The Musical Mother of Us All: Pauline Oliveros, a Personal Appreciation


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Pauline Oliveros at one of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts in Oakland.  I published this photo on Pauline’s Wikipedia page.

I woke at about 3PM on the day after Thanksgiving (having worked the previous night shift) and I checked my e-mail and then, on Facebook I learned of the passing of theorist, composer, musician, teacher and all round wonderful human being Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). She had died peacefully in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day.  Going over the copious posts and comments I was saddened at her passing but oddly comforted by the fact that these posts honoring her are effectively eclipsing the ones on the obnoxious political issues as well as demonstrating the incredible reach of her influence.  Thankfully, Pauline will not have to endure the regressive politics which now dominate our country and, indeed, the world.

I first encountered Pauline’s work, as many did, through the Columbia Odyssey LP curated by none other than David Behrman in his Music of Our Time series.  There are several composers on the disc including Steve Reich (Come Out), Richard Maxfield (Night Music), and Pauline Oliveros (I of IV).  Over the years I collected and listened to most of her recordings Discogs lists 55 recordings but no doubt there are many more and likely a plethora of unreleased material which will grace our ears for years to come.  Like her older contemporary John Cage it is difficult to identify a “masterpiece” and, also like Cage, she didn’t aspire to such notions because she aspired to learn and subsequently teach the art of listening. Her Deep Listening Institute is based in Kingston, New York.

 

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Stuart Dempster at another of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts. Stuart is one of the members of Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band

I was pleased to be able to see one of the incarnations of the Deep Listening Band in Chicago at the Harold Washington Library.  This concert occurred on the night of the famed “Chicago Flood” (1992) in which a construction mishap diverted thousands of gallons of water from the Chicago River into the disused coal delivery railway tunnels which connect most of the downtown buildings.  I brought along a postcard from her album The Well and the Gentle hoping to get her autograph.  It was my first face to face meeting with this icon of new music.  She graciously took the card into her hand and immediately exclaimed with a smile, “Oh, this is from the Well”.  She quipped that next time they would hold their concert in one of the “deep tunnels” which are a part of the Chicago’s massive flood control rainfall overflow system.  I still treasure that autograph and the memory of my first meeting with Pauline.

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Ione (l) doing verbal improvisation while Pauline improvises in parallel on her digital accordion at a memorable dinner concert curated by Philip Gelb.

I can hardly tell you my level of excitement when vegan chef and musician Philip Gelb announced that Pauline with her partner Ione would be appearing at his next dinner concert.  The opportunity for a close encounter with this master was certainly heaven sent. (Pauline later wrote the lovely introduction to Philip’s first vegan cookbook.)

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Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes. This vegan chef and cookbook author plays and teaches shakuhachi and curates a wonderful dinner/concert series at his loft in West Oakland.  Philip also appears on several albums with Pauline and others.

Indeed, as I sat across from Pauline no doubt babbling some starstruck nonsense, I encountered in both her and her partner Ione two warm and unpretentious people.  While I knew I was in the presence of genius I was given to feel very welcome as they both engaged me and the other guests in lively conversation at this spectacular vegan meal.  In the pause just before dessert they gave a wonderful performance with Ione speaking improvised and passionate poetic utterances while Oliveros played her quirky improvisations in parallel on her digital accordion.

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Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros’ Twins Peeking at Koto (2014) at Other Minds 20 in 2015

I later got to see Pauline as a returning guest composer/performer at Other Minds 20, a series lovingly and painstakingly curated by composer, broadcaster and new music impresario Charles Amirkhanian.  I believe this was her last major bay area appearance.

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A clearly happy Pauline Oliveros acknowledges the warm applause of the Other Minds 20 audience after her performance at the SF Jazz Center in 2015.

