Sunday, October 07, 2012

Pauline Oliveros at Mills

Canfield in Mills Pavilion. (Pauline's white head in audience, lower right.)        Photo: Lindsey Shere
Eastside Road, October 7, 2012—
ANOTHER QUICK REPORT from Mills College: we returned last night for the second, concluding concert celebrating Pauline Oliveros's eightieth birthday. The program began with Jonas Braasch, a sound artist and acoustician whose work, new to me, is apparently centered on that area involving the physical neurology, you might say, of sound, as it informs and is informed by essentially musical considerations.

In the old days it was enough to be a musician, to sing and play instruments, to know and respect the repertory, and perhaps to add to that repertory, thereby becoming a composer. If instead — or, in some cases, if as well — you also thought about all this, and perhaps studied its history and speculated on its present and maybe even (though this is essentially stupid) its future, why then you were a critic. That was what I did, in a simple-minded, journalistic way, for a number of years.

In or about the 1970s a relatively small number of avant-gardists began to move everything into a much more advanced, complex, even rarified atmosphere, intrigued by the new discoveries being made, largely due to increasingly fine and quickened tools, into what I think of as physics. The physics of natural things may help us consider this: with better rules, lighting, and arithmetical processing we can learn more about, say, the way sound bounces between walls. Clear enough. If you apply the results you may be able to build better concert halls, meaning halls whose surfaces interfere with the hearing of performances in more beneficial ways than disadvantageous ones — particularly if you analyze already present halls, like say the Concertgebouw or Boston's concert hall, already known to be effective.

So far we're dealing with engineering. A generation of musicians became entranced with such matters, thanks no doubt to modern education and increased intercommunication between artists and technicians generally — the "Experiments in Art and Technology," pioneered in the 1960s, were only one of many investigations into such fields — and where in centuries before musicians were primarily mediating between their personal expressive needs and desires and the delights and rewards of dealing with those desires in such social situations as chapels, court orchestras, dance bands, and parlor musicales (or their equivalents in cultural contexts other than European ones), it was now becoming possible to deal with them in laboratories.

At about the same time the grammar of western music had begun to give way. It's something like what happened to language during the Dark Ages: as the complexities and subtleties of Latin fell into disuse, because of geographically widespread centers replacing the monolithic center that had been Rome, other kinds of complexities and subtleties replaced them, largely expressive ones, in the new Romance languages, and entirely new poetic forms and techniques evolved, many of which were adopted over the years.

So the late Twentieth Century: and the wonder is that the process, and the events marking its progression, and the marvelously gifted and disciplined men and women involved, were so little noticed by the general public — including the critical establishment and the press, among whom only their own similar subset seemed either interested or, more significant, provided with platforms from which to announce their interest, to present and celebrate the activity they were lucky enough to witness in so historic a moment.
The San Francisco Bay Area was at the center of one of these moments, and at the center of one Bay Area phenomenon of the time stood the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which itself centered, at first, on Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, and Mort Subotnick. A few years after its inception at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (though without much support from that institution at the time) the SFTMC set up shop at 321 Divisadero Street in San Francisco, sharing the rented building with the Ann Halprin Dance Workshop and radio KPFA. (I was music director at KPFA shortly after this took place, and am writing most of this out of my memory; I may get a few names and dates wrong.)

A few years later the Tape Music Center received a sizable grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which required them to have some affiliation with an accredited educational institution, and Mort Subotnick, who was then on faculty at Mills College, helped finesse the installation of the TMC there, with Pauline Oliveros as the director. The centrality of Mills College and especially its music department to the significant history of musical progress in the Twentieth Century can hardly be overstated.

Well: This is why Pauline Oliveros was recognized on this significant occasion, on the same terms as was John Cage whose centennial shared the bill Friday night. Last night's concert began, as I say, with Jonas Braasch, who walked onto a nearly bare stage carrying a soprano saxophone. To his right was a chair next to a trombone on its stand; to his left another chair held a red accordion. He ignored them, standing well upstage, and began to play, his sound picked up and processed electronically.

