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Photo by Gisela Gamper
"Any number of persons sit in a circle facing the centre. Illuminate the space with dim blue light. Begin by simply observing your own breathing. Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity of the vibrations to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible, naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own breath cycle. Variation: translate voice to an instrument."
- Teach Yourself To Fly (dedicated to Amelia Earhart)
Teach Yourself To Fly, the first of Pauline Oliveros's many "Sonic Meditations" shows just what it is that sets Oliveros apart from dozens of superficially related American composers. The Sonic Meditations were largely developed in the early 70s, and explored many times in real musical situations before ever being written down. Some are simpler than others, such as Re Cognition, which reads only: "Listen to a sound until you no longer recognise it" .
It's easy to see them as relating to other radical compositions of the period. Oliveros acknowledges the influence of La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #7, consisting of a single two-note chord "to be held for a long time" . His Composition 1960 #10 was "Draw a straight line and follow it" . Harold Budd wrote a Sun Piece which commences with a drone tone as the sun first appears over the horizon, altering it imperceptibly until the sun is fully visible. However, Oliveros always seems to be a lot more interested in the sound and the experience than in the concept, with these pieces.
In Britain, the Scratch Orchestra came into being in the late 60s. Composer Cornelius Cardew, a one-time assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen, had been impressed with his mentor's interest in improvisation, but wanted to move away from avant-garde elitism. The Scratch Orchestra's shifting membership included experienced composers and improvising musicians, as well as avowed non-musicians, and the scores written for it were often text-based pieces intended to encourage participation and contribution from all. One, by Michael Parsons, offers participants four options, of which two are "play or sing more quietly than someone near you" and "play or sing at lower pitch than someone near you" .
Teach Yourself To Fly sees music-for-everyone more as a personal than a political impulse, although Oliveros would surely note that the personal is the political. It's music for any occasion, and although it could be performed solo, the focus on listening really requires a social experience.
The piece implicitly sits within the drone-music tradition that had been a key part of American minimalist music since the end of the 1950s. When Young had first premiered his Trio for Strings (which starts with a single three-pitch chord built-up over the course of five minutes) in 1958 for a class led by Seymour Shifrin, "polite bewilderment" had been the reaction. Oliveros had been one of the supposedly bewildered classmates, but by 1960, her Variations for Sextet and Terry Riley's String Quartet (both 1960) had joined the Trio in introducing very long, sustained notes into their music.
The Theatre of Eternal Music, where Young collaborated with Tony Conrad, John Cale, Marian Zazeela, Angus MacLise and others, explored drone harmonics in a semi-improvised setting in the early to mid-60s, and by 1972 the critic Tom Johnson was able to list over 20 composers working in the broad minimalist genre. The desire for improvisation was common amongst composers whose increasing focus on the intimate reality of sound itself had seen music transformed from the performance of composition to an experience of listening. But it's perhaps a mistake to look for points of common interest. When I quizzed Oliveros on the German musician Peter Michael Hamel (whose varied interests in the seventies often matched those of Oliveros), she told me: "I am not attached to similarity - I like the reconciliation of differences." What makes Oliveros such an inspirational musician is not just the way her work draws together so many strands of avant-garde (and everyday) music, but the focus on listening which has remained consistently central to her work.
Oliveros grew up in rural Texas, surrounded by the sounds of wildlife and the environment. Listening to the radio, Oliveros remembers that she "loved the static and tuning whistles to be found in-between the stations" . It was a musical family: her mother and grandmother both taught piano, and Oliveros learnt to play the accordion and French horn.
"My mother brought home the accordion in 1942. I was fascinated and wanted to learn to play it. Some of my music has a relationship to dance styles - The Well and the Gentle or The Wanderer for example."
The Wanderer (composed in 1982) is a rare work for that rare ensemble, the accordion orchestra, here 23-strong. Oliveros had played in a 100-strong accordion group at the rodeo in the 1940s. The Wanderer's first half mainly investigates the complexities of drone, with a rich, multi-layered texture serving as the backing for measured solo melodies. A number of dramatic crescendos set it apart from many of Oliveros's other accordion drone pieces. Some of the melodies are reminiscent of bagpipe music, and in the second half it transforms into highly rhythmic dance music which is quite different from most of the composer's output! Oddly, this is also more successful, perhaps because the orchestra (average age 16) is more used to the styles which are blended together here. It also, perhaps, nods a little towards the rhythmic end of minimalist music popularised by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, with its steady pulse and unrelenting drive.
