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Scrag Mountain Musician Evan Premo Offers Series on “Deep Listening”

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Evan Premo and Mary Bonhag - COURTESY OF EMBER PHOTO/SCRAG MOUNTAIN MUSIC
  • Courtesy Of Ember Photo/scrag Mountain Music
  • Evan Premo and Mary Bonhag

Most people spend their lives trying not to hear everything in the interest of listening attentively to one thing: a friend speaking, a bird singing outdoors, a piece of music performed live. But what if we trained ourselves to listen to every sound at once?

That's one objective of "deep listening," a meditative process conceived and taught over the past several decades by musician-composer Pauline Oliveros. Before she died in 2016, Oliveros developed a course for people who wanted to learn how to teach deep listening. Scrag Mountain Music cofounder Evan Premo, a double bassist who lives in Marshfield, completed the course during the pandemic and offered an online deep listening workshop series through Scrag. Given its success, he'll offer a second series starting February 26.

A practitioner of experimental, electronic and improvisational music — truly out-there-sounding stuff — Oliveros coined the concept of deep listening when she and fellow musicians descended into a columned cistern in Washington to make sounds in concert with the reverberating underground space.

The group recorded an album in the cistern in 1988. Eventually, what started as a pun "became [Oliveros'] life's work: to hear every sound possible and not miss any sounds," Premo explains. "It's something you can never fully achieve as a mortal being but still is a pretty incredible practice."

Premo learned of deep listening five years ago at New Music on the Point, a collaborative summer workshop on Lake Dunmore. His interest was piqued when flutist Jane Rigler led the composers through an improvisatory practice that Oliveros called sonic meditations.

Premo and his wife, Scrag cofounder Mary Bonhag, began leading their chamber series' guest musicians through sonic meditations, too, plus daily meditations that involve listening to the environment.

"We have all these judgments about the sounds that we're hearing, whether it's a motorcycle that goes by or a hum in your house or a fighter jet," Premo says. "The idea is to just experience it as a sound in itself and notice it without judgment."

Studies have shown, he adds, that people stop really listening to a piece of music once they decide whether they like it or not.

A goal of deep listening is to "become a better listener of the people in this world," Premo says — which can, in turn, lead to "communal peace." He continues, "If you asked Pauline, she would say [the goal is] world peace. It's not that much of a stretch when you see the incredible community that forms through the process."

Premo's first workshop attracted 12 participants, including a University of Vermont ecology graduate student, a Norwich University English professor, a psychotherapist and a furniture maker-musician. One participant had tinnitus; another was hearing impaired.

That last participant was Ruth Coppersmith, a 69-year-old multimedia artist and puppeteer. She signed on to the workshop series immediately.

"I am an Evan Premo groupie," confesses Coppersmith, who lives in Adamant. "I've followed Scrag Mountain since they first arrived in Vermont and performed in Northfield at the Green Mountain Girls Farm a million years ago." (Scrag was founded in 2010.)

Coppersmith also practices other meditation techniques, including qigong, so the workshop provided "a new angle on all these things I love to do: meditation, movement, sounding, words, dreams and journaling. What more could you want?" she says.

She describes the six weekly hour-and-a-half sessions as "intimate." After check-in, Premo leads the participants through listening and sonic meditations, followed by relaxation exercises, movement improvisations and stretches.

Listening meditations can be global or focal, Coppersmith says. You can listen to everything that "you're hearing in your room, in your own house ... or a particular sound that captures your attention. One person [in the group] said, 'All I can hear is my heater, and it's really annoying.' You have to figure out a way to listen to that as pure sound."

Growing up in Manhattan, Coppersmith experienced sound as "something you block out and ignore in order to survive," she says. "This was a way to take a block of time and do the opposite. Just listening to the chickens in my yard or a tree swaying in the wind — I heard all sorts of things I'd never heard before. The subtlety and variety of sound is amazing."

The workshop created a "deep bond" among the participants, Coppersmith adds. They have stayed in touch by email, sending each other pictures, notes and, in the case of the UVM grad student, an invitation to his online thesis defense.

Like Coppersmith, participant Matthew Hastings, 41, had previous meditation experience and followed Scrag from its beginning. A furniture maker in Burlington, he is also an experimental musician who performs under the name Ver Sacrum.

The workshop, Hastings says, "deepened my ability to hear in a new way — to accept sounds as they are and as they come to you. Even in my own music, when I'm composing, writing or exploring, there's a tendency to judge everything so that you can take a step forward. [Now] I'm spending more time with things. It's leading me to make different choices as a composer.

"I was really surprised by what I ended up taking away in the end," Hastings continues. "It filled this hollow spot in my world that's been there since March."

Premo, a father of two, describes his own unexpected result of learning deep listening. "I was listening to my toddler having a tantrum, and I found myself able to relax into the experience by listening," he says. "I'm no saint, don't get me wrong. But the sound of his voice became almost a cue to relax into it."

As for those fighter jets — a current concern of many greater Burlington residents — Premo adds, "Peaceful soundscapes are really important to me. But it might help you to live with something [like that] if you take the class."

Deep Listening With Evan Premo begins Friday, February 26, 7-8:30 p.m. $60-120 (sliding scale). Learn more and register at scragmountainmusic.org.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Sound Judgment | Scrag Mountain musician Evan Premo offers series on "deep listening""