Our minds are active places. It's easy to be entirely consumed by self-chatter, walking around with a CNN-scroll of nearly voiced observations and bullet-pointed lists of tasks and errands, noting peculiar scenes with an eye toward documenting the most appealing and hilarious on social media, mentally projecting judgments by an amalgam of public taste, or at least, one's circle of friends.
And this chatter can be wonderful! It can lead to a cold mid-afternoon treat on a hot day, or taking a moment to text an old friend. But how often do we take a moment to take in, to turn our attention outside of our own head, to turn down the chatter, to just listen? On August 14 at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the 2017 Mostly Mozart Festival, the International Contemporary Ensemble—conducted by Baldur Brönnimann and joined by sheng player Wu Wei—will perform How Forests Think, a program dedicated to the art of deep listening. The three composers being performed hail from the United States, Iceland, and Australia, and are master sculptors of timbre, impeccable architects, and vibrant communicators. But above all, Pauline Oliveros, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Liza Lim represent the art of virtuosic listening.
Each of the works on the program takes its inspiration from nature. While Earth is home to many different ecosystems, each is bound by the unifying rhythms of the breathing planet. While the pieces riff on these rhythms, they are not simply organized dictations of environmental sounds, but rather studies in the chaotic perfection of natural forms.
"Listen to everything all the time, and remind yourself when you are not listening."—Pauline Oliveros
The program opens with Earth Ears by Pauline Oliveros, the original Deep Listener. Oliveros had a Newtonian apple-falling moment when, on playing back a tape she had made on a newly gifted tape recorder, she observed sounds she hadn't heard while she was recording the tape to begin with. From that moment on, Oliveros pledged to try and listen all the time—to uncensor the hums and chirps the brain often whites out in service of larger sonic events. Her practice of Deep Listening germinated at that moment, and her sonic meditations and sonic rituals—pieces of music executed with an almost liturgical ethos, pieces which beg their practitioners to listen, to receive, and to create—are prescriptive exercises in sonic mindfulness.
In her compositions, each member of the ensemble is relied upon to generate her own material while listening intently to the composite, coming together to mold elegant constellations of sound. The sonic ritual that is Earth Ears asks its participants to fall into a pattern made of odd-sized interlocking rhythms that are held steadfastly, then transformed, and then reestablished. The participants complete four cycles of this movement and then start a fifth, feeling together for an appropriate cadential moment.
"You just listen. For me it works that way. I listen and I find the material." —Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Anna Thorvaldsdottir, born and raised in a tiny and isolated town in Iceland, also spends an extraordinary amount of time listening. Iceland is a land of perilous beauty, from volcanic peaks to geothermal pools. Constantly raked by pummeling winds and visited by blinding precipitation, Iceland is made up of some of the harshest land on the planet. It must resemble what much of the Earth looked like millions of years ago. Unlike in New York, it's impossible in Iceland to live without awareness of nature. Its beauty and treachery both demand attention.
Thorvaldsdottir takes her observations and experiences of nature and makes art from them, constructing pieces that carve sound with striking physicality. She sketches her works out first as massive drawings, then thinks about her sonic ideas as three-dimensional objects: what would this theme look like as a landscape? What about from above? Aequilibria is a meditation on balance; in the composer's own words, "the natural breath between expansion and contraction, and the perspectives of translucence and opacity." Aequilibria reminds listeners that our own existence on Earth is a feat of balance, a careful calibration of natural forces that allows for our drawing breath, gathering food, and staying protected from destructive natural phenomena.
"After speaking comes listening. And after listening?" —Liza Lim
Liza Lim's 35-minute How Forests Think anchors and ends the concert. Lim is often moved by the clash and harmony of cross-cultural practices, and in this piece, she extends both this curiosity and her meticulous ear to natural constructions. An exploration of how individual flora interconnect to form a larger ecosystem, and inspired by the work of anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, the work recasts its performers as organisms, reaching out with symbiotic intentions, propping each other up, forming larger masses, and floating on each other's breath. The same way two birdsongs can collide to create a beautiful but unpredictable amalgam, so do Lim's colors and textures.
The piece features a virtuosic part for the sheng, performed here by Wu Wei. The ancient Chinese instrument can be intoned with both an almost electronic precision and a slippery breathiness, creating unique textures that capture the audience's attention as a sudden breeze would. Lim has said, "the other instruments, their sounds pour out tendrils that latch onto each other . . . there's a sense of evolution, which is particularly strong towards the end of the piece, when the musicians shape the sounds by listening to each other's breathing. In a way, one gets a sense that time is not counted, but is living and growing." Captivated by the ways trees communicate via systems of roots and fungal mycelia, Lim creates a beauty that is both organized and organic in How Forests Think, with each musician exercising both free will and symbiotic reactiveness, intoning, perceiving, responding, and listening.
For tickets and information, visit MostlyMozart.org.
Nadia Sirota is an acclaimed violist, member of the ensembles yMusic and Alarm Will Sound, and host of Q2 Music's Peabody Award–winning podcast Meet the Composer.