As I enter a dimly loft space on Warren Street, Pauline Oliveros is sitting cross-legged on a little platform. She raises her hand in a ceremonial greeting whenever someone comes in the door. It is the first concert of a new series sponsored by the Samaya Foundation. After a while Oliveros takes up her accordion and begins playing a drone. This is the ‘Rose Mountain’ series, which she’s been doing for four years, but which I have never heard except in a short recorded segment. She controls the bellows well and pulls the tone out quite steadily for perhaps 15 or 20 seconds, and then pushes it in equally steadily for a similar span of time. Pull again. Push again. After a while she adds another note, and another, and eventually she begins singing sustained tones along with the accordion. But the basic mood remains tranquil. Pull again. Push again. The sonorities drone on without ever changing very much or very often.
She appears unusually calm and centered as she plays. Now in her mid-forties, she is in her prime as an innovative musician. There isn’t even a hint of self-conscious rebellion, nor do I sense that she is just testing out new ways of making music. Most of that is in the past for her, and now the music comes from some specific personal place, which she seems to understand thoroughly. She has a good reason to appear calm and centered.
Soon I realize that the vowel sound is changing. Sometimes it is closed, as in ‘hay,’ and her voice takes on a reedy quality that almost disappears into the sound of the accordion. Sometimes it is more open or more rounded, and the voice stands slightly apart from the instrument. I begin to wonder how she decides what vowel to use 1977/rhys-chathams-music-is-hard-to-hear. There seems to be a logic there somewhere. Pull again. Push again. The changes are subtle and not very frequent, but something is happening.
Later I begin to hear something that has been going completely over my head. Because the reeds on an accordion are never absolutely in tune, if one listens closely one can hear little pulses or beats as the reeds vibrate against one another. But the curious thing is that these beats are a little different when the bellows move out than when they move in, since different reeds are involved. For a while I fix my attention on specific pitches and listen to the tempo of the beats. There seems to be a logic there somewhere, and for a while I begin to wonder if Oliveros is even controlling this subtle aspect of her music. Pull again. Push again. The instrument breathes slowly and steadily, but there are subtle differences between its inhaling and exhaling.
Eventually I begin to realize that something is also going on in the harmony. I haven’t been concentrating as well as I sometimes can and I haven’t been paying much attention to what notes have been dropped and added, but somehow the music seems to be creeping into new keys. I am a little surprised by this. Most of Oliveros’s work is involved with meditative states and spiritual values, and doesn’t usually have much to do with harmonic progressions and rhythmic patterns and other more down-to-earth musical techniques. But this piece seems to move around quite knowingly, and I begin to suspect that there is some intricate tonal system at work. That seems almost necessary, because pieces of music don’t move through intricate modulations as smoothly as this unless someone sits down and figures it all out. Pull again. Push again. The sonority is so simple and steady, and there never seem to be more than two or three pitches at once, but somehow it is drifting somewhere.
I listen specifically to the harmony for a while, but little changes take me by surprise, and I get confused and eventually give up. There seems to be a logic to these gentle modulations, but I can’t figure it out. Pull again. Push again. Any particular moment sounds very much like any other particular moment, but something is happening.
After the concert, which lasts about an hour, everybody is zonked out by the hypnotic tranquillity of the whole thing, and it is another five or 10 minutes before people begin to stir from their seats. I decide to hang around for a while until I have a chance to ask Oliveros how all of those neat key changes work, and her answer astounds me. It seems that she doesn’t quite know either, because this music is also a meditation, and all of the music theory stuff is largely a side effect. As I understand it, the general idea is that when she feels the sonority should change she purposely leaves it where it is, and when she finds that she is content to listen to it just the way it is, she allows it to change. So there are you. In an oversimplified sort of way, you know the complete score, and you could even try singing it or playing it on some instrument yourself. All you have to do is think about whether you want the sound to change or not, and then do the opposite. And you’ll get wonderful beating rhythms, and a unique, intricate tonal system, and some of the most sophisticated minimal music around. Simple, huh? Well, maybe. After you’ve worked at it for as long as Oliveros has.