02 April 2007

100% organic music, no additives

Stuart Dempster:
Underground overlays from the Cistern Chapel
Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis:
Deep listening

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Once in a while I find myself going back to re-listen to something I haven’t experienced in a while – usually chosen by chance, browsing through my collection in search of something different than whatever’s been in my bedside CD player for the past week, or in my car for a day. Sometimes the re-discovery causes me to understand all too well why I haven’t chosen that particular item lately – sometimes it’s more like a revelation. A couple of nights ago, when I pulled Stuart Dempster’s Underground overlays from the Cistern Chapel (New Albion, 1995) out of the rack and put in on for bedtime listening, it was definitely the latter case.
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Stuart Dempster is a trombonist who has worked in many genres – he has played with the Oakland Symphony, worked with composer Terry Riley, studied aboriginal music in Australia, and has taught and performed around the world. His music has been featured in concert settings as well as accompanying dance.
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He is perhaps best-known today for having conceived and recorded original works that incorporate the space in which they are performed as an intrinsic part of the ensemble – the room as a force in the formation of the music. His recording In the great abbey of Clement VI (originally issued on LP by 1750 Arch, 1979; re-issued with an extra track on CD by New Albion, 1987) blew me away when I first heard it, many years ago.
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Dempster plays solo trombone and didjeridu, utilizing the incredible acoustics of the historic building in amazing ways. The space yields a 14-second delay time – it’s hard to tell, on first listening, where one note ends and the next begins.

Underground overlays was recorded in 1994 in an abandoned water cistern located at Fort Worden, Port Townsend, Washington – not his first experience with this space (Deep listening was recorded at this site in 1988). The cistern, when used, held over 2 million gallons of water – its diameter is 186 feet. The acoustics of the room are astonishing – the delay time is 45 seconds, and a whisper spoken against the wall at any point in the circumference can be heard by anyone standing at the wall in any part of the room. This recording features Dempster on solo trombone, conch and didjeridu; nine other trombonists (some of whom double on conch or didjeridu from time to time); and Debra Sykes on Tibetan cymbals.

The composer describes the technique used to ‘direct’ the ensemble – similar to a method he conceived in 1983 for an earlier work – in the liner notes to the CD: While spinning very slowly, I face each of the other trombonists in turn. The trombonists are spaced around the circumference of the cistern approximately 80 feet away from each other. When I face them straight on, they are to hear what I play and continue playing that item until I face them again with either the same or, more likely, new information. If I face down, they are to stop what they are doing; if I face up they are to ignore what I play and continue playing the previous information. This latter allows for solo passages. Because of the extraordinarily long reverberation, the pacing needs to move extremely slowly in order not to have too much activity at once. The result is a series of multiple sound overlays…

If this sounds confusing and possibly jarring (given most folks’ preconceptions of the sound of a single trombone, let alone 10 of them), think again – the result is incredibly soothing and calming, a sonic landscape of slowly shifting notes and waves that are meditative and gentle. I’m not an expert in sound sciences by any means, but I’m speculating that the acoustics of the room, combined with the expertise of the performers, take the ‘edge’ off the trombones’ usually ‘brassy’ voices. Played at medium or low volume, this is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever experienced – at first, it’s hard to believe that the effects were achieved with absolutely no electronic or studio alteration. All of the reverberation is completely natural – organic ambience, if you will.

The first encounter Dempster had with the sonic properties of the Fort Worden cistern was back in 1988, while recording the Deep listening album with accordionist/composer Pauline Oliveros and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Panaiotis.
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The music created by these three innovators on this occasion are every bit as stunning as those on Underground overlays – they used a different array of instruments (trombone, didjeridu, garden hose, accordion, conch shells, metal percussion, voices and whistling), and instead of being ‘directed’, they are able to play and respond to each other, sometimes improvising, at other times using compositions or parts of compositions as a creative springboard. With the exception of track 4 (‘Nike’, which features the metal percussion), the results are every bit as meditative and calming as those on the Dempster recording. With the ability to play along with echoes of previously played notes and passages, it’s difficult at times to tell which sounds are coming from the accordion and which are generated by the trombone…and the voices are a nice touch as well…but in the end, it really doesn’t matter – this is an opportunity to sit in on a conversation of cosmic proportions between three incredibly creative minds.

In the notes, Pauline Oliveros explains the tuning of her accordion thusly: The accordion is tuned in two systems of just intonation: a five limit system in the left hand and a seven limit system in the right hand. The voice, trombone, and adjustable didjeridu made of jointed PVC pipe easily adapt to these tuning systems. Because of the tuning, the acoustic resonance of the ensemble is enhanced. The deep listening style comes about through the interacting individual styles of the composer/performers, influenced by special tunings and acoustic space.

It’s evident through listening to these wonderful albums that the consciousness-penetrating effect on the listener was felt by the composer/performers as well – this is music that can carry you away. If you’ve never heard any of these recordings, go to the New Albion site (link below), look up the titles and check out the sound samples. These are treasures I find myself revisiting again and again – the subtleties and layers are innumerable, making each hearing feel like I’m experiencing them for the first time…and that’s a rare and precious thing.


links:

New Albion Records

Stuart Dempster website

Pauline Oliveros / Deep listening website

Panaiotis website

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