Pauline Oliveros – Five decades as a deep listener by Jo Burzynska

Always ahead of her time despite notching up 80 years, Pauline Oliveros remains at the forefront of technology. On her first ever visit to New Zealand to perform and host a Deep Listening Workshop, Oliveros spoke to Jo Burzynska about her 50 plus years as a sonic pioneer and deep listener

It’s a wet and wild night in Auckland as a group gathered in the St Paul Street Gallery move calmly around the space, creating shifting vocal harmonies and dissonances as they go. First each one sings their own note, then replicates one they’ve just heard sung by a distant voice, before returning to intone a note that no one else is making, and so on. As participants alternatively tune into themselves and then others, it’s an uplifting exchange and one that perfectly illustrates Pauline Oliveros’s idea of Deep Listening.

This tuning meditation was part of a workshop led by the veteran experimental composer on her inaugural visit to perform in New Zealand last year and offered participants a taste of Deep Listening, a concept that’s informed her practice in a career spanning over half a decade.

“My whole life has been involved in my fascination for listening,” says Oliveros. “It started as far back as I can remember and included environmental and natural sounds, technological sounds and music. There was music in the house all the time with my mother and my grandmother both teaching piano, and we had Victrola (an early wind up gramophone) and a radio. Those things were prominent in my early musical life.”

One of Oliveros’s first steps to creating her own sounds was through her fascination with the accordion, which endures to this day. She started learning it aged nine, but soon discovered its “outsider” status excluded her from playing it in her school orchestra. If she wanted to join, she was advised to take up a more conventional instrument.

Nevertheless, Oliveros’s early experiences with the instrument were formative. “I had a very good training from my accordion teacher who introduced me to many different kinds of music and gave me an understanding of difference tones [an additional tone perceived when two tones are played simultaneously] that you can hear very well in the accordion. This played an important role in my electronic music making later,” she notes.

Unconventional compositions

By 16, Oliveros had decided that she wanted to compose. “I just knew I wanted to create music because I was hearing it in my inner listening,” she recalls. “But there was no real support for being a composer in terms of education and I had to wait until I finally took composition class in university when I was about 18 or 19.”

Even then, this conventional education had its limitations for a student in the early 50s drawn to dissonance. While she started to compose within the confines of this structure for traditional instruments such as the piano, horn and woodwind, “I still hadn’t really satisfied the inner listening and how to translate that into standard notation – it was not a good fit,” she says.

It was a few more years until she found a true mentor in the person of composer and American tape music pioneer, Robert Erickson, who she met in 1954. “By that time I was writing pretty dissonant music and had been getting wilder and wilder on my own,” she recalls. Under his tutelage she wrote Variations for Sextet in 1960, for which she won the Pacifica Foundation Prize.

“It was a very hard piece, which vacillates between the post-Webern sound and free jazz,” she explains. “It took a while to write it as I was really pulling the sounds out of the air rather than following any formulation or formal structure at all. The process was very much, ‘what do I want to hear next and how do I write that down?’.”

While written using conventional musical notation, in a subsequent work, Trio for Flute, Piano and Page Turner, Oliveros moved on to invent her own notational forms. This was at a time that she was also moving into making tape music, which she cites as a key part of her development as a musician.

Early electronics

Oliveros was one of the main payers involved with the legendary electronics studio, the San Francisco Tape Music Center founded in 1962 by the composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender. “Making electronic music in the 60s, I eventually I began to be satisfied that I was making the music that I was hearing,” states Oliveros.

It was a period of groundbreaking works. These included pieces such as I of IV, which used the techniques of tape repetition, as well as the amplification of combination tones that she’d developed at the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, and the pioneering plunderphonics of Bye Bye Butterfly that “sampled” Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.

Oliveros’s works were ahead of their time, remaining fresh and of a timbre that suggests they could have been recorded today. This freshness is something Oliveros attributes to her listening practice and gestural approach: “It’s an energetic and not a constructed approach that takes in the memes of the time. It’s really about enjoying sound.”

It was during this highly productive period in the 60s that Oliveros began the development of her interactive electronic signal processing environment, the expanded instrument system (EIS). “This was using tape delay and tape machines, and by 1983 had begun to incorporate digital delay with my accordion, using one delay processor for each hand. From that I involved a system that’s on the computer.”

In her 2007 Auckland performance, Oliveros chose to rework her 1966 piece, A Little Noise in the System, which was first to use EIS. This visceral slab of proto noise was still able to entrance an audience, most of whom would have grown up surrounded by electronic sound.

“Electronic music was very exciting and I got turned off instrumental performances because they were locked into tradition and a traditional way of playing,” observes Oliveros. “I was interested in making extended sounds and they just couldn’t do it. However, after a while performers listened to the electronic music they were competing with and decided that they could also do that, with certain instrumentalists becoming able to transcend what they had learned and how they’d been educated and begin to bring new ideas and new sounds into their playing.”

The first one of these enlightened musicians was Stuart Dempster, who would later join Oliveros as a member of the Deep Listening band and for whom she wrote Theatre Piece for Trombone Player. “I recorded his repertoire of sounds then arranged them on tape for him to play with and then began an evolution of making music for performers that asked them to extend their sound repertoire.”

