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Pauline Oliveros: A Composer's Journey

pauline_articleBio: Composer, performer, humanitarian, and pioneer in American Music. For over four decades Pauline Oliveros has explored sound - forging new ground for herself and others. Today, Pauline heads her foundation, Deep Listening Institute, based in New York.

Pauline, what attracted you to music in the first place? Was it the love of sound itself?

Well that was certainly a factor but also because music was very much a part of my home. My mother and my grandmother were teaching piano. We had a victrola playing 78 records on it, the radio…so there was plenty of music around.

How did you end up choosing the accordion as an instrument versus, say the piano, which most children are exposed in a musical family.

Well, my mother and grandmother were both pianists. My mother brought an accordion home when I was about nine years old and she was going to learn how to play it so she could extend her practice as a teacher. But she saw that I was very interested and so I wanted to learn how to play it, so I did. And so I’m still playing it.

What did you love about the the instrument then and today? It is not an instrument most people select.

That’s right, because it was invented after the classical period. It was invented in 1840. It’s more recent in terms of western instruments. So there’s no classical literature specifically for the instrument. I think of it as an outsider instrument. So I like it. I identify with outsiders. It seems very appropriate in that way. But as far as the sound is concerned I like the sound of the free reed and I like the way the reed can be dynamically shaped and articulated with the bellows of the instrument.

A free reed instrument means that the reed is freely vibrating inside and anchored at one end. Air blows through and vibrates the reed.

Pauline, who were your musical inspirations?

Well, my family. My mother and my grandmother and then there was a lot of artists in Houston where I grew up it was a music town where a lot of different kinds of music was happening and also there were street bands. Usually country bands that played at the corner of ice houses. You had to go and buy ice for your iceboxes in those days.

What is the purpose of making music for you?

For me it’s to fexplore new sounds and fashion new patterns to expand my mind, expand my consciousness to change neural pathways.

In the fifties you were playing free music with composers Terry Riley and Loren Rush. How did this occur?

Well, it seemed perfectly natural. We were friends, we had gone to school together at San Francisco State, we were studying with Robert Erickson. And he encouraged us to improvise and then one day we did. (laughs) Loren was working at Radio KPFA where he had access to recording equipment. And Terry needed to produce a five- minute soundtrack for a documentary film and so we went in and recorded five-minute tracks. That was our initial foray into collective improvisation. We were astonished at the results and liked it and decided to keep on.

What was the kind of composition or performance material were you studying in music school?

Oh, well I don’t know that I can remember that. (laughs)

It seems the composers of your generation really took a different direction than the classicist model taught at most music universities.

Right. I think that’s very true. Doctor Wendell Otey, who was at San Francisco State at the time, had a great interest in what he called exotic music because the term world music didn’t exist at that time.

Exotic music, right.

He called it exotic music. So he’d play music from as many different places as he could. Azerbaijan, and Japan, Africa. He covered the world pretty well.

So maybe the seeds were ripe for experimentation and it seems like you and your contemporaries just took the lead and went with it.

Yeah I think so. KPFA - the Pacifica Foundation community radio station , was a great source of contemporary and world music for us because of the four hour morning concert. So we got quite a musical education from listening to that station.

Do you view this divergence from the classicist movement as being as much a rebellion as experimenting with new forms of music?

I think it was just what we liked to hear. I think it was because we liked what we were hearing. We could shape our own directions. I don’t see that music schools can afford to keep turning people intto one narrow kind of practice. I think musical practice needs to be opened up so people have choice in the kinds of music that they want to play, including classical music.

So are you referring to a balance between the old classical tradition and the work of the composers of your generation?


That would be an interesting balance.

I don’t see why not. You know? Why shouldn’t it be possible?

What are you’re reflections on your work in the early 1960's at San Francisco Tape Music center?

Oh well, I think that was a wonderful time. It was very exciting. New sounds were coming up. We were learning how to deal with the analog technology and making our instruments so to speak. One of the whole things about that particular time was that it was very community oriented with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. So we had each other to bounce ideas off of and to help each other through the new medium. And there was no place to do that in a university. So it was kind of imperative to do it ourselves. So it was a do it yourself movement.

You said there was no place to do this at a university. Did the universities not embrace this kind of experimentation in the early sixties?

Oh, not at all. The only place that had any kind of electronic music was Columbia and Princeton. They had a studio back in the sixties.

When you say the universities weren’t open to letting this kind of experimentation in, was that a reflection of the philosophy of the faculty at the time? That this might corrupt the pure classicist traditions that they may have been teaching?

Well, I think that people focus on the particular discipline and expertise that they know and have been taught and are not interested in developing a vernacular that is outside and is sort of invisible or inaudible. (laughs) And so it takes time to evolve, but there was a large community of composers involved in this movement in San Francisco. And they’re pretty much visible today.

