Deborah UnderwoodBy Deborah Underwood, SFCA singer.

When SFCA singers open a new piece of music to rehearse, we expect to see, um, musical notes. So I was a bit bemused to find Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Patterns devoid of specific pitches. Instead, it’s a series of carefully-notated ssshs, clicks, pops, brrrrrrings, and other noises. Some are voiced and some whispered; some are unpitched and for some we are given general pitch directions which essentially translate to “high” or “low” or “medium.”

While at first the piece was a vaguely-frustrating challenge–the notation was tricky to suss out, and the tempo can change up to four times during a single bar–I started to appreciate it after watching a video about Oliveros. In it, she says that most of the time in our culture people think of music as tones that can be organized into harmonies, but that her palette includes any sound.

Listening is a critical skill for every musician, and is especially critical during improvised pieces. In an Oliveros piece we performed recently, we all started off by humming different notes, then each individual gradually moved toward the central pitch of our tone cluster. This required listening in a way that I haven’t had to do before, especially during a performance; I generally know in advance what note I’m supposed to end up on!

Sound Patterns has become one of my favorite pieces on our program. And after even this brief encounter with Oliveros, I find myself listening to sounds more carefully: the bird chirps outside my window, the roars of passing planes, the thrum of traffic noise, the clink of my spoon in my tea mug. I’m paying attention to the world around me in a different way–which, I suspect, is what the composer intends.