Pauline Oliveros: 1932–2016

Geeta Dayal looks back on the life of US composer Pauline Oliveros, including reflections from, amongst others, Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick

Pauline Oliveros was one of the true giants of 20th century music. She was also one of our great teachers. She continued working, with boundless energy, well into the 21st century. On the dark day after the US presidential election of 8 November, two weeks before her death at age 84, she was teaching karate to rattled undergraduate students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (The undergrads, according to Oliveros’ PhD student Andrea Williams, had trouble keeping up with their octogenerian professor; Oliveros was a black belt.)

Oliveros seemed almost eternally wise, even as a young student herself in the 1950s.

‘Pauline is one of my oldest friends,’ says Terry Riley, still using the present tense. The past tense still feels strange to describe her; the world of music without her in it seems almost unfathomable. ‘We were in the same composition class taught by Dr Wendell Otey in 1956,’ Riley continues. ‘I admired her gutsy music. Already in those days, she had a cutting-edge sound.’

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Pauline Oliveros. Courtesy: Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, San Francisco

Pauline Oliveros. Courtesy: Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, San Francisco

Pauline Oliveros was born in Houston, Texas in 1932. The wide open expanses of Texas, populated with wildlife, had a deep impact on her thinking. ‘I was always fascinated with listening to my environment,’ she wrote in her 2005 book Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. ‘From early childhood I have been a listener. I grew up in a time when there existed a very rich and dense soundscape of insects, birds and animals in Houston, Texas in the 1930s. The soundscape was filled with chirping, rasping crickets, frogs and melodic mocking birds.’

At home, she grew up surrounded by music. Her mother and grandmother taught piano. As a child, she tuned into radio static on her grandfather’s crystal radio and her dad’s shortwave. She made recordings with a wire recorder, the low-fi ancestor to the tape machine. She began playing her signature instrument – the accordion – as a child. In the 1940s, she played in an orchestra of a hundred accordions at a rodeo in the Houston Coliseum, to an audience of livestock and people. ‘The important thing to me was the sound of all those accordions all together, reverberating in that big space,’ she wrote later on. ‘One hundred accordions! It made such an impression on me.’

She moved to San Francisco in 1952, and got a reel-to-reel tape machine the following year. She soon began experimenting with tape, using the machine to create new pieces of music. She enrolled in what was then known as San Francisco State College, where she studied under the composer Robert Erickson, and befriended her classmates Riley, Loren Rush, and Stuart Dempster.

‘Having known and worked with Pauline for over 60 years, the memories are many and come in a minor flood,’ says Dempster, her longtime collaborator and a founding member of the Deep Listening Band, which formed in 1988. ‘Is it the composition student at San Francisco State in the 1950s who was abandoned by most of her male peers when it was time for Pauline’s piece to be played in composer lab? Not all abandoned her – Terry Riley and Loren Rush remained and, after the first time when I thought class was over, I remained as well. I wasn't even a composer at the time.’

Oliveros was fearless on issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, going back to the 1950s. ‘She was outspoken about these issues at a time, 1950s and 1960s in particular, when these matters were largely repressed,’ Dempster says. In 1970, she penned a forceful op-ed in the New York Times, titled ‘And Don’t Call Them “Lady” Composers.’

The emerging field of new and experimental music broke new ground on many levels, but it was still, for the most part, a boy’s club. ‘At a time when women composers were considered a lower species by the men, Pauline just soldiered on, got her pieces performed, stuck up for herself,’ says Ramon Sender, who first met Oliveros in 1959. ‘When she won the Gaudeamus award in Holland in 1962, it was a big step up the ladder for her and she became more confident of her ability to get her work out there. The San Francisco Tape Music Center also was important platform for her because we would stage anything she wanted, that and the David Tudor fest that she oversaw.’

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Pauline Oliveros. Courtesy: Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, San Francisco

Oliveros became a key player in the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center. Though she wasn’t one of its founders, she helped inspire it, in an earlier concept. ‘She and Ramon Sender had developed a series at the San Francisco Conservatory called “Sonics,”’ says Morton Subotnick, who co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Sender before Oliveros joined. A few years later, Oliveros would go on to lead the Tape Music Center.

‘We had a couple of basic oscillators … The Buchla didn’t get finished until December of 1965,’ says Subotnick. ‘This was before the Buchla. She made loops in the studio early on. Terry Riley did big loops. They were working with tape loops and oscillators and things like that… She was mostly interested in performing. Her real love was getting on stage and doing things on the stage.’

Oliveros’ early electronic music from the 1960s, recently collected in an essential eight-disc box set, still sounds vital. Much like the electronic music of her old friend, the late David Tudor, her 1960s music sounds live and appealingly raw and improvisatory, in contrast to the buttoned-up compositional approach favoured by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Bye Bye Butterfly, her first major breakthrough, was finished at the Tape Music Center in 1965. It is a piece, quite literally, with one foot in the past and one in the future: a sample of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly (1904) played on a turntable shot through with clanging, piercing electronic noise emanating from two oscillators and tape delay. The piece, Oliveros wrote, ‘bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.’

The San Francisco Tape Music Center moved to Mills College in Oakland, California, where it is now known as the Center for Contemporary Music. Oliveros kept making electronic music,  inspired by the natural landscape. ‘I was deeply impressed by the sounds from the frog pond out-side the studio window at Mills,’ she wrote. ‘I loved the accompaniment as I worked on my pieces. Though I never recorded the frogs I was of course influenced by their music.’

