James Ilgenfritz Shares a Rare Glimpse of Pauline Oliveros

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James Ilgenfritz is a familiar name in these, but even so, I was surprised when I heard about this album with Pauline Oliveros, Altamirage. Maria Chavez’s fantastic liner notes sum it up perfectly: “Thank you for this rare glimpse.” With the unexpected arrival of these recordings – Ilgenfritz in duo with the late Oliveros and in two separate trios – a side of Oliveros I, and many others, are less familiar with becomes a bit clearer. Because of Ilgenfrtiz and Oliveros’s close relationship, Altamirage arrives unhurried and presented with considerable care. Ilgenfritz talks about it’s sometimes necessary to sit with materials before sharing them with the world. I’m thrilled the time is finally right.

Altamirage is out now via Ilgenfritz’s Infrequent Seams label. Listen and purchase HERE.

So rather than repeat the same terrain as in last year’s interview, instead of asking about your early experiences with music, I’m curious what your first experiences with Pauline Oliveros’s work were?

I began listening to Pauline’s work as a college radio DJ at WCBN in Ann Arbor. I played both her electronic works and her recordings with improvisers on the radio. But I met Pauline a bit later, when I interviewed her for the International Society for Improvised Music around 2005. Around the same time, my very close friend and frequent collaborator Sarah Weaver connected with her, as Sarah was living near Kingston at the time. Around the time I interviewed her, I was studying with Mark Dresser at UC San Diego for my Master’s degree. Mark often led tai chi sessions, which was a practice he’d picked up from Pauline when he was studying with her at UCSD about 25 years earlier.

How did you first meet Pauline and come to work with her?

I returned to the east coast in 2007 and started making more frequent visits to the Deep Listening Space in Kingston, NY, and got to know Pauline and her partner Ione quite well. For a couple years, it was a New Year’s Day ritual to go up to the Deep Listening Space, where Ione organized special events for the new year. I also observed and took part in more than a few great performances during those visits.

Pauline and I were frequently in touch from 2007 until she passed. She wrote me a wonderful text piece for my 29th birthday. Later, Pauline and Ione came to my Roulette concert on the Interpretations Series in 2013, when I first performed her piece Trio for Trumpet, Accordion, and String Bass. She recommended I also perform Outline for Flute, Percussion, and Bass. By that time, we’d already played as a duo together. Our very first time performing together was in Kingston for a piece composed by Sarah Weaver, probably around 2009.

Something I love about these pieces is how – and I’ll steal this from the liner notes because it’s a perfect description – open and wild they are. Most of the time, when I think of her work, my mind goes to her longform works, but these pieces are so fascinating and wonderful. What was the approach like when you were playing the pieces with her? Were there shared ideas or starting points, or was it more a thing where these aural ‘conversations’ just unfolded in natural and surprising ways?

The duets were different from the other times we’d played together up to that point. The focus on short pieces was probably the only stipulation – all the pieces being between 3-7 minutes long. It’s interesting that the duets we recorded and the five short trios for trumpet, accordion, and bass (which come from 1959-60) are both somewhat unexpected for many people who primarily know her Deep Listening work. The trio pieces are fully notated and exhaustingly explore unusual potentials of density and register for the instruments. It’s not unlike how she and I explore a surprising range of directionalities and timbres in our duo playing. 

What was your biggest surprise when working with her on the Altamirage pieces?

The duets were quite a remarkable experience. I imagined our playing might go more in the direction of what the Deep Listening Band would do, so I was slightly caught off guard at first. But one fascinating thing about Pauline’s practice was that she was a profoundly empathetic listener. Pauline observed a lot and would respond to the flow of energy from those with whom she was collaborating. Her duets with Cecil Taylor, for example, are quite different from her work with Stuart Dempster. Mindfulness was always at the center of her work, and she was always mindful of others and their unique energies. Also, I certainly had a more youthful outlook at that time, and the energy of these pieces reflects that, I think!

I know you’ve been working on this release for quite some time. What were some of the biggest challenges in getting it ready, and what made you feel like it was finally the right time to release this music?

Sometimes it’s necessary to live with certain materials (and ideas about oneself and the world) for a long time before you can feel ready to share your findings. The visual artist Terry Adkins (who left us around the same time as Pauline) described this as a period of “potential disclosure,” where materials reveal their innate resonant qualities only after a period of gestation. All aspects of this project had this quality. Both of the trio compositions were recorded a couple years after the duos from Kingston. They were done at Seizure’s Palace at 3rd Ave and 3rd St in Brooklyn with the brilliant engineer Jason LaFarge. I spent a lot of time reviewing the materials and making decisions. 

In our particular interpretation of Outline for Trio, there’s a very specific balance between overtly musical gestures and deliberately pedestrian or elusive sonorities or gestures. I really learned important things about who I am through the process of making this recording.

But what most clarified for me that the time for releasing this material had finally come was when artist Monika Weiss and the highly conceptual sound artist Maria Chavez both became involved. Monika’s image appears on the cover, and Maria’s words appear in the liner notes. Both artists also have important histories with Pauline. Maria’s direct involvement with Pauline’s world goes back further than my own, to when she was still based in Texas. Monika’s image comes from a video work she created while at a workshop with Pauline just weeks before Pauline transitioned to another plane. Their involvement brought out some special resonances that connect Pauline’s history to those of Monika, Maria, and myself. All our work deals with some complex intersections of the human condition and ineffable resonances with the infinite. 

And with the two early compositions of hers that you recorded with different ensembles, what drew you to those pieces and made you want to record them? Were they always intended to be paired with the duo pieces?

The idea to pair those composed pieces with the improvised duets was somewhat out of necessity. Pauline and I had plans to do more duo playing, and it did not work out. So I returned to these recordings we did in my 20s, and I saw that in the meantime, I’d learned some things about empathy, enabling me to recognize more details about those duets we’d recorded. I really made the connection between the improvised duets and the composed trio pieces. It was suddenly very plainly evident to me (and hopefully to listeners as well) … I realized I had a wonderful opportunity to say something very specific about Deep Listening, about Pauline’s and Ione’s practice, with this recording. 

Do you have any particular stories from working on this album or with Pauline that your mind is always drawn back to when you listen to the music? 

Pauline is always very patient but also very deliberate in her choices and actions. When I listen to these recordings, I hear her voice. It makes me very curious to dig up old computers, where I’ll find the interviews I recorded with her. As we are now about halfway through the 365 pieces for A Year of Deep Listening to celebrate 90 years since Pauline’s birth, I’m reading through each day’s new post. My own contribution was just published last week. I hear Pauline’s insights, filtered through the writings of others. With Ghost Ensemble, we’ve done numerous works by Pauline, and in December, we will work with Ione in a performance of one of Pauline’s works. What matters most to me about her work is the way it brings people together. Through the mindfulness and the empathy I’ve spoken about a couple times here, she’s provided us with a way to more thoughtfully coexist in a world that keeps finding new ways to be complicated. Pauline’s work helps us find new ways to respond to those complexities.

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