After 15 years of publication it was, quite honestly, shameful that while Chronogram has frequently covered events in which she is involved, the magazine had yet to profile Pauline Oliveros. A maverick icon known around the world, the Kingston composer is recognized as a leading figure in the development of electronic music. Over her 40-year career, she has formulated the influential theories of Deep Listening, sonic awareness, and the Expanded Instrument System; was a founding member and the first director of the vanguard San Francisco Tape Music Center; created the Deep Listening Institute, which regularly conducts programs and events nationally and abroad; authored four books; and served on the faculties of several prominent colleges. The occasions of her 77th birthday and its celebratory concert this month seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally feature this remarkable woman in our pages.
And so there here we are, in the brightly painted Rondout Victorian that Oliveros shares with her longtime companion, the writer and spiritual counselor Ione. It’s a gray day outside but there’s no shortage of color in here. As befits a pair of well-traveled artists with mystical and wide-ranging interests, the stately home’s rooms are lined with tall stacks of books and adorned with paintings and totems from Africa and the Far and Middle East. Mention of having prepared for the interview by reading Oliveros’s various online bios elicits from her a relaxed and characteristically telling response: “Oh, let’s just talk.”
Generally, with artists it’s either a situation of pulling teeth to gain a few kernels of insight, or of attempting to corral the proceedings back in line to get a word in edgewise, as the subject throws open the floodgates at the chance to finally speak their piece. But in Oliveros’s case it seems the words “talk” and “listen” are on an equal plane, tacitly interchangeable. A conversation with her is remarkably—startlingly, actually—well balanced. True to the Deep Listening practice she developed in the 1980s, Oliveros seems to intently hear the question behind the question. Every query brings forth a clear and direct response, though never one that lacks for suggestiveness.
“The paradigm is that we are a visual culture,” she says when asked about the ideas behind Deep Listening and sonic awareness, the latter defined as the ability to consciously focus attention upon environmental and musical sound, requiring continual alertness and an inclination toward always listening. “People mostly rely on their eyes [to observe], but by doing that they miss the world around them. When we learn to become better listeners, we learn more about ourselves, as well as each other. Sound and emotion are directly related, and we’re conditioned to repress both. We tend to be more connected emotionally and in every other way when, instead of automatically tuning out things we learn to ignore—like that car with the beat-box music [as if on cue, a car playing loud hip-hop drives by outside], or that heater [a radiator in the next room hisses on]—we learn to appreciate the sounds around us. They center us and remind us of our place in the world.”
Oliveros entered the world through the portal of Houston, Texas, in 1932. Her father left to join the Coast Guard during World War II and never returned; her mother and grandmother, both piano teachers, introduced her to the classics, and she learned about folk music from the locals. “We had a chicken farm and lived just outside the city. On weekends there would be string bands playing for tips up the road at the icehouse, which was what you’d call the general store,” she recalls. “There were no refrigeration systems then, at least not where we lived. I can still remember the clink of the iceman’s pincers.” One day, when Oliveros was nine, in an effort to bring in more income by adding more lessons to her curriculum, her mother brought home an accordion. Taken with the instrument right away, she was soon a member of a 100-piece accordion orchestra that appeared at indoor rodeos. “The sound of that many accordions going at once—oh boy, has that stayed with me,” waxes the composer. Although she did put it aside for a few years in the early 1970s to concentrate on writing, Oliveros has continued to make her name as an accordion avatar, taking the instrument to previously unheard plateaus through her use of electronic effects and other treatments and unusual settings.
In 1952 she transferred to San Francisco State College (“with my accordion and $300 in my pocket”), where she studied under pivotal modernist composer Robert Erickson. While at SFSC she met fellow student-composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Ramon Sender, Loren Rush, and others, all of whom, like many of their European peers, were finding that standard musical scores did not reflect the sounds they wanted to make. In 1961 Oliveros and her compatriots founded the improvisation group Sonics, which later evolved into the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a nonprofit cultural and educational corporation with the aim of presenting concerts and offering a place to learn about the then-cutting-edge medium of tape music. “You had all of these GIs bringing back this new magnetic tape from Germany, and we had one of the first tape machines, an Ampex,” says Oliveros. “I’d used wire recorders before, but with them you couldn’t do what you could with tape.” By using the devices’ record and playback heads in unconventional ways, she pioneered the use of tape loops and long delays, which the collective presented at events that often combined live instruments and theatrics. Composer Morton Subotnick, who was also working in the medium while teaching at nearby Mills College, soon joined the group, which continued to grow and spread its influence through regional and national tours before being assimilated into Mills College’s Center for Contemporary Music.