Is there any career that gives better birthday celebrations than being a composer? Pauline Oliveros turns 80 later this month and RPI, where she teaches, pulled out all the stops on Thursday night (5/10/12) at EMPAC in Troy. There was music and speeches, cake and champagne, plus party favors (a newly issued DVD).
The vaunted acoustics of the EMPAC concert hall were even spiffed up for the occasion. A computer-aided loudspeaker system, designed by Jonas Braasch and a team of students, recreated the sound of a two million gallon cistern in Washington State where Oliveros made a landmark recording almost 25 years ago. The lush reverb, lasting about 45 seconds according to the program, makes an ideal compliment to Oliveros’ musical aesthetic.
Not everything on the program was actually written by Oliveros though. For that matter none of the pieces really functioned from a traditional score. But Oliveros’ system of “Deep Listening” was apparent throughout the night. All of the pieces were meditative and organic, which isn’t to say that they were always hushed or fragile. Rather they were thoughtful and collaborative, attuned in the space and the moment.
The opening, “Land of Snows,” did have a particularly reverent feel. Oliveros and Stuart Dempster launched it with a few finger cymbals, then blew various sized conch shells. Brian Perti played the dung chen, a brass horn at least 10 feet in length that’s common to Tibetan Buddhist ceremony. Three additional wind players sounded on didjeridus quietly in the back of the house.
In the next selection Oliveros, Dempster and Perti became an improvisational vocal trio. Their pacing was based in breath, their pitches seemingly random. It seemed to illustrate that all sense of dissonance fades away given enough time.
Amidst such soulfulness, the speeches paying honor to Oliveros felt rather intrusive and high minded. But Michael Century struck pay dirt in contrasting how a century of iconoclast composers – Ives, Cowell, Cage, and others (mostly men) – shattered traditions, while Oliveros’ work has been one of integration. He even went so far as to coin a term to describe her: “sona-accordionist.”
Besides being a composer, Oliveros is also an accordionist and she played an electrified version of the instrument at one point. More than a dozen percussionists from RPI, SUNY Albany and the Empire State Youth Orchestra took to the balconies around the hall for another piece. The evening ended with a trio of trombonists who moved about the hall before leading the way to the festive reception in the cafe.
Originally appeared in the Times Union.
Previously on MyBigGayEars: