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.

Electric guitars etc.: Gavin Bryars with Sergio Sorrentino, Pauline Oliveros with Reynols (also Monique Buzzarté)

Saturday 31 December 2022

The listening pile grew big while working on my own stuff, so I almost overlooked these three little nuggets of Gavin Bryars’ work for electric guitar. It’s not a complete overview of his work for the instrument, but it makes for a piquant EP. The guitarist is Sergio Sorrentino, whom Bryars has worked with before but not in a solo capacity. The opening and closing tracks were recorded live at the AngelicA festival and sound remarkably close and clear. Catalogue is a duet for piano and electric guitar Bryars wrote for Derek Bailey way back in 1965. The indeterminate musical language is of its time, but Bryars and Sorrentino work together to make the piece speak clearly, with fresh colours and a sense of balance that keeps the pointillistic texture intriguing. The two join forces again for a take on The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge, the 1971 piece for guitarists ‘walking’ their fingers up and down the fretboards of two instruments at once and which the nerds who read this blog probably remember from one of the indifferently-pressed LPs Brian Eno put out in the Seventies. This version is cleaner, letting more of the anticipated inadvertent details to be heard and so giving it interest beyond its initial quirkiness. It’s also much shorter, which will either help you focus on the music or prevent you from immersing in the ambience. I haven’t kept up with Bryars’ recent compositions, so it’s good to hear Burroughs II, a work from 2014. This is a studio recording Sorrentino made shortly before the Angelica gig, multitracking himself on six electric guitars and two electric basses. The melodic work is typical of later Bryars – stymied late romantic decadence, out of whack, never quite at peace with itself – but not as cosy as I expected, set against strummed chords at a gallop. It’s striking but at four minutes it feels like a fragment, a sketch for something more resolved.

A couple of years back I got into a recording of the telematic duet from 2009 between Pauline Oliveros in New York and Alan Courtis in Buenos Aires. Their adeptness at using the long-distance jam session for mutual inspiration and provocation is less of a surprise when you learn that this was not their first rodeo. Half a Dove in New York, Half a Dove in Buenos Aires is a mixdown of another online intercontinental gig, held ten years earlier. (The mind boggles at the effort needed to get an “improvisation NetCast” running effectively in the days of 56k modems.) On this occasion, Oliveros with her just intonation accordion is joined by trombonist extraordinnaire Monique Buzzarté, while in the southern hemisphere Courtis is playing with his band Reynols. Oliveros and Reynols had a shared feeling for sound and while this earlier outing is less convulsive, none of the assembled musos are afraid to lead (or push) the others to greater extremes when the moment seems right. Oliveros and Buzzarté lay down drones rich with overtones, which Reynols thicken out with guitars and electronics until somewhere around the middle of Side 1 a jet fighter takes off. By Side 2 you start thinking this a Reynols gig with added instrumental colour, only to hear the brass and reeds come surging back for the rest of the disc, wailing and keening in a strange tonality which the electronics match with distorted harmony. Shamefully, Buzzarté doesn’t get a namecheck on the front cover.

Telematic Concerts (with Pauline Oliveros)

Tuesday 28 April 2020

In these days of self-isloation I keep getting told that teleconfernced gigs held over Zoom are becoming a thing, only to be subsequently told that they’re not really a thing because the time-lag between participants makes coordinating the music impossible. I don’t know what technology was in play for this Telematic Concert from ten years ago, but synchronisation is neither a technical nor aesthetic issue. It’s an improvised duet between sometime collaborators Pauline Oliveros in New York and Reynols guitarist Alan Courtis “piped in digitally from Buenos Aires”. The two drag out sheets of sound between them with amped-up accordion and guitar respectively, each modifying their instruments until it can be hard to distinguish one from the other. When they do play acoustically recongisable sounds – never at the same time – their signal choice of sounds is instructive. Oliveros blasts a klaxon-like drone that jars with everything around it. Courtis’ feedback howls like Robert Fripp locked in a death-plunge with a Balrog. Whenever the situation threatens to settle into an ambient exchange, one goads the other into something more aggressive and sinister. Towards the end, both musicians suddenly crank up short, high pitched bursts until they create a chillingly evocative soundscape reminiscent of a dockside battening down for bad weather.

I think Spleen Coffin still has this on preorder for next month, coronavirus willing. I got sent a download which fades out halfway through to change LP sides, though it’s clearly a single piece.

It all just reminded me how much Oliveros’ presence is still missed today. A few years back I dischi di Angelica released another of her improv collaborations, but I’ve only heard it just now. We should be grateful for whatever we can get and, considering that Nessuno teams her up with Roscoe Mitchell, John Tilbury and Wadada Leo Smith, people should probably have gotten into this on the names alone. It’s a live set in Bologna from 2011, two large-scale pieces with a snappy encore. As with Courtis, all the players here know that sometimes it’s better not to play. There are moments when it starts to drift into something lugubriously spacey – a perpetual standby when keeping Jazz at arms-length – but the music constantly redeems and renews itself, with each member of the quartet deftly pushing anomalous sounds back and forth in an uneasy equilibrium; although, like this sentence, it seems more of a personal challenge than artistic necessity to sustain the structure for so long. It never gets outrageous, but it remains reassuringly strange throughout.