Chris Brown & Pauline Oliveros - "Gravity Waves" (Music in the Air)
Oakland’s Mills College has a music faculty like few others. Given the mix of full-time staff and visiting professors at any given time, the department, to the outsider, seems like a place in which faculty meetings could morph into impromptu, world class jams, and rather than mind-numbing lectures, one would hear Henry Cow tour stories and tales of AACM’s early days. In all probability, it’s not so utopian, but Mills undoubtedly makes for a pretty magical place to study. Music in the Air is a meeting of Mills’ past and present, with Chris Brown, who’s been at the school in some capacity since 1988 paired with Pauline Oliveros, whose history with Mills goes back to the founding of the Tape Music Center in 1966, and has featured return engagements sporadically throughout the years since. This disc was recorded in the nearby environs of Berkeley in the fall of 2008, towards the end of Oliveros’ most recent stint as a visiting professor. It’s a duo record, but one of more than two voices, with omnipresent live processing providing a chorus of replicated and mutated sound. Piano and accordion are the primary instruments, augmented and sometimes obscured by digital doppelgängers and nth-generation electronic progeny that flitter and swirl like insects around light.
There’s a titular appropriateness to this disc, with plenty of music in the air, but it’s no ethereal drift. Instead, sounds swoop and dive like swallows loosed by Brown’s use of SuperCollider and Oliveros’ Expanded Instrument System. Brown tinkers on the inside of his instrument, plays plaintive melodic nuggets, and engages in frenetic flurries up and down the keyboard, and his piano tends to be the rudder on the disc, not setting a course so much as effecting the music’s underlying tone. The deep drones that Oliveros lays down towards the end of “Troposphere” are in contrast to her work on much of the disc, which tends toward more abbreviated fits and starts, with wheezy tones liable to be cinched off at any moment. The use of delay can blur the demarcation between human-generated notes and artificial sonic life, though this is of little concern, given the flurry of processed sound. The duo’s output is stretched out like colorful taffy or broken into shiny bits; with pitches bent and acoustic sound rendered robotic, the piano and accordion are transformed into a multifarious miscellany of chirps, beeps and whirls. Though one knows the sound is all of Brown & Oliveros’ doing, it can sound like the duo are soldiering on bravely in the midst of an onslaught of airborne interlopers, improvisers beset by a rabble of mosquitoes, horseflies and wasps, all of the aural variety.
Music in the Air is an unrelentingly active album. Stasis is an endangered species in these parts, and even when one or both of the performers lock into a particular timbre or technique, their live processing makes things more unpredictable. But for all the busyness, the music takes no grand steps: despite frequent flurries of movement, the disc ends largely where it began. It’s not wasted movement, though, and it’s good to see that at Mills, the fun stuff isn’t likely being left to the young.