Every year at the Garden of Memory summer solstice concert the open membership Cornelius Cardew Choir performs Oliveros’ Heart Sutra every year.  The verbal score describes how one enters the singing circle and intones basically the note of their choice with one hand over their heart and the other on the back of another singer.  I screwed up my courage to participate in this ritual a few years ago and it is now an essential part of the beginning of my summer.  Pauline has taught me much and no doubt will continue to teach me through her writings and recordings.  For that I am eternally grateful.

 

 

Other Minds 20 and Why You Shouldn’t Miss It


Official Other Minds Logo

Official Other Minds Logo

The three days of concerts scheduled for March 6, 7 and 8 of this year at the beautiful SF Jazz Center will mark the 20th anniversary of Other Minds opening the ears and minds of bay area new music audiences.  Previously composers could only appear once at this festival (thought performers frequently return) but the anniversary celebration is marked by the return of several alumni.  In fact the entire program consists of composer alums.

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and unusual music curated by bay area composer, producer, broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian and his crew at Other Minds.  Along with co-founder, now president emeritus Jim Newman and a varied and sometimes changing crew of talented and dedicated archivists, fund-raisers and coordinators this festival was born in 1993.

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Every year (though the actual month has changed for various reasons related to venue availability and funding) an international group of composers is brought together first at the Djerassi Arts Center just west of Palo Alto where they share their work and ideas with each other for a week in preparation for the performances of their work to come at the concert series.  This residency is a sort of private retreat open only to the composers and the staff of the center.  And given the range of musical styles it must be a fascinating thing to witness as composers largely unfamiliar with each others’ work gather to share and wonder at each others’ strange and innovative ideas.  Who knows what seeds may have been sown?

Sadly, Dr. Carl Djerassi who founded the center passed away on January 30, 2015.  His arts advocacy will live on through his beloved Djerassi Arts Center and this OM 20 will be a testament to that legacy.

What makes this festival so significant is the fine tuned and prescient nature of the selected composers.  Just a quick look at the list of composers and performers who have participated in the past looks almost like a who’s who of new music as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of their commissions, Henry Brant’s (1913-2008)  won a Pulitzer Prize (Ice Field, 2001, Pulitzer Prize, 2002).  And it is programming with a uniquely west coast ethic, whatever that means.  I just know these programs are a different take on new music than that of the east coast.  Not a value judgement there, just a celebration of a different, equally important, point of view.

 

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T MISS OM 20

First you will find a generous (though hardly complete) selection of music by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ) who has been at the helm of this festival from the beginning and was for 23 years the music director of KPFA radio where his programming and interviews with composers and performers of new music spanned a wide and eclectic gamut of styles and techniques.  Perhaps most significant has been his support of northern California composers whose work would otherwise have been poorly represented.  Amirkhanian’s keen ear has introduced a great deal of new and interesting music to bay area audiences and beyond.

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to his abilities as producer and interviewer Charles is also a noted composer.  Trained as a percussionist, he has written quite a bit of music which deserves recognition for its innovation.  His best known works are those with tape recording, sound poetry and the uses of language.   His music will be featured in several performances and will be a welcome and tantalizing complement to the overall diverse tone that characterizes OM programming.

Amirkhanian’s oeuvre will be represented by “Rippling the Lamp” (2007) for violin and tape, three short pieces for voice and tape, “Dumbek Bookache IV” (1988), “Ka Himeni” (1997), “Marathon” (1997) and, on the third concert, “Miatsoom” (1994-97), a piece based on sounds (vocal, ambient and musical) recorded during the only trip Charles and his father made to Armenia in 1994.  This approximately half hour work is typical of his ability to create a fascinating and meaningful sound collage.  Miatsoom is Armenian for reunion, indeed the apparent theme of OM 20.

