Pauline Oliveros brought to the Jewish Museum the other night just herself, her accordion, and decades of calm assurance. Now 84, the composer, writer, deep thinker, and éminence grise of the avant-garde music scene offered an hour of pure sonic energy without stirring from her seat.
Appropriately enough for the creator of Sonic Meditations, she began with three slow, voiceless respirations on the accordion. I felt the need to sit straight, as if I were meditating, rather than recline.
Then using a variety of sound palettes all triggered through the accordion, she began a lush perambulation with a single sustained note, then a dyad, then deep throbs, mournful whines, sustained notions and staccato incidents. The music evolved through eerie dissonances and simple chords, animal-like sounds and tones never heard in nature, tone clusters, and jittery emanations as of the human voice.
Always thought-provoking, sometimes relaxing, and once in a while nerve-wracking, the sequence was never predictable but always seemed to make a diaphanous kind of sense. Closing what felt like a first movement was an almost overwhelming wash of sustained sound. Then bass guitar-like tones, dancing accordion notes, vocal sounds, and chimes took over. Often the sequence seemed to fulfill the program title, “The Sound of Meditation,” though surely everyone’s sonic interpretation of a meditative state would be different. And when it varied from that clear-mind mood, it always went somewhere interesting.
The journey seemed to wind across oceans, through jungles – and into caves, perhaps recalling to the cistern-born music that gave birth to the composer’s concept of “deep listening” back in the 1980s.
Rhythms arose not from notes played but from interference patterns indulged. The resulting waves had hypnotic effects. The hour passed, if not entirely as one long meditation, then as an experience of a kind of deep listening. “The sounding is the meditation,” Oliveros writes. And as she has pointed out, “The ear hears, the brain listens.” And: “When listening, there is a constant interplay with the perception of the moment compared with remembered experience.” One thing I remembered was hearing and learning about Oliveros’s work when I was in college over three decades ago. It’s good to know she is still out there – and in here – doing what she does so thoughtfully, originally, and well.
The concert was part of Bang on a Can’s series at the Jewish Museum. Visit the Bang on a Can website for information about upcoming events.