“Play seven of one and eight of the other: highest and lowest, longest and shortest.” When asked to write a piece for the International Contemporary Ensemble’s 15th birthday this year, Pauline Oliveros devised this text score consisting of 15 words, one for each year. Performed by several members of ICE within the tinfoil walls of JACK in Brooklyn, the piece materialized in a scattered shower of notes – high and low, long and short. Short notes strummed by guitarist Daniel Lippel collided with high notes briskly tongued onto flutist Claire Chase’s and clarinetist Joshua Rubin’s woodwinds; percussionist Ross Karre went for “longest” with quiet notes dragged out on cymbals. After a few moments, the drizzle seemed to evaporate as quickly as it had begun.

Pauline Oliveros © Vinciane Verguethen
Pauline Oliveros
© Vinciane Verguethen

ICE 15 was not the first piece Ms Oliveros had written for the ensemble. A longtime collaborator and one of the founding members of ICE’s advisory board, Ms Oliveros seemed quite comfortable not only performing a solo improvisation but also improvising on her accordion (tuned to her own just intonation) alongside violinist Jennifer Curtis. The audience, which spilled over onto the aisles and stairs, would cheer as Ms Oliveros vacated her seat in the front row and took center stage. Both improvisations were as smooth and velvety as the text piece had been pointillistic; yet throughout the entire concert there was maintained a sense of non-directionality, of letting the notes fall where they may for however long they may.

Such careful conveyance from both performers and composer fostered the sort of “deep listening” Ms Oliveros has encouraged throughout her decades-long career. The exhalations of her slowly compressed and decompressed accordion, overlaid with delicate clouds and clusters of notes as her right hand climbed along the keyboard and eventually collapsed into a flat palm laid across intricate blocks of tones. During her improvisation with Ms Curtis, low accordion rumbles were answered with full, robust oscillations and chords on the violin so that both voices melted into a sort of static flow of sustained yet gradually shifting chords before breaking off into single note wanderings and pizzicato plucks.

The concert also featured The Witness, composed in 1980 for soloist (here reconfigured for solo duet) and an imaginary partner or ensemble of up to 100. Mr Karre bowed out airy sounds on cymbals and metal plates while bassoonist Rebekah Heller emitted a trail of delicate trills. Eventually the vaporous sounds evolved into identifiable notes, intensifying in speed and dynamics and broadening in texture. Mr Karre began striking objects at higher speeds and Ms Heller tongued more rapidly as the two instrumentalists turned towards each other, away from the riveted audience, and conversed in a mélange of hollow, fluttering sounds before eventually circling back to the breathy sounds of the beginning.

The Witness was followed by Ear Rings for four players, a 1995 composition in which once again the instrumentalists engaged in an elaborate conversation of notes and noises. The interactions rotated through the four performers with two or three playing at a time, so that the sounds came in constantly rising and receding waves. The initial sounds consisted of Ms Curtis bowing in airy, jagged zigzags and Mr Karre striking and stroking metal plates that were held above his snare drum to create bizarre reverberations; however, as Mr Lippel entered with harsh plucks and twangs, Mr Karre dropped out, and then as Mr Rubin started up some legato wandering on bass clarinet, Ms Curtis ceased playing, and so on. The piece culminated in a section during which all four musicians criss-crossed over each other in an unexpectedly dense fabric of frenetic high tones, objects flipped and dropped on the snare drums, and outlandish percussive sounds from all instruments.

The concert drew to a close with The Well and the Gentle, in which, once again, breathy tones and textures were interspersed with long, non-directional overlapping notes, which were then interspersed with separations between the notes, forming repeating phrases and patterns that evolved and shifted over and through one another. The final section, in which every instrumentalist pressed their finger keys (no longer blowing into them) or struck their instruments with their fingernails or random objects, was a delightful exercise in deep listening. As the sounds unraveled and gathered themselves back up again, I found myself closing my eyes, thankful there were no unnecessary visual elements tacked onto the performance. Considering the vast array of sounds as well as the many different types of listening, the possibilities were endless.

*****