Deep Listening Band presents rewarding, challenging experience

Sam Lewin

Last Saturday Oct. 29, Lawrence had the pleasure of hosting the Deep Listening Band in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. The band features two influential contemporary musicians, Stuart Dempster and Pauline Oliveros, and drew an audience that packed the bottom level of Chapel well before the concert started.

The concert proved to be a challenging yet rewarding musical experience.

Upperclassmen may remember Dempster for the outstanding and hilarious recital he gave two years ago. While Dempster is perhaps best known as a trombonist, he plays a number of instruments, including didjeridu and conch shell. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, where he was Dean of the Conservatory Brian Pertl’s didjeridu teacher.

Oliveros is one of the most renowned contemporary composers of this era and is particularly known for her accordion playing. Since Oliveros is turning 80 in 2012, she will soon be traveling the globe in order to receive awards honoring her career.

Lawrence students and Appleton residents seemed appreciative of Oliveros’ stature, as they showed up for the concert in large numbers. However, those audience members expecting a more conventional concert, perhaps one in which musicians play melodies with obvious rhythmic structures on recognizable instruments, were in for a surprise.

Oliveros began the concert by playing a lengthy recording of “Landgrove” off of her computer. The Deep Listening Band recorded “Landgrove” in January 2011, and the piece uses drones and various other sounds like bird calls and flutes. While the piece did gradually develop both in volume and its use of less obvious rhythms, it was rather sparse and went on for a bit too long.

The piece also caught quite a few audience members off guard. One couple behind me was confused; none of the musicians were playing any acoustic instruments — at least live — and there was no discernible groove or melody.

Indeed, “Landgrove” presented listening challenges that epitomized the entire Deep Listening Band concert. How is an audience used to music that has a groove, obvious melody, and easily identifiable genre supposed to react to out-of-time music focused on sounds?

Some audience members seemed to have trouble adjusting, and a sizable number of people left during intermission. However, others tried to embrace this new experience and listened to the band’s soothing and meaningful use of sounds.

I appreciated the music and the band’s concept of deep listening, which promotes listening as an active art, but I wasn’t able to fully concentrate on the music. Although my mind eventually stopped wandering and allowed me to enjoy some of sounds, the band challenged me throughout.

I was able to retain my focus for a more extended period of time whenever the band performed with the dancers, Visiting Professor of Dance Rebecca Salzer and Jeff Wallace. Salzer, Wallace and cellist Matt Turner accompanied Oliveros and Dempster for the premiere of the piece “Moving with Listening.”

Oliveros and Dempster began the piece by playing quiet, squeaking noises on conch shells, while Salzer and Wallace sat cross-legged with their backs to the audience. Oliveros and Dempster gradually became louder and more interactive and Salzer and Wallace eventually began to dance. They were exceptionally graceful and attuned to the music; their movements also made the music a lot easier to follow.

The second half of the concert featured other special guests: Pertl, the Lawrence University Didjeridu Collective and IGLU. The final piece of the concert, Dempster’s “Milanda Embracing,” encouraged audience participation — various audience members even received a score that encouraged thought about “the healing and therapeutic properties that seem to have been lost in much of 20th century music.”

Dempster dedicated the piece to the third member of the Deep Listening Band, David Gamper, who unexpectedly passed away in September.

Once I got over the unfamiliarity of the music, “Milanda Embracing,” like most of the concert, actually was quite therapeutic.