Pauline Oliveros named this groundbreaking piece after one quite well known woman and one virtually anonymous one. By 1970, Marilyn Monroe was very much in the public consciousness even though she had been dead almost ten years—yet, as during her life, she was not taken seriously as an actress. Valerie Solanis was a radical feminist who had attempted to kill Andy Warhol in 1968 after he ignored a play she wanted him to produce called Up Your Ass. Oliveros attaches the concept of “desperation” to these two, linking them through “traps of inequality” that forced them to take extreme action in the face of public indifference. She claims to be expressing her “resonance with [the] energy” of the burgeoning women’s movement, from whose power this piece gets some of its own.
Well, it is early on, at least. The first side here, from 1970 (the year In Recognition was premiered), is performed with strings, flutes, organ, and Buchla synth. The energy is vibrant, with dissonant, roiling urgency in the work. There is an inability to develop thematically or narratively, as the few crescendos are yanked back down into the miasma. The inimitable Buchla is subtle, restrained and droning, probably preferable to any blipping or note-making one might do in this context. The parts are “non-hierarchical” and lull without becoming in any way comfortable.
The later side, from 1977, sees quite a different take on the piece—a 43-piece orchestra with five conductors. This setting exploits the freedom in the score, letting it balloon in scope and potential. The electronics are slightly more prominent (nine electronics people are credited), but the whole feel here is less urgent, more textured, and less dissonant. With its long middle stretch of near-silence, this version is almost reflective in nature—there is a sense of restraint that I can’t help but wonder is influenced by the piece’s “important” status in the canon, which was surely solidified by the time this later performance. The conductors are being quite reverent in this version, which makes for a slightly less interesting side and is potentially worrisome for a piece like this. We can almost hear the performers tiptoeing around the radical potential energy that informed the work in the first place.
That stubborn open-endedness is crucial to the piece’s success, though, even as the results vary. In her original notes, Oliveros resists categorizing In Recognition as “feminist” without reading Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto or studying the score itself. Clearly, she means to tap into more universal themes through these women, and to resist the easily dismissible categorizing that a “feminist” work would engender (no pun intended…?). Down to the title, it begs the listener to reflect on the elements of society that produce these tragic female figures. This unique sense of engagement, quite uncommon these days, seems to be just as essential to consider in this reissue as the music itself.