“The ear hears, the brain listens, the body senses vibrations.” Veteran US composer Pauline Oliveros has not only been part of the avant-garde in the classical space for the last six decades, she has arguably been one of its leaders. Throughout, Oliveros has been driven by capturing the sounds of entire spaces, not just of instruments. This was epitomised in the 1989 magnum opus Deep Listening, which was recorded in a vast, underground cistern with 45-second reverberation (watch the start of her TEDx talk to hear what a balloon pop sounded like, and read more about the cistern from our own Joseph). Her mantra is to listen to everything all the time – and to remind yourself when you’re not listening. Musically, this encompasses the sounds of the environment – soundscapes in the definitive sense of the word – as well as those produced by the music performers at an individual level. Four Meditations / Sound Geometries presents two compositions – both older pieces buffed up with contemporary production treatment – that focus on this latter aspect.
In a breach of ACL etiquette, I’m recommending a record that has 20 minutes of vocal music. Bear with me, though, as the vocals in “Four Meditations (for Orchestra)” are as unattached to rhythm or melody as the instruments are. In multiple languages, vocalist Ione tosses out thoughts and non sequiturs from the mundane to the abstract (“These stars falling down… drink them”) and unintelligible sounds from the ecstatic to the onomatopoeic (there’s a section devoted to bees). You could apply similar descriptions to the orchestra, Belgian ensemble Musiques Nouvelles, which seems determined to disprove Aristotle’s idea than the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The approach is tethered to Oliveros’s Deep Listening aesthetic, founded on the principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation:
“This aesthetic is designed to inspire… performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations.”
The orchestra never plays in unison. Rather than performing automatically from sheets of music, the musicians are listening, then responding. The composition is composed entirely of these short musical responses that await space and then look to fill it. It is often observed that people who talk the least usually have the most to say. Listening is just as if not more important in conversation than talking. The performers in “Four Meditations” offer each other the space to have their say.
At times these contributions overlap, to profound effect. After eight minutes, the vocal matches a brass drone while strings swell for about 20 seconds, creating a sense of almost spiritual harmony. Minutes later, there is an extraordinary passage of abrupt squeaks, snorts and sighs – from both vocals and instruments – that’s grows in scale and excitement, like an increasingly agitated flock of gulls. Musical communion.
The second piece is more cohesive, devoid of vocals but replete with Oliveros’s Expanded Instrument System, an electronic signaling platform to capture live feeds for playback at undetermined points, either replicated or modified. “Sound Geometries (for Chamber Orchestra)” showcases the more ambient side of Oliveros, the electronic interference at times shepherding the organic toward something almost otherworldly. The piece is far from relaxed, however – its gradual swells blemished with dissonance, its spaces brimming with tension. It comprises three movements that progress the orchestra’s playing style from conducted through guided to improvised, and an early sense of structure and rhythm accordingly breaks down as the piece progresses. In the final movement, after a few false starts, a climactic cacophony descends and endures. The wind instruments engage in heated exchanges across the room, the keys rant away in anger, the timpani mutters insistently in the background, the strings fill in every available space with increasingly impassioned pleading… and then? Silence. An astonishing reward to conclude a challenging yet engrossing record. You can stop listening now.
Except you shouldn’t – there is always something else to hear. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)