A review of this 12-CD box set of the pioneering electronic composer by Brian Howe, from the Pitchfork website, June 5th…
With about 10 other people, mostly strangers, I reclined on the floor of an international hand-drum emporium and closed my eyes. We were all trying to cross the internal divide between “the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary selective nature of listening,” which seemed like it could mean a lot of different things. To me, it was about trying to experience sounds for what they were, not what they meant. The hum of a refrigerator and the whoosh of traffic gradually drifted away from their mundane contexts, revealing the variety and interconnection of what I was conditioned to hear as generic and separate. It was harder to detach the clock’s tick from turning gears and passing time. In the moments when I could, I felt very free.
The occasion was a Deep Listening session with certified instructor Shannon Morrow. Deep Listening is less of a thing you do than a way to do all kinds of things – perform, meditate, communicate, compose, or just be in the world. It’s hard to summarize but easy to grasp: a set of broadly accessible philosophies and practices for heightening your awareness of total sound. It’s useful for anyone who wants to develop a musical practice or unlearn conventional sonic hierarchies.
It’s also the core of the art of its creator, Pauline Oliveros, the 80-year-old composer, accordionist, teacher, and electronic music pioneer who easily ranks among the most innovative and influential musicians of the mid-20th-century avant-garde, which still strongly governs experimental music today. She wasn’t the first to become entranced by the pops and whistles in the nether regions of the radio band. But she was one of the first to do something about it, focusing on frequencies instead of melodies, motions instead of rhythms, processes instead of outcomes.
Oliveros only formalized Deep Listening a couple of decades ago, but her curiosity to hear sound out to its very edges – plus the ingenuity to pull it off – has been apparent since she made her earliest works on a new frontier cluttered with magnetic tape, hulking computer rigs, tone oscillators, and primitive modular synthesizers. These are collected for the first time on Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970, a monumental box set from Important Records.
One advantageous thing about tape music is that the performance is also the recording, so there was no shortage of material for this retrospective, which fills a dozen discs in almost as many hours. While any massive tape music collection will have its share of desultory windshear, the vision and variety of Reverberations are incredible, and feel surprisingly untarnished by 50 years of imitation. In the music, two distinct intelligences, one human and one mechanical, circle each other cautiously but inquisitively. We hear unpredictable occurrences, captured in the moment of discovery, becoming first principles for a new generation.
During the 1960s, in the musically thriving Bay Area, Oliveros counted the likes of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Loren Rush as her compatriots. She played accordion in the premiere of In C. She founded theSan FranciscoTapeMusicCenter with Morton Subotnick. She was in the thick of the pure electronic phase predating her seminal electro-acoustic work, using natural sounds and raw test signals as fodder for processing systems of her own design, which could be played almost like instruments.
This distinguished her from her contemporaries, most of whom were meticulous cutters and splicers. Her reel-to-reel delay system predicted Brian Eno’s, but instead of dreamy melodies, she stuffed it full of splintering tones, working with magisterial patience through the kaleidoscope of possibilities in the particular control system. The music comes off as incidentally imagistic, but the answerless fact of sound is paramount. It’s an elaborate magic show of competing frequencies, which apparently can do very weird things if you know what you’re doing, as when a harmony swallows its own root notes so that we hear two absences ringing in tune.
Reverberations feels contemporary, with its twitters and howls and eerie near-vocalizations; its hypnotic flux and explosive events. It should, as it lays substantial groundwork for every electronic drone artist and harsh noise terrorist to come – anyone who relies on signals behaving semi-predictably to tap into an intuition beyond human capacity. On the spectrum of intensity, Oliveros runs from Keith Fullerton Whitman subtlety to John Wiese violence. This speaks to a certain posture of benevolent radicalism that has been as influential as her technical innovations.
A substantial booklet of essays accompanies this release, and a revealing moment comes in one by the artist Cory Arcangel, who studied music with Oliveros. He recalls her fondly describing a performance in the 60s where she tuned oscillators to the frequency of the hall, so the sound multiplied and sent people screaming. “I want to send people screaming from institutions!” Arcangel thought. The dawn of electronic music must have been an ideal time for that, when a second horizon appeared in music above the first one we’d chased for so long. It’s harder to scandalize the academy now, but people are still trying.
I can’t even claim to have heard every minute of Reverberations. I tried to play it in my house from morning to night one day, and it was, of course, overwhelming. I found it more interesting to listen to the same parts and notice how they changed each time. From a Deep Listening perspective, the music is completed by its total sonic environment, which is always different. Listening to the 30-minute-plus “Angel Fix” for the first time, it took a while to realize the birdsong entwined in the loopy high frequencies came from the screen door and not the speakers.
This porous boundary between music and world is immediately associated with John Cage, but Oliveros was right there with him, if not slightly out front; she was just behind Stockhausen in developing a common tongue for electronic music. She built technology we take for granted today, listened carefully to what it had to say, and then brought it back into a humanistic and acoustic process during what may be considered her prime career, from the 70s onward. But that would be a discredit to the groundbreaking work captured on Reverberations. Eerily listenable despite its daunting mien, it also has one of the rarest virtues: necessity. If it didn’t exist, neither would music as we know it today.