Chamber Music: Toronto Musicians Bring Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening to City Hall

By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham

Early one Sunday evening in February 2019, strange sounds leaked out from the council chambers at Toronto City Hall. Inside, a score artists stationed between empty councillor desks drew sustained tones out of everything from traditional concert instruments like trombones and electric guitars, to ad hoc implements like street pylons. An audience watched on from the public seating gallery as meditative tones rooted in avant-garde consciousness-raising exercises  took the place of reactionary civic decision making. 

“I think [City Hall administration] thought we were just some punks,” says Christopher Willes, an associate artist and producer with artist-led collective Public Recordings who devised the project and performed flute in the production. According to him, ahead of the performance, city staff delivered him presumptuous, unprompted warnings that under no circumstances should the group stand on the desks, rigid but contradictory instructions about what lights they could and couldn’t switch off, even demanded they pay a prohibitive $5000 fee for staff that would supposedly need to be on hand to move council chairs despite no plans to do so (it was eventually returned). Then Willes asked what arrival instructions he should give the crew the CBC was sending.

Aisha Sasha John (voice), Christopher Willes (flute), Victoria Cheong (bass synthesizer), Ellen Furey (guitar), Liz Peterson (viola), Allison Cameron (electronics), Thom Gill (synthesizer), and Anne Bourne (cello) performing at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Polina Teif

Produced by Public Recordings and hosted by the Music Gallery, the public co-presentation was an ambitious staging of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, a 1970 orchestral score for light and sound by the late pioneering avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). Lovingly documented under the title Resonance Gathering on a deluxe double LP and book full of background notes, photography and archival materials now available from Art Metropole, the City Hall performance was the climactic finale of rehearsals and residencies spanning 2017-2019. But even on the off chance city staff passing by the chambers were familiar with the work, they would be hard pressed to identify it. 

Designed so musicians and non-musicians alike could participate, the composition is an inherently malleable and inclusive “open score” divided into three parts, each signaled by a different colour of light washing the event space continuously throughout the performance. It calls for any group (or groups) of instrumentalists from six performers to large ensembles playing any instruments, each performer tasked with selecting five pitches to deploy depending on their perceptions and cognitions of the actively changing group conditions (volume, loudness, timbre), thereby centring acutely active listening, subjectivity, and environment over pre-scripted progressions. As a result, performances of the music are often radically different from one another. 

Christopher Willes (flute), Brendan Jensen (cello), Thom Gill (synthesizer), Claire Harvie (lighting) and Germaine Liu (percussion) in rehearsal at the Gardiner Museum. Photo by Yuula Benivolski.

“There are so many decisions to be made,” Willes offers about the composition’s potentiality. He says he was attracted to the piece for its implications of organizational interdependence. “What you witness is groups of people grappling with their agency in relationship with this score and how far they can go. I feel like it’s a kind of experiment in navigating relationships.”

Willes always conceptualized the multi-faceted production as a roving series of rehearsals and residencies that would build toward a performance in a politically loaded centre of collective public decision making, but when he initially approached City Hall about booking the chamber, he could never anticipate how charged the space would be when it came time for the show. Then, in June 2018, former Etobicoke councillor Doug Ford was granted keys to the province, elected Ontario’s premier as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.

Weeks after taking office in Queen’s Park, Ford shocked the Toronto political landscape when he announced and then implemented plans to redraw the city’s ward boundaries, slashing council representation from 47 to 25 seats with the so-called Better Local Government Act. With a mayoral race underway locally for the October 2018 municipal election, critics and politicians alike called the move overreaching and anti-democratic, while the City of Toronto launched a failed Supreme Court challenge in response.

A work designed to propose a self-governing system for group music making where all actors’ voices have a direct and tangible impact on the collective sound, To Valerie… resonated even more in a council chamber redefined by Ford’s “Better” Toronto. If Ford’s revisionist bill effectively narrowed the civic listening potential of Toronto with less city councillors representing vaster swaths of political territory, Oliveros’s decentralized score was a defiant demonstration that built a case for the continual transformative potential of the widened amplification of voices and the deepening of cooperative listening.

