Medieval Germany, but Oliveros is much more recent. 

Situating her feminist work within the second wave feminism of the  60’s and 70’s, makes sense for the time period; Oliveros argues that the potential of female creative activity, at the time, was “something which has never been fully explored or realized.” Yet we could say now that female creative activity has been explored, and also that feminism seen through this lens is associated specifically with cis-gendered womanhood. This potentially essentialist view of a “non-male” treads into TERF territory, and can be harmful for many reasons, both in the 70’s and now in the 21st century.

How, then, would we reimagine femininity in an Oliveros ensemble that also welcomes gender outside of the binary? How can a feminist music ensemble balance safe spaces for identities that need it, while also giving all students the opportunity to see their bodies as integral in every musical moment?

A feminine ensemble, I argue, doesn’t have to be female-only. A “feminine” energy or perspective in music, can be adopted by anyone. Oliveros herself incorporated Jungian psychology into her work, and one of the basic tenets of Carl Jung’s philosophy was that each person holds both feminine (anima, action) energy and masculine energy (animus, consciousness). I’m reminded of Tinder-cellist and the masculine disconnection from their body. Could we reimagine a range of Oliveros ensembles that both cater to safe spaces for certain identities, while also adopting the a feminist perspective, in terms of liberating all those hurt by patriarchy, including cis men? What would a musical liberation of the body look like? A musical politics and awareness of the body? Musical meditation groups could be as small as 6-12 people of varying identities and instructors, some mixed, some not, but all in the process of becoming, changing, and learning along the way. What might this awaken?

Identity politics within Oliveros’ music is one of many points of analysis that critiques classical music. Yet the Meditations politically confront more than just relationships to our bodies. In a 1973 letter to Kate Millet, Oliveros asks,

“What is women’s music? or feminist woman’s music? Is it enough to borrow sexist forms and impose feminist words? Is that a double message? … What does music do to one’s consciousness? Does it become women’s music when a Symphony orchestra has all female instrumentalists, a female conductor playing a score by a female based on musical ideas out of a tradition developed by men? I am concerned with the power of sound!”

Oliveros is not the first to suggest dismantling the entire framework for Western music as we know it. Associate Dean Chris Jenkins of Oberlin Conservatory also reimagines the eurocentric, masculine, white-supremacist aesthetics of music training within an anti-racist framework, arguing that diversity initiatives change nothing when the aesthetics of performance and pedagogy don’t resonate with communities of color. As Oliveros exclaims, sound is power, and where there is power, there may exist a hierarchy of that power. She could be considered revolutionary in that so much of her deep listening meditations and “performance” practices tackle the very meaning of performer / non-performer, leader / follower, student / teacher, musician / non-musician i.e. breaking down structures of power imbalance. Concert culture itself to Oliveros is sexist, and the aesthetics and virtuosity of classical music, both she and Jenkins argue, are enmeshed in hierarchy. As instructed in one of her Meditations,

XVII, “Ear Ly”

1. Enhance or paraphrase the auditory environment so perfectly that a listener cannot distinguish between the teal sounds of the environment and the performed sounds. 

2. Become performers by not performing.

Tiffany Chang, conductor of the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra, is also reforming how ensembles work, which is to say, her orchestra will hold open rehearsals without any final concert. Oliveros notably frames the word “performance” in quotes, as have I throughout this article, since it doesn’t fit her philosophy of process over result. She also describes the Meditations as pieces that “challenge certain premises in the musical establishment,” which include just this: concert culture. In looking at Oliveros, and the remaking of the orchestra conducted by Chang, what would happen if more ensembles emerged where the very process of music making was in and of itself the edifying goal? Welcoming change, Oliveros embraces the practice of explorative play, stating “play is the greatest research tool that the human race has.” 

Finally, it’s become increasingly common among professors — at Oberlin, anyway — to incorporate the concept of land acknowledgement into their coursework that addresses how all American land was stolen from Indigenous peoples, and that we live in and actively contribute to that legacy. Since Oliveros’s compositions are situated within sonic environments and involve deep listening to urban landscapes, there must be an acknowledgement of each performers’ identity in an ensemble that is so intimately tied with the land. At Oberlin, our institution lies on top of land stolen from the Indigenous Wyandotte and the Ottawa tribes, and white students in these ensembles would reflect on their own colonial ancestry and how that impacts their interaction with land. If students haven’t been introduced to land acknowledgements already, this reckoning should permeate into the very ways — both large and small — they navigate the world. 

My focused rumination on the Sonic Meditations suggest a radical reworking of music-making, one that prioritizes a progressive, feminist perspective on music making and identity. Tomorrow won’t be the day when we fire conductors, chuck sonata form in the trash, or abandon all classical aesthetics in higher music education. That said, Oliveros’ meditative music groups might introduce lessons never taught before in such a setting: awareness of the body and positionality, music as process, horizontal leadership, and abandoning archaic conceptions of power.

Note:  

  1. The term “intergenerational trauma” or “transgenerational trauma” is also worth noting here in understanding how different identities define embodied lived experience. The term was coined in the 60’s by psychologists evaluating the trauma of Holocaust survivors, but also applies to races who have been enslaved, displaced, or killed, such as African Americans and  Indigenous peoples today who have a psychological awareness of the world through the oppression of their body.

1 thought on “Reimagining Bodies, Identity, and Power in our Universities through Pauline Oliveros’ “Sonic Meditations””

  1. Such a well-written piece! There’s lots to be said about gender, aesthetics, and expoeimental music. The flip side of Oliveros’s question (is it feminist if women just get on top of the power imbalances built into traditional concert life) is “what happens when anti-hierarchical concepts like process and contingency get turned into tokens in the same old jockeying for status and power? Some kinds of experiemtnal music are both radical negations of traditional classical music aesthetics *and* super macho. For every Pauline Oliveros, there’s Morton Feldman.

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