“Music is a multi-dimensional, dynamic process unfolding as a relationship between an individual or a group of individuals, and sound vibrations.”

Pauline Oliveros, The Noetics of Music

© Hand Gamper
© Hand Gamper
A great, brave pioneer of the American Wild West’s mid 20th-century experimental music romp, Pauline Oliveros was a multifaceted musician, inimitable composer, and feminist champion whose radical mind reshaped listening and identity politics in (and out of) the music world across the dawn of a new millennium. Oliveros started playing the accordion at age 9, declared she was going to be a composer at age 16, got her first tape deck recorder at age 21, and stuck her microphone out the window to discover sound environments at age 26. In no way can a thousand words do a woman of her stature justice, but by assembling a few snapshots of Oliveros’ lifework, the stylistic idiosyncrasies that formed her career begin to shine.

Bye Bye Butterfly: Sampling the Patriarchy

A common rite of passage for the 20th-century composer was to eulogize the "old music" in order to make way for new sounds. But Oliveros not only faced stigma as a tape musician and composer who challenged common listening practices, she also faced the stigma as a woman in the patriarchal structure of Western music. So in her eulogy, Bye Bye Butterfly (1965), Oliveros made her statement loud and clear as she unleashed an electronic metamorphosis that sampled Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in order to bid farewell to, in her own words, "the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex." On the original program from her “Tape-athon”, held in 1967 at Ronald Chase’s Loft on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, there is a cartoon gun (à la film noir) drawn next to the name of the piece. The ultra-pitched, metallic frequencies of Bye Bye Butterfly are far out, and most Puccini fans would be downright perplexed by the recording. However, Oliveros’ world is experimental and improvisational, and as the oscillator screams and whines, Puccini is merely along for the trip. The year after she wrote Bye Bye Butterfly, the San Francisco Tape Center, of whom Oliveros and fellow composers Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and Ramon Sender were founding members, merged with Mills College in Oakland, California, and Oliveros was appointed as director.

Science Fiction/Fact

Over the course of her life, Oliveros cultivated extramusical curiosities for organic physiology, interstellar robotics, and galactic noise. Coming of age in the days of the space race, Oliveros’ fixation with extraterrestrial existence manifested itself in works like Alien Bog (1967)—one in a series of “bog” works (Mind Bog, Bog Road, etc.) whose titles were inspired by the frog pond outside her window at Mills College. Whether she was specifically trying to create an unknown terrestrial environment or whether the sounds she produced boggled even her own mind (or both), the sheening, calm, ambient sounds of the piece appropriately transport the listener to another planet. Alien Bog, like many of her early electronic compositions, was recorded in real-time, differing vastly from the European style of composers like Stockhausen who were carefully reconstructing and re-recording over tapes multiple times to get the desired sound. This essence of spontaneity remained the lifeblood of her work as a composer.

As her knowledge and research broadened, Oliveros would publish questions: “What is the sound of cells multiplying? What does blood circulation sound like? What are the sounds of the cosmos?” And no sooner would she pose them, than she searched for answers. In her Sonic Meditation IV, the participant might attempt “interstellar telepathic transmission”, and in a collaboration from the late 80s with Scot Gresham-Lancaster and a network of ham radio satellite operators entitled Echoes of the Moon, audience members were able to send their voice to the moon and receive an echo 2.5 seconds later. Oliveros’ fascination with sound extended far beyond her own planet.

“All of music speaks to me as music, no matter how diverse, no matter what its function might be, no matter how apparently simple or complex, no matter how it affects me emotionally or intellectually, and no matter what its origin: human, animal, artificial, or extraterrestrial.”

Pauline Oliveros, Software for People, 1978

Populism through Participation

When we think of American populist composers, we tend to settle for Aaron Copland, since a handful of his compositions attempt to uncover American nationalism through folk music, which in turn gained a high level of critical acclaim among audiences. However, if we are to look at music from the performer’s standpoint, Copland still remains among the conservatory-trained elite. In the early 70s, Oliveros began to compose works to be performed by anyone without any music background, and henceforth opened a new, unsophisticated method of participation in music that had otherwise been completely unthought of for hundreds of years.