Bee Pallomina (cymbals), Evan Webber (timpani), Heather Saumer (trombone), Ellen Furey (guitar), Aisha Sasha John (voice), Anni Spadafora (bass), and Liz Peterson (viola) performing at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Polina Teif

“The work gets at the human pieces of politics that are very elemental and basic and elementary, but crucial,” comments Anni Spadafora, who played bass guitar in the ensemble. Perhaps best known to New Feeling readers as the voice and guitar player at the front of the no wave-indebted Toronto post punk outfit New Fries, Spadafora, now located in Montreal, says the work Oliveros began pursuing with To Valerie…, departing from traditional composition methods and emphasizing openness and experimentalism, has informed her own music making since she first encountered it through London, UK’s Her Noise Archive around the time of the band’s formation in 2013. 

“There are no solos. It’s all about playing your instrument in a way that comes in and out of the group. And at any point if you’re too loud, you have to bring yourself down,” Spadafora explains. “It’s kind of this play with being very aware that it is not about an individual, but a group — and a sonic group. What’s required in making that composition true is listening. Really truly listening.”

This sonic production dynamic branches from the dialectical thinking that spurred the first feminist consciousness-raising groups in 1967. Emerging from second-wave feminism, these groups observed that patriarchy and capitalism is a social relationship organized to isolate and exploit women (in the home, in the waged working world; as producers of biological and social reproduction) so as to prevent them from familiarizing themselves with that power structure and thereby overcome their exploitation. Echoing (and challenging) the dialectics of Marx and Hegel, who broadly argued subjectivity and consciousness could only be achieved through reckoning with the intrinsic interconnected nature of being and struggling with objectifying power relations, they indicated that women’s liberation could only be achieved through elevating group consciousness, which begins with sharing and listening to experiences. Indeed, Oliveros herself said that in creating the work, she wanted to “express [her] resonance with the energy of the rising feminist movement.”

Anni Spadafora (bass) and Ellen Furey (guitar) in rehearsal at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Photo by Claire Harvie.

Arriving in San Diego for a job with the University of California in 1967, Oliveros sat front row as the counterculture of the 1960s was beset with tragedy and loss, Nixon and a new, fortified era of conservatism looming around the corner. “[T]he Vietnam War protests and atrocities were at their height. A student at UCSD sat in the plaza, poured kerosene on himself and burned himself to death. Then, I was watching my television set when Robert Kennedy was assassinated,” Oliveros told feminist art historian Moira Roth in a 1977 interview. “I felt the temper of the times. I felt the tremendous fear … I began to retreat. I didn’t want to play concerts. I began to turn inward.”

As a response, Oliveros took a hiatus from performing in public, but she was also active in nurturing some new connections, organizing the all female “♀ Ensemble,” a consciousness-raising group in its own right that centred what she would later label Deep Listening. It was with this group that she would eventually perform her Sonic Meditations (1974). “I had already been very interested in listening to long tones and listening to the environment,” Oliveros told Roth in the same interview. “I began to see these interests in a more extended way.” 

The Toronto ensemble rehearsing in Walter Hall, University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Photo by Claire Harvie.

Around the same time, the Music Department of Hope College, Holland Michigan, commissioned a score from Oliveros. Identifying Marilyn Monroe and Valerie Solanas as avatars for women’s desperation in the creative economy of the time — the latter of whom Oliveros encountered through her SCUM Manifesto via Judson Church Collective member Elaine Summers — Oliveros named the work after the two as a gesture to women struggling to be heard. “Marilyn Monroe had taken her own life,” she wrote about the work. “Valerie Solanas had attempted to take the life of Andy Warhol. Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality: Monroe needed to be recognized for her talent as an actress. Solanas wished to be supported for her own creative work.”

Like any dialectic, To Valerie… insists on the concrete unity of the whole. In the second, yellow light section of the score, individual players are tasked with internalizing the dialectic’s manifold nature without atomizing its processes, continuously adjusting aspects of their sounds in relation to others, blending with and borrowing from the pitches and modulation techniques of the other players while continuing to play their original sounds — a continuous dialectical feedback system: contributing original sounds, interpreting the sound of the whole, and synthesizing the exchange.

Claire Harvie directing lighting at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Polina Teif.

