THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Cities in Nonexistent Spaces

Notes on a virtual performance of Pauline Oliveros’ Lunar Opera

by Seamus Flynn

Illustration by Jessy Minker

published April 17, 2020


 

I was late for the soundcheck. Fifteen minutes after the hour, I was still seeking the perfect position for my computer at eye-level in a low-ceilinged nook off of my parents’ bedroom, assembling my flute, and attaching a printed image of a fish to my sweater using clothespins. Once I had properly assembled my performance space, I entered the Zoom call, worried that I had missed the start of programming. What I found instead was an unmoderated space of 200 people making noise. I asked in the chat window if we were testing our sounds in any designated order, and others had the same question (it went unanswered). Every few seconds, someone would unmute their microphone and say the likes of “Hi, I’m in San Francisco, can you hear the looped sample of bells that I’m playing right now?” or “Can you hear the rain outside my window?” or “Where are you calling from?”

One person yelled, “Everyone be sure to practice!” This provoked audible laughter from those unmuted, because how exactly does one practice for an opera with no plot, constructed with characters created independently by performers? Part of the concept of this opera was that it couldn’t be replicated the same way twice—it was going to be a new event, created live, that would never happen again. Soon, the hour-long soundcheck ended, the designated hour passed to begin performing the opera, and the hosts of the call momentarily screen-shared a typed label indicating such. But the scattered soundscape did not change drastically, with countless performers opening their microphones briefly to yell lines in character or insert a lick on the saxophone or synthesizer. Twenty minutes into the performance, someone asked in the chat window, “When do we start?” The rest of us were excited to reply that it was already happening.

 

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I won’t dwell upon COVID-19 here, but, as you may have guessed, this experience sprang up in part from the current context of physical isolation. This pandemic is particularly rough for performing artists such as musicians, with theaters and music venues indefinitely closed. Not only do gigging musicians suddenly have no stable source of income, but some music schools have even closed permanently. For the music educators who still have their jobs, facilitating lessons or classes over video platforms like Zoom is a strange new world. Needless to say, Zoom was not designed for music, and its unreliable delay times make synchronized ensemble performance pretty much impossible.

But while many have lamented COVID-19’s decimation of musical communities, some have seen this as an opportunity to explore lesser-known styles of music that are more adaptable to platforms like Zoom. “Open scores” is a catch-all term for compositions that do not require a strict instrumentation. They are often based in improvisation, taking the form of musical gestures to be expanded upon, visual art to be freely interpreted as music, or text instructions. Rarely do they require exact synchronicity. Some practitioners of classical music, accustomed to more information-heavy notations, look down upon open scores, erroneously believing them to require less labor on the part of composers and performers. Perhaps now is a good time to demonstrate their pedagogical and artistic value.

So, in mid-March, LA-based composer and music director Sean Griffin posted on Facebook that perhaps there were some text-based open scores by Pauline Oliveros, a beloved experimental musician who wrote many of them, that would work well to perform over Zoom. The post got so much traction that, within a few weeks, the idea grew into a six-hour virtual production of Oliveros’s Lunar Opera: Deep Listening For_Tunes. It was produced by LA’s experimental opera company Opera Povera, scheduled to coincide with the full “pink” moon at perigee on April 7th, featured hundreds of participants from around the world, and raised donations for artists whose livelihoods have been interrupted by COVID-19. As a longtime fan of Oliveros’s work—and as a creator of open scores that draw a great deal of influence from her—I heard about it and quickly signed up to perform.

 

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Pauline Oliveros, who died in 2016, left an extraordinary legacy in so-called experimental music. She was at least as influential as John Cage, for instance, but has been comparatively marginalized in history books. This is for a variety of reasons: she was a woman, she was gay, and her musical output was largely participatory and designed to be realizable by amateurs, subverting the value systems of classical “art music,” which tends to privilege virtuosity and exact reproduction of existing musical texts. In addition to her compositions, Oliveros was also an active improviser on accordion, electronics, and whatever other sound-making implements were available. She coined the term “Deep Listening®,” which she described as “a way of listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing.” Oliveros was a professor of composition and electronic music at several different colleges throughout her life, and also founded a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the practice of Deep Listening.