What was the turning point where universities opened up to hiring people like yourself to teach new music work?

Well I think that PR was part of it. We began to get notices and reviews and those things. And in those times reviews were very important. But I think probably the turning point was the National Endowment for the Arts. And both myself and Loren Rush were involved. We helped to establish some of the studios. It was about resources for composers that were not affordable. At the time you couldn’t afford to have a home studio. So putting a studio together at a university was a fundable item. The other item was funding for new music ensembles. So this created a turning point because tthe universities could then apply to the National Endowment for these funds. Bottom line. (Laughs)

So it was a building up of these institutions. If we take UCSD today, UCSD has a pretty long established new music program but I’m sure there is a time when that didn’t exist.

Well, that’s right. It didn’t exist when I went there in 1967. I was doing electronic music and that was one of the reasons I was invited to teach at UCSD.

I’m sure that many of the readers that follow your work would love to hear about your work when you came to San Diego at that time. Could you share what the environment was like then?

I was brought to establish an electronic music program for the graduate students. Which I did. By that time there were two, I mean there were several Buchla system modules that were available because of the San Francisco Tape Music Center plus the Moog system that had developed on the east coast. So UCSD established one of the first electronic music studios on the West Coast. We brought James Campbell from the University of Illinois who was a recording engineer and established a good recording facility. Then the graduate students came in, who were interested. Allen Strange was one of them. I don’t know if you know his work but Allen was one of the first graduates at UCSD. He wrote Electronic Music Systems and Techniques which was based on information from my course. His elaboration of that material made a unique contribution to the field. The book was published about 1967/68 and is now a classic.

When you first came to UCSD did they have any resources to do this or did you have to start from scratch and buy equipment, etc.

Well, they had a budget for it. And the process was really exciting. The provost at UCSD was very interested in having a real new music establishment. At the time he wanted to create what he called the Darmstadt of the west - ha! It’s funny to think about now, but at the time it was pretty interesting.

Was there a central person that was behind the drive to have an electronic music program there?

Sure …Will Ogden was the chairman and with Robert Erickson there they started the new department. They were there first, you know the year before I came, planning and getting things going. They ordered the Buchla and Moog synthesizers and other equipment.. I think the equipment was there when I arrived.

What did you set out to accomplish during the period that you taught and worked with the program at UCSD in San Diego?

Well I taught classes in Electronic Music and I also taught composition and I already mentioned all the strengths of the program and how we launched the graduate program with emphasis on composition.

Why did you leave San Diego and the university?

I wanted to be independent again, (laughs)

Looking at the composers that were of your generation, what do you feel was the ambition of that collective movement of the composers of the fifties in their work?

Well, I figure we were all very interested in electronic music as a new medium and wanted to try it. We worked together with that vision and it was very enjoyable to put on the concerts that we did every Spring. We put on concerts that were both improvised and developed in the studio and so it was something that we were doing together. So there was no doubt in our minds that that’s what we wanted to do. We kept doing it.

Did you face opposition even from your earliest kinds of works and debuting this kind of music experimentation at that time?

At the San Francisco Tape Music Center we created our own audience. We had a subscription audience actually, about 150 people and the critics from both the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner came to the concerts. This was a very important thing because the critics and the audience were recognizing the work we were doing. Those reviews are in the archive at the CCM at Mills College.

The composer John Cage was an advocate of being more aware of the sounds around us. Could you share the benefits of your system called ‘deep listening’ when applied?

Well, I don’t think I could just give you an answer 1, 2, 3 because it’s a practice which goes on and continues and can continue for a lifetime. But I would say that being more aware of where you are through listening to all sounds in your environment breeds a connection and an understanding of what there is and that can be beneficial. If you are musician awareness of sounds around you is very helpful for making music.

Why do you think that many people are not actively listening to the sounds around them? We are kind of desensitized in a way. And, were you aware that there was a need to have a formalized system so that people would begin to get in touch?

Well, first of all I don’t think of it as a system. I think of it as a practice. So that what you do is practice expanding your listening. Practice focusing and learning to balance between two forms of inclusive listening and exclusive listening. That’s what I think of as practice. I don’t think that I developed this out of a relationship with Cage because I became aware of Cage’s work in 1963/1964 when I worked together with David Tudor to put on a festival of Cage’s music along with my own and Alvin Lucier’s. This was a festival that took place at the San Francisco Tape Music in 1964. At the time I wasn’t thinking about the practice of Deep Listening. What I actually started to do in about 1967/68 was beginning to listen to my own sounds. I was listening to long tones and experiencing what the effect of that practice was. I began to create what I thought of as sonic meditations. And those are pieces that were orally transmitted - as instructions like recipies. From Sonic Meditations I listened and developed practices. And that’s my branch of whatever the tree is.

Do you find in working with people now today whether they are musicians or non-musicians that people are in fact not quite aware or attentive to the sounds around them?

