Pauline Oliveros Receives the Schuman Prize

by Nancy Garniez

All the vibes were good for the celebration of Pauline Oliveros’ life and works on the occasion of her receiving the William Schuman prize of Columbia University’s School of the Arts at the Miller Theatre, Saturday March 27, 2010. There could not be a more fitting recipient of a prize named for a composer who felt that the humanity of music and the musician were endangered by the closed door approach to much of the training and practice of music in America.

In a marathon event lasting over three hours many extraordinary performers and quite a few electronic devices gave an overview of her compositions and her performance. The several tributes, mostly from academic colleagues, included one from the at-once hilarious and moving living sculpture Linda Mary Montano, a.k.a. Sister Rosita, “close friend” (and look-alike) of Mother Teresa.

Given the complex electronica there were amazingly few glitches. It seemed like part of the act whenever a black-clad technician darted about, manipulating jacks and cables like a Bunraku puppeteer.

What started out as a review of that evening has turned into reflections on the state of listening in the larger field of music. Oliveros’ work packs a mighty message, one to which every musician would do well to pay serious attention. It is that diverse timbres—even temperaments—can be made compatible when instrumentation is aptly chosen and when players listen inclusively. Electronics can facilitate such connections, as can the piano properly approached and, of course, the accordion. Listening to her music we realize that its most compelling elements are the tiniest—vibrations. Whether in small or large groupings, with or without electronics, these propositions worked because of the players’ attentive listening and corresponding flexibility

The Gender of Now: There but not There (2005) was beautifully played by Monique Buzzarté, trombone, and Sarah Cahill, piano, for whom it was written. With the trombone aimed at times into the piano we heard a compelling demonstration of how sympathetic vibration makes the piano an ideal duo partner. (I coach Mozart’s early piano/violin sonatas using that technique.) Never abusing a full dynamic range, including every sound of which each instrument is capable, incorporating overtones and matching timbres—it was clear from this performance that the standard for the evening was to be warmly musical and entirely non-violent.

Another work without electronics, Variations for Sextet (1960), was performed with remarkable subtlety by International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Magnus Martensson with Eric Lamb, flute, Gareth Flowers, trumpet, Danielle Kuhlmann, horn, Teddy Rankin-Parkin, cello, Joshua Rubin, clarinet, Cory Smythe, piano. Their freedom made it seem as if they were making up the music on the spot. It was truly unforgettable.

Oliveros brought out her Roland V digital accordion for Who’s Playing What (2010) performed by Triple Point: herself plus Jonas Braasch, soprano saxophone, and Doug Van Nort, laptop/GREIS. The digital accordion permits her to switch from one temperament to another—another significant aspect of her musical practice. For this piece she used Arabic tuning; the piece “is the result of work that we are doing at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” Triple Point is “the laboratory for the development of the intelligent agent…that can parse our music, play back selected parts and create new parts as we play together.”

Bye Bye Butterfly (1965) was downright amusing, with a taped rendition of an aria from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly effectively rivaling electronic sound for the definition of machine-generated.

The Inner/Outer Matrix (performed by Timeless Pulse: Thomas Buckner, baritone, George Marsh and Jennifer Wilsey, percussion, David Wessel, electronics, International Contemporary Ensemble, Mr. Braasch and Ms. Buzzarté) was an improvised performance based on a “verbal guide…implying the priority of listening….both inwardly (‘for your own sound,’…) and outwardly (…for a word or phrase from a selected text).” Mr. Buckner delivered a spoken and sung text interspersed with a kind of scat, to which the players responded with exquisite attentiveness. Though the text was only intermittently comprehensible it didn’t seem to matter; the work succeeded by the power of attention between the players that transmitted directly to the audience.

Io and Her and the Trouble with Him: A dance opera in primeval time (2001?), Renée Levine Packer, speaker, written and directed by Ione with choreography by Johanna Haigood, was a video excerpt of a presentation from Oliveros’ residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here the music served as accompaniment to the political message, delivered via video montage alternating between aerial dancing by students and scenes from the civil rights struggles.

Oracle Bones: Mirror Dreams (2009) featured Ione on sonic vocals; Miya Masaoka, koto/electronics; Heloise Gold, dancer; Ms. Oliveros, accordion/EIS with video projection by Benton-C Bainbridge. The exquisite collaboration between the musicians and Ms. Gold evoked a living Oriental scroll. Virtually becoming a leaf, an insect, the wind, a bird, in her compelling performance Ms. Gold seemed to move inside of the evocative combined sounds of koto and accordion. Together with the visuals and the text there was something in the piece for everyone, though I found the combination of the dance and the instruments more than sufficiently riveting.

Early in her development Oliveros realized that listening needed to be centered in personal awareness rather than in a disassociated process of composing or playing. I support this approach wholeheartedly, to such an extent that I believe even child pedagogy must be based on this principle. She seemed to imply this early in the evening in Sounds from Childhood: Sonic Meditation (1992), which she “coordinated,” encouraging the audience to make sounds they had been admonished not to make as children. Audience participation was enhanced with electronic support probably to ensure a flow of energy over a preset amount of time.

Toward the end of the evening, remarks by David Felton described Oliveros’ latest venture, designing computer programs to enable severely physically challenged children to enjoy the liberating benefits of musical dialogue. This is work of the greatest urgency, not only for the children it reaches but because it makes every musician aware of the need to expand the definitions and thus the community of music.

The third part of the evening included video excerpts of four productions at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, showing Oliveros’ work as a public art works activist. The videos showed parts of Flowing Rock/Still Waters (1987), Ghostdance (1995); Njinga the Queen King: Return of a Warrior (1993) and Lunar Opera: Deep Listening for Tunes (2000). From them one got a glimpse of Oliveros’ works in open spaces free to the public and inviting their participation.

Perhaps because people are drawn to Oliveros’ work out of reaction to insular training it takes on the earnestness of a cause. But what happens to magic and playfulness in the process? Even in the sensitive playing of the International Contemporary Ensemble and Heloise Gold’s exquisite dancing there was little trace of the impish quality that Ms. Oliveros herself personifies. Has reverence already set in?

Even when the music invited laughter, as was the case with the tape Fed Back II (1966), I was unaware of anyone around me responding with amusement. As Oliveros invites awareness of the people in the room it is appropriate to comment on the audience’s responses as part of the performance. This was a notable contrast to my experience just days before of an audience almost laughing aloud at a period instrument performance of Beethoven’s Second Symphony.

The almost reverent silence around performances of electronic music puzzles me. It happened again at the concluding piece on the program, DroniPhonia (2009), apparently a “wirednation.hum” parody of gagaku. Unlike gagaku the effects were generated not by people performing minuscule tonal movements in meticulously ordered sequence, but by improvisation combined with iPhones programmed to produce varying mixes of overtones depending on how they are moved around. The drone, on a half-lighted stage with a dozen people wielding iPhones, synthesizers, acoustical instruments (including a conch shell and percussion), a human voice and Ms. Oliveros with her digital accordion was seemingly interminable. It must have been intended as a humorous ending to an evening, which had begun with introductory remarks including Ms. Oliveros hoping that everyone had brought their sleeping bags. The fans who endured to the end seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

Sound design for the evening was by Bob Bielecki with visual design by Benton C. Bainbridge.

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