Friday, December 30, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Pauline Oliveros

Do you Deep Listen?

I don't mean whether or not you listen deeply, but rather if you practice Deep Listening, an altogether more obscure and delicious type of listening.  Chances are you think that I'm foisting a Zen riddle or bad popsicle stick joke on you, but some of you will recognize that phrase as the calling card of one of the premiere ambient music groups in the US, one whose importance and recording sites were both very large indeed.  I'm referring, of course, to the Deep Listening Band, a group created by the great Pauline Oliveros, a singular figure in Classical music and beyond who kept on trucking to the very end.

Oliveros was able to surmount incredible odds to make a career in music, specifically being taught the accordion when she was a child*.  Once she reached college she bounced around a few institutions before settling in at San Francisco State College where she came under the tutelage of Robert Erickson, one of America's great compositional never-heard-a-'im's, and first met her longtime co-conspirator and co-genius Stuart Dempster, as well as the one and only Terry Riley.

You see, these were the Days of Wine and Hallucinogens, the heady and wacky era of New Music when the cultural revolution was seeping into academia, the era of John Cage's greatest influence, and Oliveros took to it all like a ring in a bell.  She was an original member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an important early center for electronic music on the west coast, and became the director of it when it moved to Mills College on the Wrong Side of the Tracks**.  During this time she developed the Expanded Instrument System, an improvisational technique that combined live instrumental playing with electronics and sound processing environments, and would continue to refine and employ this system throughout her career, especially with the DLB.  She wised up after a while and moved back to California to teach at UC San Diego, in a department that Erickson co-founded, and eventually became the director of the university's Center for Music Experiment (sic).  However, she left that position, at the end a tenured one, in 1981 to move to upstate New York and become an independent musician and composer, a bold move that freed her creatively and allowed here to further immerse herself in nature, a foretelling move if there ever was one.

In 1988 (my birth date, by the way JEALOUS MUCH?!), she heard about the Fort Worden Cistern in Port Townsend, WA, a massive military well that had long ago been drained and was built to hold millions of gallons of water.  Joined by Dempster on trombone and the vocalist Panaiotis (check his Wikipedia page for pronunciation), Oliveros descended into the cistern to make an album-length improvisation that took advantage of the cistern's incredible 30-second echo.  The result was Deep Listening, the first album to capture what would become a band, institute and philosophy.  Deep Listening is a little hard to define (Oliveros wrote a book on it if you need a longform explanation) but Oliveros offered a single sentence version: "listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing".  It's essentially a way of creating an immersive soundspace ruled by sympathetic, resonant improvisation and geared at achieving higher sonic awareness, though that sentence in itself is a bit goofy.  However you want to define it the results with the Band are excellent, and the group has put out 15 albums as of this writing.  Their future is a bit uncertain with Oliveros's passing but the albums will continue to stand as a testament to the Band's magical creativity, and founding member Stuart Dempster is still alive and kicking.

Speaking of Dempster: his 80th birthday was back in July, and there was a concert/happening in his honor at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle.  I stopped in, as I had worked with Dempster years prior when he visited the University of Puget Sound, and I enjoyed every second of his birthday jam, a nearly 2-hour improvisation preceded by the audience humming outside and ended with Dempster himself (seated practically right next to me the whole night, unbeknownst to myself until he got up) leading a big group dance/conga line/whoopinanny.  Among the musicians were Seattle trombonist/Indian music specialist/goofball Greg Powers on flugelbone (a fascinating flugelhorn/trombone hybrid) and squeaking pig toy and the unearthly vocalist Ione, whose mouth improv must be seen to be believed.  Also present was Oliveros, who had quite the talent with a harmonica and looked happy to still be performing at her age.  I clandestinely made a nearly 20-minute video of part of the improvisation with my phone, so hopefully one day I'll upload the footage to YouTube and get sued by somebody, but rest assured that it was a warm and fuzzy 80th bash and I'm very happy I went.  I'm also very happy I was able to see Oliveros perform live before her passing, and I guess that what I saw was one of her last performances - and thankfully it was a great one.

There's a lot to the life and career of Pauline Oliveros, electronic and improvisation music iconoclast and overall musical legend, but I feel that nothing could be a better eulogy for her career than showing you guys some Deep Listening goodness.  Here's the original Deep Listening album in full, originally released in 1989 by New Albion and still in print as one of the coolest ambient music projects of all time.  Rest in peace, Pauline.



No comments:

Post a Comment