This episode of our Composers Corner podcast is a journey through the ever-fascinating music universe of Pauline Oliveros, an American composer, accordionist and a central figure in the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music.
Pauline Oliveros' life as a composer, performer and humanitarian was about opening her own and others' sensibilities to the universe and facets of sounds. Her career spanned fifty years of boundary dissolving music making. In the 1960's she influenced American music profoundly through her work with improvisation, meditation, electronic music, myth and ritual. She was born in Houston, Texas in 1932, and died in 2016 in Kingston, New York.
"Deep Listening is my life practice", Oliveros explained. Pauline Oliveros founded Deep Listening Institute, formerly Pauline Oliveros Foundation, now the Center For Deep Listening at Rensselaer, Troy, NY. Oliveros authored books, formulated new music theories, and investigated new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of "deep listening" and "sonic awareness". This came from her childhood fascination with sounds and from her works in concert music with composition, improvisation and electro-acoustic. By Deep Listening she was referring to a method of listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear, no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of one's own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Throughout the years, she developed the Extended Instrument System (EIS), a sophisticated setup of digital signal processors designed for use in live performances. Examples of her use of the system can be heard on recordings by the Deep Listening Band.
In the early 1960's, Oliveros, along with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and there, she began her pioneering work with electronics and tape. In performances, Pauline Oliveros used an accordion which had been re-tuned and the sound altered with the aid of electronics. Her music is not meditative in the sense that it is intended for listening to while meditating, rather each piece is a form of meditation, such as her aptly-titled "Sonic Meditations."
While she spent years immersed in introspective experimentation, Oliveros’s “Sonic Meditations” shouldn’t be mistaken for escapism or disengagement. The composer described listening as a necessary pause before thoughtful action: “Listening is directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting and deciding on action.” Following her years of private group experimentation, Oliveros began to share her “Sonic Meditations” in print and in performance. When she first published them, in a 1971 issue of the avant-garde music magazine Source, the composer opened with a radical introduction: “Pauline Oliveros is a two-legged human being, a female, lesbian, musician, composer, among other things which contribute to her identity.”
- Sounds excerpts of Pauline Oliveros' voice taken from the short film KQED Spark: Pauline Oliveros .
- Photo: The Center For Contemporary Music Archives, Mills College
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*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.