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Rediscover: Pauline Oliveros: Accordion & Voice

Rediscover: Pauline Oliveros: Accordion & Voice

The seemingly stationary music on Accordion & Voice requires the listener to focus in order to notice and respond to its underlying complexity.

It is an unfortunate byproduct of the English language that the words “hearing” and “listening” are used interchangeably as if their definitions were not diametrically opposed. In practice, hearing is a passive state, one that – if a person’s auditory functions are not impaired – is happening more or less constantly, whether the environment is quiet or loud. Sound moves through the air and we receive it, at home, at work, in parking lots, in forests. Listening is quite a different matter. We do it far less than we think. “What kind of music do you listen to?” is a common question when one meets someone new. But this slippage in the language elides what we normally do when we “listen” to music. We do the dishes. We run errands. We work out. That is to say, we are distracted. And listening does not happen when we are doing something else.

Musician and sound theorist Pauline Oliveros’s Accordion & Voice is a record that demands to be listened to. Its pastoral cover, depicting Oliveros in a meadow below a hill playing accordion with a faithful canine at her feet as she looks off into the distance, belies the music that it contains. That’s not to say it isn’t calming, only that it is complex.

Split into two tracks, the music lives up to the title. “Horse Sings from Crowd” opens with a single sustained note played on Oliveros’ electronically augmented accordion. Another note joins, an octave lower than the previous one. Then, Oliveros lets out a long “o” sound, the pitch of which is the same as the accordion. It calls to mind Oliveros’s injunction in her Sonic Meditations, that they “are intended to begin with observation of the breath cycle.”

This is an orchestra tuning up. As the track progresses, it uses alternating and overlapping drones from the accordion and Oliveros herself to create a sustained, but glacial, movement across the piece. In the last minutes of the piece, a few moments of dissonance occur, and the listener can begin to hear signs of strain in the voice, but a chord arrives so heavenly and harmonious that it sweeps these things away, carrying the track through its slow-fading end.

“Rattlesnake Mountain” is more apparently dynamic than the previous track. Over the drone from the chamber of the accordion, Oliveros runs up and down the keys, playing more or less ascending scales followed by more or less descending ones, landing on moments of harmony or consonance with the bellows’ drone before starting back up again. The foundational chord occasionally shifts, but it is only in the movement of the keyboard melody that the listener begins to notice it. The final movement of the track dwells in the lower register of the instrument, as if descending underground.

Six years after the release of Accordion & Voice Oliveros descended as well, crawling down a 14 foot tunnel into a cistern where she and two other musicians preceded to improvise in the space – Oliveros has described the cistern itself as a fourth player in this group – after which she coined the term “deep listening.” In her view, listening is a practice of attention and response. With deep listening, a person does not just focus on the sounds themselves, but also on their responses to the sounds as they listen to them. It is, in practice, like criticism freed from using words, a kind of evolving meditation on music.

The seemingly stationary music on Accordion & Voice requires the listener to focus in order to notice and respond to its underlying complexity. Each shift in focus rewards the listener because, even before she coined the term, Oliveros was making music well-suited to deep listening. It is music that sounds at first like a tunnel, but as you burrow, opens up into a vast cavern fit for exploration.

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