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Pauline Oliveros: A Floating World

Friday, November 13th, at the end of a long  work day, I returned to campus for Pauline Oliveros’s performance at the Krannert Museum of Art.  I had heard about her visit for months, had recommended it for sponsorship, and had every reason to be delighted that the night had finally arrived.  But in the course of daily living, we so often lose touch with the importance of art, meaning, and those experiences that return us to the best of ourselves and others.

In such a state of mind, I joined the circle of attendees seated around an angular hill of black sound technology.  Two-foot high, black speakers surrounded us in the corners of the white-walled gallery and, I later learned, the gallery and hallway spaces adjacent to our own–the soundscape expertly designed by Krannert Center technicians.  A brief wait was filled with people talking, flu noises, metal-and-plastic chair scrapings.  My gaze drifted over the graphic pop art on the walls, including one of Warhol’s Marilyns.  And finally, there came an introduction to Pauline’s performance by Jason Finkelman.  He says he is thrilled she has come, that he has with Rayvon Fouché made it happen.  He thanks all of us who have made it possible.  I lean forward in anticipation.

From a rear corner of the place, just behind me, Pauline enters, a small, unassuming woman in a black velvet blouse, black pants, with short, white hair.  Her presence is quiet.  Concentrated.  She has the face of a kalyanamitra that opens only when it plays, only when it truly listens.  I discover this later, after, because what I see now is her sure movement to the center, with gentle smile all around, and another pause of preparation as Pauline straps on an enormous cherry-red midi accordion.  I don’t know what to expect, although I imagine I’m prepared for what will come.  I have read about her work and her life, the Deep Listening Institute, and the concert announcement until I have no more room for surprises.

Pauline invites the audience, which must number close to 100, to move about slowly as they listen, to above all be comfortable, to look at the pictures if they like.  She begins just as gently with us, and after a moment or two I am immediately disappointed.  This isn’t music of any kind I recognize, tonal or atonal.  There are no readily discernible patterns.  I know the sounds are supposed to be recorded from those found in the environment, but they seem random, and her sounding of them uninspired — like that of some precocious kid who has got hold of an instrument and thinks any noise he makes will demonstrate his mastery.

I am polite.  I wait.  Fifteen minutes of this and my resistance to the experience is unflinchingly negative.  My knowledge of aesthetic theory in other domains (literary, visual) is not helping this to be a better experience than it is.  I find it indulgent, and I wonder how long it will be until it stops.  Intellectualizing the experience isn’t saving it.

And yet, I can’t ignore the sounds and just study the pictures or think my own thoughts.  It is too discordant and insistent for that.  The movement from whispering to shouting, the antiphony only reinforces that.  The sound comes from over there or right here, then moves and moves in ways I can’t anticipate.  It’s a vital thing in the space, like air quality.

I consider that this experience might go on for a very long time, and I’ll have no choice but to sit through it.  To endure it.  So, as an experiment, I let go of my intellectual analysis of the sound and try to listen deeply, to take it in uncritically, on its own terms.

Over the next fifteen minutes, I begin to sense not sequential patterns in the sounds but what I think of as “movements.”  There are so many, and they are each so alien, I feel like I am being washed by a river of madness.

It is during an especially disturbing movement, one that reminds me faintly of a horror film’s creepy soundtrack, that I begin to feel a different kind of energy—I realize I’m excited.  I don’t especially enjoy the jangling feeling the sounds are sending through my nervous system, but it’s a distinct impression, one I can understand at an intuitive level.  Not long after, another movement delights me.  I think of it as giants humming, even picturing, unbidden, the massive heads of helmed Nordic deities sounding to one another across cold distances.

I realized at the time that this sound-associated image was my own and not the music’s, that the music itself was not representational or literal in any way.  However, it’s the way my mind works – as merely a default of my basic wiring, perhaps from my orientation as a poet, when I hear words, I distinctly see images in my mind’s eye, and when I have certain moods or feelings, words in whole phrases or snatches of song arrive in mind without conscious processing.

More important than the vision that accompanied the movement was my awareness that its presence in mind meant that the sounds had gotten inside of me.  I was no longer resisting them, no longer wanted to resist them.  I allowed them to come and go, opening myself more and more to the experience.

During the final hour of the concert, I heard sounds and sound sequences that were entirely new to me, and I realized for the first time on an emotional, gut level what my colleagues in contemporary music like Sever Tipei mean when they say they are searching for that possibility in their work.  Imagine if you could taste an entirely new flavor.  Imagine experiencing a whole sequence of new flavors, one, ten, twenty.  I didn’t count; I didn’t try to count.

Whether or not I enjoyed each new sound wasn’t important any longer either.  Some did delight me.  Others I found strange.  A few were unpleasant.  What mattered was that the experience of these new sensations came to disconnect me from the physical world in which I was immersed out of habit: the weight of my body in a chair, the little distractions of the other people in the gallery, the visual art demanding co-attention from the walls.  I had entered into a world of sound–a floating world, akin to a transcendent, meditative state.  I was entirely at peace, entirely open to listening and taking in, and yet I was wholly awake, incredibly energized and wanting the experience to go on, go on, and keep me in that state.

I found maybe two-thirds of the way into this state that I wanted to respond to this world of sound and its changing landscapes.  If I were a dancer, I would have wanted to move, and I was surprised vaguely that people weren’t doing it.  Since I most often express my inner energy through words, especially the written word, I took out my notebook and began to free associate the sound movements as they moved through me.  When I read through these free associations now, they seem far too reductive, but I will share some of them here:

  • bagpipes that don’t take a second breath
  • deconstructed polka
  • a tornado siren singing with a full throat
  • conversations between different species of whales
  • a shaking thrum inside the chest
  • night trains chuffing and sighing
  • a cathedral echoing with hymns to Suspense
  • doors opening and closing into different sound zones of the imagination: the uncanny and the wondrous
  • drumming on synthetic skins
  • angry metal insects
  • a latex balloon screaming, joined by a crowd of them
  • a stand of living bamboo, breathing
  • a goth pipe organ
  • moaning loons
  • the music of the spheres falling from orbit
  • a screaming teakettle in traffic
  • a webbed bed of sound that suddenly evaporates
  • a dome of glittering, individually sonified lights

The concert ended in silence.  The floating world broke open and the lived world entered in.  Pauline stood for applause and then moved into the crowd to greet old friends.

For some time after, I moved around the gallery, disconnecting from the transporting experience of the concert, which was still so powerfully in mind.  Since then, I have had the opportunity to talk further with Pauline and express how grateful I am for the amazing gift of her performance.

I understood after that I had been in the presence of a master at the top of her craft, and I wondered about the sheer artistic force, the complexity of vision, and the depth of purpose that could come from a single person, a quiet and unassuming woman.  I am not the same afterward: a small part of me that had been closed in ignorance has been permanently opened, and for that I thank Pauline Oliveros and number her among my life’s teachers.

— Kelly Searsmith