Pauline Oliveros

Sometime in the 1980s, composer/performer Pauline Oliveros and I had overlapping residencies at Art Park, in upstate New York. Although mainly designed to assist and showcase visual artists and their work, Art Park also has a couple of small performance spaces and occasionally presents music as well.

Pauline’s stage was a small concrete platform at the end of a meandering path in the woods, and she was joined in her performance by a dancer as well as a visual artist drawing throughout the performance.

Pauline started the performance by simply lifting her accordion to her lap, tilting her head to her side and listening.

r3poAfter about five minutes she started to play one very high note, held it for a long time, and then slowly added another, then another. As the music progressed, Pauline began punctuating the these long tones by ever increasing short rapid passages of flurried notes.

Listening carefully, I was gently being lulled into the music, when suddenly something changed. It was as if someone had just focused my ears. Everything that I was hearing was interacting in a clearly organized manner. I don’t just mean Pauline’s music, but all the sounds: the wind in the trees, the birds, peoples voices in the distance, everything made musically sense! When the birds sang, they sang in perfect tune with Pauline, entering at exactly the right moment, and sometimes paralleling Pauline in long intricate passages. In the same manner, the wind in the trees would shift and rustle, dogs would bark, squirrels would chatter, all in perfect time to Pauline’s music!

I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it. Somehow whatever Pauline was doing had such a perfect foundation, that every other sound fit together with it as if finely orchestrated by a master composer. Even the cars passing by sounded like finely tuned instruments rather than their usual obnoxious clamor.

I was so stunned that I held my breath, fearing that this would be only a momentary occurrence, but it wasn’t. It lasted for the twenty or thirty minutes that Pauline played. I had plenty of time to revel in this amazing experience. I had of course philosophically believed that “all sounds are part of the symphony of life”, but this was the first time that I was actually experiencing it! Every time I started to doubt the experience another group of random sounds would occur in perfect order! It was like a dream come true, I was filled with a an overwhelming sense of the order of life.

As the piece came to a close, the sounds of the birds and wind progressively became more random again. I tried to hold on to the experience, to somehow keep this way of hearing, but the more I tried, the faster it slipped away. It was replaced instead by the excited sounds of the audience: “Did you hear that?”, “That was amazing!”, “Everything was in tune!”, “Was that real?”, “Amazing how everything was in synch, what do you want for lunch?”

Amazed and excited by this experience, I went up to the stage as Pauline was packing up to leave, and told her of my experience. She listened politely, smiled and then said “Good…it worked……that’s the way it should be”.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Bali Night

In 1984 I was in Bali, Indonesia researching traditional musical instruments, I decided to briefly study the suling, an end-blown bamboo ring flute. I easily found a teacher in one of the villages and rented a small beach hut close by. The hut was owned by an old Balinese man who spoke no English or Indonesian, but only Balinese, a language I knew nothing of. To make arrangements for the rental we communicated through a young neighbourhood girl he had hired for just that reason. Other than making the initial arrangements, the owner had virtually no other contact with his guests, and I would only rarely see him briefly in the distance.

One evening after a particularly long week of lessons, I sat on the porch of my cabin facing the ocean to play my suling. Although I was really enjoying Bali, I was in a remote area away from tourists and there were few people to talk to. I was starting to feel a quite lonely and homesick. After briefly practicing what I had learned that day, I decided to comfort myself by playing for a while. I sat back, closed my eyes, listened for a while and then started to play. Soon I was engrossed in the music. I played the wind in the trees, the ocean waves, the sounds of the night; and I played my feelings of being alone, so far from home in a land full of adventure and wonder.

Hearing a sound beside me, I stopped and opened my eyes to find the cabin’s owner walking past. He nodded to me as he sat down on a rock a short distance in front of the cabin, and smiling, gestured for me to continue playing.

Although feeling surprised and a bit self-conscious, I nodded and smiled back, then closed my eyes and continued to play. I was soon so engrossed again in the music, that I completely forgot about my unexpected audience. After about an hour, I stopped playing and slowly opened my eyes to find the owner still sitting on the rock, with his head bowed and eyes closed. As I watched he slowly raised his head opened his eyes, turned, nodded to me, and then slowly got up and walked off into the night.

It was late and I was tired. I only briefly thought how nice it was that he stayed to listen to my music, and within minutes I was in bed and fast asleep.

The next morning, as I got up and opened the door to my cabin, I was surprised to find the owner sitting on my doorstep holding a giant basket of fruit. Smiling a big smile, he handed me a piece of fruit gestured for me to sit down, and started to talk rapidly in Balinese. Although I didn’t understand a word he was saying, by his gestures I understood that he was talking about his property. He talked about the trees, the birds, and everything that we could see or hear around us. Then he began to teach me the names for everything in Balinese and asked me its English equivalent.

I didn’t have much time to think about this instant friendship, as our conversation in gestures and bits of language was totally engaging and would rapidly jump from one subject to another. It felt as if my new friend was trying to make up for his weeks of silence all in one day. We talked for that whole day and well into the evening, and he was at my door again the next morning and for many mornings after!

During the rest of my stay we became good friends, spending most of our mornings together and learning more of each others language. We often helped each other with each others chores from laundry to yard work, always with a running commentary of gestures, and a lot of laughter. His warm friendship had made my loneliness and homesickness totally disappear, and every day I looked forward to our time together.

When it became time for me to leave, we exchanged gifts, smiles, good wishes, and even a few embarrassed tears. We parted as good friends, knowing that we may never see each other again, but that we would never forget each other.

It’s strange that with all the time we spent together and in all our conversations, never once did either of us mention that evening of music. I guess we didn’t need to.