Meditations on Music: Deep Listening Retreat

My ears, heart, soul and mind are full, yet I still have the desire to continue this form of listening, mindfulness and enriched sense of community.

During the second half of reading period, Deep Listeners of Lawrence University (DLLU) had the unique experience of going to Björklunden with several guest artists to lead. DLLU—a collective I co-founded and lead with my friends junior Sam Genualdi, sophomore Emmett Jackson and senior Sarah Clewett—is a club in which anyone can participate to learn the practice and philosophy of Deep Listening. This philosophy was created by accordionist and composer Pauline Oliveros in 1988, and, to quote Oliveros, deep listening is rooted in “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” The term—a clever pun at first which is now much more—came from Oliveros after an improvisation session with Stuart Dempster on trombone and didgeridoo, and Panaiotis handling vocals and electronics, fourteen feet underground in a cistern with 45 seconds of natural reverb. Subsequently, the group recorded under the name “Deep Listening Band,” also contributing to the concept.

DLLU was lucky enough to have Dempster there, leading us through a retreat that mirrored the steps done by the Deep Listening Institute (DLI), which are often led by Oliveros.

Helping Dempster were his wife Renko Dempster, their son Loren Dempster, Instructor of Dance Margaret Paek, Dean Brian Pertl and his wife Leila Pertl. All six have strong experience in Deep Listening and its three core aspects—listening, movement and dreams.

While our one full day and two half days were filled nearly to the brim with workshops, listening mediations, exercises and being silent for several hours on end, the weekend was the calmest and most mindful I have been for that long of a time. The relaxation and joy of making music with like-minded people was what brought many of the members to Björklunden, but it did not take long for everyone to realize that the contentedness, creativity and unique frame of mind they felt throughout the weekend could be achieved in everyday life, even through the stress most Lawrence students face. That is a concept pertains both to official DLI retreats and this past DLLU trip—Deep Listening is a practice, meaning it should—and can be—practiced every day. The motivation to do so was clear enough, especially after this weekend. Deep Listening was enjoyable and wonderful to experience in the moment and also improved my overall feelings and thoughts—my whole being swirling with awareness, happiness and harmony. I had never felt so in tune with everything and so in control of my life.

While I have felt this change and realization in me for a while now, it was beautiful to feel it so profoundly and see it occur in those around me. On the first night, we all stood in a circle and shared what we wanted to get out of this weekend. My goal involved achieving a strong sense of community, especially those I did not know as well. After spending many hours with the group, I felt that my goal was definitely achieved. Even without talking a lot and getting to know everyone, everyone in the nearly 30-person group gained a closeness through listening together—to each other, to the environment we were in and to the universe. I left feeling even closer to my good friends and close to those I had not connected with much or at all up until this weekend.

This closeness was built up, for the most part, by two forces: listening by being silent and listening to create music together. The former was something I had never experienced before in the way we did this past weekend. After 10 p.m., we were to be silent until the end of breakfast the next morning. The purpose of this was to listen to everything for an extended amount of time, especially sounds we might not usually recognize. The first silent session was beautiful to hear—as it was my first time just listening while making minimal noise, the experience was like taking out ear plugs that block out many normal, constant sounds. Of course I had heard most of these sounds before, but hearing them all holistically and persistently was indescribable. Two activities during this time stood out to me with resonance.

The first was getting lost in the woods late at night for about an hour with three other friends. Other than using occasional whistling to signal the group, we were completely silent throughout this time, absorbing the cracking of twigs, insects droning, rustling from wind and wildlife and other sounds. Had we been talking, we would have missed these sounds and felt more scared. But the heightened sense of hearing soothed me, and I was never nervous or afraid of being lost in the dark, unfamiliar woods. After finding our way back and sleeping for a few hours, several others and I woke up early to watch the sunrise on the lake. I have watched countless sunrises and sunsets before, but this one had no unnecessary comments or noises that detracted from the intense visual and audio experience before me. My ears had become accustomed to listening to everything such that the sounds produced by the world became much sweeter than anything anyone could say. Everything felt intentional and vital—we did not need to talk to be able to exist and enjoy this moment.

Listening to create music was similar and was extremely affected by practicing Deep Listening while not creating. Together, we were all able to improvise with a different understanding and perspective on sound, just by listening to each other. While we did this throughout the weekend and each session stood out in its own way, the concert we performed on Sunday for the public represented a lot of what we did. Composed of two pieces based on text scores by student composers, one piece influenced by the architecture and woodwork of Björklunden by Loren Dempster, an exercise by Oliveros, a meditation of sound in memory with audience participation led by Leila Pertl and a text score by Stuart Dempster, the concert synthesized many of the teachings and ways of listening into an hour of music. In between the pieces, we transitioned with improvised movement exercises led by Paek. While I strongly believe concerts should not be the sole accomplishment to show what was learned, I felt that all who performed and listened did a wonderful job of showing their growth and experience of Deep Listening—no matter how much or how little.

The weekend was also moving to me because it displayed my tremendous amount of self-growth not only as a Deep Listener, but as a person, musician and leader. Learning tactics that improve how I feel was something I did not expect as much going into the retreat. I knew the weekend would be relaxing, but after seeing how simple practices changed my being so much, I feel like I have begun a new part of my life—a rebirth into a similar person who is more refined, focused and in tune. This change also affected my life as a musician.

Although I did not play a lot of trumpet or didgeridoo throughout the weekend, I feel like I grew as players of both of those instruments just through Deep Listening. A particularly moving moment for me was playing in a didgeridoo trio as part of Dempster’s closing piece with Dean Pertl, my teacher on the instrument, and Dempster, the man who can be credited with bringing the instrument into Western music. The energy between the three of us was electrifying and pushed me to perform on the several-foot-long PVC pipe like I never had before, instilling pride and happiness in both myself and my fellow didgeridoo players. This energy put me out of my comfort zone until I truly realized my passion and connection to the music and people, much like my experience with leading the club. While I did not lead over the weekend, I left feeling so much more confident and ready to lead the huge collective because of my passion and connection. What resonated most, though, was the pride I felt when many others were just as moved as I was by the retreat and thankful—partially to me and the other DLLU leaders—for helping to provide something so beautiful to them.

As I was listening to music on the bus ride home, my mind was in another place, my ears still full yet hungry, my soul very aware of itself and my heart content. Still so moved by the retreat’s power, I wrote down my final entry in the journal I had been keeping during the weekend a reminder to myself: “Hold onto that compassion, the closeness you have for others—through sound and not.”