Over the course of their lives spent together, the composer Pauline Oliveros and the writer, director, and performer Ione collaborated in a wide variety of ways—from intimate spontaneous improvisations to multi-disciplinary productions of prodigious scale. When Oliveros passed away on November 24, 2016, it fell to Ione to complete the last major project she and her partner had created together: The Nubian Word for Flowers, an opera that uses a historic figure, the British soldier Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum, as a springboard for thoughts about colonialism and rootedness.
First performed in excerpts as part of the inaugural First Take program operated by The Industry in conjunction with wild Up in 2013, The Nubian Word for Flowers will have its long-awaited premiere on Nov. 30 at Roulette in Brooklyn, produced jointly by Experiments in Opera, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Ione’s Ministry of Maåt. Beforehand, Ione and ICE will present a BAC Salon concert and chat at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Nov. 28. In advance of both events, National Sawdust Log invited Claire Chase—the celebrated flutist and ICE founder, and a longtime champion of Oliveros’s music—to chat with Ione about the process of birthing, completing, and bringing to the stage Oliveros’s final opera.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Just to paint the scene, we’re here in the Farmhouse at Mount Tremper Arts in the Catskills. This place has been the birthplace of so many beautiful collaborations between Pauline and the ensemble. And also, this farmhouse, this part of the property, has been the site of so many conversations and meals and shared chosen-family experiences with you and Pauline over the years. When you were here last to work on Nubian, what happened during that residency?
IONE: I think everything happened, really. The whole piece came together during that residency. The cast was here, so it was my first time getting to be with the cast. We’d been doing a very interesting collage of putting pieces together based on people’s schedules, and so forth and so on. And it’s been done, I must say, with great genius – by Ross, specifically.
Ross Karre. He’s the man. Ross Karre is the director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, and also… talk about a magician.
The reason it was the first time had to do with the fabulous cast that we have, and the other things that they’re doing in other countries and so forth. We all came together here and got to look at the piece, got to do the piece, got to hear each other singing and talking, and got to understand who we were to each other, I think. And what the piece could be, given all of these parameters—in other words, it was pretty huge, what happened here. There were some decisions that we had looked at earlier, when we were working in New York, that we thought could work, and then we saw that, ummmm, maybe not. Maybe another way of doing it. And that brought about some really gorgeous ways of connecting with some of the characters. So that was really magical – I was very appreciative of the respect and the – how can I put it? – the tenderness of everyone. I mean, I’ve worked in theater before; I’ve never worked like this! [Laughs]
This is a massive project.
It’s not so much that it’s massive; I’ve worked on more massive things. It’s just a different way of working. We’re in whatever year we’re in, 21st century, and it’s an ICE way of working, I think. But it’s also a new paradigm in terms of putting pieces together. I’ve come from large theater things that I’ve done, workshopped for years, doing this, and then coming eventually into a theater. We didn’t do that. [Laughs]
Yeah, that’s not the way this baby’s been born.
No, and I think what’s beautiful about that, what I’m actually saying, is that something has happened to musicianship. Pauline recognized that, and she and I talked about it. She was most delighted and intrigued and impressed with what was happening, and particularly in relationship to you and to ICE as huge frontrunners of this concept. Musicianship has become heightened in an extraordinary way in this generation, which means – she and I also found this in our teaching and in Deep Listening retreats and so on – that things that would have taken much longer to impart could be [snaps fingers] imparted like that. Things have sped up in terms of time, and one can accomplish a great deal more in shorter amounts of time. That’s what I’m noticing in terms of how this piece is coming together, and so I had to kind of take stock of what’s happening around me, get to understand the process, and, understanding the process, being a team player with that process—which is another process. It’s another paradigm, a paradigm shift.
It’s so beautiful to hear you say that Pauline felt this generation of musicians was in any way transcending. We feel in so many ways that her legacy – and it’s not as if it’s one legacy, there are so many legacies that she left us with – is this heightened presence that she embodied, lived in, made music in, loved in, created all of her works in—and this work, I think, more than any, in a lot of ways. And that invitation has changed us as musicians. It’s changed ICE, it’s changed every single one of us individually. It’s changed the way that the ensemble listens. And I have the very strong feeling—now that I’m also beginning to teach these works to my students at Harvard, and ICE has done a lot of teaching and a lot of side-by-side performances of Pauline’s work with young people who don’t have any frame of reference for her legacy, her philosophy yet, but understand it immediately in the process of doing it—I think of it as an invitation, rather than as a school of thought. So that transcending and that heightened awareness that you speak of, I feel that that’s really Pauline’s gift to us. That’s the legacy, among all her other legacies. That’s the engine. And it is at once a very gradual, slow-opening process and it also can have such velocity and happen in just a flash.
Like Pauline herself. When I first met Pauline, we’d be in the supermarket, for example—and I’ve talked to other people about this, and they kind of had noticed it, too. You’d think of her, perhaps, as a slow-moving person if you didn’t know. But when we were shopping, I’d look up and she’s nowhere to be seen. [Laughs] That’s just an example of what you were saying: it could be an extended process, but also really [snaps fingers] quick.
