On the Borders of Silence
Gelb, Oliveros, Reason Trio at the Clarion Music Center
review by William Osborne
in 20th Century Music Journal (December 1999)
Clarion Music Center, a "world music" store, probably has one of
the finest ethnic instrument collections of any music shop in the Americas.
They have instruments you never thought existed, so you can imagine
the sounds that ensued as I entered along with a group of musicians long
involved with the improvisational practices of Pauline Oliveros' "Deep
quickened the air, engulfing the shop in a pandemonium of every sort of
plucking, banging, thwacking, blowing, shaking, bowing, piping, thumping,
ratcheting, and scraping the ear could conceive.
I wonder how the proprietor stands such a cacophonous "world
din" everyday (her only moment of slight weariness seemed to be when I
asked her how to play the "snake charmer") but apparently she does
have her limits. Over an old
beat up spinet buried behind a pile of exotic drums, zithers, and an alp
horn, is a large sign which says, "DO NOT PLAY THE PIANO."
the audience filed into the small concert room in the basement--many with
satiated grins from participation in the world "panharmonioum"
above--I wondered how a trio of an ethnic instrument, a folk instrument, and
a western classical instrument, each with a widely diverging sound, dynamic
range, and heritage, was going to create a concert length
improvisation--even with three such renowned musicians as these.
did not take me long to find out as Reason reached inside the piano to
create almost sub-audible sounds of fragile beauty, joined after a moment
with Gelb's long, windy, shakuhachi sighs and the exquisitely shimmering
microtonal drones of Oliveros' specially built accordion in just intonation.
The music was so soft that I took notes only with the slightest
pressure of pencil on paper, lest I disturb the music emerging and
submerging in a silence of arresting beauty.
Occasionally Reason's hands rose into the light--they could have been
carved by Michelangelo--and moved as if they themselves were listening.
demonstrated a remarkable ability to meld the accordion to the shakuhachi,
creating similar tremulous vibratos by moving her instrument with
fluttering, butterfly motions of her hands.
She even made the lower tones glissando like the shakuhachi by half
keying notes and letting the air expend itself out of the stationary
bellows. Her high sustained
tones revealed the qualities of just
intonation, pure and delicate, long, slow crescendos, crystalline like a
glass harmonica. The first
notes Reason played on the keys of the piano were similar, perfectly chosen,
high, singular, shining like glass. The
musicians breathed together in a suspended silence.
began to rub her hands tightly on the polished surface of the piano,
creating high, barely audible, intermittent sounds, a distant wailing she
suddenly submerged in a heavy, luxurious deep note of a single piano string
languorously vibrating the air. Then
her fingernails moved ever so lightly over the keys, a sensual rustle
of ebony, joined by her long, delicate hands rubbing on the underside of the
instrument. These sounds and
gestures, almost erotically beautiful, flowed into long, gently suspended
drones of microtonal clusters created by the shakuhachi's glissandi and just
intonation of the accordion. A
delicate phasing of waves sensually conjoined.
floating upward came shimmering patterns of high, plaintive piano notes on a
synthetic scale, fading to the eerie, throaty, howling tones of a conch
shell Oliveros had brought from the store above.
Gelb, whose shakuhachi is his body, echoed similar throaty, sensual
sounds. From those distant,
earthy, and yet alien calls came Reason's soft notes like the broken bells
of an abandoned mission church, desolate, collapsing, returning to nature.
began to twitch the accordion nervously with quickly moving, pointillistic
fragments. Gelb responded with
high glissandi Oliveros caught in midstream with just intonation, creating
microtonal clusters of exquisitely beating partials. The phasing touched the
ears with caressing shimmers. Then Gelb and Reason became lascivious for a
moment, thrusting breathy staccato notes around the silence while Oliveros
refereed with a watchful drone. She
was always listening, and with the simplest gestures anticipated and melded
perfectly with her colleagues.
almost never played a chord. Her
exquisite touch created lines with a sinuous logic all of her own.
Slowly, led by her, they distantly hinted at swing, but with such an
ominous, pointillistic fragility that the strangest image passed before me,
perhaps engendered by the appalling social dichotomies of where I am living.
The music sounded like cyborg swallows darting through heat lightning
over the orange, fiery glows of Oakland burning.
But before I could even think of how they took me to such an aberrant
vision, the image kept changing, becoming much more physical, bodily, yet
the music opened into an abrupt silence perfectly filled by the cry of a
child from the street outside. It
was like coming to after a dream and remembering where you are.
The musicians continued, but the city still conspired to join, this
time with the beeping of an alarm outside, groups of three repeated notes on
a single strident pitch-- sacred bodies and infernal machines. Gelb
surrounded us in a kaleidoscopic array of
notes, lilting and blurring, a rising swarm of monarchs swirling and
flickering in an iridescent light. Oliveros
went to the dark depths of low microtonal drones.
The beeping conspired to destroy but it didn't touch their world.
I began to hear connections between the shakuhachi and accordion that
I had never known before--the Chinese Sheng is a distant relative of the
accordion, and with the shakuhaci melds into an ancient lineage of bamboo.
went silent. Then as Gelb and
Oliveros moved to the inaudible, Reason emerged into a solo indescribable,
so light, Lorcian, starry, mystical. Only
when she stopped, and all was silent, did I realize the three note beep was
still there. Back in San
Francisco, I sat among people longing again for sonic journeys, audacious
and intricate, infinitely gentle landscapes on the borders of silence.
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