In 1972, Oliveros led a relaxation and meditation research project at the Center for Music Experiment at the University of California, San Diego where she began creating her own Sonic Meditations, prose-driven compositions for which special skills are not required. She recalls in Software for People that, at this time, she felt alienated from the musical community and was no longer interested in making electronic and theater pieces. Two years later, she published the Meditations in a book and led her first seminar in Sonic Meditations at Berlin’s Metamusik Festival. What Oliveros produced during this time is now considered among the greatest accomplishments of 20th-century music composition and philosophy. Take a moment tonight to try the oft-cited Sonic Meditation V:

“Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.”

Acoustic Improvisations

From the early 80s onward, Oliveros focused solely on improvisational work and recorded her first album as soloist, Accordion and Voice (1982), which she realized after bidding farewell to the West Coast and living at the Zen Arts Center in Mount Tremper, New York. The two tracks on the album, Horse Sings from Cloud and Rattlesnake Mountain, were deep-rooted in her experiences at the Arts Center and contain a droning tonality that would become essential to her future work in Deep Listening. These improvisations paint Oliveros as a peaceful warrior, wandering along her path to enlightenment, reminiscing on the esoteric electronica of her past.

Ritual and Healing through Listening

The pinnacle of Oliveros’ lifework came from a visit to an underground cistern in Washington State in 1988 when she recorded the album Deep Listening with Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis. The experience led to an exploration into the ritual and healing power of music, which she developed into a practical, experiential intensive through the Pauline Oliveros Foundation. In many ways, Deep Listening offers an alternative to the competitive and highly critical world of music in its principles of openness to all performers, nonjudgmental approach to listening, and nonadherence to hierarchical structures. The remainder of her scores up until the end of her life were published through Deep Listening Publications, including compositions like Saxual Orientation for Saxophone Quartet (1997), a performance piece that gives listeners the opportunity to hear multiple identities of the saxophone and Dissolving Your Earplugs for classically trained musicians or anyone else interested (2006) which encourages listening and improvisation from even the stiffest trained musician.

“Deep Listening Institute (DLI) promotes the music and Deep Listening practice of pioneer composer Pauline Oliveros, providing a unique approach to music, literature, art, meditation, technology and healing.  It fosters creative innovation across boundaries and across abilities, among artists and audience, musicians and non-musicians, healers and the physically or cognitively challenged, and children of all ages.” (From the Mission Statement of the Deep Listening Institute)

Oliveros once reflected that her compositions are a combination of: “1) All the music I have ever heard. 2) All the sounds of the natural world I have ever heard including my own inner biological sounds. 3) All the sounds of the technological world I have ever heard. 4) All the sounds from my imagination.” In her journey from the San Francisco Tape Music Center to the Deep Listening Institute, Oliveros championed new philosophies that continue to offer alternative listening and performance practices to many of today’s musical bubbles. For anyone with a deep love for music, it is should be required practice to discover at least one Sonic Meditation in his or her lifetime and to memorize Oliveros’ resounding words: “Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening.”

(From the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2014 Biennial:)

Sonic Meditation V © 1974 Pauline Oliveros

Resources and further reading:

Baker, Alan. "American Mavericks: An interview with Pauline Oliveros." American Mavericks: An interview with Pauline Oliveros. American Public Media, Jan. 2003. Web. 4 Jan. 2017.

Bernstein, David W., John Rockwell, and Johannes Goebel. The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s counterculture and the avant-garde. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2016. Print.

Kelly, Jennifer. In her own words: conversations with composers in the United States. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois Press, 2013. Print.

Mockus, Martha. Sounding out: Pauline Oliveros and lesbian musicality. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Oliveros, Pauline. Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80. Baltimore, MD, Smith Publications, 1984.

Oliveros, Pauline, and Lawton Hall. Sounding the margins: collected writings 1992-2009. Kingston, NY: Deep Listening Publications, 2010. Print.

Osborne, William. "Chapter 3: Sounding the Abyss of Otherness: Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening and the Sonic Meditations." Women Making Art: women in the visual, literary, and performing arts since 1960. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Wilson, Stephen. Information arts: intersections of art, science, and technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print.