Oliveros stands out from other experimental composers because of the level of trust she places in the performers who realize her work. Some creators of open scores, on the other hand, only allow for performer flexibility within an obvious aesthetic framework, often based on implicit rules about what is sufficiently “modern”—rules that mark consistent rhythms, recognizable melodies, and socio-political commentary all as somewhat taboo. Sometimes composers will specify these aesthetics through the aspects of the piece that are fixed, whether that be pitches, rhythms, or choreography. Or sometimes they’ll just get angry when performers interpret the open score in a way they don’t like (John Cage and Alvin Lucier both did this on certain occasions). With scores like Oliveros’s Lunar Opera, this rigidity isn’t present. Rather than a limited array of performance choices within a grand, composerly vision, this score is an invitation for performer creativity, for the free invention of new sounds and characters. This ideal is present throughout much of Oliveros’s work.

That said, I don’t want to put Oliveros on a pedestal. The idea of trademarking an artistic practice (Deep Listening®), for instance, seems to institute a new flavor of power dynamic, running contrary to Deep Listening’s democratizing aims. As does Oliveros’s tendency to glorify an imagined primitivity: I appreciate the spiritual component of her musical practice, but her language is “new-agey,” for better or for worse. Take, for instance, the preface to her well-known (and very effective) set of text-instruction scores, Sonic Meditations, which claims to be “returning to ancient forms which preclude spectators” and “an attempt to return the control of sound to the individual alone.” This risks implying that all musical traditions without a clear performer-audience boundary have died out—which isn’t the case—and that sound not fully in the individual’s control is necessarily bad. The latter line of reasoning has historically been common in Western music academia, deeming “commercial” musical expression to be insufficiently individual, and, in the process, conveniently writing off such genres as soul, funk and hip hop. Oliveros’s embrace of the practice of improvisation was radical in the academic spaces in which she operated, where written notes are held as superior. But her definition of improvisation isn’t as inclusionary as I would like it to be: she sometimes deemed jazz as less authentic improvisation due to its reliance on pre-defined forms and motives.

In other words, while Oliveros in some ways subverted the standards of the elite academic spaces in which she worked for much of her life, there were other ways in which she was a product of them, so her legacy is not clear-cut. But the nice thing about the open nature of her scores is that these notions aren’t baked into the music to the extent that they are for some artists. When following her instructions, most of the artistic control is yours, so these thoughts shouldn’t stop you from playing and enjoying her pieces. There’s a PDF of Sonic Meditations here, they’re great, and you can go perform some of them right now, even (especially) if you might not think you’re a musician.

 

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Like many Oliveros scores, Lunar Opera specifies a framework to be creatively inhabited by professionals and amateurs alike. The score in its entirety is five sentences long. Performers are instructed to design their own characters with costumes and props, designate a sonic cue they know they will hear, then freeze or unfreeze when the cue occurs. The premiere, held during the Out-of-Doors Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2000, consisted of a sea of 200 characters freezing and unfreezing at different times, going about their daily lives as creatures from a land called Lunarus. During our preparatory Q&A session with the organizers of this online iteration 20 years later, director Sean Griffin described what we were doing as “a ghost ship” or “a city floating in nonexistent space.” The second of the score’s five sentences reads, “A performance area is designated,” but unlike any performance area in past iterations of the piece, ours was at least somewhat imaginary. It was either 200 separate rooms scattered across the world, the complex system of tubes known as the internet, or both.

