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An immersion in music from Pauline Oliveros and friends

Jesse Stewart, Gayle Young, and Pauline Oliveros listen intently and react musically at their Ottawa concert January 16. ©2016 Brett Delmage

Pauline Oliveros and Friends
Canadian New Music Network Forum 2016
First Baptist Church
Saturday, January 16, 2016 – 8 p.m.

View photos of Pauline Oliveros and friends

American accordionist, composer, and musical theorist Pauline Oliveros has been rethinking and overturning ideas about avant-garde composition and improvisation for the last five decades. She's influenced many performers, composers, and free jazz improvisers with her ideas on deep listening – including some of those who performed with her in her Ottawa concert on Saturday.

The concert was an extraordinary blending of many voices, with nine musicians collaborating in a completely free improvisation on a wide variety of instruments. And the result was not just ear-opening and often beautiful music; it also exemplified Oliveros' music-making theories.

Cognitive research has shown that people process the information from their senses in two major – and complementary – ways: focused attention where we process information sequentially, and global or diffuse attention, where we can process many sources of information in parallel. Oliveros has applied those insights to creating and listening to music, with exercises designed to create and maintain states of attention to enhance collaboration.

As a listener, I realized I had to switch between these two states of attention in order to appreciate this concert. In order to hear the music as a whole, I couldn't concentrate on any one instrument but instead had to let the entire sound wash over me. But in order to appreciate the interesting sounds any one musician or small group of musicians was making, I had to concentrate on them in particular and only hear the other instruments peripherally. It was a constant process of swapping modes.

It was a different experience from most concerts, where you generally listen to a single melody or groove, with all the musicians contributing to it. Here, several quite separate strands of music co-existed in parallel – but still fitted together and enhanced each other.

The musicians were spread across the front of the church, Oliveros on V accordion in the centre. To her right were Jesse Stewart on bass drum, waterphone, and percussion; Craig Pedersen on trumpet and mutes; Koen Kaptijn on trombone and mutes; Ellen Waterman on flutes and piccolo; and Gayle Young on the amaranth, a large, 24-string, free-standing zither-like instrument of her own design, which she played with double bows, a cheese parer, and various mallets.

Sitting beside Oliveros was vocalist Ione, who added poetic declamations and vocalizations. To her left was Raphael Weinroth-Browne on cello, and Lan Tung on erhu (Chinese violin) and wordless vocals.

While some, like Young and Stewart, had collaborated with Oliveros before, others like Pedersen had not. The musicians, some of whom were local and others from across Canada, the U.S., and Europe, had only a 15-minutes rehearsal while audience members waited outside the sanctuary.

But the resulting music still had a notable unity, because the musicians were listening very closely and responding to each other. It began very quietly, with Pedersen barely breathing into his trumpet and Oliveros just opening and closing her accordion, followed by squeaks from the erhu, light tones on the cello and flute, and Stewart rapidly moving a cymbal in his hand through the air. The peaceful, wind-blown sounds slowly built in volume, with Ione adding hisses and vocalizations and then not-quite-audible words.

The music, almost eerie in feel, flowed from one side of the church to the other, as musicians took up and put down their instruments, each adding tonality or textures in response to another. Growls on trumpet and barks on trombone underlined the airiness of the flute and the light wails on erhu and cello. It reminded me of a large lake, with ripples appearing and disappearing on the surface.

It continued to evolve throughout the 45 minutes, verging into atonal cacophony mid-way. Young's amaranth, which she both played percussively with mallets, and melodically with two bows (the second bow was used to effectively shorten strings to change their pitch) was an important underlying part of the sound. She also played a child's toy – a metal can with an associated long wire coil which she said came from the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco – which she used to add echoing vibrations.

Oliveros rarely took the lead, preferring instead to add fundamental accordion chords against which others could react. Pedersen used a variety of mutes and techniques to get many different sounds from his trumpet – including at one point what sounded like static – as did Kaptijn on trombone. Several times, Kaptijn partially or fully disassembled his trombone, at one point letting the pieces clatter to the floor.

Stewart added high shimmers and bright chimes by bowing his cymbals and a small brass bowl, and played his waterphone both as a percussive instrument and as a melodic one, bowing the spines to create reverberating lines.

I was particularly impressed with how well Weinroth-Browne's cello and Tung's erhu complemented each other, despite the erhu only having one string compared to the cello's four; the two moved from almost classical romantic sounds to their antithesis in quick succession.

Both Tung and Ione contributed vocals: Tung strictly wordless and in some cases edging into screams. Ione, who has previously performed in duets with Oliveros, sometimes sung, sometimes talked conversationally, sometimes created animal-like sounds, sometimes declaimed what sounded like snatches of poetry. While her voice certainly added interesting textures to the music and a contrasting harshness, I found her words frustratingly hard to follow and often at odds with the rest of the music.

Part of Oliveros' deep listening is using global awareness to allow musicians to respond in the moment to others, and you could hear that in how quickly the sounds moved throughout the group and could abruptly turn corners. There was no framework as such for how the musicians played, but the responsiveness provided its own feeling of completeness. The audience, which filled the church almost to the back, was quiet and motionless throughout, clearly immersed and involved in the music.

Near the end of the 45-minute concert, musicians began to leave the front of the church and proceed down the side aisles, playing as they walked, and adding to the music-in-the-round feel. With only Oliveros, Weinroth-Browne, Ione, and Young left at the front, the music became deeper and almost classical in feel. The combination of accordion, cello, and bowed amaranth exultantly rang out in the resonant church sanctuary, then modulated to something slower and more minor-key, and then faded out.

There was a dead silence for well over a minute and then, as the musicians relaxed their stances on stage, the audience rose for an extended standing ovation.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos of Pauline Oliveros and friends

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