Internationally renowned experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, a resident of Kingston, will be participating in the 2014 Whitney Biennial with a sound-and-video installation on May 19 through 25. The installation, which includes a performance by Oliveros playing her trademark digital accordion on May 25, uses the space of a major New York City museum for the composer’s groundbreaking experiments in sonic awareness.
Asked her reaction to the invitation to participate in the prestigious Biennial, one of the art world’s highest-profile exhibitions of contemporary art, she replied, “I was astonished. Everybody is very impressed with the Biennial, and I’m just doing my thing. It’s giving me an opportunity to be a sound artist, which now has cachet, with everybody jumping on the bandwagon of sound art.”
Born in Texas in 1932, Oliveros was a musical pioneer, part of a group of San Francisco-based composers experimenting with the recording and playback of sounds from found instruments on magnetic tape in the early 1960s. From those early experiments she developed her Expanded Instrument System (EIS), which she describes as “a way of processing acoustic or electronic sounds by recording them and delaying them and modifying them on the fly”; with the advent of computer programming, it has morphed into performance software.
At the Whitney, Oliveros will set up a tetra-microphone in the lobby, its four capsules picking up sounds from four different directions. Doors shutting and closing, sirens on the street, the murmur of conversation, recorded announcements, a musical installation in the lobby and other ambient sounds will be recorded by the four capsules and sent on separate tracks into the EIS software, which will modify, delay, repeat and otherwise alter the recorded sounds. They’ll be played back in the adjoining lobby. The installation, which Oliveros is developing with the help of programmer Jesse Stiles, “creates an immersive environment, which is both weirdly displaced and familiar,” she said. “I’ll be hanging around because I’ll be curious as to how it works.”
The soundscape will be accompanied by moving images projected on the gallery walls in real time from a panoramic video camera mounted on the ceiling of the lobby, which will also be delayed and otherwise processed by the EIS system. Visitors will likely view themselves entering the museum, intrinsically becoming a part of the piece, since “you couldn’t get to my room unless you’d passed through the lobby,” Oliveros said.
Over the weekend, performers from the International Contemporary Ensemble will perform spontaneously throughout the museum. At the closing of the installation on May 25, Oliveros will play her digital accordion, an “electro-acoustic” instrument that creates a delayed sound when she strikes a key, which she then modifies with foot pedals, to the accompaniment of the EIS playback, improvising on the spot.
Oliveros has created music in all kinds of environments, including caves, caverns and giant cisterns; but using the ambient sounds of a museum and pairing the recordings with a parallel video image is completely new, she said. The composer has authored five books, received numerous awards, performed internationally and continues to receive commissions, including in recent years pieces for the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, a group of composers and artists who gather pieces for the online computer game Second Life, and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, a work that involved simulating an experiment in which a bell curve created by a random movement of balls was altered into a more interesting shape by a participant’s concentrated thought.
Through the Deep Listening Institute, which she founded with her partner Ione, she has been working to use technology to help people with disabilities, developing a software interface that enables mobility-impaired kids to create their own music. The EIS installation, timed for the finale of the Biennial, continues her lifelong tireless exploration of experimental music while also representing the summation of a project that began a quarter-of-a-century ago, when the possibilities of the EIS were no more than a dream.
Pauline Oliveros’ Expanded Instrument System at Whitney Biennial, performance on digital accordion Sunday, May 25, runs May 19-25, $20/$16, Whitney Museum of Art, 45 Madison Avenue, New York City; (212) 570-3600.