Newsletter

Fall 1999 Volume XXIX, No. 1










Copland's Hope for American Music
by Howard Pollack

spectral frequencies
by Martha Mockus

Demythologizing the Blues
by David Evans

New Music Notes
by Carol J. Oja

Behind the Beat
with Mark Tucker

ISAM Matters


Reviews


Rethinking Race in 19th-Century Blackface Minstrelsy
by Maya Gibson

Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian
by Laurie Blunsom



ISAM Home

spectral frequencies

by Martha Mockus


But I knew she was coming. I could hear her echoes peeling back off the moments, the way Aunt Raylene said she could always hear a spell coming on. Katy’s persistent. Some of my ghosts are so faded; they only come when I reach for them. This one reaches for me.

-Dorothy Allison


Dorothy Allison’s story “Demon Lover” is an homage to the genre of lesbian ghost stories. It features Katy, a sexy demon lover who has died of a drug overdose and visits her ex-lover (Allison herself) as an apparition. Katy’s “pale skin gleams in the moonlight, reflecting every beam like a mirror of smoked glass while her teeth and nails shine phosphorescent.”1 She reaches for Allison, putting her in touch with her painful and glorious past and her desires, pleasures, and fears. Katy’s spectral visits inspire me to listen to Pauline Oliveros’s electronic music in new ways.

Composed in 1966 as a real-time improvisation in the University of Toronto electronic music studio, I of IV (CBS Odyssey 32 16 0160) is one of Oliveros’s best known tape pieces. While listening to this piece, I am struck by the extraordinary range of timbres, rhythms, spatial effects, and intensely luxurious sound shapes created by Oliveros’s use of tape delay. As a lesbian listener deeply concerned with the ways music sounds out connections to particular social and erotic contexts, this piece prompts me to consider Oliveros’s musical ideas alongside the larger patterns of lesbian culture in North America.

I of IV features an eight-second delay which, with shorter cross-coupled delays, forms large-scale echo effects as well as subtle changes in timbre and dynamics. Oliveros’s use of tape delay is the primary means by which musical gestures and structures are created. The piece also makes use of combination tones—tones produced by the sums and differences between frequencies. When produced on instruments, combination tones are typically very faint, but when produced electronically, they can be amplified, as Oliveros does in I of IV. The timbral effects of these combination tones include overtones, inharmonic partials, and “noise.” At times, the distinction between pitch and timbre is blurred.

To listen to I of IV is to experience a remarkable sonic landscape. The piece begins with a nasal, drill-like drone on C#4 with occasional metallic scrapes above and below this drone (pitch names are approximations only and follow international acoustic practice). The reverberation and combination tones create a rotating effect, as if the sounds were turning in space or carving a figure eight. At 1’20” a distinct trombone-like tone enters on C#5; the sound stretches and bends slightly above and below this pitch to produce a smaller-scale, more focused sense of rotation while other accompanying sounds expand in volume. A high-pitched whistle tone enters at 3’00” and sweeps around the treble range while the lower register (from the beginning of the piece) fades out. The sweeps repeat (tape delay), and reverberation is especially apparent here, creating a cave-like soundscape. A descending minor third, C#5 to A#4, stands out of the texture, echoes, and re-emerges an octave lower, establishing a connection between the upper and lower registers.

At 8’00”, a gradual decrescendo leads to a low percussive sound like needle clicks on a phonograph. As they echo, the timbre of the clicks grows fatter. Higher tones play short pointillistic rhythms, a sonic interchange that implies ricochet. A pair of contrasting spaces then emerges—the lower register evokes a large, open space, while the upper register suggests a smaller, more intimate space. The next two and a half minutes feature a thick collection of pulsating sounds comprised of clusters of tones to which it is nearly impossible to ascribe pitches. The timbres are metallic, and higher pitched overtones, like whistles, are also apparent. But any distinction between pitch and timbre is completely blurred. The aural effect is both lush and unsettling.

At 12’30” a grand, sweeping melody takes charge. The timbre is a cross between a trombone and a fire engine siren, and recalls the earlier moment at 1’20”. The sonic shift is both abrupt and climactic. Extremely wide glissandos soar through high and low registers, reaching around and rolling over themselves. The melody dwells on a single tone and then swoops away. The canon-like repetition of the tape delay is so pronounced that this melody seems to carve itself into space. Like a sonic sculpture, these sounds are shapely and muscular. As one of the longest sections of the piece—approximately four minutes—a luxuriousness emanates from the multiple repetitions and decays.

A low undulating hum extends through the piece, and is especially audible towards the end. At 16’00”, after the siren melody has evaporated, some very high-pitched twitters dart around above the purring hum. These “sound sprays” are rhythmically unpredictable, and they seem to move from one location to another like shooting stars, or perhaps fireworks. The piece ends with a return to the undulating rumble and a flourish of xylophone-like sounds, C#5 to B5.