Oliveros became a student at the University of Houston in 1949, soon moving on to San Francisco, where she would meet many of the people involved in pulling experimental composition away from its dry and institutional background.
Oliveros tells me: "There was a pretty interesting group of composers together in the Bay Area from 1956-66. Terry Riley, Loren Rush, Morton Subotnick, Jon Gibson, Steve Reich, and John Chowning were among them. Terry, Loren and I were in class together at San Francisco State College in the 50s. We were in a seminar together at UC Berkeley taught by Seymour Shifrin in 1959. La Monte and David Del Tredici were also in that seminar. Terry, Loren and I did free improvisation together when there was no such thing happening except for Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor."
Oliveros, Rush and Riley took a very straightforward approach to improvisation: with little in the way of pre-planning, they just sat together and played. Recording the music and listening afterwards, their ability to listen to each other and organise the music in real-time soon increased considerably, and Oliveros attributes this to the rapid feedback that recording offered.
Riley and Young started working together after 1960, and Rush moved to Paris. Moving to New York, Young would become a central figure in east-coast minimalism, first with a series of conceptual compositions and later as a member of the soon-to-be legendary Theatre of Eternal Music. Riley remained in San Francisco, premiering the popular classic of minimalism, In C, in 1964. Oliveros performed accordion in the piece, later describing it as "like a flock of migrating birds in flight" .
"I continued my interest in improvisation and electronic music. I was always interested in what I could hear and the sensual nature of sound. Terry and La Monte had more formalistic interests. As Minimalism emerged and had definition it seemed to grow more formal. I never identified with the term although I was interested in the music and knew the composers."
Along with other composers of the 60s, Oliveros was finding that conventional musical scores bore less and less relevance to the sounds she wanted to make. Sound Patterns, a choral piece from 1961, dispenses with words in favour of a variety of meaningless syllables and mouth sounds, and indicates pitch only approximately in a desire to create sound clusters rather than pure tones. By the time of Outline for Flute, Percussion and String Bass (1965), precisely scored elements sit alongside instructions to improvise, vaguely-indicated pitches and rhythms, and graphic elements.
One route towards a more organic approach to sound came via electronic and tape music. Oliveros formed the group Sonics with Ramón Sender and Morton Subotnick.
"Ramón came to town and we began improvising together on our tape music concerts. We felt that it was important to keep live performance going along with tape compositions. Ramon composed Desert Ambulance for me using a Chamberlin organ as a source for his tape. The organ consisted of sounds on tape loops with a keyboard - an early version of a kind of sampler. The recordings were of real instruments and voices. The tape accompaniment to my solo accordion was on one track and Ramón's performance instructions to me were on the other. The tape had a kind of semi-popular / new-music sound with a kind of post-Webern style accordion part. Morton was composing theater pieces. Usually with a solo performer doing gestures and sound within a projected background."
In 1961, Sender and Subotnick had founded the San Francisco Tape Music Centre with what equipment they had at the time. It provided a studio, performance space and even at times living quarters for young experimental composers, as well as collaborating closely with Anne Halprin's Dancer's Workshop and Radio KPFA (which had previously provided the recording facilities for Oliveros, Rush and Riley).
Oliveros directed the Tape Music Centre from 1966 to 1967, when it moved to Mills College in Oakland. Her own electronic music of the period showed that she wasn't afraid to get technical. She pioneered tape-delay techniques, building complex circuitry for pieces like Light Piece for David Tudor (1965) and The Bath (1966). Several of these pieces are documented on the Electronic Works [Paradigm] and Alien Bog / Beautiful Soop [Pogus] CDs.
Bye Bye Butterfly was composed in 1965 and amongst the spooky, reverberating electronic tones there are a few sustained notes that prefigured Oliveros's later close interest in drone textures. There's also an operatic recording dunked in the mix which takes on a very strange complexion as a result. It's a restrained, quietly impressive piece.
1966's I of IV was made while in Toronto, and uses twelve sine-tone oscillators set beyond the frequencies of normal hearing, and fed onto tape via a system of tape delay mechanisms. The music consists of the audible difference tones arising from the combinations of various inaudible tones. It's a bleak, chilly soundscape, very much in tune with the alien, science-fiction 'feel' that early electronic music often produced. It presents a constantly changing, shimmering mesh of sound, in places more like a subdued traffic jam than the sounds of cosmic vacuum.
