the sound scene – pauline oliveros and doug van nort at the new museum

One of my friends recently joked that even when I go out to do something for “fun,” it inevitably links back to my dissertation, and I’m afraid she was right. Friday night I went to hear octogenerian accordianist and experimental musician Pauline Oliveros play with electronic music artist Doug Van Nort and the improvising machine, FILTER, at the New Museum.  Although I had heard of Oliveros and Deep Listening, I had not heard of Van Nort, who is considerably younger and part the sound art movement that has slowly been emerging in the contemporary art and music scene.  It’s hard to say that what Van Nort was doing was music.  It was more like the manipulation of a sound environment.  Utilizing surround sound, he played and manipulated sampled sounds and unique digitally generated sounds.  They scratched and hissed and warbled.  At times when I closed my eyes, the sounds transitioned between the overpowering and invasive sounds of helicopters coming into land, and large otherworldly swamp bugs.  The sounds moved across the room—traveling away from us and outward, expanding the range of the sonic environment seemingly beyond the walls of the room.  T- said that listening to that kind of electronic music is like pornography, and I think I know what he means.  It gets into your animal core—it enters every orifice.  The woman sitting in front of me clearly felt it too invasive to bear and repeatedly plugged her ears and put her head between her legs.  But in a way, the experience was not so foreign.  In an age when we’re used to seeing movies in HD and surround sound and IMAX, we keep reaching for ever more immersive artistic environments, and both Van Nort and Oliveros are experts at manipulating our sense of sonic space.

The concert also got me thinking about my recent outing to watch a projection of Don Giovanni in HD outside on the Lincoln Center courtyard, where I felt that not only was it better watching opera this way because of the close ups on the lips and the movement of the singers, but the sound was even better than inside the hall.  Crisper, more articulate, and of course, louder.  With the din of the city washing into a beautiful white noise behind us, the street scenes of the opera seemed to come alive.

It had not occurred to me to think so intently about my aural architecture (as Barry Blesser likes to call it) until writing this chapter about stereo spaces in the poetry of Baraka and Hughes.  And though the chapter itself is near driving me crazy, the side effects are pretty surreal.


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