It is difficult to write comparatively about Pauline Oliveros’ music. Typically, when listening to new music, the ear begins to chart differences and repetitions, and the way these are structured with dynamics, pitch, and texture. As a work unfolds, you start to be able to tell whether this composer can build large structures, or whether the work will amount to no more than a series of disconnected twists and turns. And when evaluating a new work, the criteria for success (or mine, anyway) have almost always to do with what is called a composer’s control over her materials, meaning how much sense each part of the work makes in relation to every part; whether something surprising or new has taken place; and, of course, whether the work is moving.

Pauline Oliveros © Vinciane Verguethen
Pauline Oliveros
© Vinciane Verguethen

I cannot say that what my ear automatically goes to when listening to Oliveros’ music – at least not the semi-improvised, entirely acoustic music that was performed on this night, a celebration of her 80th birthday – are matters such as pitch, texture, rhythm, and so on. Nor is it true that these pieces seem interested in being moving. Oliveros is not interested in handling musical materials, but rather in creating situations in which musical materials – musical sounds – are allowed to appear. Pitch, rhythm, and texture are hugely important, but this is because Oliveros has found ways for a chord or a duration to be heard in all its strangeness and newness, as if inviting us to marvel at the very existence of organized sound.

She achieves this remarkable feat by liberating her performers from the usual social laws of musical banter and efficiency. Thirteen Changes: For Malcolm Goldstein is a work that is built on a series of impulses sent around a small ensemble. The arc is typically an entropic one: a violent outburst in the horn or the violin will be parrotted, passed around, until the energy fades, and one or two instrumentalists are left pondering the husk of the idea, turning it over a few times in their hands before silence takes over and the next impulse is sent around. Because there is presumably no set length for each impulse’s life, my experience in listening to the work was that of hearing the unfolding of time directly or viscerally, as if I were myself part of the piece’s rhythm. This is in contrast to the usual compositional dictum that a good composer manipulates time, that is, creates effects by distorting the neutral flow. Oliveros’s achievement is not writing music that flows (of which there is plenty), but rather setting the conditions under which we again become conscious of the flow, making the flow feel alive and real and perhaps somewhat dangerous.

As a result, Oliveros’ music can be seen to toy with boredom, although I never came close to losing interest (indeed, since the works seemed to be more about a way of listening than about the musical materials being unfolded, I often didn’t want them to end). Double X, an impressively languid and patient piece, saw a few walkouts and a chorus of coughing, yet it rewards those who are able to simply sit with it, to savor each of its new emergences. The work calls for pairs of musicians to face one another across the hall, standing as far from one another as the hall allows. Then, starting in pairs, the musicians choose a pitch and intone it for the space of a breath, the sound then falling into silence. It was like hearing intervals for the first time, each one a discovery of a perfect new fruit – a minor second! A major sixth! There was even, at one moment, the perfect sounding of a minor triad. I do not know if it was accidental or written into the score, but I savored it as long as I could, marveling at how many iterations of three pitches would need to be tried before something such as this appeared.

Oliveros’ greatest gift is to return music to us, to remind us that music, and not human craftsmanship and ambition as heard through music, is enough. This lesson could be no clearer than in a work Oliveros herself led the audience through on this night, in which the musical materials consisted of the first sound that each audience member could remember making, or imagines themselves having made, as a child. The hall was filled with nonsense sounds, chattering, sighing, whooping. Some moments were awkward; some people laughed and whispered to their neighbors. I remember a perfect moment: the chattering had died down for now, a little silence took over, and then suddenly one person let out a big kiss: smack! To give up control over time and texture and even sounds, to let these things be themselves, and to discover that they in their undoctored essences contain an inexhaustible well of surprise and meaning: these are the reasons why Pauline Oliveros has been, and will remain, essential.