by Jacob Greenberg, pianist and Director of Recordings and Digital Outreach
It’s a treat in a musician’s life to have time to incubate a project. It happens with some frequency at ICE, from our experiences in ICElab—with collaborations lasting a full season or longer, and sometimes growing to larger productions—to the week we just spent at the ONE Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC in Los Angeles, working with Pauline Oliveros’s most trusted colleagues. Pauline is a central figure in ICE’s 17-18 season, with events culminating at the end of November: an appearance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the UK, followed by two New York concerts including the full premiere of The Nubian Word for Flowers. Nubian was Pauline’s last, unfinished theater piece, about colonialism in Egypt and the sensuality of geographical and botanical exploration.
The ONE Archives and their generous director, David Evan Frantz, hosted ICE for our week of research and performance. IONE, Pauline’s partner and the brilliant librettist of Nubian, was with us for the whole duration, and gave us a bird’s-eye view of the work’s genesis and major themes. She described how Pauline came to be interested in the historical figures involved and the stunning physical location where the work takes place. A powerful performer also, IONE gave us a taste of how she will be a narrating voice in the piece and play some crucial characters.
Also fortunately on hand was Anne Bourne, a cellist and certified Deep Listener with a decades-long association with Pauline. Though Anne won’t play in Nubian, she was invaluable in guiding us through another major piece of Pauline’s, Primordial/Lift, which we performed at the Archives in its entirety. Primordial/Lift, premiered in 1999, is grounded on a sound oscillator—we used Pauline’s own vintage equipment!—ascending over the course of 75 minutes from a subaudible rumble to a pitched D above middle C. As the instruments individually merged with the oscillator in sustained tones, the composite sound that “spiked” from the general texture was always remarkable, commanding the ear’s attention.
Every ICE performance has a unique physical orientation, and with a non-traditional venue, we quickly have to find our way. Thanks to Josh Rubin and Ross Karre, we managed a speaker array that balanced the instruments with the sound oscillator expertly, panning towards and highlighting individual instruments in line with Pauline’s instructions. Seven players were arranged around the space: electric guitar, violin, oboe, alto saxophone, bassoon, Indian harmonium, and Anne on cello with a vocal microphone.
How can one describe the experience of playing a piece of Pauline’s with long durations and relatively few instructions? For me, it’s similar to playing a slow movement of a Mozart sonata: listening spontaneously for infinite detail makes the journey always active, and we’re able to spin out a long, concentrated line of music. Even as the ensemble is encouraged to always listen intently, it’s never a passive involvement; this is consonant with the Deep Listening tradition. When we’re moved to play, we do, but “laying back” and ceding the floor to others is just an act of sharing and support, not subservience. The listening never stops; you can’t turn off your ears. In Primordial/Lift, we sample the options in two circular “mandalas,” like decks of playing cards. We find all the information we need to tune in to one another, and to tune to the pulsing oscillator and the frequencies we also perceive outside it, in our immediate and distant environment, and in ourselves.
Initiating an idea in this performance can take any form, combining pitch, rhythmic, and timbral concepts; it comes from an irrepressible need to voice something in response to what we hear around us. In the first, longer part of the piece, we’re instructed to listen to our own bodily rhythms, imagining the sounds of nerves firing, blood circulating, cells dividing, and anything else that comes to mind. We play as we feel these things happening, translating the feelings into spontaneous sound.
The activity comes in waves, and the periods in between lots of playing don’t feel static. There is a sense of structure and narrative dramatically framed by the piece’s two “scenes,” but there is still spontaneous discovery, because the players don’t know how they will arrive together at the oscillator’s sustained pitch climax, or what will happen when they get there. As the piece progressed, I had the score by my side, reminding myself of the options for listening and playing, and I had also jotted down notes from Anne’s information session earlier in the week; her comments reminded me of many of the principles that Pauline had directly imparted to members of ICE during our workshop sessions with her.
“There’s no such thing as a wrong impulse.”
“Feel the physicality of empathy.”
“The sound metaphors can’t sound preconceived.”
“Everything you need to know is inside you. You’re tuning to it.”
“The body is a sound source and a rhythmic source.”
“Every impulse starts from a place of listening.”
And as written by Pauline in the Primordial/Lift score as the ensemble reaches the sustained climax, “listening all over to oneself and others everywhere in the whole of the universe all of the time.”
The score itself, Anne said, is a map of empathic feeling. It felt good to connect with the score visually as I played. And the climaxes were extraordinary: we surged together and collectively receded. Solos abounded but were not self-conscious. Another thing I was aware of was the amazing privilege of time, and its opportunity: seventy-five minutes to feel something essential grow and bloom.
It’s lucky that we have experience with so many of Pauline’s pieces that have text instructions, because we were able to find works that suited the particular spaces at the Archives, in one case substituting a piece close to the presentation because we needed more freedom in how IONE would perform it. The other pieces ICE programmed for the event included Six for New Time, a kind of beat poetry jam where IONE recited a selected text, with a drum playing a steady pulse of irregular groupings. Also in our version were violin, electric guitar, bassoon key-clicks, and myself on harmonium. We joined and then departed from the pulse, adding melodies and sustained harmonies; it's safe to say that our version was quite a bit different from the premiere by Sonic Youth, for whom Pauline wrote the piece.
There were also interludes during the afternoon with dialogues, where IONE discussed her performing history with Pauline. She was joined by Anne Bourne and Alison Knowles, the Fluxus-influenced artist who created a “postcard theatre” with Pauline in the 1970s. Beethoven Was a Lesbian, the title of ICE's event, was drawn from this project with Alison which used old pictures of Pauline alongside iconoclastic epigrams: "Chopin had dishpan hands." "Brahms was a two-penny harlot." It set the tone for ICE's event: our own musical histories define how we perform, and listen. Who needs any other guiding example?
The Nubian Word for Flowers will be an adventure this month, not least for the forces involved: three singers playing multiple roles, with IONE as narrator; beautiful projections; ten players and conductor; and a score which is the culmination of Pauline’s entire composing work, incorporating many of her text pieces alongside notated music, traversing a huge variety of expressive styles. There is nothing like devoting oneself to music which is inclusive on this level.