Big Mother Is Watching You, from the same year, is a lengthy trawl through a series of bands of electronic noise, which sounds as much like a piece from the 60s as it does a work of ambient isolationism from the 90s. Towards the end, the ebb and flow resembles ocean waves, but otherwise it's a singularly uncompromising investigation of sonic entropy.
"I made those pieces at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio in the summer of 1966. This was just before the classical electronic studio gave way to the Moog and Buchla synthesisers. I had worked out my own technique of 'playing' the classical studio in real time. I used oscillators set in the super-audio range above hearing and amplified the difference tones. These tones fed into a tape delay system and also created differences with the bias frequencies of the tape recorders. The whole set up was quite non-linear and required careful listening and instantaneous responses to play. The pieces you refer to are results of this way of playing the studio. For Big Mother Is Watching You I used noise bands along with the difference tones."
Beautiful Soop was composed on Oliveros's return to Mills, using the new Buchla synthesiser alongside her tape loops. Fragments of voices reciting Edward Lear's nonsense poetry echo alongside plaintive electronic warbles, a sort of psychedelic Jabberwocky. High-pitched signals form a bed for chirruping, squirting electronics, while the moan of an occasional female voice adds ominous undercurrents.
Alien Bog, from 1967, is an ambivalent chorus of erratic electrical activity that sounds at once as threatening as a toxic chemical reaction, and as fascinating as the sounds of tiny insects or animals. Oliveros's studio at Mills had a frog pond outside the window, and some influence seems likely! Oliveros was also seeking to create systems that could be operated live to modify the sounds of other instruments, and her music moved quite firmly away from fixed tape compositions towards the use of electronics as a performance aid.
"I have always loved performance. I wanted to be in contact with sound and moving sound in real time. It never interested me to cut and splice tape or to wait for numbers to crunch in a computer. I wanted immediate results. The super-heterodyne / tape-delay system that I worked with gave me a way to satisfy that performance hunger and to challenge myself. It was really thrilling to hear the sounds that I got and to shape them in real time like a performance, even if it was in a studio. It took me quite a while to arrive at the Expanded Instrument System (EIS) which was a way to share the challenge with other musicians. I have been performing together with Stuart Dempster and David Gamper with the EIS since 1988."
The Expanded Instrument System that Oliveros mentions has been developed over several years, with the aim of providing access in performance real-time to what would normally be considered studio processes. The EIS allows electronic control over various modifications of pitch, ambience and timbre, allowing the musicians to 'locate' their sound in virtual acoustic spaces.
Oliveros's 1980 lecture, "MMM: Meditation / Mandala / Music", traced some of her musical development by looking at the doodles she was making in the past. Towards the end of the 60s, her sketches featured a variety of electronic symbols and circuit diagrams. By 1969, the electronics had almost entirely disappeared in favour of abstract symbols, circles, spirals and other shapes which she later recognised corresponded to the mandala (geometric representations of abstract or meditational concepts).
Oliveros's music had also increasingly adopted a theatrical aspect, attempting to combine the sounds with visual and ritual elements. The Wheel of Fortune (1969) saw a clarinettist set out yellow flashing lights in a circle, linking them with lines of chalk. After placing his favourite pair of shoes in the circle, he constructed a triangle from masking tape, with hats at the vertices, before finally playing the music. 1974's Crow Two featured a silver-haired poet, four 'mothers' who sit surrounding her, two dancers who mirror each other while circling around this group, a circle of meditators, drummers and percussionists with stones, with four didjeridu players further out.
Her more recent involvement in theatre has generally been more conventional, although still concerned with the integration of a variety of media.
"Whether the theater is narrative or non-narrative, I consider the music to be a field which hosts the text. This was the case when I worked with Mabou Mines on Lear and Susan Marshall on Walter's Finest Hours and with Njinga."
Oliveros has described a "major influence" on her work which occurred in 1958. She recorded her surroundings by placing a microphone on a window ledge, and listening very attentively. Replaying the tape, she discovered that the microphone, with its mechanical objectivity, had picked up sounds that she hadn't heard were there. Her perception was selective, filtering some sounds out, and she resolved to listen more carefully. In Some Sound Observations, a 1968 article for Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, she wrote: "I have listened to many refrigerators. There is often a flickering between the sixth and seventh harmonic. Once, while in the process of drinking ouzo ... a refrigerator sent its harmonics out to surround my head with circles, ellipses and figure-eights".
