top of page

Art of Listening: Environmental Dialogue

The quality of a musician's playing arises from the mingling of their skill with what is perhaps flippantly referred to as "soul." I once perceived soul in music to be the particularities and level of character and emotion a musician communicated in their playing, but my definition has changed over the years. For me, soul is not just what comes through in the playing of music, but also the depth of listening a musician is capable of, and following that, what sounds a musician is drawn to respond to. Only then do we get to the quality and depth of response I once thought of as the totality of "soul."

"Merging with sound or silence will produce a resonant state of awareness." This statement from Pauline Oliveros' text score, Environmental Dialogue, is the crux of her koan-like composition. In the performance of this and all pieces of music, soul emerges from this resonant state of awareness. Semantics suggest that in order to emerge or come out from the great soup of being, one must first merge or plunge into what is.

I have performed Environmental Dialogue several times, and have been in the audience during the performance of this piece as well. What emerged through these performances were expressions of the environment, rather than the "resonance* of the environment" the composition-meditation intends. The thinking that produces that environmental expression is something akin to, "I'm performing Pauline Oliveros' Environmental Dialogue."

In reading the Environmental Dialogue score, I'm left with the impression that the quality of the piece's performance, and the success of it producing that resonance of the environment hinge on the quality and intensity of listening the performers are able to maintain throughout the performance. Oliveros gives several tips for increasing awareness, such as begining the piece with each performer observing their own breathing, and many reminders to let go and be okay with silence. Perhaps the best way to approach performing this compostion as an individual musician is to perceive it as an awareness meditation that sound may emerge from. To think, "I will enter fully into the sounds of this space, and if they so happen to come through me, so be it," is the necessary attitude for producing an environmental resonance.

The concept of merging is repeated throughout the score: In order to connect with silence, Oliveros instructs us to, "Merge with the in-between!" She tells us to "reinforce" sounds, which to her, "means to merge rather than imitate." While the etymology of imitate suggests copying, the etymology of merge suggests uniting with. The one maintains a separateness - "I am in the environment, copying it", while the other dissolves the I and thou of self and space - "I am of the space, a part of it."

Therein lies the underlying riddle of Environmental Dialogue:

If our fusion with the environment is true, how can we possibly dialogue with it?

Perhaps we must listen in silence, waiting until we know the answer to that question. Perhaps, if we are receptive and quiet enough, the answer will emerge from us of its own accord.

*emphasis mine


bottom of page