In the context of Nubian, can we talk for a minute about the origin? There are so many stories within this origin story, but this really went back to your meeting Pauline, back in the early days, right? The seed was planted for doing something together on this scale?
When we first met, I was working on another project, writing about another character named Njinga Mbande. I had researched her and written about her for Ms. Magazine, and Ms. never published that piece. I was working for the Voice, and the Voice published a really nice piece. At that point I was director of writers and performance at Manhattan Theater Club – for about a year I was doing that and writing for the Voice and writing for other magazines and newspapers. So Njinga [the Queen King: The Return of a Warrior] came about when we first met, which was ’85, ’86.
That’s what I remembered, yeah.
And that was the beginning of a huge, huge project, very challenging in many different ways. That happened before many of the great technological advances that have happened since; even in the length of eight years of doing Njinga the technology shifted so much, so that we could carry the equipment in a bag, whereas before we had trucks going and seats coming out of theaters to do this amazing sound that we wanted to do. That was a huge undertaking, which we intended to write more about. I will write more and say more about it at some point, because it was multiculturalism, but what we discovered was that people did not really want multiculturalism. [Laughs]
They weren’t ready for it.
They weren’t ready for real multiculturalism.
Well, frankly, the world was not ready for a lot of what you and Pauline made. We are changing that, though. The world is gettin’ ready. [Laughs]
So that was big, big, big, and sometimes Pauline and I, when things got rough in our lives, we would say, well, at least we’re not doing Njinga. [Laughs] And then we did another dance-opera [IO and Her and the Trouble with Him], which was quite fun to do, and other things… The Lunar Opera, involving hundreds of people, at Lincoln Center Out of Doors—so we were really among the very first people to use the internet to put together a huge, enormous piece, to gather people internationally to Lunar Opera at Lincoln Center.
This piece is different, and it came about because we were performing together with the Adams Brothers up in Ontario. It was in Kitchener, Ontario—I was curious about the name, and wondered if it was the name of the same Kitchener I knew, because I’d been going to Egypt as a journalist. Part of my journalistic career had to do with my getting this great assignment from my Voice editor to go to Egypt, and then I kept going back and back and back and back. So I knew Kitchener Island, which was this gorgeous island with many flowers.
When I started researching up in Canada, I found this extraordinarily interesting, fascinating personage who was both a fierce personage of war and a very sensitive flower person, botanist, who saved many species. Someone who fought in the early fundamentalist wars for Queen Victoria, and won the Battle of Khartoum against a fundamental Islamic element that was coming in at that point. He was both that and someone who would, once he got into power after winning that war and was gifted the island that he loved so much – he had already been cultivating that island; Queen Victoria said, OK, it’s yours! – he insisted on buying it from the Nubians.
If you keep digging in this biography, you find these other details. He also insisted that there be no Christian proselytizing and that they could have their day of rest, etcetera, etcetera. So he was an interesting personage, and I began to write some things about him. I began to see things and hear things, and I wrote some text. Some of that Pauline and I performed improvisationally. But when I’m performing, what comes through may be something that I’ve written, or something that comes through in some other way. So some of those things came through while I was performing, and got developed in performance, as well.
And then gradually, when we were doing Njinga at the Gulbenkian Foundation, we looked up one day, and… we were doing this out-of-doors, we would bring in local people to work, I’d written it so that local people could come into our cast and our master dancers could teach them, and then there were two big scenes that they could be in.
That sounds so wonderful.
Yeah, we did that different places. So we looked up on the stage one day, there were 80-something people on the stage, and that’s when we started calling me “Cecil B. Ione.” [Laughs] That was a joke! Just to jump back to performing with Pauline, and I wrote a little text, and of course it became an opera. So we started talking about it, and I was still researching; for a long time we were doing lots of other things, as well. That was 2006, but we weren’t writing the opera. I was researching. I had some ideas. Then in 2013, Yuval Sharon contacted us and said, “Do you want to come and connect with First Take?” And we looked at each other and said, well, we do have an opera… [Laughs] So we actually did that for that event; we went out to L.A. to the Hammer Museum and did the first pieces of the opera.
There’s so much baggage around this term “opera,” but look, if it quacks like an opera, if it looks like an opera, if you say it’s an opera, it’s an opera. And I wanted to ask you about that, because in so many ways, many of the other projects you and Pauline have done, and many of Pauline’s pieces in their grander interpretations and iterations, with lots of different forces and effortless invitations to have people from different disciplines collaborating on realizations – so many of these works are operatic in scale. But what was it about this particular… I mean, I think about a score like The Witness – that could absolutely be its own opera. Frankly, a piece like 13 Changes could be an opera. It could be an evening, but it could also be an opera if it’s 15 minutes long. What was it about this particular project, and this moment or series of moments, that crystalized for the two of you in saying, we are going to call this an opera?
I think it might have been the subject and the time frame. And I think Pauline was interested in referencing the music of that period, so that the notations are her conversations, shall we say, with traditional opera. So there was an interest in that, and also the sounds were exciting. She was very excited about the explosions, for example—which we’re all excited about, as well. [Laughs] I’m trying to get them to sound like she would appreciate them.