I asked her what she was hearing while responding to this interview (conducted via eMail).
"I am hearing the sound of air and the whir of my hard drive as well as a passing car with stereo booming, and neighborhood dogs barking, with some distant voices."
In 1969, Oliveros had begun to learn T'ai Chi Chuan, the least martial of the Chinese arts of physical movement. The focus on aligning physical movement with natural breathing rhythms fed back into her singing and accordion improvisations, offering a meditative repose, a chance to relax amidst the more hectic pressures of everyday life. She formed an ensemble with a group of like-minded women, improvising at first, and then developing her Sonic Meditations.
Writing about Teach Yourself To Fly, she noted: "The effect is restful rather than stimulating. The energies of from a few to many people participating together amplify, reinforce and sustain the effects, but one can also participate alone with good results. Resulting awareness of my body in a relaxed mode, the fresh receptivity to external sound, the discovery of unused vocal or instrumental range and qualities seem primary since the pressures associated with my former music world were often not conducive to such things" .
Oliveros at first seems unusual amongst the 'big' names of the new music community for her involvement in so many aspects of music-making: writing, composition, teaching, performance, improvisation. She enjoys the differences: "Composition gives you time to change your mind while improvisation provides an edge where what you do is it. I do both. I like collaboration and enjoy opportunities to work with different people form diverse communities."
A research fellowship at San Diego in 1972 and 1973 allowed Oliveros to explore the Meditations and other exercises with twenty volunteers for several weeks, on a daily basis. For a time, Oliveros completely abandoned electronic music, the need for performance or traditional notation, but by 1974 she was using her new collective music-making processes as the basis of compositions for performance by a wide variety of groups.
A performance in early 1980 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York saw Oliveros place 100 singers around the Museum's great spiral ramp, offering only a few instructions a to how they should 'tune in' to each other. The result was an unpredictable but fascinating gradual shift in harmony, as groups of singers slowly gravitated towards particular pitches. At times, the sound towards the top of the space differed from that lower down, the architecture itself introducing a contribution.
Tom Johnson described his experience, in 1980, of a performance of MMM (Lullaby for Daisy Pauline) . While Oliveros played a backing tape of cricket and cicada recordings, she asked the audience to think of their 'favourite infants', and, if they wished, to sing "mmm". Johnson reported that he began to hum very softly to himself. "Perhaps four or five minutes into the piece I begin to realise that a number of others in the audience are humming equally softly. A massive chord is beginning to rise in the room and I am part of it. I try to listen to it as if it were a piece of music, but after a while, all attempts to regard the shimmering chord as music, as something outside myself, as other, begin to fail."
Oliveros's drone music, employing accordion and voice, also developed throughout the seventies and eighties. The Wanderer, described earlier, is paired on record with Horse Sings From Cloud, which derives from a Sonic Meditation written in 1975: "Sustain a tone or sound until any desire to change it disappears. When there is no longer any desire to change the tone or sound, then change it" . The recording is by a quartet of harmonium, accordion, concertina and bandoneon, with vocal humming suspended in between their lattice of shrill, luminescent resonance. If at times it's highly dissonant, it also achieves a soaring vibrancy that's quite invigorating.
Crone Music, released in 1989, relies on the accordion and Expanded Instrument System, and comprises music commissioned for a performance of King Lear. It's a very accomplished work, using the digital delays to combine several layers of sound. The Fool's Circle has rippling melodies mildly reminiscent of Terry Riley, while A Woman Sees How The World Goes With No Eyes is a far more sombre, subdued experience. A hushed forest transforms into the sound of an atonal, haunted calliope on Reason In Madness Mixed, but Let It Be So impresses most, as piercing whistles drift across sepulchral rumbles and what might be a restless cathedral organ.
The following year saw the appearance of The Roots Of The Moment, a single lengthy piece which again exploits accordion and E.I.S. towards even more varied ends. The intricate web of melody and harmony that opens the album again echoes Terry Riley, but The Roots ranges far and wide in style. The accordion is sometimes stripped back to its basic sound, and at other times seems to mimic other instruments entirely. Friendly, spritely rhythms give way to reflective, solitary moods; angelic voices are replaced in turn by the sounds of a middle-eastern ocean. The unusual tuning sometimes takes a while to adjust to, and like much of Oliveros's work it's sufficiently far from conventional harmony at times to deflect any possible accusations of 'new age prettiness'.