Well, first of all, we are living in a time of increasing knowledge. If you are a city dweller you are going to be immersed in a lot of sound. And with quiet time being quite rare…so people in order to focus…whatever intelligence they want to derive from sounds tend to shut things out rather than let them in. This decreases awareness at the same time as it focuses awareness on certain things. These are the city dwellers I’m talking about. If you live in the country where you are not so immersed in technological sound it might be different. Because sounds in nature …you name them…are a little less invasive than high energy combustion engines and things like that for example. I think that you can’t just have an answer. Listening is mysterious. It’s not a well known understanding because hearing and listening are different. Hearing is involuntary…the ear is the mechanism gathering sound waves and transmitting them to the audio cortex in the brain. Listening takes place in the brain and whatever takes place there is based on the experience of the individual. So as far as I’m concerned it’s a mysterious business. You don’t know how other people are experiencing the same thing that you may be experiencing. It might be perceived quite differently.

That’s a wonderful observation and I think that many people would agree on that point. That each person is processing that intake in their own way. Would it be accurate to say that you feel not all sounds would be good, per se?

Well, I’m not so interested in whether something is good or bad but whether it’s harmful or beneficial. You know if a sound is harmful…if a sound can damage your hearing I think it would be better you took yourself away from it. But experience is qualitative. It’s something that I can’t necessarily determine except for myself.

What is the effect that you’ve noticed in your teaching the practice of deep listening on people?

Out of practice you may develop some kind of technique but it’s not necessarily what I set forth here. With the kind of listening we do here in my classes, and my retreats, or workshops there is a kind of regimen that comes about within a group with musicians together. There is a coordination with brainwaves that one can feel. What happens is that an openness come about through the sound meditation. And, as I said I can’t tell how anyone is experiencing it, but there is a feeling.

Can you say that the effects of this practice have driven change to your life?

Oh of course. This practice has given me a great sense of place, where I am. I am very aware of who is around me and what they are doing. It gives me a kind of alertness. A feeling of well-being in the world.

If people become more sonically aware, especially those that live in the city, do you think that they would actually identify noise as something that should be reduced as it’s a deterrent to their quality of life?

Oh, I do. Yeah. Well, I think there are a lot of people who are already on that kick…you know who would like to have noise reduction. But at the same time they may not necessarily be on the right track. For instance, the Mayor of Kingston where I live is trying to get rid of train whistles. There are a lot of trains that come through Kingston by my home. Train whistles are liked very much by many people. They’re beautifully crafted sounds. On the other hand if you get rid of all the train whistles you still have the noise of the trains. And apparently the Mayor doesn’t seem to be aware of that. So it’s very strange to me that you would want to get rid of the crafted sound not worry about the noise of the tracks.

Throw out beauty and keep the beast.

Yeah, really! (laughs)

Your concept of telematic music performance, which involves musicians performing live, but seeing a video feed with speakers of other musicians around the world, it could be in any location, performing in real time. In this case the only limitation is the connection of the internet speed. Artist Mark Dresser, who has practiced it for some time, uses an internet connection called Internet 2, which is very quick. Do you feel telamatic music is a model for the future of live music performance?

Well, I think it’s another venue. I think of it as another venue of making music. And then it’s possible to connect with people on the other side of the world or on the other side of the country of whatever. You’re connected in different places so it makes it possible to perform together when otherwise you could not. Unless you had a big airline bill. (laughs) And I think it’s developing…it’s on it’s way. There’s still a long way to go because of lack of infrastructure. Internet 2 is a broadband Internet that allows for image and sound. With large bandwidth. But it’s not available to the public. You have to subscribe to it as an institution like a university or government agency. So you can connect via Internet 2 if you are in an institution that has that capability. But otherwise you have to use the regular Internet. It is possible to stream from Internet 2 to regular Internet. That’s another possibility. In any case, developing all these different protocols is part of the search that is going on now and certainly the field of network media is evolving. It’s growing and it’s growing pretty fast. There are a lot of problems to solve. Not the least of which is audio quality and also video quality. And then there is the use of audio design and how do you make it apparent who is playing what? When it comes out of speakers at the other end. And how the display of the audio and video is cared for at the user end of the situation. It takes quite a lot of design.

How do you feel about the use of computers and sampling technology as a primary means of people making music without much formal training?

Oh, I think that it’s incredible. You know, there are millions of people engaged in this movement throughout the whole world…a gigantic movement. You know? And so I think it’s a form of communication that doesn’t require spoken language but is understood by many people. Simply because you can transmit files over the Internet. And so there is a lot of trading going on. And this was developed out of the trading of tapes or cassette tapes in the 70s. People were trading music, exchanging cassettes in an era of making music that way in the 70s. So it’s grown. And as the Internet was accommodating more and more file exchange, well then there was this huge movement has grown. People make music in their garages, basements, attics, studios and etc. without formal training. I think that’s terrific.