Another of Oliveros’s key collaborators was David Tudor, who she met in 1963. “I learned a great deal from him about a mindful approach to performance practice that really tied into my interest in listening.”

With Tudor she continued to stretch the boundaries of conventional performance with pieces such as Duo for Bandonion and Possible Minor Bird Obligato (seesaw version). Played on swivel-chaired seesaw which “really threw the sound around”, additional sonic input was provided live by a minor bird who’d been joining it at their rehearsals.

Sonic meditations

“By 1970, I started making sonic mediations, which was a radical departure from what I had been doing,” remembers Oliveros. “It was intended these would involve anyone who could make sound or listen, so you wouldn’t have to be trained as a musician. And it turned out that for a long time sonic meditations were better performed by people who had little or no training.” While they were initially devised for people to participate in rather than be performed, Oliveros started incorporating ideas from these sonic meditations into her own performances.

Performance became central to Oliveros’s work in the 1980s after she left her job as a professor at the University of California in San Diego and moved to upstate New York. Oliveros again returned to the accordion, championing this marginalised instrument.

As well as playing numerous shows, this era saw Oliveros write a number of pieces, with her solo albums Accordion and Voice and accordion drone masterpiece, The Wanderer recently re-released by Important Records.

Despite her success, Oliveros said that she was still not an “establishment composer”. “Even though I had received some recognition by then it was still not exactly a member of the club. I was a woman and gender discrimination was quite in effect.”

Being a woman in a man’s world in the early days, Oliveros encountered few kindred female spirits, considering that this lack of female role models was responsible for deterring many women from choosing the more creative paths through music.

Oliveros was fortunate to have her mother for inspiration, who’d regularly improvise on the piano. “It was a key exchange for me as she was actually creating music, and that was an influence.”

However, Oliveros acknowledges that some progress has been made: “It’s changing. I think that new generations are now beginning to have different ideas, but it’s still pretty male dominated as far as music is concerned.”

“Women are programmed differently from men,” thinks Oliveros, “but it doesn’t mean that we cant do music, just that our approach to it may be  different.”

“Women have been technophobes, because men sit on the technology and bond around it. These bonds create force fields that leave women outside,” Oliveros notes. “It’s a different organisation of the brain, with men more likely to go for the detail of how things work while women are more looking for conceptual aspects. That doesn’t mean that they can’t use technology, but just that they must approach it in their own way, which is what I did.”

Defining Deep Listening

While Oliveros considers all her practice as coming from a place of Deep Listening, and her earlier sonic meditations focused on ways of listening and responding, the name wasn’t invented until 1988, with the first release of the Deep Listening Band. The name was inspired by the cavernous Cistern where the recordings for the album Ready Made Boomerang were made by a group comprising Oliveros and fellow composers and performers, including Demspter.

Oliveros explains: “The Deep Listening Band became very important in performance and research in the exploration of spatial characteristics of venues: unusual venues like the Cistern, caves in Troglodyte’s Delight and a selection of spaces that we created electronically for Tosca salad – this research continues.”

Oliveros led her first Deep Listening Retreat in 1991 at the Rose Mountain Retreat Center in Las Vegas. These are now run annually as well as around the world, alongside Deep Listening Workshops of the kind Oliveros hosted in Auckland.

Most of the 90s were taken up by Njinga the Queen King, Oliveros’s epic scale collaboration with partner and regular collaborator, Ione. This retelling of the tale of a 17th century female Angolan ruler employed traditional African music and musicians for which Oliveros produced “cinematic” accompaniment and created different “sound worlds” for the four strands of the story.

Cyber Sonics

Despite now being 75 years old, Oliveros’s interest in technology remains active, with much of her work this decade embracing cutting edge digital media. “I’ve been writing on the edge since I got my first tape recorder in 1953, or even earlier through my experience of the wire recorder, crystal and shortwave radio and the Victrolo,” she muses. “From all of this to evolving to where I am now: organising an opera online and using the web.”

The opera that she coordinated online was 2000’s Lunar Opera: Deep Listening For_Tunes, an outdoor piece whose 250 performers were instructed and largely rehearsed via email and the internet.

In her next venture, Oliveros is pushing the bounds of technology even further through a telepresence performance at this year’s Sigraph conference. In this, a mixed multi media ensemble will be playing simultaneously in three different locations across the States. “We’ll be performing using low latency high quality audio and DV quality video transmitted over the Internet2 [an advanced private broadband network]. The audience at Sigraph will experience all these sights virtually.”

“New technology is very exciting,” says Oliveros. “I’m excited the telepresence development and the fact that it’s now possible to transmit CD quality audio and DV quality video opens up tremendous creative potential, for connecting worldwide rather than just locally.

“I think as far as audiences and classrooms are concerned, you open up a lot of potential collaboration, understanding and cross cultural possibilities. Through improvisation you don’t have to speak the same language, but just speak music through listening and responding. There are a lot of opportunities there for fusion and a seeding of new ideas and transformations. That’s where my excitement is right now.”

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