[9 March 2009]
Undoubtedly the most important female figure in the early development of avant-garde electronic music, Pauline Oliveros has seen a surge in interest in recent years, with her early work finding its way onto a number of reissues on record labels like Important, Table of the Elements, Pogus, and now the quintessential aural backlogue, Sub Rosa. Oliveros was and continues to be an enigma (she is still active at 76), an openly gay feminist black belt who has developed theories of holistic musical appreciation (“deep listening”) that incorporate mandala-like levels of concentration and subscribe to an improvisational populism that makes every person who can push a button, as well as every leaf rustling through the wind, into an avant-garde musician.
The discreetly named Four Electronic Pieces 1959-1966 compiles Oliveros at the height of her talents. All of the pieces save for one were composed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where she served as musical director, working alongside talent like Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. The album’s earliest piece, “Time Perspectives”, serves as perhaps her audition tape for the gig. The home recording is eerily prescient in foreseeing the rise of noise and experimental music tape culture in the 1980s, not to mention downright haunting in texture and timbre. To compose it, Oliveros used cardboard tubes to capture various sounds that resonated against a wooden wall via the reverberation of a bath tub, effectively casting herself as an one woman Einstürzende Neubauten.
The three other works are dynamic longform atonal sound sculptures that involve oscillators, primitive synths, and other means of signal processing that produce a free range whirr of flummoxing noise that sounds like a harsher, dizzier, more dystopian sequel to Louis and Bebe Barron’s score to Forbidden Planet. Overall, this is a collection best absorbed on multichannel speakers positioned out in the caverns of the Adirondacks. But if that’s not an option available to you, a set of quality earphones, willpower, and a meditative frame of mind may suffice.