"Strange Sounds Led a Composer to a Long Career"
The New York Times, August 12, 2012
Profiling the composer, improviser and teacher Pauline Oliveros for The New York Times was an incredible privilege; the only problem is that it feels like I barely scratched the surface of everything we covered in a long, generous conversation. This piece easily could have been twice as long, or even more. Still, I did manage to cover some important turf, including information about an amazing new 12-CD box set of Oliveros's trailblazing electronic music and details about upcoming performances: on August 21 at the Stone, where she is the guest curator August 17-31; and on September 7 at the New Museum.
When I originally conceived this article, I'd intended to include reflections from Oliveros's associates, protégés and students. That didn't work out in the end, but I'm very pleased to be able to offer, as a Night After Night exclusive bonus track, some insights from Dana Reason, a Canadian-born pianist, composer, improviser and educator based in Corvallis, Oregon. Reason is the director of Popular Music Studies at Oregon State University, and has released 11 albums. From 1998 to 2003, she and Oliveros collaborated in a wonderful trio, The Space Between, which also included the superb shakuhachi player Philip Gelb. Reason will be performing at the Stone on August 28 at 10pm as part of Oliveros's series.
Night After Night: When and how did you first come to work with Pauline Oliveros?
Dana Reason: I heard Oliveros play the first Bang on a Can festival in NYC when I was 18 years old. The live performance of Sonic Meditations had a profound effect on me. Several years later, I was performing at the Newfoundland Sound Symposium and Oliveros was the featured composer in residence. She conducted several workshops that I attended and I introduced myself to her. In 1995, I went out to Mills College to study composition. In 1996, Oliveros was the Darius Milhaud chair and I had the tremendous fortune of studying composition with her.
After Mills, Oliveros, Philip Gelb (shakuhachi player and improviser) and I formed The Space Between – a trio that literally dealt with the huge tuning gaps between 3 unlikely musical suspects: a just-tuned accordion, a bamboo flute, and a well-tempered piano.
We performed various concerts and lectures (Stanford, RPI, Roulette, U of Colorado, etc.) and would often demonstrate a scale played in “unison” by the trio. The sound was quite thick and cluster-like but intriguing (full of possibilities). The idea with the trio was to place timbre as the focal point for the ensemble. The works were textural, sonically rich and expressive. I would often refrain from playing the piano with conventional fare and would seek alternate sound sources from the body, and inside of the piano. Our work together culminated in 4 CD recordings. Each recording featuring a fourth guest performer such as French bassist Joëlle Léandre, bassist Barre Philips, saxophonist Jon Raskin (from Rova) and the late Matt Sperry on bass. All the albums were concert recordings headed up by David Wessel at CNMAT at UC Berkeley.
Night After Night: What lessons would you say you learned from Pauline, either in a formal setting, in more casual circumstances, or both?
Dana Reason: First and foremost, Oliveros taught me how to listen. Her approach as a composer, performer and improviser is very refined. There is a virtuosic quality to the way she focuses her attention with each note, gesture or silence enacted. Her works could be heard as an extension and perhaps revision of John Cage's contested remark to “let sounds be themselves,” in that she provokes sounds to not only be themselves but also to be extensions of herself. Because of this, the sounds she elicits and emits are implicitly and explicitly connected to her as the originator. The sounds embody and heed Pauline’s sonological DNA.
Night After Night: Lacking the usual "classical composer" model of scores to be performed by other musicians, what form would you say Pauline's enduring legacy might take?
Dana Reason: Perhaps the apogee of Oliveros’ lineage is a body of writings, compositions and performances centered in “The Art of Sounding, Hearing and Listening.” Her works encourage individual and collective sonic actions and identities to form and be transformed. These sonic identities question performance practices ranging from the non-professional or conservatory bound musician to the music-cultural practices of contemporary and improvised music, notation and oral tradition.
Oliveros loosens and challenges western music's historical divisions between performer and listener; performer and composer, composer and improviser, listener and listening.
Dana Reason performs at the Spectrum on August 26 at 7pm, and at the Stone on August 28 at 10pm.