Pauline Oliveros: Her Noise
Pauline Oliveros sits on stage in the Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern, exuding an air of serene consideration.
She briefly looks around, while a charged silence builds up. She performs before giving her talk for ‘Her Noise’, a three-day series on ‘Feminism and the Sonic’ organized by London-based contemporary arts organisation Electra and CRiSAP, in collaboration with Tate. Oliveros chooses to present sounds before words, hence she clearly sets the frame for her approach: inside the aural, listening, absorbing and probing the extremes of a perceptual space that is grounded in and radiates from the individual, in and from her connection with what and whom is around.
Pauline Oliveros, (excerpt, 2012). Video: Ethan Reid and Kenichi Iwasa
Oliveros – composer, performer, a pioneer in music since the 1950s, renowned for her lifelong commitment to and investigation of listening – offers an array of sharp sonic marks far from being pleasing, reassuring or codified: amassed in a thick volume, scattered around in oblique patterns, flowing in a waterfall, then droning dense and eerie. At times she curls up while moving her head toward her digital accordion, as though it were an extension of herself. She enthrals with a range of breathtaking dynamics and sacks of stillness. None of these sounds are safe or predictable; there seems little point in trying to label or capture them. Better to be in them, now.
Paula Josa-Jones and Pauline Oliveros, Skin (1991), New York
I listen to Oliveros’s voice: a soft, long-drawn twang, silky and slow-paced. When she reaches the podium to deliver her lecture, ‘Archiving the Future: Embodiment Music of Women’, she says that she has just performed ‘thinking of the beginning and of the end’. The new piece is titled Listening for Life/Death Energies (2012). As she wrote in the programme notes: ‘Hearing is the first sense organ to develop in the foetus and the last sense organ to shut down after death. I listen backwards and forwards for my life/death energies.’ Like a gateway to another world, to listen backwards and forwards is understood – within the frame of Oliveros’s poetics – as radiating a ‘sonic awareness’ that requires both expansion and attention in making sound, imagining sound, listening to sound, remembering sound…
Live at Cal State Sacramento
At the core of Oliveros’s lecture is the notion of ‘embodiment’, an expanded insight that frames the entirety of human activities in connection with the sonic: not just listening and music-making in theory, but also the technology, politics, networks and procedures that enable them in practice. She gives an overview of her commitment to raising opportunities for women’s involvement with the sonic, claiming for individuality and equality beyond gender; she speaks of how in tape and electronic music, since the late 1950s, she found sounds that expressed inner listening. She then introduces the work of six women composers: Ximena Alarcón, Ellen Fullman, Brenda Hutchinson, Maria Chavez, Jaclyn Heyen, Clara Tomaz. What seeps through her words, and through her choice to devote a good portion of the lecture to presenting the work of other women, not hers, is the desire to facilitate, to educate in the highest sense, to promote the work of women in sound. The more distant she appears from any inclinations to highlight her persona, the stronger her presence is sensed in the room as radiating from a resolute yet unselfish person.
I listen to Oliveros as she speaks of how she decided to be a composer because she was ‘hearing things’, while the sounds from a few minutes before still ring in my ears: aural after-images of her recent, engrossing performance are now entangled with words. She reminds me of the acuteness injected in her work and the firmness of intent that saw her through more than 50 years of involvement with sound, experimenting with tape and electronics, theorising and practicing the all-encompassing notions of ‘Deep Listening’ and ‘Sonic Awareness’ that promoted aural awareness as a fundamental methodology for composing and performing, and writing texts that stand out still today as some of the most lucid and groundbreaking meditations on and for listening.
Oliveros says she had no idea of what she was going to play tonight: the body dictates it, the body that perceives and thinks, not simply guided by instinct, but keeping a huge core of information unfolded time after time. Surely the tangible, yet elusive quality of her sounds is a testing ground for the ability of the audience to listen with no preconceived expectations. Then I understand that Oliveros did not conceive tonight’s appearance as a theoretical, musical or literary event: rather, an offering, a space for refining listening and perception. Imagination, thought processes, memory, unheard frequencies contribute to defining this space as much as what is perceived in its sonorous quality: ‘capturing sounds from a nether realm’, she wrote in Source magazine in the 1960s. The sense of an understanding formed densely in the passing of time shapes my hearing as I become part of it. Closing my eyes during the long, heartfelt applause, I know I have witnessed a major, intense performance that touched most people in the room. Going home, thinking back of the sounds and voices heard, I realise how close and attentive I was in the angular deep space she sculpted. And this is the greatest token from this evening: to rediscover again and again the scope and the depth of listening. To go about it driven, with confidence. Or, as Oliveros once said to Robert Ashley, recalling a motto on a red corduroy hat she had as a teenager: ‘Slow, but sure.’