So far we have skimmed some of the studio set ups and processes that yielded a portion of the electronic work of Oliveros during the 1960s. In the context of echo, she had used everything from her tape loop process using two or more machines, and various spring reverb units when available. We mentioned naturally occurring resonant tools such as the bath tub used in Time Perspectives, but skipped over the early tape work utilizing the auditory properties of apple boxes, in which the “interest in resonance is also reflected.” By the early 1970s Oliveros’s work was moving away from the confines of the cave like studio set up, and she seemed more engaged with resonance in the world around her, the world as in both the grand physical space, and the one on one interpersonal resonance with humans.
Though she worked with groups in spaces all throughout the 1960s, perhaps mostly due to the nature of documentation, or in SFTMC’s case, lack thereof, we can come away from the 1960s work of Pauline Oliveros’s and think of it as a solitary practice, in the studio, despite many collaborative works, a good deal incorporating dance and or theatre. She herself states, “Tape delay was cumbersome.” Since she preferred to perform electronic music live rather than present fixed media pieces as quite a few of her contemporaries did, and as for the studio she stated “For some reason, however, I’m not interested in going into a studio anymore. I’m not sure why. I guess I prefer the contact of nice warm bodies to the cold isolation of a studio.”
Perhaps a movement from the elemental character of echo to the more encompassing, grand worldly and elemental properties of pure resonance can be seen in this transference from hermetic to communal? Of note her Sonic Meditations began around this time too and are very much tied to community.
Constant curiosity had her investigate John J. O’Neill’s biography of Serbian Electronic Engineer Nikola Tesla, Prodigal Genius, and it is not surprising that this character would excite the electronic music community so with its dramatic story of the outsider scientist seen as a mad magician, and, particularly, his noted experiment in resonant frequencies causing earthquakes.
Oliveros often refers to experiencing sound not just with her ears, but also as a physical experience, i.e., hearing with her entire body. In this sense investigating what resonate frequencies will effect physical spaces, something she began doing with David Tudor as a performance based work, was a natural extension from her excitement of Tesla’s experiments. Tudor and her even went as far as to incorporate this episode into a score to accompany a Merce Cunningham dance piece entitled Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer. Though, based upon the audio and video documentation, as far as I could tell resonating frequencies were not a central part to this piece, but these resonating aspects often do not translate through recordings. Oliveros has discussed the experiments she and Tudor performed at this period with glee as she described rotating the stationary flags lined up in a theatre with the simple act of broadcasting these low end sounds.
As she moved from the studio to more improvisatory live acoustic work,
practicing and performing with her accordion, solo and in groups,
Oliveros began working at the University of California, San Diego, which
despite her new leanings towards acoustic ensembles, had a decent
electronic studio. It was during this time that call and response seems
to not only be part of the listening and meditative process of her
improvisatory work, but also in her compositional work. Looking at a
1976 score of Willowbrook we see it calls for two groups of
players, a “Generating Group” and a “Reflective Group.” Through the
instructions on the score delineating tasks between the two groups we
get a sense once again of a reverberating space, created by the
composer, much like the internal circuit and wire based one of the
electronic studio, but now opened up out of the voltaic domain and now
in the world of “warm bodies” and acoustical space.
The notion of acoustical space becomes a dominating concern for Oliveros and her work. “Varieties of music and acoustical spaces combine in symbiotic relationships that range from very limited to very powerful for the interweaving expressions of musical art, architectures, and audiences.” This is nothing terribly new in the context of performance spaces, cathedrals in the western world, and communal spaces where weeklong festivals incorporating music, dance, and other aspects of a given culture have existed as long as human kind has had communities and the structures in which to perform them. In modern classical music we even have composers designing spaces for their music to be performed and heard in such as composer Richard Wagner working with architect Gottfried Semper on Bayreuth’s Festival Theater (1876), the Artists’ Colony in Darmstadt (1901) and the Bauhaus’ Artists’ Theater in Dessau (1921), that is, performance venues conceived by artists themselves and specifically tailored to suit their needs and artistic vision.
Alternately we see Oliveros quite content in investigating and incorporating the existing world of performance spaces. The world to her seems not something to be bent and crafted to her creative needs and liking. There is a grand sense of inclusiveness in her work, and a space that conventionally is thought of, as having undesired acoustic properties to most performers and composers is not necessarily a “bad” acoustic space to her. “Oliveros is not about telling other folks how the music they play (or don’t) should (or shouldn’t) sound.”
Perhaps the one of the most spectacular spaces in terms of reverberance and delayed, naturally occurring echo that she has performed in was the two-hundred feet in diameter and fourteen feet deep cistern built as a water supply system for the Fort Worden military base. Emptied of its 2 million gallons, it yields a 45 second delay, and is now named the “Dan Harpole Cistern” in honour of Harpole’s life and work in the arts. The interplay with her small group of players, known as the Deep Listening Band, trombonist and didgeridoo player Stuart Dempster and vocalist Panaiotis produced sustained tones that are modulated by the acoustics, making it often seem as if there were more instruments then there are, or as if this music has been electronically processed, which we know is not the case. The unfortunate end effect of listening to such awe-inspiring recording, known simply as Deep Listening, is that, unlike the electronically produced tape pieces, you realize that you are missing something by not experiencing it live.
Yet another subterranean space that The Deep Listening Band performed in and have released recordings of are on the 1990 CD Troglodyte’s Delight. Performed in the Tarpaper Caves of Rosendale New York, a mere half hour from the Deep Listening Institute headquarters in Kingston New York, these caves are also, like the cistern, abandoned by their original inception. A prime source of natural cement, they were dug out prior to the 1900s, its materials used in construction of national landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty two hours south in New York City, as well as for the nations Capitol building in Washington, DC. Limestone being the primary mineral, the walls of these caves are hard and dense, and its tunnels varied and winding yielding an abundance of varieties of echo and reverberation that no electronic effect, digital or other, could compete with. At its base there is a perpetually frozen stream, even in the high tempters of the Upstate New York summers, creating yet another reverberant surface on which the Deep Listening Band, this time expanded as a five piece augmented by guests percussionist Fritz Hauser and vocalist Julie Lyon Balliette, would sound out the space.
Where to go from there? Why not up? Earlier this year Oliveros used the unique performance space of Ann Hamilton’s nearly nine story high Tower at Oliver Ranch in Sonoma County, California. Chiefly constructed from a similar concrete that was excavated to create the caves in New York. Examining the score of Tower Ring one gets a sense that the experience in the bright sun of Northern California will be a more uplifting, for lack of a better term, positively spiritual? This is an interesting contrast to Troglodyte’s Delight, which has in its sound and title almost a black humour quality that is often associated with New York and the North East. “I think there is, of course, a very large difference in the two landscapes. The West coast has more space, so to speak; longer distances between cities. The East coast is more compacted and of course more influenced by traditional values than the West coast.” With its highly expanded orchestra cascading bells and voices, gongs and long wire instruments bounce and reverberate through the tall narrow space up and through the open top. And though there is larger arsenal one gets a sense that it’s not as dense as the underground performances.
An obvious thread leads through all of these experiments, compositions, performances and philosophies. By really listening to the world around us, an echo will reverberate a sound quality uniquely reflected by the receiver/sender who dwells in that space.
© Benjamin Ethan Tinker, 2011