Features I by I 25.01.13

Pauline Oliveros looks back on a lifetime of deep listening

When she laughs, Pauline Oliveros breaks into the most extraordinary smile.

I have never seen this smile in any of the many photos I have seen of her, whether from the beginning of her composing career, at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early sixties, or more recent promo shots for the performances of her group, The Deep Listening Band. We were talking about the origins of her concept of ‘Deep Listening’ with an album recorded two decades ago at the bottom of a fourteen-foot deep cistern in Port Townsend, Washington. Four and a bit metres underground – that’s some pretty deep listening.

“Humour is always part of our modus operandi,” she confides of her relationship with trombonist Stuart Dempster, her friend and collaborator of more than fifty-five years. “We’re always punning. Always. It gets really hilarious – probably most hilarious to us.” And she starts chuckling again, breaking into that grin that suddenly makes her look like Mia Farrow.

Perhaps, I begin tentatively to suggest, the ability to spontaneously make music with someone is a little bit like being able to crack jokes with someone. There’s an analogy there, perhaps…

“Well, sure, yeah,” she confirms. “I think it’s a good one too.”

Sharing a melody can be a bit like sharing a joke –

“Right. And sharing sounds is that way as well, because often we’ll be sitting like this and something will happen – a sound will happen that is amusing. But other people sitting there will have no relation to what it was. They’d probably think we’re nuts for laughing.”

From this simple pun, Deep Listening grew into something like a way, or Dō, in the sense used in the martial arts. “It’s a process and a practice,” she tells me. “So over a time period, as one practices, expanding their capacity to attend to the environment as a whole, and also to be able to focus attention to a point. These are two forms of attention: focal and global. But to become aware of how you are using these is part of what happens in practising deep listening: noticing how you are listening and noticing how it can expand and how it can be sharpened. That’s a part of the practice.”

So, it’s a learning process, I venture.

“Yes, deep learning.”

As much a form of education as a form of composition–

“Well, uh, you can put it that way, I suppose,” she begins in her Texan drawl. “I would say that my performing and my composing come from my listening. That’s the basis, rather than some outside form applied to the material.”

As a child, Pauline Oliveros would lie back and listen to the “incredible chorus” of the birds and the insects in the wilds of her native Houston. “It was amazing,” she recalls. “It was almost like a rainforest, because it’s low land and wet. I really loved those sounds.” And on long drives, she would listen from the back seat to her “parents’ voices being modulated by the car motor.” In a similar way, some of her first works for magnetic tape in the late fifties were really just recordings of live performances, and what sounded like complicated electronic processing would be a bath tub for reverb and a microphone inside a cardboard tube to act as a filter.

The tape machine has been fundamental to Oliveros’s development as a composer and performer. As a teenager, in the 1940s, she had a wire recorder at home. Having picked up the accordion at nine, and started French horn in high school, she used the recording machine to help her learn new pieces, laying down her practice sessions on a length of thin steel cable.

Later, having moved to California, she acquired one of the first magnetic tape machines to appear on the domestic market, in 1953. She started to record sounds coming in through her apartment window and found “the recorder was taking in things that I wasn’t. So that challenged me.” She knew she had to listen better, to pick up as much as the machine and develop an awareness of all the sounds in the spectrum. “That’s the way technology does influence our learning,” she says. “You find out things that you didn’t know – about yourself, actually.”

“You find out things from technology that you didn’t know – about yourself, actually”

At a certain point in the early sixties, while taking part in the series of concerts that Ramon Sender dubbed Sonics and held in the little space he had sequestered at San Francisco Conservatory, the tape machine became something other than just a recording device; it became more like an instrument in its own right. “For one thing,” she recalls, “I noticed the time delay between the playback and record head. It was a short time delay but it was enough that, if you played with it, you could change the quality of the sound. It began to sound reverberant. So I played with that, and then began to add another tape machine and add those together so that I began to build what I today call the Expanded Instrument System.”

The Expanded Instrument System (EIS) is Oliveros’s current preferred set-up for solo and group improvisations; a “time machine” which links her accordion up through a series of MIDI controllers to some forty-odd variable delays diffused through eight or more channels, allowing the performer’s past, present and future to converge in real time. It’s really this emphasis on time-based effects, and on live performance, that has always set her work apart from other pioneers of electronic music in America or Europe.

“All of my music was made in that way,” she says, “as a real time performance. I was bound to the studio because of the size of instrumentation at that time, you couldn’t just drag that all out on the stage or take it on tour with you. So I made real-time studio performances that were recorded on tape.”

2012’s mammoth twelve-CD archival release, Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music, 1961-1970, charts the development of an aesthetic of live performance using tools like oscillators and tone generators; equipment, as she puts it, “that was not designed for making music.” But over the course of the sixties, she “designed my own way of making music with that kind of system” first at home, then at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where she worked alongside composers, Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick.

It was at the Tape Music Center – a “community of interest” which grew “into an interesting kind of institution” – that Sender and Subotnick worked with engineer, Donald Buchla, to create the Buchla Music Box. The almost exact contemporary to the first Moog but designed and developed independently, the Buchla was one of the very first modular synthesizers – and unlike Robert Moog’s machine, Buchla eschewed the traditional piano-style keyboard in favour of more idiosyncratic controllers like the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator. Buchla’s Box would later be used extensively by Suzanne Ciani and Laurie Spiegel, and to stunning effect on Buffy Sainte Marie’s Illuminations album. But Pauline Oliveros was initially sceptical of the new toy.

“Well, it was fine, you know, but it was all about control; it wasn’t about sound. Which is different,” she says, laughing a little. “And that’s probably what differentiates me from the other composers that were working at the time, because they were very interested in controlling things, but I was very interested in playing and performing things.”


