Playlist: Held tones

Pauline Oliveros
The music of Giacinto Scelsi uncovered the enveloping depth and nuance of a single tone.

Tempting as it may be to hear it as an explicit reaction to the increasing complexity (or complication, depending on your sympathies) of the post-war avant-garde, Giacinto Scelsi’s fascination with the tactility of sound probably owes just as much to the attendant popularisation of recording technology. He did, after all, compose by listening back to his own droning improvisations, the tape and speaker transforming sound into a tangible – and, above all, repeatable – object of near-infinite nuance. In any case, I’d prefer to hear his music in a less historically-specific frame as arising from an appreciation of the rich aesthetic experience of attentive, non-semantic listening. It’s probably what Gérard Grisey was talking about when he said that “music is made with sounds, not with notes”, even if his music reckons it’s actually a bit of both. Pauline Oliveros – practitioner of “deep listening” – and Phill Niblock go further in this respect, both inviting the contemplation of multiple textural layers within static clouds of sound. Amidst their trembling drones, structure and form are all but erased, and the supposed unity of a held tone is shattered into glassy fragments.

[Edit, 9th August 2015: Since the time of writing, the included recording of Grisey’s Partiels has been removed from Spotify. The piece can currently be heard on YouTube here.]

1. Lear, Pauline Oliveros and The Deep Listening Band (1994)
2-5. Quattro Pezzi (Su una nota sola), Giacinto Scelsi (1959)
6. Partiels (from Les Espaces Acoustiques), Gérard Grisey (1974-85)
7. Poure, Phill Niblock (2009)

Image: Pauline Oliveros and a massive accordion