VA: The Last Sense To Leave Us – A Tribute To Pauline Oliveros
In that distinguished club of composers who have left profound marks on contemporary musical practice, names such as John Cage, R. Murray Schafer, and Pauline Oliveros come readily to mind. The latter, the infamous progenitor of “Deep Listening,” is the deserving subject of this tribute compilation. Overseen by album producers Keiron Phelan and Oliver Cherer, The Last Sense To Leave Us was inspired by their attendance at one of her last public appearances, at St. John Smiths Square in summer 2016, which involved her leading the audience in a performance of her composition Tuning Meditation. The American composer, who died last fall at the age of eighty-four, believed that music involves not only conventional aspects such as melody, harmony, and rhythm but the extra-musical elements accompanying the performance, including ambient noise and acoustic space. An artist of uncommon integrity and intelligence, Oliveros stayed true to her vision until the end of her remarkable life.
It's fitting that the release opens with Alison Cotton's title track, first, for offering an opportunity to clarify the origin of the album title's and, secondly, for the nature of the track's construction. Apparently Cotton, a vocalist and violist in the psych-folk duo The Left Outsides, read a thought-provoking interview with Oliveros in which she pinpointed hearing as both the first sense to develop in the fetus and the last sense to leave us when we die. Cotton developed her piece in a manner very much consistent with Oliveros's sensibility and to which she would have no doubt given her blessing: as Cotton set about to work on her material, she overheard the noise of a nearby lawnmower and used the notes resonating from it as a starting point for the deep, haunting drone she generated from a sawing viola, vocal chants, harmonium, shruti box, and recorders.
The album's producers collaborated on the elegiac “PO4c” in typical long-distance manner, with Cherer first recording a base of tape-looped trumpets and Phelan adding flute at a friend's studio. The instruments make for a bewitching combination, especially when the muffled reverberations of the horn contrast so dramatically with the lulling entrancement of Phelan's vibrato-laden lines. Flutes also figure into Katie English's Isnaj Dui setting “The Homebody,” even if the track's initial calm is gradually disrupted by an energized, pulse-driven array of noises, percussive and otherwise.
Electronics play a central part in some productions. Brona McVittie produced “You Are My Sister” using filtered harp, idiopan, and voice, the result a delicate micro-sound exercise redolent of Oliveros's early explorations in electronic sound design; the warble, whoosh, and thrum of David Colohan's “321 Divisadero Street” similarly locates it within that realm. Though electronics are present in James Stringer's “Drivende,” the piece plays like some mesmerizing tête-à-tête between a glass orchestra and gamelan ensemble, while The Hardy Tree's “Signs of Spring” tinkles beatifically, with bowed violin strokes, vocal exhalations, and gamelan vibraphone patterns part of its vibrant mix. Wordless vocalizing is prominent in a number of pieces, among them Riz Maslen's Neotropic piece “O,” with its dramatic chanting, and Anne Garner's “Brink,” a prototypically enchanting exercise in slow dazzle from the singer, pianist, and flutist.Some pieces appear to directly reference Oliveros's sound and “Deep Listening” concepts; others more draw for inspiration from her example as a boldly adventurous innovator and channel her sensibility. In the former category one finds The New Honey Shade's “7 Accordions (for Pauline Oliveros)” and Mike Tanner's “After Lear; For Hurdy Gurdy and Bowed Dulcimer.” The former's heartfelt homage wheezes robustly, whereas the fifteen-minute latter takes the album's lengthiest plunge with a shimmering, Baroque-tinged dronescape. Regardless of the differences between the pieces, which are often considerable, they all honour Oliveros's spirit on this special project in a highly personalized manner that reflects their creators' individual styles.