Oliveros's long-standing interests in drone, group improvisation and spatial influences came together in 1988, when, along with trombonist and long-time friend Stuart Dempster, and singer Panaiotis (who had provided the electronic assistance on Roots Of The Moment), a trip was made to Fort Worden, north of Seattle. A disused, buried, two-million gallon water tank (which was later dubbed the "cistern chapel" was the object of their journey. It is 186 feet in diameter, and has a 45-second reverberation time. The music that results, employing trombone, didjeridu, accordion, conch shells, voice and pieces of metal, is some of the most beautiful that Oliveros has helped create, with hugely resonant tones that seem to have no clear beginning or end, slowly surfacing like tranquillised whales in an ocean of vibration. One piece, Suiren, sees the performers transformed into disembodied presences, voices from another reality.
"The initial formation of the Deep Listening Band, recording in the cistern at Fort Worden in Washington State, was of course very memorable. We spent about five hours in the cistern. The reverberation simply was magnificent. I have never experienced anything like it, although I recorded in a cistern in Cologne with the same 45 second reverberation time."
The group was the first incarnation of the Deep Listening Band, who over the last decade have performed worldwide with a very interesting variety of guests and associates. Trips have been made to a ceramic silo, Bowdoin College chapel and a power plant cooling tower, but the group also plays in conventional concert spaces, and on a couple of occasions via international electronic link-ups.
1989 saw them at Tarpaper Cave in Rosendale, New York state, recording music amidst the sound of constantly dripping water for the Troglodyte's Delight CD. Easily their most radical venture, two tracks consist of nothing but water, while on most of the others the water completely dominates the sound, with the musicians sounding like strange cave animals in the background.
In 1990, they returned to the Cistern Chapel, and The Ready Made Boomerang documents a wider variety of sonic explorations. The highlights include Cistern Chapel Chance Chants, which offsets the earthy rumble of a brass didjeridu against some truly celestial singing, and the spectral voices of Phantom.
Later Deep Listening Band recordings have greatly expanded their range of interests. On several occasions they have teamed up with composer and instrument-builder Ellen Fullman, as documented on the Suspended Music CD. Fullman has created a "Long String Instrument", consisting of several steel wires tied between frames or walls, similar to other string installations by Paul Panhuysen, Alvin Lucier, Terry Fox and others. The instrument is very much tied to its location, with the different acoustic characteristics of each installation space affecting its sound. On Suspended Music the instrument features 175 strings, played by three performers who move around and through the instrument. Combined with the Deep Listening Band's improvisations, a music of shimmering, shivering tints and textures seems to hang in the air. On Epigraphs in the Time of AIDS, Oliveros's tribute to her late brother Peter, it's hard to tell where the instrument ends and the performers' singing voices begin. The music is at its most effective where buzzing drones contrast against flute or accordion melodies, and a stretch that sounds a little like Donald Duck works to prevent too much solemnity. The disc's other piece, Fullman's TexasTravelTexture, foregrounds the drone, shifting sands of tambura-like sound taking precedence over pointillistic grain.
I asked Pauline whether she felt that the Band's music had any connections to more traditional musics, such as Indian raga, which also allows improvisation around a drone.
"There are certain obvious connections between all music that centers on a drone. The Deep Listening Band uses drones from time to time - not exclusively. However we are not following a raga. We might range from tonal to atonal or noise melodic patterns over a drone or simply blend with it."
Another recent release, Non Stop Flight, sees the group departing even further from their traditional territory. Edited from a concert at Mills College, it opens with a performance of John Cage's notionally silent 4'33" , where all that we hear are the sounds of the audience. It's certainly a good way of opening ears to what comes afterwards. For Cage's Variations II, the Deep Listening Band are joined by computer music group The Hub, flickering out the score's seemingly random sounds. Pieces by Ramón Sender and Wendy Jeanne Burch make it seem like we've been transported back to a 50s happening, or to the early San Francisco Tape Music Center. It's a world away from the measured ambience of previous releases. The traditional Deep Listening Band sound resurfaces on David Gamper's evanescent Deep Hockets, a cloud of fragmentary melodies, twinkling and glimmering. Finally, the lengthy The Last Chances sees the Band with over a dozen guests, travelling through a variety of subterranean soundscapes, a trip with an oddly dream-like and at times nightmarish quality.
