Pauline Oliveros and Chamber Music

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Pauline Oliveros is one of those artists whose genius is sufficiently radical for her vast legacy to be generally acknowledged but rarely examined. A cursory review of her career highlights her pioneering work in electronics, free improvisation and psychosomatic music, but until now her work as a composer for ensembles has been overshadowed by the focus on the meditative and collaborative aspects of her practice. The imbalance is being addressed by two new albums, the first from Another Timbre featuring members of Apartment House. Sound Pieces collects six pieces, composed between 1975 and 1998, and marks a critical introduction to performance of Oliveros’ music without her direct involvement. The earliest piece here may also be the best known: Horse sings from cloud has appeared in a couple of versions on Oliveros’ albums and on this occasion uses clarinet, violin, viola, cello and percussion to produce long tones held over sustained chords. With one exception, the realisations here are all compact pieces, sub-10 minutes each. These works, David Tudor from 1980, Quintessential and From unknown silences from 1996, and 1998’s Sound Piece present distinct works that juxtapose sounds in novel ways. Quintessential, for example, places isolated sounds into a freely-arranged structure, while David Tudor finds new ways of creating continuities through joint activity. It’s curious that the pieces don’t seem to belong to a particular point in time, with no sign of reflecting trends or fashions whether in the Seventies or the Nineties. These are text pieces, giving brief instructions to the performers, so it’s easier to associate them with the late 1960s, particularly Christian Wolff’s open compositions which find a form through the musicians’ consensus. This field of interpretation is grist for the mill for Apartment House, a collective who can make even the least promising material come alive. Apparently, practically no rehearsal went into most of these recordings, placing musicians who have worked together frequently with some newer faces to create music very much focused in the moment. Despite the strong spiritual associations with much of Oliveros’ later work, the emphasis in these pieces is on the immediate experience of sound, without reliance on a grander philosophical (or theosophical) aspiration to give the music meaning: compare with Stockhausen’s ‘intuitive music’ to hear the contrast.

The long work on the album is the forty-minute Tree/Peace from 1984, for string trio with piano. It is structured in seven sections and provides specific pitches for the musicians to work with, but leaves the deployment of that material open to their interpretation of associations to be found in the programmatic text. The album’s presentation shies away from the drama school connotations of the interpretative text, possibly for the best, as Apartment House produce a slender but substantial chamber work of small but significant contrasts in atmosphere and texture, with points of structural reference and moments that almost resemble traditional compositional development. In their hands, at least, the work has an unassuming but assertive presence with greater and lesser characteristics that become more apparent with each listen; a far cry from the usual homophonous haze associated with meditative music.

Meanwhile in Canada, Art Metropole has released a provocative testament to Oliveros with their book and album Resonance Gathering. The audio component begins with a spoken word piece by IONE, poet and Oliveros’ widow. Recorded in their home in 2021, The Sound Of Awakening alternates speech and silence, with phrases that start on the self and move outwards in situation and history. It describes a struggle between individual and collective, of progress and setbacks. Old battles return with new significance, throwing the past into a different light. It’s a fitting introduction to the recording of Oliveros’ large composition To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, which takes up the remainder of the album. Composed in 1970 for anything from six people to a large orchestra, it presents her group methods on a larger scale, at a turning point between her earlier and later approaches to music. Using coloured lighting for the space, changes in colour cue the musicians on how to use the five pitches they have selected in advance, singly or in groups, with greater or lesser freedom. Notes are played long and allow for wide ranges of modulation. The performance heard here comes from the end of a series of concerts and rehearsals in Toronto by the collective Public Recordings and artist/composer Christopher Willes. There’s about twenty people, musicians and non-musicians, producing an immense, vibrant wall of sound reminiscent of some of the Scratch Orchestra’s concerts-cum-public rallies or a particularly wild Fluxus gig. The apparent simplistic directness of the score, which strikes us now as a marker of that time, carries with it at least some self-awareness often lacking in politically-charged art, with a consciousness of the contradictory implications to imposing self-discipline. That, along with the single-mindedness of a diverse group, affords the piece some enduring power. As listeners, we cannot say if the concert experience was agitating as well as agitated, but it’s good to hear a spirited approach to a piece that gets namedropped but otherwise never heard. Well, here it’s heard in part: three fifteen-minutes excerpts from each large section, with fades in between, from a piece written to be 135 minutes. It would be preferable to have access to the whole thing as a download, in addition to the versions prepped for a limited edition double-LP plus book. As an aural appendix, the book comes with a flexidisc of long tones recorded by the individual orchestra members which you are invited to manipulate to create lock grooves. Perversely, the download provides a demonstration but not the stems for your own non-destructive creative session.