And the clicking, too. I remember the early conversations, the clicking of the flowers, and how that was going to be embodied sonically.
When First Take came, it was really about operas, so I think we were calling it that. It was in development in our psyches, but then it really crystalized as opera at that point, because all these people were writing operas, so we did 20 minutes of what will be an opera.
There are very few instances of composers who have left us with finished work… there’s always a work that’s unfinished. My experience of this piece, the way that it’s evolved over the last year since Pauline left us, is that it absolutely is finished in its own way. Of course it could have gone on… there was so much more you wanted to write. But my impression, and I’m really curious what you think about this, is that what’s being presented at Roulette in a couple of weeks is a finished entity.
What’s clear to me is that it is a new form, and Pauline is all about new forms. [Laughs] It’s a new form that is in a new relationship to her and to her work, so I think it’s totally in keeping with her aesthetic, the way it’s being done. It’s finished… I mean, when I look back at anything, I could do another different kind of ending, another this or another that. But this is finished, yes.
One of the things that’s a little different about the way we work together is that I’m hearing things, and that’s what she liked about working with me in our collaborations, because I could hear these things and I’d ask her, How could we do this? For example, in Io and Her and the Trouble with Him we had the different sounds that we needed, and I said, Pauline, I’ve heard this already. And what we did was, we used some of her early electronic music to integrate into that piece. So we were already talking about this, because we were looking for certain sounds, and I said, Pauline, the night we listened to the box set [Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970] that time, I was telling you I was hearing this and that and the other.
So rather than searching, we were already talking about integrating more of the things that were previously created into this opera. She loved to reference herself. She would steal from herself. [Laughs] So what happened when Nick was looking at it, he did this brilliant thing with the text scores, which I think is so fabulous, and that Pauline absolutely is loving, because it’s so powerful.
Yeah. This is Nicholas DeMaison, wonderful, wonderful human and artist. That decision to incorporate the text scores, I think, is… I don’t know if we can even call it a decision. It must have just been, I think Pauline must have just pulled on those puppet strings and planted it.
For sure, for sure. And I think that there’s a mystery to the text scores, so even just saying that you’re doing that takes away from the actual mystery magic of what it is in its functionality, because what it does is… it’s kind of flat on the page: “we used the text scores for this and that.” But there’s an aliveness to it, which is actually one of the themes of the opera: is it alive? Are these people alive?
It plays also into the finished/unfinished question. It makes that question actually kind of silly, because at the end of so many of these text scores—you could say arguably at the end of all of them—Pauline always makes the invitation to the performer and suggests… she says it differently every time, but the suggestion is always, “this piece will end when these things have happened.” There’s a lot of structure, there’s a lot of rigor to it, and essentially the performers will know when this piece is finished. Consider that also, the opera is… there was a reason she was working on it so feverishly up until the very last days and weeks. It’s a beautiful way of considering an unfinished work finished, and so generous in her continued invitation to performers and listeners and other collaborators to do the work in completing it. And completing it is also, in this case, about its aliveness, bringing it to heightened awareness in the moment. And that is one of the things I’m so looking forward to experiencing as an audience member.
When we were in L.A. and got to work with the musicians, a beautiful thing happened as Pauline’s instructions around one of the [text] scores allowed the flowers to actually come alive. The sounds that the musicians are making and the verbal sounds bring this texture of a conversation, that they have personalities and a life. So that happened, and I experienced it with great joy, and I could just feel Pauline’s smile that said, “yes!” [Laughs]
That’s beautiful, and it brings me to my last question: how has the process been, over the last year—the process of collaborating with Pauline in her new form? What has that felt like? How has it changed you, and how has it changed this piece?
Well, it’s an evolution. The piece has evolved as I’ve allowed myself to evolve with the piece, trusting. A lot of it is determination, [laughs] my intention to see it through. But the way to see it through is to flow with what it is, with the ingredients that have been presented. The ingredients are that Pauline and I had 30 years of being together, and 30 years of learning and teaching each other, and getting to know each other. Things that I have gained from being with her, using a lot of those things. Not consciously saying, what would Pauline do? It’s more like being Pauline’s partner, continuing as Pauline’s partner.
I feel her in me, because we’re very connected and very close. She’s there, because she’s a part of me, and I can draw upon that in different ways when I have to. Sometimes it’s really easy; it doesn’t mean that I don’t have really hard, hard times. But when I’m with people… I know that she loves so much this community and networking, so when I’m with people who are her colleagues or have been close to her, I’m getting that, too. It’s nourishing me and I’m loving it, and I’m experiencing it in a way for both of us—and maybe in a new way for me, because she was more into that than I was. She had vast communities of colleagues and friends, composer colleagues and so on. But I notice that I’m getting those, too. [Laughs]
Baryshnikov Arts Center hosts Ione and the International Contemporary Ensemble in an evening of music and conversation on Nov. 28 at 7:30pm; bacnyc.org. Experiments in Opera, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Ministry of Maåt present The Nubian Word for Flowers at Roulette on Nov. 30 at 8pm; roulette.org.