The Last Sense To Leave Us acts as a tribute to the late American composer, Pauline Oliveros. Probably best known as the creator of Deep Listening, Oliveros was also a musical theorist and philosopher of great repute, a daughter of sound, and her wide-eyed compositional techniques frequently blended the unusual with the familiar, a perceived dissonance within harmonic slivers; a whirlpool of experimentalism, born with a far-ranging scope, a fierce intelligence and a soft sensitivity.
Oliveros used ground-breaking and highly innovative electronics, vocals and improvisations. With kindness she pushed music herself into new territories which resulted in wonderfully progressive tomes, pointing the way to new possibilities and inspiring the artists of the future. She also pushed along and questioned society’s rigid perceptions and preconceptions of what music is, of what it should sound like and of the strict structures and formulas contemporary music commonly sticks to, and this compilation, released on Rural Colours, draws upon some of her principles.
Everything that produces a sound can be thought of as music. John Cage’s ‘4’33’ used silence and space to justify this – the piece could be played anywhere, without a piano, without anything but the notes of the natural atmosphere, and because of that it’s perhaps the ultimate expression of sound…or the perceived lack of it, depending on your viewpoint. Because every time you listen to or play ‘4’33’, you are actually intently listening. And every time it’s played, the results are different. The same could be said for all live music, perhaps, with each note and every moment never being the same. Birds could be singing, a sudden cough could filter into the recording and become stuck like glue to the recording for decades to come; that in itself was sound, but it was also the absence of it, or at least the absence of arranged and structured pitches. So, is it music, or silence? Or, perhaps more appropriately, is it both? Don’t they both co-exist? Cage’s piece of silent music made people actively listen, which is more than can be said for a lot of contemporary music. Cage and Oliveros are of the same school, and the thirteen musicians on this compilation use a variety of her pioneering musical techniques and principles. Her work has had a large impact on the lives of these musicians and artists and the compilation is a testament to the stunning breadth of her output, moving from an orchestral outpouring to a piece of ambient stillness, and from the glitchy stutters of a slow and outdated computer or an echocardiogram to the clanger-like high frequencies and shrill calls of ‘321 Divisadero Street’. It’s an experimental playground, but it has a deep intelligence and an intricate design at its heart. Everything is music, and so it is on The Last Sense To Leave Us.
Some focus more on the development of harmony. The drifting flute of Isnaj Dui’s ‘The Homebody’ is on a peaceful course, a pretty, flowering antidote after the earlier disarray. Neotropic’s later golden harmonies are a soothing remedy, as is a track from Oliver Cherer and Keiron Phelan, proving that one never holds sway over the other: both are equal. We’ve been brought up on a steady diet of major chords and harmonies – that’s why western culture is so familiar with a Top 40 pop chart (we associate it with what is ‘normal’) and not a Top 40 experimental chart – and our ears have become attuned to the taste, so when seemingly dissonant sounds are brought to our attention, their dissonance increases and the brain, for those used to other genres, immediately wants to reject them.
A later, fifteen-minute drone composition from Michael Tanner heightens a state of deep listening, Oliveros shone a bright light not only on the art of noise but on the art of sound – the very essence of music herself. The Last Sense To Leave Us is both a dedication and a fitting goodbye.