What are your thoughts on how people listen to music on ipods instead of stereo speaker systems?

Well, I think that there are some who are beginning to discover the difference. It does make a difference. In a way it’s hard to talk about it because if you don’t know what quality is then you just simply don’t know. But I recall an experience that I had in Canada there, maybe twenty years ago…I was at a conference, it was the Glenn Gould Conference on Music and Technology. And at one point, someone was playing a recording of Glenn Gould playing a particular piece, maybe it was Bach, I don’t know what it was. I don’t remember exactly, but the recording was extremely poor. Very poor. And at the same time the essence of the way Glenn Gould played came through. This was very interesting to me at the time. I noted that because you could still understand quality through this very poor recording. Now in terms of the Ipod, going around with headphones all the time, and they’re not even headphones, they’re ear buds. The opening is narrow and you’re not necessarily getting a full range experience - and certainly not the kind of bodily experiences you have when you are in the presence of resonating musical instruments in a big space. But until people start to make those comparisons I don’t know what to say. There’s something that’s being missed.

Do you feel the public has caught on or began to discover new music with different ears now than, say, in the fifties?

Well, I would say so. I mean people have been exposed to more kinds of music than ever before. I find that enough people are very interested in my work and that audiences are very different for me now than they were twenty, thirty years ago. I can play or do whatever I want and feel that it’s more understood than it was before. I get good responses from people now. Where as in the old days there were only a few. (laughs)

With the current economic downturn what do you feel is the price to art for loosing funding support that encourages and supports new music production?

Well, I’ve been through lot of years of this new music stuff. So, okay we don’t have funding….well then we’ll just go out onto the street and have at it. I’ve always been prepared to do my art whether I have funding or not. If I have funding that’s really great. If I don’t? Well, then I do something else. But I don’t give up.

You know it’s the human condition. It’s always up and down. The economy goes up and down. So right now we don’t have much, but the key is that, even in our times, money is always out there. You just have to understand how to get it.

As the founder of a non-profit music organization, what do you think the task and the challenge will be in this new century for the musical arts as we try to engage the public?

Well, for one thing I think that music education has to change and I believe that the so-called music educators, for example Northwestern University is one where a lot of music educators are trained. People move around and work in the schools. And the Director of Music education there now is very interested in improvisation and a really good understanding for why improvisation is a very important aspect of music education and should be instituted. This will help. To have the understanding of improvisation today is a very important educational force in music. And that’s been denied for so many years.

Why was it shut out of the formalized music education system?

Some things are easier to teach than other things. Theory without practice is easy. However practice is what makes music.

Many Jr. High and High schools continue to teach John Phillip Souza marches and big band material as the foundation of their programs. Is this the extent of how we can educate our young up and coming musicians?

Well, I do think that has to change. And I think, as I said, improvisation can help to change it. Where people can develop a sense of freedom in making music. Military bands have a particular quality and well, militarism. (laughs) If you want to change that or at least to have a different option and choice available we have to have a freer style of music which comes through improvisation.

In the classical community the practice and in some ways rediscovery of improvisation will be very interesting to see unfold.

Well, it’s already happening. It’s happening a lot.

Is integrating art in everyday life is part of your goal in bringing people into this work?

Yes, of course. You know I want people to be able to experience sound whether they are trained or not.

Are there certain people that come to mind that have been very special in your work?

Well, of course. I have had a very long relationship with Stuart Dempster for example. We have been playing together since 1954. So that’s a long time. And that’s one of the longer relationships. And I still have a strong friendship with Terry Riley. We were going to school together in San Francisco along with Stuart and Loren Rush. Also, Ramon Sender-Barayon and Mort .Subotnick. These are famous music making companions from the sixties. Although we’ve gone our own way they are still really excellent, excellent friends.

How do you guys feel about the future of music looking to this new century?

Well, we have more music than we’ve ever had. And we have more ways of transmitting it. Everything from quiet, solitary music making to world music making with millions of people. So this is a broader range than we’ve ever had before. How it plays out is something that is unknown. I don’t know. This range is what we have. Right now it’s very exciting.

What are your thoughts on the demise of the large record label model that built the music industry?

Well, it’s like when I was a young person if you go in your car to the gas station probably five or six guys would jump out and start cleaning your windshield and checking your oil and your tires and putting gas in the engine. But today what you do is drive in and do it yourself, yeah? Well, It’s pretty similar I think if you’re recording you can do your own. You can market and distribute your own music on the Internet and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s still a good place for skilled audio engineers and record companies but they have to scale down and understand that there’s a whole different field and a whole different way of dealing with music going on. Eventually it will become stable and it will have something to do with quality. But for now they have to allow for music to be in the hands of its creators.

It’s a kind of new frontier.

Yes, definitely.

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