CAMH's Telepathic Improvisations Spotlights Legacy of Pauline Oliveros

Photo from Boudry/Lopate's Telepathic Improvisation.
Photo from Boudry/Lopate's Telepathic Improvisation. Photo courtesy of the artists Ellen de Bruijne Projects and Marcelle Alix
Telepathic Improvisation, the title of this show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, the first U.S. solo exhibition by the collaborative artist team of Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, takes its name from a score in Pauline Oliveros’ collection of Sonic Meditations. While this premise is a little unworldly, it’s far less untimely than the original exhibition title, a quote from Ulrike Meinhof of the infamous Baader-Meinhof, Red Army Faction, "Everybody talks about the weather… We Don’t." Although the changed title soft-soaps the radical gusto intrinsic to the exhibition, it also allows us, happily, to foreground the legacy of Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), the Houston-born composer and early electronic-music pioneer who developed and advocated Deep Listening (long championed here in Houston by Nameless Sound), among other approaches to experiencing and creating music based on a meditation-based receptivity to literally all possible sound.

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Pauline Oliveros conducting a Deep Listening exercise at Incubate Tilburg
Flush with the mind-body awareness of zen as well as the manic liberatory energy of early-'60s experimentation in art, music, and philosophy, aligned with the peer group that included minimalist composers like Terry Riley and conceptual artists like Yoko Ono (from whose instructions she claimed early influence), Oliveros put a sly comic spin on the trajectory of modern composition. Her works are concerned with essential reductions, with upsetting traditional hierarchies, with leveling the playing field between performer and audience, with getting all of us to shut up and receive information from the real world, much like John Cage’s 4:33 and other works concerned with undressing the technical mysteries of music in favor of a human-centered, almost utopian state of experience.

Undoubtedly, that utopian urge carries a whiff of the revolution of everyday things and a Marxist mischief, as in the brothers. It’s no accident that Oliveros came up with the name for Deep Listening while conducting a field recording in an underground cistern. Most of the sonic meditations, basically texts that contain instructions for performers, reach out from buzzing electronic present to various sympathetic points in music history, to Erik Satie, to Harpo Marx, and to the Musurgia Universalis described by medieval music promoter Athanasius Kircher.

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Score to "Hiss," one of Pauline Oliveros' Sonic Meditations.
In the score for Telepathic Improvisation, participating musicians are instructed to tune up, circle up and wait until they receive distinct sonic impressions from participating audience members, sent telepathically, before they strike up a tone. The exhibition of the same name is similarly impressionistic. The videos consider the history and contemporary status of issues involving queer identity, leftist protest, S&M, and club life. A video documenting the performance of a telepathic improvisation is codified, densely packed with cultural references, and heavily stylized in the manner of a Butoh dance or a video from fellow-reds The Knife.

In the original performance, the audience stands a chance, however remote, of connecting with the musicians. In the technologically mediated video fantasy offered in the museum, an audience of museumgoers are similarly invited to telepathically communicate with the performers on screen, but as the ultra-left-wing, contemporary Russian poet Kirill Medvedev says, “It’s no good.” The performance is over, the conduits of communion are closed, and all of us remain on the outside looking in. Whereas Oliveros and  Meinhof encouraged direct action and total individual participation in the creation of history, Boudry and Lopate invite us to view at least one fantasy in which each of us is located slightly outside the events of contemporary life, even outside our own lives, watching history being made through screens, so much of it just a playback available in the archives of a surveillance state.

Telepathic Improvisation will live at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston from Saturday, September 16 through January 7, 2018. Opening reception 6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, September 15. Visit for museum hours and more information. Free.
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Tex Kerschen is a Houston based gadabout, dilettante, estimate reviser and the Houston Press music listings editor.
Contact: Tex Kerschen