While all the performers for the 2000 premiere acted as residents of Lunarus, in this online performance, we were given liberty to be whatever or whoever we wanted. I decided to be a salmon. During the first two-hour act of the opera, I would be born in a river, imagine myself exploring my salmon-body and my environment, and begin to float downstream. During the next act, I would explore the ocean, feeling its vastness and navigating through it by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. All this would be conveyed with vocal noises, flute playing, and occasional exclamations of the word “salmon!” in various tones of voice. For my cue, I chose to freeze or unfreeze in response to any sound perceived as predatory to salmon. This could be one of my cats meowing, or it could be anything on the Zoom call that I perceived as a squawk or a growl.

Entering the evening-length performance, the idea was fresh in my mind that Oliveros trusts anyone approaching her scores, which we’d discussed during the Q&A session a few days earlier. As it turns out, trust is chaotic. What greeted my eyes and ears was a psychedelic collage of costumes and sounds. Rather than stepping into a vast courtyard of performers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I was slipping on a pair of headphones and receiving the same amount of information squeezed into a massive video call. I would already have been slightly overstimulated if I hadn’t also been listening for anything potentially predatory to me, a salmon.

I spent more time frozen in silent awareness than I did making sounds, so I was able to look at my laptop screen and see the many different ways in which people were choosing to interpret the score. Some performers interpreted it mostly musically, working with one instrument the whole time while perhaps wearing a silly hat. Others did so theatrically, constructing sets and improvising monologues in character, dancing, or performing pre-written scenes with family and friends in quarantine. And some split the difference between the two—for instance, alternating between drinking out of wine glasses and performatively striking them as percussion instruments. One performance artist spent the entire six hours washing their hands. There was an X-rated breakout room, and nude content would sometimes percolate into the main Zoom room by accident. It was, simply put, a wild time.

You’re probably wondering who all of these people were. Conveniently, there was an “Artists” page on the production’s website, where we could upload information about ourselves. It was a strange page. A lot of performers copy-pasted professional bios, and it seemed that at least half had graduate degrees in the arts. Certainly, the principal reason for this is that people who are more “plugged in” to the art and music worlds are more likely to have heard of Oliveros and to receive news that a free and open event like this is happening. But, given the way that much of Oliveros’s work, including Lunar Opera, is styled to be executable by untrained artists, a tension arises when the majority of performers on a piece of hers possess professional artistic qualifications. It can be hard to conceptualize how a five-sentence score can be interpreted as a six-hour opera, which can make the space inadvertently exclusionary, as amateur artists might look on and assume that they can’t do this. Heck, impostor syndrome entered my mind more than once during the performance, since I was one of the youngest people there.

These concerns diminished once I got more “into the zone,” so to speak, during the second two-hour act of performance. It helped that there were fewer than 100 people on the Zoom call now, so we were able to listen to each other more carefully, even as we took actions that were sometimes deliberately disjunct. The fireworks of sound that had filled the first hours of performance smoothed out into long, ambient drones. As a salmon, I had my eyes closed, either humming long tones and imagining being submerged in deep water, or playing distorted high trills on the flute and imagining that these were the earth’s magnetic field. I had a few of those great moments in improvisation when you aren’t thinking about anything else, just riding the sound. Oliveros’s philosophies involve sound as a connecting agent between all life forms, breaking down the illusion of separation. I think I felt a little bit of that oneness that night, and it’s an experience I want to have again. Her work is very spiritually nourishing, which is why I keep coming back to it.

Three hours into the performance, I had to stop so that my parents and cats could go to sleep. But I stayed up for a couple hours longer, watching the opera’s livestream on YouTube. With closer to 60 people on the call now, the atmosphere was much more relaxed and intimate. Two friends of mine, who kept playing until the 2 AM finish, agreed that this remote ensemble felt more and more mentally in sync as the evening went on. The livestream showed 20 people at once, resembling windows of a skyscraper in some imaginary city late at night. It wasn’t a substitute for live performance, but it didn’t try to be. I ended the night with the feeling that performing artists will find ways to be collectively creative despite these circumstances, and we’ll hopefully emerge from this crisis with a greater appreciation for open-ended, improvisational pieces like this one.

 

SEAMUS FLYNN B’21 is still a fish.