"We will be celebrating with 'Deep Listening Band Decade' beginning in September 1998 in the Low Library at Columbia University and continuing with three other concerts in New York in 1999. The first concert will feature the work we commissioned from Ellen Fullman with her Long String Instrument." Oliveros's musical activities continue to be very varied. Since 1986, she has composed four Hörspiele (radio-plays) for German radio.
"I began to do Hörspiel in 1986 with Humayun's Tomb, a text that I wrote in India. The text was spoken with a wordless song and accompaniment. Dream Horse Spiel is a text which is a list of words that go before and after horse. Personal stories and dreams about horses are included in several languages. Horse sound-effects and music accompany the texts. Time Piece was done for New American Radio. The style of text is somewhat similar to Dream Horse Spiel in that the word Time is used with before and after words in a list. The piece has additional stories by Fanni Green who also performs the Time Piece text with my accompaniment.
"A Poem of Change is my text mixed with actual World War II sounds, accordion and vocal sounds. These four Hörspiele are included in my book 'The Roots of the Moment' with a CD. Ear Piece is the most recent Hörspiel. It is a series of thirteen questions about hearing and listening with answers from randomly selected citizens of Köln located in different environments. The tape had a premiere performance at the per>SON festival at Trinitatus Church in Köln. The piece was well received and has been broadcast on WDR Köln since."
In March 1998, she collaborated on a piece called Primordial/Lift, alongside Andrew Deutsch (electronics), Anne Bourne (cello), David Grubbs (harmonium) and Tony Conrad (violin). Conrad is an interesting figure to set alongside Oliveros: he shares an interest in close listening (dating from his early 60s drone experiments on the violin), public participation (in Conrad's case, public-access video), and in the way in which close attention to sound has allowed performance often to supersede composition. "I have been involved with Andrew and Anne through their studies with me and our collaborations. I of course have known Tony Conrad since 1963 when I heard him play with La Monte in New York. I had never worked with him before Primordial/Lift. Dan Rigney of Hall Walls in Buffalo thought that our collaboration might be apt and so it was. Andrew suggested David Grubbs. The ensemble was really wonderful with violin, cello, electric cello, harmonium, accordion and electronic processing. I feel that Tony was very tuned to the score as were all of the musicians. I'd love to do it again soon."
"I met Ione in 1985. She was soon telling me about Njinga the Queen King and asking me to do the music for the play she was writing. After due consideration I decided on continuous sound design for all the scenes representing four worlds - Njinga's village, the ancestral world, a New York loft and the CIA. There is original music on CDs which functions like a movie score. Traditional African music is played on stage by the cast. There is layered interaction between all the music. There are 247 cues with 6 computer-controlled CDs. The sounds are routed to digital signal processors for processing and then to speaker arrays.
"Njinga the Queen King has been performed in many versions every year since 1991 with the premiere at Brooklyn Academy's Next Wave Festival in 1993. Over 200 artists have been involved at one time or another with the production."
Oliveros and Ione are teaching a course on 'music theatre' at Mills College this year - partly a step towards a production of Njinga in the Oakland community in 1999-2000. Oliveros had returned to Mills in 1996 after a long period away from academia, having previously decided that she wanted to devote more time to music than to the many other activities that being a professor required.
"I have a long connection with Mills because of their commitment to experimental music. It is probably the most consistent commitments of any college in the country. The San Francisco Tape Music Center was moved to Mills in 1966 and I was the first director. Sonics was the beginning of SFTMC (now the Center for Contemporary Music). I have taught at Mills occasionally, and been a guest composer since then. I was surprised to find that I liked teaching at Mills when I returned in 1996 after a long hiatus. There are really excellent students there and a very congenial department."
Oliveros has had a long history of involvement in the infrastructure of new music. After running the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, she became a lecturer in San Diego. In 1974, she was appointed to the Composers' Panel of America's National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1977 became Director of the Centre for Music Experiment at the University of California. She's worked in 'alternative spaces', academia, for funding and grants bodies and a number of other environments, including a fair amount of 'committee' work. Even if bureaucracy is often seen as antithetical to the artistic spirit, Oliveros has always recognised the importance of creating an environment in which creativity can flourish. She has founded her own organisation, the Pauline Oliveros Foundation.