Her lifelong fascination with environmental sounds helped lead her down the path of ‘deep listening’ – the philosophy and practice she is best known for. Her 1974 work Sonic Meditations, compositions released as a series of easy-to-follow instructions meant for groups of people, trained or untrained, was another key turning point towards deep listening. In the 1980s, she started the Deep Listening Band, starting with an album recorded with Dempster and the vocalist Panaoitis in a massive underground cistern in Fort Worden, Washington.

‘Pauline advocated listening as a daily practice, by letting sounds influence not only thought and consciousness but also the body,’ says the sound artist and professor Seth Cluett. ‘I think this is attractive to artists working with sound outside of music because it doesn't objectify sound, but rather emphasizes awareness and connection.’

‘Pauline's work emphasized community over the individual,’ he continues. ‘When a piece like Tuning Meditation (1971) says to make your “dynamic level is soft make your tones available to others” it encourages the audience, as a group, to allow room for one another to contribute.’

Oliveros’ life work emphasized inclusivity. ‘Her proposal of Deep Listening, “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing,” is a basic practical exercise in inclusivity,’ says David Dove, founder of Nameless Sound. ‘And though the term for this philosophy did not appear until around the midpoint of Pauline's career, it can clearly be seen as the practice and ethic that connects such wide-ranging work that features so many varied and distinctly innovative and radical activities, including her innovations in electronic music, her community organizing, her clearly articulated and poetic text scores, the feminism in her music, etc.”

She embraced every new technology as it came along, always interested in how it could be used for performance. ‘I remember her diving into the world of Second Life, asking me to share the bill with her, only to find out that she wasn't going to perform live – she was going to perform as her Second Life self,’ recalls the artist and musician Maria Chavez.

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Musician Ione and Pauline Oliveros performing as part of CTM Festival at Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: CTM Festival, Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin; photograph: Heroko Ikeda

Musician Ione and Pauline Oliveros performing as part of CTM Festival at Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: CTM Festival, Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin; photograph: Heroko Ikeda

Oliveros spent the majority of her life teaching, most recently for many years at RPI, which now has a center for deep listening. But her alliance with Mills College was the most longstanding. She was a mentor to generations of students there, and also to the faculty.

‘From my side, Pauline shares a very special place in my heart with my dear former mentor Derek Bailey,’ says the Mills professor and composer Fred Frith. ‘What they have in common in my memory is the uncanny ability to defy one’s expectations of how they will behave, over and over again, and to do so with characteristically impish humour!’

‘In her case, this might involve suggesting mounting an anti-aircraft battery on the roof of the pre-renovation concert hall (at the time when passing airplanes were a major disturbance), or shrugging off my comment on the enormous plateful of meatloaf she had just demanded with an acerbic “I’m from Texas!”’ Frith continues. ‘But, of course, beyond that she was an inspiring colleague who really cared about her students, defended them, supported them, was there for them, day in day out. Defended me, too, when it came down to it. I appreciated her support, glad of her friendly and shrewd advice when I arrived at Mills new to institutional teaching and woefully insecure. As a veteran “outsider” in academia she had a lot to share, and I’m indebted to her for that and many other things down the years. More than anything for the chance to make music together, which was a simple joy whenever it happened.’

When the sound artist and professor Betsey Biggs was a student at Mills, she met with Oliveros weekly for composition lessons. ‘I had these elaborate ideas revolving around a junk orchestra and John Cage’s macro/microrhythmic structures,’ says Biggs. ‘I was planning intricately and designing album covers, but hadn’t actually made any music. Pauline told me with a no-nonsense look that she expected me to walk to the hardware store directly after our lesson, and spend the rest of the day making a prepared piano piece. I created my first serious composition, Six for Seven, that day.’

Oliveros was incredibly prolific, working at a rapid pace. The percussionist and lecturer William Winant had a studio next to Oliveros at Mills when he was working with Sonic Youth on the album Goodbye 20th Century [1999]. ‘I knocked on her door one day and ask if she would like to write a piece for me and Sonic Youth. I told her we were all big fans. Within a couple of days she wrote a beautiful piece for us, “Six for New Time.”’

In recent years, Oliveros moved her tape archive to Mills College. ‘Every time I needed clarification about aspects of those recordings, I would email her, and she would nearly instantaneously email back with explanations, even though many of the recordings were from the 1960s,’ says the Mills professor and composer Maggi Payne. ‘Her memory was extraordinary, as if she had just made those recordings the day before.’

The artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer collected Oliveros’ breath, in a work that will be exhibited at SFMOMA next year. ‘I would say that she embodied the perfect interpretation of the word “collaborator”,’ says Lozano-Hemmer. ‘She worked with many artists, mentored, inspired, facilitated and co-created with the most diverse group of artists imaginable.’

Much like John Cage, Oliveros has left a massive paper trail behind to remember her by. We have decades of essays, books, and other writings, and hundreds of hours of recordings.

‘She had a huge and generous heart and gave freely of her musical treasures,’ says Terry Riley. ‘She has left a rich, vastly detailed legacy. A meaningful life lived to the fullest.’

Main image: Pauline Oliveros. Photograph: VincianeVerguethen / Amherst College, Massachusetts

Geeta Dayal is a critic and journalist based in New York. She is a frequent contributor to frieze and many other publications, writing on sound, art and technology.

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