Pauline Oliveros – “Four Electronic Pieces 1959-1966” (2008)

November 6, 2009 at 10:11 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This is a review by Bill Meyer from Dusted Groove (Feb. 10, 2009) concerning a 2008 collection of early compositions of electronic pioneer Pauline Oliveros. Some of this stuff still sounds remarkably modern, and sounds like it was recorded at least 10 years into the future, at the very least…

One of the biggest challenges facing the pioneers of electronic music was simply getting your hands on the gear. To go the high-end route, you had to get have some sort of institution behind you; never mind the cost of proper recording equipment, those early computers that filled up a room were pretty expensive. Even then, others opted for army surplus cast-offs and repurposed consumer electronics. Pauline Oliveros does both on these four pieces, which are finally enjoying commercial release nearly a half-century after their realization.Oliveros, who was born in Texas about five months before FDR first won the presidency, made the earliest piece here with cardboard tubes, kitchen implements and a tape recorder she bought at Sears. “Time Perspectives” sounds remarkably prescient, predicting both the sensory ethnographic work of someone like Ernst Karel and the sound world of extended-technique improvisers like Mats Gustafsson and John Butcher. On the one hand, there’s something almost documentarian in her measuring of the sounds in her home, even if she was unwilling to simply record the sounds available to her (filtering and tape-speed manipulation change the qualities). And although neither the liner notes nor the piece’s title acknowledge it, there’s something pretty subversive about a woman using a woman’s tools and domain to encroach on the men’s club of high-art composition. This was not obedient music. But the way she used cardboard tubes as sound filters also generated sounds remarkably similar to the saxophone as a spit-filled tube, and Butcher in particular makes similar use of radically different sounds in close juxtaposition. This must have sounded pretty alien when Oliveros first presented it at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1960.The other three pieces date from 1965-6, after Oliveros gained access to electronic music studios in San Francisco and Toronto. She used oscillators, amplification and a couple tape recorders to make “Mnemonics III,” and the impact of tape delay upon pure electronic tones brings this piece quite close in sound to the more pop-oriented work of BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. With its episodes of film projector chatter (courtesy of a bigger bank of Canadian-bankrolled oscillators) and its razor-edged high frequencies, “V of IV” almost passes for mid-’90s Pita. And “Once Again / Buchla Piece,” recorded with the titular proto-synthesizer, is bracingly raw and aggressive.None of this music sounds much like the more meditative work Oliveros has made in recent decades, but it shows that she was one of the pioneers of electronic noise and made the most out of the least.

Bill Meyer

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