On the afternoon of the 11th of May, 1970, a Detroit-born student named George Winne, Jr. doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire on the campus plaza of his college, the University of California, San Diego. By his side as he burned was a sign saying “In God’s name, end this war.” Before he died, he asked his mother to write a letter to Richard Nixon. Herbert Marcuse, author of One Dimensional Man and professor of philosophy at San Diego, spoke at his memorial service.

Pauline Oliveros had moved to San Diego three years previously to set up a post-graduate electronic music programme at the university. Before leaving the Bay Area she held at Tape-athon in  her friend, the artist and experimental film-maker Ronald Chase’s loft. For twelve hours, from six am to six pm, they played her entire catalogue of electronic works to date. Most of them would never receive another public airing until the release of Reverberations. “When I got to San Diego,” she tells me, “I didn’t turn back.”

What’s been the biggest surprise, listening to all that stuff again to prepare this box set?

“Well, I found that they were better than I thought,” she says. “At the time I was very critical of the material.”

“Other composers at the time were interested in controlling things, but I was interested in playing and performing things”

After spending another few years at San Diego acclimatising herself to the new world of modular synthesis, the sound of transistors in place of tube oscillators, Oliveros’s music went through an abrupt change in 1970. Turning away from the tape studio, she began composing what she called “sonic meditations”. “I was very interested,” she reflects, “in returning to very basic ways of sounding.” One of the triggers for this change was the self-immolation of George Winne, Jr. and what she calls the general “atmosphere of war, of protest, of resistance.”

“I think that I was certainly influenced by the Vietnam war and all of the resistance to that that was going on. There was an immolation at San Diego, at the university. A student had done this in the plaza. This was very affecting. So it was like a kind of withdrawal to introspection, and listening introspectively. That got me involved with making these meditations. But I was also doing it because I wanted people to be able to have significant experiences with sound in a communal way.”

She developed a newfound interest in the nature of “consciousness” – something, she claims, scientists on the whole had little time for then, because they couldn’t locate it in the brain. “It was considered to be an epiphenomenon.” She laughs at this, sneering, “it couldn’t be measured.” But in 1970, San Diego held one of the first scientific conferences devoted to the study of consciousness. Also, in 1970, Lester Ingber, who Oliveros describes as “a theoretical physicist who was teaching karate in terms of physics”, took up a research position at the University. Oliveros would train with Ingber until she reached black belt, meanwhile the two of them conducted research into autonomic feedback and attentional processes in music.
The Sonic Meditations that Oliveros developed, first with her class at UCSD, later in a book Software for People, were intended as occasions for communal listening and music making amongst people who needn’t necessarily have any special skills or training. With practice they can reinforce the “being-together” of the group, even allow the participants to enter “heightened states of awareness or expanded consciousness”. Sonic meditation number one is called ‘Learning to Fly’:

“Any number of persons sit in a circle facing the center. Illuminate the space with dim blue light. Begin by simply observing your own breathing. Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own breath cycle.
 Variation: translate voice to an instrument.”

Late last year, Oliveros discovered that activist groups in the Occupy movement in Los Angeles were using these Sonic Meditations and other Deep Listening pieces to reinforce their group solidarity during the long cold nights of occupation. She tells me she was “very happy to see the Occupy movement get started” and from the beginning she “followed it with interest.” So upon hearing that Occupy activists were already using her ideas, she promptly wrote a piece especially for them.

Occupy Air makes a unique piece of protest music because, as she says, “it’s not based in words. And I think that’s part of the Occupy movement as well. It’s not based in words, it’s based in presence. In being present and sustained presence. To show that they’re there. And this is different from political rhetoric. It’s still politics and it’s still very political, but its based in embodiment and being there.”

“I think being acquainted with a virtual world is very timely, very important”

Lest the thought of eschewing electronics for meditation and consciousness-raising sounds like a flight from modern technology, I should hasten to mention that Pauline Oliveros had an iPhone before you did and an email address before you were born. Recently she has been composing music for virtual ensembles inside the simulated reality of Second Life.

The Avatar Orchestra Metaverse is a group of internationally dispersed composers and musicians who have met regularly to play together in the cyberspaces of Second Life since 2007, frequently devising their own instruments – like aviophones and onomatophones which fly through the audience dispersing sound – which would be almost inconceivable under the lumpen physical laws of meatspace. Oliveros was invited to work with the group in that same year by founder member, Björn Eriksson, and soon became a permanent member.

“I had been in Second Life when it got started and I wasn’t thrilled or interested in it at the time,” she admits. “But then I went in and worked with the Avatar Orchestra – we call it AOM – and discovered there’s a really vibrant community of composers from various parts of the world that are working together to do things in Second Life and making pieces and performing and improvising. I think being acquainted with a virtual world is very timely, very important.”

Oliveros credits the web for giving her “a global audience” and citing the speed, the “access and the ability to engage with people”. “I meet people from all over the world these days who are familiar with my music,” she says, “which is rather amazing – coming from a time when I had little or no recognition.” And again, that warm hearty laugh. But she acknowledges that the digital universe is not for everyone, and gently chides her friends, the American composers Tom Johnson and Philip Corner for continuing to insist on “snail mail” letters she invariably loses. “The rhythm is entirely different,” she says of the digital world, and there’s a danger of “easy access but superficial access. It’s not the same in the analogue world where you have to deal with it – physically.”

Nonetheless, she remains convinced that there need be no contradiction between deep listening and the more dispersed attentions sometimes encouraged online. “As I always say, it depends on how you’re listening.”



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