Last Monday, Pauline Oliveros and the Thingamajigs Performance Group convened inside the Berkeley Art Museum to begin plotting a one-time performance for that Friday. Oliveros, an 82-year-old composer and avant-garde luminary, settled on one of the brightly colored pieces of modular furniture scattered about as part of the Kaleidoscape installation. Without discussion, the Thingamajigs — a local ensemble of instrument-makers, educators, and performers composed of Edward Schocker, Dylan Bolles, Keith Evans, and Suki O’Kane — slowly navigated BAM’s severe concrete ramps and platforms while running their moistened fingers over the lips of crystal glasses.
Intermittent water droplets plopped on the ground from a slowly leaking ceiling; a ballpoint pen scratched paper; fingernails bristled two days’ stubble; and the sound of ringing glasses, which first seemed nearly inaudible, became a consummate series of quivering hums that zipped around the resonant structure.
After almost an hour, the Thingamajigs returned to Oliveros. She’d sat motionless, listening. “I’ll tell you what was beautiful,” she said, emerging from a reverie. “There was an engine sound, and the sound of a bell from outside.” She gestured toward the window.
She continued, “Sound actually moves in this room — and it turns.” She suggested that the performers mind the “tail of the sound” and “listen to it from start to finish,” and then posed a question: “Are you projecting, or are you reflecting?”
Schocker and Bolles studied under Oliveros at Mills College in the late 1990s. Oliveros became the first director of Mills music department in 1966, then known as the Mills Tape Music Center. She left the position the following year. Today, Oliveros teaches at Mills via Skype from her home in New York. Recalling Oliveros’ teaching style, Schocker said, “I’d ask her questions, and she’d never really give answers.”
Conversation with Oliveros was somewhat elliptical. When asked if parameters had been predetermined for the Berkeley Art Museum, Oliveros responded, “The instruments they play and the tunings.” So, what instruments? “Well, I’m not sure,” she said, smiling.
The creative process employed by Oliveros and the Thingamajigs — play first, discuss after — has roots in the late 1950s, when Oliveros and Terry Riley decided that imposing guidelines beforehand stifled the collaborative experience. Playing, recording, and then discussing the results critically afterward yielded better results. Their sessions are considered one of the first instances of “free improvisation” in the avant-garde.
In 1963, Oliveros became involved with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a space that was dedicated to interdisciplinary work and relished institutional autonomy and community inclusiveness. Among the Tape Music Center’s major contributions were the 1964 debut of Riley’s groundbreaking minimalist piece, In C, for which Oliveros played accordion, and the commission of Donald Buchla’s pioneering modular synthesizer, the Buchla Box.
In an essay for the book The San Francisco Tape Music Center, published in 2008 by the University of California Press, Oliveros recalled rehearsing a duo piece for accordion and bandoneon with David Tudor. Her housemate’s mynah bird kept interrupting, so they wrote it into the score. The piece became Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obligato. For a performance, they just played it on a seesaw, and brought the bird along.
In 1965, Oliveros improvised the tape and oscillator piece Bye Bye Butterfly, which incorporates a recording of Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. Listening to it next to an early track by hip 1980s industrial act Coil, or something new by electronic producers such as Vatican Shadow, illustrates the prescience of her 1960s work. In 2012, the label Important Records issued a twelve-disc box set of her recordings from the decade.
Reflecting on the Tape Music Center, Oliveros also remembered it as being a bit of a boy’s club, full of men bonding over gadgetry, which sounds disappointingly like tech culture today. She’s described Bye Bye Butterfly as a farewell to not only the conventions of classical music but also to patriarchy. In 1970, Oliveros wrote a New York Times piece about the woeful lack of women in the contemporary composers canon.
And a 2012 New York Times profile underscored Oliveros’ canonical arrival. This year, her Deep Listening Room installation appeared in the Whitney Biennial. Still, the canon never eluded Oliveros so much as she eluded it, by producing work that exalts its audience and downplays her own authorial presence, a natural extension of early zeal for collaboration and inclusiveness.
In 1988, Oliveros coined the phrase “deep listening.” When asked how she would describe deep listening to a child, Oliveros said, “Listening and hearing are different. Hearing, the sound waves come in through your ears and the ears change the sound waves to electricity that goes to the brain, and the brain is where you listen.” Deep listening is at the core of Oliveros’ life and work.
For her Thingamajigs collaboration, Oliveros’ role was “listener with a capital L.” They invited more Listeners to rehearsals. As O’Kane explained to them, “The building is part of the score. … You can’t possibly make a mistake.”
On Friday evening, Oliveros sat monastically, a cardboard tube crossing the ends of a red scarf that rested in her lap. The Thingamajigs, stationed in the four concrete protrusions on the building’s second level, started ringing glasses at 7:30 p.m. and the crowd chatted through it for about seven minutes. A flicker of the lights hushed the audience, and the glasses’ peculiarly resonant trill mingled with rustling jackets. It felt liberating to move around the museum, nestling up close to a ringing glass or wandering through the gallery’s various nooks.
The performers slowly descended from the upper reaches of the gallery, Schocker playing sparse notes on a traditional Korean flute called a piri, while O’Kane swelled a broken cymbal and gently clacked woodblocks. A babbling baby, traversing the concrete pathways with its mother, seemed to bicker with the bray of Bolles’ handmade flutes.
On the main floor, Evans had suspended a glass bulb in front of a television. A camera was trained on the bulb, and a projector bounced the image off of tilted mirrors and onto the ceiling. The shape of the bulb was the same, but the process rendered the image irreconcilable with its source object. The Listeners held mirrors too, and small recording devices to capture and replay portions of the proceedings. The musicians minded how the space moved their sounds, leaving space for Listeners to mind the decay of every peep and squeak, incidental or otherwise. Reflections abounded.
For the climax, Schocker knelt before an array of glasses, coaxing eerie warbles and then deep drones from two massive vases. The image of the water surface shuddering was indelible. The glasses were contact miked and routed to an array of electronics operated by O’Kane, whose effects processing lent the sounds a sense of tidal motion.
The Thingamajigs eventually convened around Oliveros, all clutching cardboard tubes to their ears, like a living sculpture. In earlier rehearsals, the climax was followed by more diffused ringing glasses, but the crowd took their collective listening gesture as a prompt for applause. The space erupted. It felt appropriate that the show’s “beginning” and “ending” both went unnoticed — to Oliveros, it doesn’t stop.