Rather than composing works dubiously obsessed with reproducing objective precision, Oliveros made music that cherished the conjunctive nature of existence, itself an act of political economy invested in amplifying the molecular makeup of the lived environment. “The kind of music (organizing of sound) that I have been composing is aiding my concentration and my awareness of others,” Oliveros wrote in a heretofore unpublished 1979 archival note included now in the Resonance Gathering book via the Pauline Oliveros Papers collection at UC San Diego Special Collections and Archives. “It is a healing and socializing agent.”

Fifty years later and after nearly a decade of its own local conservative leadership, Toronto brought the score to City Hall to challenge its own ivory tower of decision making. “It felt like a bit of the streets and perhaps what the streets represent was really meeting the upper echelons of the city, where all of the power decisions get made and birthed and played around with,” performance artist Brian Solomon reflects, gesturing to street level activism and grassroots political organizing. Untrained as a musician, his instrument of choice was also loaded with symbolism, liberating a City of Toronto pylon, rigging it up with contact microphones, and playing it like a horn.

Brian Solomon (pylon) and Aisha Sasha John (voice) performing at Toronto City Hall. Photo by Yuula Benivolski.

Born with mixed Anishinaabe ancestry, he suggests the work’s openness resists colonial ways of thinking about expression and who can take part: “In our cultures, the time when you sing the story, speak the story, and drum it, are all very fluid. [The different art forms are] all just a different little tick on the spectrum of how to express anything — a story, a feeling, a ribbon of abstract manifestation.” As a result, he says it felt “natural” performing alongside more studied musicians in the rest of the Toronto ensemble, which also featured performances by Anne Bourne (cello), Allison Cameron (electronics), Victoria Cheong (bass synth), Ishan Davé (viola), Ellen Furey (electric guitar), Thom Gill (synthesizer), Claire Harvie (lighting), Ame Henderson (double bass), Ione (text/sound poetry and voice), Brendan Jensen (cello), Aisha Sasha John (harmonica, amplifier, and voice), Germaine Liu (percussion), Bee Pallomina (cymbals), Liz Peterson (viola), Heather Saumer (trombone), and Evan Webber (timpani and amplifier). 

“As a dancer and a performance artist, I learn everything from people who aren’t dancers and aren’t performance artists who don’t spend their time in that realm,” Solomon continues. “I think the same thing was going on with people in the room who maybe weren’t professional musicians.”

Brendan Jensen (cello), Christopher Willes (flute) and Allison Cameron (electronics) rehearsing at the Tranzac. Photo by Polina Teif.

That transformative quality was at the fore of Oliveros’s mind in carrying out her practice, once declaring “I’m not particularly interested in preserving my work. I’m interested in the event we’re involved in now, and how it can change me” (author’s emphasis; as a practicing Buddhist who so often demonstrated an understanding of the “self” as intersubjective and decentralized, we can reasonably assume that when Oliveros invoked the self here, she also also felt the change imposed on it would be extended to the world around her). Rather than suggesting her work could be complete or attempting to produce stable sonic art objects, Oliveros was concerned with producing new relationships.

While these conditions somewhat complicate the occasion of the physical release of documenting the City Hall performance, the spirit of Oliveros’s work is beautifully honoured within, Willes even acknowledging in a final note in the book that “in some ways, it’s strange to release a recording of her music.” 

A physical copy of Resonance Gathering (Art Metropole).

Designed by print designer Jeremy McCormick, Resonance Gathering is contained in a transparent plastic shell, while an undersized paper “spine” sits loose inside, wrapped around the vinyl’s white paper sleeves, the record’s label clearly visible. As a result, every time the listener picks up the record, they will experience its visual composition in a new way, each of its elements bearing smears and gradients representing the colours that guide the action in To Valerie… shifting or rotating within. But the artifact’s final gesture invites listeners even further inside with a locked groove flexi-disc and a series of stickers bearing text prompts for listening. Using these stickers, listeners are encouraged to construct new listening scenarios by applying the stickers to the flexi, forcing the turntable to skip and thereby constructing new infinite loops.

Now that it’s out, Willes is keen for listeners to do their own experiments.

“This isn’t about making monuments and making pieces to archive her thoughts,” Willes states plainly. “You have to go through the process.”