It's a long time since I've listened to live electronic music — a medium, by the way, with which I first became familiar in this very concert hall, when a group visiting from the University of California at Davis presented its First Festival of Live Electronic Music here in the late 1960s. (In those years UC Davis was one of the few other establishment Bay Area institutions willing to grant such music the time of day.) I found Braasch's performance fascinating, rich, subtle. His tone is very pure and clear, and the processing did not interfere with it. We heard what seemed a perfect balance of acoustical and electronic sound, the latter at the service really of the former. The texture was even, rarely busy, rarely loud. Braasch called this performance System Test, and perhaps systems of some kind — whether technological or compositional — were being tested: but we in the audience were not; we were being rewarded.

Shortly before the end of this Test Pauline Oliveros entered from stage left, Stuart Dempster from stage right; they walked in quietly and gracefully, took their seats, and took up their instruments, listening to Braasch and entering, I think, the "spirit" of the moment — the spirit, or the method, or the quality; I hardly know what kind of word to use.

This is what music is about, among other things; the neurological and psychological network of perceived and remembered and imagined sounds and the "meanings" we attribute to them as they evolve, privately or through the fiction of shared cultural significances. At some moment Braasch was silent; Stu and Pauline had begun their work; he left the stage as quietly and respectfully as they had entered; and the sound of his saxophone was replaced by those of the trombone and the accordion, again processed, quite subtly and magically, by software Braasch had developed for them.

The result, called Returning, allows them to adapt whatever concert venue they are playing in to a simulation of a unique sonic environment they first visited over twenty years ago, the Dan Harpole Cistern in Port Townsend, Washington, whose 45-second reverberation had inspired their recording Deep Listening in 1989. Long, quiet, flawlessly sustained tones on trombone and occasionally accordion provide the structure of this music, articulated or modulated by fluttering gestures in which Pauline's right hand, flicking buttons on her accordion, trigger changes in the computerized sound-processing, sometimes answered by mouthpiece percussive effects from Dempster.

I could have listened to the result twice as long. I turned my head quietly from side to side, cupped an ear now and then, and remarked internally the acoustical responses of the hall itself to this serene, meditative celebration of sound and its physical and mental presence and effectiveness. You don't want to treat an occasion like this without respect and almost reverence, and I don't want to examine it verbally any further.
From there it was across the road to the Pavilion again, as it had been the previous evening, for a repeat performance of Event with Canfield, choreography by the late Merce Cunningham danced by the Mills Repertory Dance Company, with In Memoriam Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer, the score Pauline Oliveros provided for the 1969 collaboration.

Again, we sat relatively high in the bleachers fronting the performance, this time in the last row audience left. The performance seemed quite different from the previous evening's. The comments among themselves by the sound engineers — John Bischoff, Chris Brown, James Fei, and Maggi Payne — were clearer, more present than they had been as they went about their work of analyzing the pavilion's acoustics with speech, sweep-tones from a slide whistle or the sweep generator, and percussive noises from clapsticks or the popping of balloons. (That latter apparently replaced an intended use of a cap pistol.)

At the same time, the dancers seemed both more relaxed and assured than the previous night but also less precise and crisply effective. The familiar Cunningham repertory of suddenly unpredictable and unconventional gesture and attitude needs objectivity, sureness, and abstraction, I think, even when its "meaning" is inescapably involved with human emotion and social (or couple-based) significance.

Still, the even brought life and energy to Cunningham's bequest. The range of body type, the adaptation of late-Sixties concept to facilities of nearly fifty years later, perhaps above all the new, younger audience — all that seems to restore the bright surprise and awareness of the dance, of Robert Morris's brilliant mechanistic travelling light beam (literally), of Jasper Johns's costumes which reinforce the Degas Spartan Games quality I often associate with Cunningham's work.

The interaction between an artist's privately imagined or conceived visions, the tools and techniques provided him by his art form and its history and repertory, the implications brought to his work by the social and natural context of his life, and the meaning imposed on it by his colleagues and audiences — this is what is at the core of Merce Cunningham's work, and that of the artists and musicians with whom he collaborated. All this remains, for me, the most important, significant aspect of creative art; it explains its function and its relevance, its necessity even, in our time. And I thank Mills College, and its staff and faculty and trustees, for recognizing this and persisting in this important work.

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