Jane Alden is interviewed for her vocal group’s new installation in San Sebastián, Spain
Jane Alden, Associate Professor of Music, and her London-based group, the Vocal Constructivists recently created a 4-channel installation of their earlier recording of Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Patterns. The installation occurs every thirty minutes from December 2020 through May 2021 at Tabakalera, San Sebastián, in the Basque part of northern Spain. Oier Etxeberria, Tabakalera’s Head of Artistic Projects, conducted a public interview with Jane on January 13, titled “2021: Towards a New Listening.” To show the extraordinary range of Pauline Oliveros’ music, Jane included several audio/visual tracks in her answers. Kayla Caban had the opportunity to ask Jane a few questions about her group’s work — continue reading to learn more!
Can you tell us a little bit about your group’s interpretation and performance of Pauline Oliveros’s Sound Patterns? What is the significance of this piece?
“In 1967, John Spencer Camp Professor Emeritus Alvin Lucier released an acclaimed recording of contemporary vocal music, sung by the Brandeis University Chamber Chorus, which he then directed, entitled Extended Voices (Odyssey label). Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Patterns (1961) was the opening track. Her piece was already known, as it had won the Dutch Gaudeamus International Composers Award in 1962. As the winning entry, it was performed by the NCRV-Vocal Ensemble as part of the Muziekweek events.
I discovered the score of Sound Patterns in the Wesleyan library (Olin Stacks M1584.O44 S6 1964) and thought it would make a wonderful part of the program I planned for the Vocal Constructivists to perform at Wesleyan in 2013. We were fortunate enough to work on the piece with the composer, who attended the festival, which was called “Time Stands Still.” The Vocal Constructivists recorded Sound Patterns on our 2014 album Walking Still (Innova #898). As the score is fully notated, there is less room for interpretative freedom than in much of Oliveros’ later music; indeed, there is only one measure of controlled improvisation. The piece was incredibly pioneering, and influential, predating similar compositions by György Ligeti (Aventures, 1962 and Nouvelles Aventures, 1962–65) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Momente 1961–62, revised 1965).”
How is the audience meant to engage with Sound Patterns?
“Well, our recording of it has had over 29,150 listens on Spotify, and even our YouTube video of the live performance at Wesleyan has had over 4,000 views, so audiences certainly do seem to be engaging with it! Even though it is sixty years old this year, Sound Patterns still sounds as innovative as anything ever written for voices. While the score draws on the classical art music heritage, in dividing up into sections that can be seen to form a kind of sonata form, it also reflects Oliveros’ interest in electronic music. Sound Patterns is a vocal piece without text/lyrics. Instead, Oliveros chose phonetic sounds purely on the basis of their timbre. She avails of certain consonants (sh, s, z, wh, p, t, h, ct, d, ch, th, k, and sw) to recreate “white noise”; ring-modulated sounds are conveyed in rapidly changing vowel content; lip pops, tongue clicks, finger snaps, and flutter lips provide percussive envelopes, and the singers represent filter techniques by muting (covering mouths with a hand), humming, or singing through clenched teeth. There was a precedent for abstract phonemic language in Dadaist and futurist sound poetry, notably in Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate (1932). Oliveros may also have been influenced by Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and Stimmung.
How has Pauline Oliveros’ value of deep listening influenced the Vocal Constructivists’ work?
“Oliveros herself said, ‘Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is.’ She believed in the healing powers of sound, particularly tuning, as a way to create harmony, both literally and symbolically. As I mention in my interview with Oier Etxeberria, the Vocal Constructivists were privileged enough to work with Pauline Oliveros on a number of occasions, including at a Deep Minimalism festival in London in 2016, on the day the result of the Brexit referendum was announced. Oliveros succeeded in bringing together not just my group of fifteen performers, but the entire audience in St John Smith Square, an eighteenth-century church just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament. In this rather traditional concert venue, Pauline was able to motivate all attendees to set aside their inhibitions, get to their feet, and share their sounds with strangers in a tuning meditation. The Deep Listening involved on this occasion lingers in our collective memory, expanding our perception of the world into areas that reach beyond the auditory.”
What do you think the benefit of practicing deep listening is?
“Deep Listening is not something that just happens. It involves a repeated sequence of engagements, which are multi-sensory, conceptual, personal, and shared. It enables hearing that reaches into the mental reconstruction of events from the past, present, and future. Oliveros’ interests extended from ancient myth to telematic and network music, and accompanying this vast historical sweep was her sensitivity to the environment. When Oliveros first recorded the noise of the street outside her window, she modeled awareness that human-made sounds are just a small part of the greater sonic universe. Listening is an invitation to cultivate empathy. In pieces like In Consideration of the Earth (1998), Oliveros asks performers to play “according to the feeling” of the East, the South, the West, the North, and finally, the qualities of the Center. The four points of the compass represented, for Oliveros, a kind of mandala; the whole earth, she suggests, can be sanctified through sound. To perform Oliveros is to remind oneself of the expansion of awareness that comes from the practice of Deep Listening.”