In her discussion of II of IV, the second in Oliveros’s series of tape pieces, composer Linda Dusman turns to Terry Castle’s notion of the apparitional lesbian as a way of locating the presence of the composer of acousmatic music during her absence as embodied performer.2 The compositional and sonic similarities between I of IV and II of IV persuade me to consider Castle’s ideas more closely. Castle traces the vast and complex images of sexual love between women in literature since the eighteenth century to argue that however prohibited or occluded, lesbianism has functioned as a powerful motif in Western culture. The lesbian as ghost, specter, phantom, apparition persists in writing by both men and women, lesbians and non-lesbians. Although the idea of the lesbian as ghost—without flesh and blood—is homophobic, “[o]ver the past three hundred years,” Castle suggests, “the metaphor has functioned as the necessary psychological means for objectifying—and ultimately embracing—that which otherwise could not be acknowledged.” Furthermore, the apparitional lesbian, the figure of homoerotic possibility, is often “‘brought back to life’—imbued with breadth, heft, and charisma—in the later twentieth-century lesbian imagination.”3

Perhaps lesbians working in the creative arts were awakened by sonic apparitions as well. Before she began composing with electronic media, Oliveros was haunted by sonic images that she found difficult to sketch within the conventional system of Western notation: “I was hearing sound qualities which only much later became accessible to me through electronic means.”4 In an interview with William Duckworth in 1995, Oliveros remembers at age sixteen hearing complicated sounds that were part symphonic, part abstract: “[S]ome of it was sensation that I needed to realize as sound, but I didn’t know how to do it.”

DUCKWORTH: Did these early sounds intrude on whatever you were doing at the moment, or did you have to be in a certain frame of mind before they would come to you?

OLIVEROS: I was always listening. The first time I heard them, it was like a hypnogogic state except that instead of having vivid visual images, I had vivid sound images. But there it was.

DUCKWORTH: Did it seem like an unusual experience to be having?

OLIVEROS: It seemed euphoric. It was very ecstatic. The only thing that could match it was when I heard my first composition played in class at the university [in Houston]. It was a similar experience. “Wow! I don’t want to do anything else but make this music.” That’s where the strength to stay with it comes from--from that pleasure, ecstasy, and euphoria.5

About I of IV, she says, “In this work I proceeded to elaborate a strong mental sonic image.”6 For Oliveros, making electronic music, especially I of IV, was to realize vividly her sonic apparitions and bring them to life. In particular, the combination tones—normally beyond the range of audibility—are amplified, and appear as new timbral ideas. So startling were these “sounds from a nether realm”7 that Oliveros’s work in Toronto was sabotaged.8 “In one electronic studio I was accused of black art, and the director disconnected line amplifiers to discourage my practices, declaring that signal generators are of no use above or below the audio range because you can’t hear them.” 9

Of course, Oliveros found plenty of use for sub- and super-audio generators in I of IV, especially in the climactic “siren melody,” which she gleefully describes to Barry Schrader:

At one point in the piece there’s a rather climactic scream-like melody that sweeps through most of the audible range. When that thing started coming out, I didn’t expect it; it was incredible and very delightful. I was laughing and was amazed at that particular moment, and I still enjoy that part of the piece. I would hope other people might experience something like that when they listen to I of IV.10

Oliveros’s laughter embodies the pleasure, ecstasy, and euphoria she experienced, as if she were finally greeted by fully fleshed sounds that were ghosts before. For me, in Oliveros’s music the erotic is never very far away. To return to Allison’s “Demon Lover,” I hear I of IV as Katy’s sonic counterpart, an undeniable force both apparitional and real. Katy’s powerful ability to thrill parallels the effect composing/performing I of IV had on Oliveros. Listening to the piece in this way teaches me important lessons about the richness of lesbian life in the twentieth century, a complex cultural presence often misunderstood, unseen, unheard. And just as scholars of lesbian history and literature have had to read between the lines, those of us working in music must listen beyond the sounds to the spectral frequencies and decipher from musical texts their messages of lesbian eroticism.

—San Francisco

Editors’ Note: This article is a revised excerpt from Mockus’s doctoral dissertation,
Sounding Out: Lesbian Feminism and the Music of Pauline Oliveros
(University of Minnesota, 1999), which won the 1999 Philip Brett
Award from the American Musicological Society.


Notes

Click on note number to return to its place in the text.

1 Dorothy Allison, “Demon Lover,” Trash (Firebrand, 1988).
2 Linda Dusman, “No Bodies There: Absence and Presence in Acousmatic Performance,” in Music and Gender, ed. Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).
3 Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press, 1993), 60, 55.
4 Jane Weiner LePage, “Pauline Oliveros,” Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century (Scarecrow Press, 1980), 167.
5 William Duckworth, Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers (Schirmer, 1995), 163-64.
6 Oliveros, “Career Narrative,” [1973] File W11, Oliveros Archive, U.C. San Diego, 3.
7 In “Some Sound Observations,” Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-1980 (Smith Publications, 1984), Oliveros writes: “When I was thirty-two [in 1964] I began to set signal generators beyond the range of hearing and to make electronic music from amplified combination tones. I felt like a witch capturing sounds from a nether realm” (26).
8 Katherine Setar confirms that the studio referred to is the one at the University of Toronto; see Setar, An Evolution in Listening: An Analytical and Critical Study of Structural, Acoustic, and Phenomenal Aspects of Selected Works by Pauline Oliveros (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1997), 219-20.
9 Oliveros, “Some Sound Observations,” 27.
10 Barry Schrader, “Interview with Pauline Oliveros: I of IV,” Introduction to Electro-Acoustic Music (Prentice Hall, 1982), 186.




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