on Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations
Sitting and listening to live music from a source I cannot see can be a strange experience. As a student at Oberlin, I spent a few half-hours staring at the front wall of Fairchild Chapel as friends and visiting luminaries played the famous organ from the loft behind the pews. Initially it was a disconcerting sensation, watching the blank gray stone as the musicians worked their many-handed magic from above, but after a while I learned to enjoy it. As a writer, it gave me a chance to only focus on the music as it reached me, worrying about the technicalities of performance later if such details were needed.
With this in mind I took a seat on the balcony of the Meditation Mount, high above the Ojai Valley, facing the drop-off and the nearest mountain soaring into the sky. The audience and most of the players were in the building behind me, glass doors on three of four walls flung open wide for sound and musicians to pass through. As the players of ICE followed Oliveros’s instructions, striking bells and gongs, creating whispering textures and jagged cells of melody, all I could see was the blooming yucca down the hill swaying in the wind, green dots of trees on the dusty yellow mountains, a pale gray early-morning sky slowly giving over to blue. I tried, and mostly succeeded, to resist the temptation to turn around to see exactly how the players were producing the sound, which fragments of song were Claire Chase playing a bird whistle and which were contributions from the unrehearsed southern California dawn chorus, members of which zipped through the air. I tried to lean back into the sound, not forward.
At one point, all the melodic instruments hovered on microtonal neighbors of the same pitch, moving higher and lower almost as one while the percussion rustled. Tiny variations in volume, timbre, and color brought the sound to life. I noticed the flowering yucca, and the white and pink flowers on the bushes around me caught my eye. I looked for bees but could find none.
Disquieting dissonances crept in, a drum rattled as if in fear, and another path opened. What if these are not bees, but drones swarming? And I realized, one of Nature’s most important messengers of life and rebirth, and one of humanity’s most barbaric messengers of death, share a name. The drone that brings life faces extinction, and the drone that brings death breeds and propagates so quickly.