Tuned Listening

COMPOSER: Eric Lewis

The first time I performed with Pauline, as part of a large ensemble, there was a period of about a minute or two (perhaps 85 seconds!) when the ensemble broke down into a duet between us. I played a dense, fractured run of trumpet pitches. Pauline cocked her head slightly, and responded on accordion. It took a moment, but I soon realized that she had picked out every single pitch I had played, repackaged them in a different configuration, with different articulations and dynamics, and played them back—all done in real time. This represented so many things, it was a brilliant virtuosic example of listening and musical discernment. It was also a pedagogic lesson in improvisation, for Pauline’s use of the pitch class I played was far more musical, far more interesting, than mine. But perhaps most importantly it was a highly moral and ethical act. For Pauline received my musical materials, however crude they happened to be, and did not reject them, but accepted them as the sonic materials we were to collectively explore. She crafted them in her own way, and returned them to me as a gift, with a lesson in pitch selection and listening thrown in gratis! I was deeply moved by this gesture, and to this day try to follow this example, however imperfectly, in my own collective improvisations. Pauline was not only a deep listener, but also represented ethical perfection as an improviser.