In an uncharacteristically political expression this year’s festival is in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.  Amirkhanian is the descendant (both he and his father Benjamin were born here) of Armenian immigrants and grew up in Fresno, California.  The genocide of 1915 (also the year of Benjamin’s birth) was in fact only the most infamous and fatal of the ongoing abuses by the Ottoman Turk government in response to Armenians seeking equal rights (a familiar social issue both then and still today).  Charles has been tactfully apolitical in his programming but his music at times has paid respectful homage to his ancestry and their struggles. It seems right to pay respect to one’s ancestors and perhaps acknowledge that we still have much to do and learn in our imperfect world.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

Appropriately the esteemed Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (1939-  ) has been welcomed back and will be represented by two major works.  Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) and Canti Paralleli (2007-8) for soprano and string orchestra are both scheduled for the third concert of the festival.  I was unable to find any details about these pieces but Mansurian’s work certainly deserves to be better known and these performances are a welcome opportunity to hear this major compositional voice.

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Homage will be paid to two past masters who are no longer with us, American  composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014).  Harrison was a beloved bay area figure whose work with gamelan and other world musics led him to experimentation with alternate tuning systems.  Harrison will be represented by his “Scenes from Nek Chand” (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar tuned in just intonation by the wonderful guitarist David Tannenbaum who will also play Sculthorpe’s “From Kakadu” (1993) for conventionally tuned classical guitar.  Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania, was one of Australia’s best known composers who essayed widely in chamber, choral and orchestral music. His 14th string quartet (with didgeridoo played by Stephen Kent) “Quamby” (1998), played by the amazing Del Sol Quartet (who recorded all 18 of the composer’s string quartets) is scheduled to conclude the first concert.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

 

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros (1932- ) is one of the grand ladies of new music.  Her theoretical work in defining music and the act of listening as partners in the creative process and her subsequent compositions including ground breaking work with early electronics with the San Francisco Tape Music Center and later at Mills College characterize her wide range of interests and her insights.  Her principal instrument, strangely enough, is an accordion and she will be performing as well.  OM has commissioned a new work from her, “Twins Peeking at a Koto” (2015, world premiere) for two accordions and koto.  to be presented at the second concert.  Playing the koto will be Miya Masaoka (1958-  ) whose second string quartet will receive its world première on the first night by the  Del Sol Quartet.  Masaoka, Japanese/American native of Washington D.C., is a New York based composer whose work brings her to the west coast frequently where she is a founding member of the Bay Area experimental improv trio Maybe Monday.  Her work involves improvisation and frequently uses unusual sound sources like bees and even cockroaches (not to worry, no insects are slated to perform) and creates site specific multi-disciplinary works in collaboration with musicians and dancers.

Miya Masaoka

Miya Masaoka

Errolyn Wallen (1958-  ) can be said to embody the OM ethic.  Born in Belize, Wallen  left the Dance Theater of Harlem to study composition in England and says of her work, “We don’t break down barriers in music…we don’t see any.”  Her Percussion Concerto (1994)  was the first work by a black woman to have been performed at the London Proms Concerts.   Her “London’s Burning and other songs” will be played on the second night by the SOTA string quartet and Wallen voice and piano.

Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen

Don Byron (1958- ) similarly states that he strives for “a sound beyond genre”.  Steeped in classical, jazz and folk musics, Byron’s quartet (Don Byron, clarinet; Aruán Ortiz, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; John Betsch, drums) is featured at the conclusion of the second night of the festival.

Don Byron

Don Byron

Maja S.K. Ratkje (1973- ) from Norway whose work is perhaps related to Mr. Amirkhanian’s  in her exploration of the possibilities of the human voice.  Her “Traces 2” (2014-5) will receive its U.S. premiere on the first night’s concert.

Maja Ratkje

Maja Ratkje

The third concert will be unusual for two reasons.  First it will take place beginning at 3PM and, second it will feature a full orchestra.  This night will conclude with U.S. premiere of the Second Symphony (2014) by Michael Nyman (1945- ) .  Nyman is perhaps best known for his numerous wonderful film scores but is also highly accomplished in his work in the concert hall.  In the past three years Nyman has turned for the first time to the Symphony form and has completed to date no fewer than 11  symphonies.  Quite a feat.

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets still available as low as $15/night.  Quite a festival!