"The Pauline Oliveros Foundation is rather complex. It was set up to model what the creative artist needs as a support system using my own career as a guide. It has certainly been challenging to make it work. However I am really pleased with the maturity of some of the programs: Deep Listening Band has commissioned ten composers in ten years and issued seven CDs, performed several concerts each year either in the USA or abroad and developed the EIS to the point that it is ready to be shared with others.
"The Foundation is unusual in that it is dedicated to the creation of new work in the arts. We now have a building in Kingston, New York, which we are developing as a creative cultural center. Deep Listening Space, as we call it, has a Gallery used for exhibitions, installations, music and readings, a studio with rehearsal space, potentially a black box theater for film/video and small ensemble work seating about 40, a courtyard cafe, and an artist in residence apartment.
"I have done everything in arts administration from A to Z to keep the Foundation running. The results are the reward. At least I have been in charge of it and have no one to blame but myself when the going is rough. I like the feeling of being an arts entrepreneur - an upstart. Our funding is very diverse. I set it up so that a good percentage of revenue comes from earned income. We need grants of course but not exclusively. I enjoy working with people - it's all about problem solving."
For some years now, Oliveros has held a series of annual retreats devoted to her concept of 'Deep Listening'. Although Deep Listening is fundamental to her philosophy, it often seems somewhat nebulous, probably because it's something to experience rather than to hear about.
"I keep trying to explain what I mean by 'Deep Listening'. Here is a try.
"The key to multi-level existence is deep listening. Deep listening includes language and its syntax, the nature of its sound, atmosphere and environmental context. This is essential to the process of unlocking layer after layer of imagination, meaning and memory down to the cellular level of human experience. Listening is the key to performance. Responses, whatever the discipline, that originate from deep listening are connected in resonance with being and inform the artist, art and audience in an effortless harmony.
"Deep Listening is a life time practice."
The retreats take a variety of groups from novices through to those more experienced, and include a wide variety of creative and meditational exercises and experiences.
"I have benefited enormously from leading the retreats. The quality of the participants and the nature of the work is challenging. A retreat can be roughly equivalent in result to a semester's work simply because of the concentration and lack of distraction. It keeps me growing."
For Oliveros, music-making is in no way a separate activity from the rest of her life. However, she denies any connection between the music she makes and the fact that she is a woman and a lesbian. Composers Recordings (CRI) have recently reissued the 1977 compilation Women in Electronic Music, and have featured Oliveros alongside the likes of Annea Lockwood and Nurit Tilles on a compilation of lesbian composers. I asked her whether her sex and sexuality affected the music she created.
"The CRI release [Women in Electronic Music] originally was an Arch Record titled New Music for Recorded and Electronic Media. I fought to keep it from being categorised as a woman composer record. I thought that the record should simply be that without having to announce it. CRI changed the title as a marketing ploy. Lesbian American Composers is also a marketing strategy. I agreed to be included and made a statement to the effect that if it helped anyone to be themselves no matter what their orientation then I would be happy. Generally, I resist categorization, as important issues are often dropped when categories are applied. I also said that I don't think that being a lesbian or a woman has anything to do with my compositional ability. I think that the range of musical interests represented in both recordings testifies to diversity."
Her many years of involvement in new music have given her an informed and open-minded perspective. Although her interests have changed, she continues to write music for other performers, such as a piece for violinist Malcolm Goldstein, and her interest in pure electronic music didn't end in the 60s either - she contributed to a computer music compilation in 1990. She has praise for artists who seem at first very different, such as Iannis Xenakis (although perhaps with Oliveros's interest in space and Xenakis's interest in architecture, the difference isn't all it seems).
"There is tremendous expansion in the so called new music scene. What used to be a village is now a metropolis. It's complex and asymmetrical. I like it. You never know where you will find a gem or in what style this gem will manifest."
If, after several decades of involvement in new music, Pauline Oliveros remains a tremendous inspiration to many, it's not just her talent and diversity that's the cause. She comes across as thoughtful, open-minded, and above all grounded and in harmony with herself. She sees no conflict between the analytical and the sensual. "I feel that we need all our faculties to make music. It's possible to work both ways and to integrate them."
Photo by Andria Barrist Stern