But this time I was joining them.
We — and about 600 other people — had come together in cyberspace for “The World Wide Tuning Meditation,” a new twist on an old piece by composer Pauline Oliveros, who died in 2016. Each of us was a tile in an onscreen mosaic of amateurishly lit humans gazing out from home offices and bedrooms. The chat window flashed greetings from around the globe: Madrid, Sydney, Hawaii. Then we began.
Organized by Raquel Acevedo Klein; led by Chase and performance artist Ione, Oliveros’ widow; and hosted by the International Contemporary Ensemble, the exercise will be repeated each Saturday in April. The events are part of Music on the Rebound, an online festival designed to support performers during the coronavirus pandemic.
To start, Ione delivered the instructions that take the place of a notated score: “Begin by taking a deep breath and letting it all the way out with air sound. Listen with your mind’s ear for a tone.”
On your next breath, using any vowel sound, you’re to sing the tone in your mind. You listen closely to the voices around you and, on your next breath, select a voice distant from you and match it. Then you sing a note nobody else is making. You continue, on each breath alternating between singing your own tone and matching someone else’s.
The piece is one of a number of sonic meditations that Oliveros created to hone what she called “deep listening” — an art that engages both heart and mind, focus and generosity. Some of these exercises grew out of Oliveros’ work with a feminist group that used movement to unravel gender norms governing women’s bodies. Even if she could not have foreseen the isolation and economic destruction wrought by the pandemic, works like “Tuning Meditation” were always intended to heal.
Speaking as a critic, ours wasn’t the most beautiful expression of Oliveros’ score. On YouTube, you can find a video of “Tuning Meditation” being performed inside the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Met Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval outpost in Upper Manhattan. There, the reverberant acoustics create a sea of sound that seems to gently undulate, waves of consonance gathering and dispersing.
The recording of our half-hour meditation last Saturday, by contrast, often sounds like a cosmic flock of bleating sheep. In the absence of a shared physical space to reflect back our voices, the only resonance we 600 isolated singers had was the one we created for one another. Each time we homed in on a speck of sound in the chorus and matched it, we reinforced and extended it for the duration of one breath.
Oliveros was drawn to extreme acoustics. In 1988, she and her fellow musicians in Deep Listening Band recorded music inside a giant underground cistern in Port Townsend, Washington, that had a reverb time of a whopping 45 seconds. In a space like that, a single note seems to dance on forever. On Zoom, only the care of a fellow human could extend the life span of a particular sound.
Of course, for the purposes of echolocation, this kind of man-made resonance was useless. Oliveros’ score says to listen to distant partners for tuning, but from my computer there was no telling whether a given note had its origin in Berlin or on the Upper West Side.
At first my ear was drawn to the outliers among the hundreds of voices that created a woolly cluster of pitches: the odd glinting high note or surprisingly booming man’s voice that cut through the fog. After a while, I sought out my pitches among the more unobtrusive voices hidden in the crowd and felt a pang of altruistic pleasure partnering up with these. I also noticed with bemused admiration the occasional extended technique coming into play. Was I imagining it, or did someone contribute a touch of Tuvan throat singing?
Standing out was part of our mission.
“Contribute by singing a new tone that no one else is singing,” Oliveros instructs.
And not just occasionally, but on every other breath. I quickly learned that doing this in a crowd of hundreds requires just as much concentration as matching a pitch. Listening intently during each intake of breath, I would begin to plan a note, only to find it was already taken. Or I would experience pangs of insecurity around a note as I began to sing: Was it any good? Was it sufficiently different?
Like any true meditation technique, Oliveros’ piece holds up a mirror to such inner processes and, over time, brings them into balance. Alternating between agreement and self-assertion, her “Tuning Meditation” offers a practice for reconciling interpersonal consonance with individual difference.
Doing so in the virtual sphere conjures the same disorienting mixture of isolation and connection as the coronavirus crisis. One feature of Zoom is that audibility translates into visibility: When video conference participants speak, their image jumps into larger view. For musicians whose livelihoods are being pulverized by the pandemic, this might have been a dark reminder to them to keep making themselves heard.