Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros, composer, performer and humanitarian is an important pioneer in American Music. Acclaimed internationally, for four decades she has explored sound -- forging new ground for herself and others.
Through improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation she has created a body of work with such breadth of vision that it profoundly effects those who experience it and eludes many who try to write about it.
Through Deep Listening Pieces and earlier Sonic Meditations Oliveros introduced the concept of incorporating all environmental sounds into musical performance. In performance Oliveros uses an accordion which has been re-tuned in two different systems of her just intonation in addition to electronics to alter the sound of the accordion and to explore the individual characteristics of each room.

Pauline Oliveros has built a loyal following through her concerts, recordings, publications and musical compositions that she has written for soloists and ensembles in music, dance, theater and interarts companies. She has also provided leadership within the music community from her early years as the first Director of the Center for Contemporary Music (formerly the Tape Music Center at Mills), director of the Center for Music Experiment during her 14 year tenure as professor of music at the University of California at San Diego to acting in an advisory capacity for organizations such as The National Endowment for the Arts, The New York State Council for the Arts, and many private foundations. She now serves as Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Darius Milhaud Composer in Residence at Mills College. Oliveros has been vocal about representing the needs of individual artists, about the need for diversity and experimentation in the arts, and promoting cooperation and good will among people.

(Bio excerpted from the artists website.)

Pauline Oliveros, pioneering electronic work “Bye Bye Butterfly” (1965) Details about the composition online.

The following interview contains excerpts of previous interviews with Pauline Oliveros (upon the artist's request) as well as original interview questions and answers with Heather Dewey-Hagborg. Excerpts are included from Alan Baker's interview on American Public Media as well as Artsmania.

Alan: One of the things, because of your focus on sound and the act of listening, that I'm curious about is what sounds and music were around you growing up?

Pauline: Oh, well that's a good question. When people ask me what is my influence, what are my influences, the first two that I mention are Geia, meaning "the earth" and my mother. Now the earth sounds that I experienced in my childhood were really dense and beautiful canopies of sound that came from all of the insects, birds and animals around. I lived in Houston, Texas. I was born in 1932 and grew up at a time when humans had less impact on the environment than they do today. I mean, now the frogs are leaving and vanishing. The frogs in my childhood could be heard loud and clear. Then of course, now so much is paved over with asphalt and cement that the cicadas are trapped and can't get out. But you can still hear wonderful stereophonic cicada sounds in Houston as you walk or drive down the street. And all of those sounds were very important to me in childhood. My mother and my grandmother were both piano teachers, so I heard piano music being played in the house from early morning until early evening as they practiced and gave their lessons. We had a phonograph, a wind up Victrola, on which I used to play records. I listened to them and loved it when the phonograph ran down so the music would start to droop; that was fun. I used to listen to my grandfather's crystal radio, and I loved the static that came out of it. It was so hard to tune to stations on that radio. Same thing with my father's short wave radio, I loved the whistles and pops and things that were in between the stations. Radio was a very, very prevalent influence in my childhood, and I loved the sounds made by the foley people, the sound effects for different radio programs. So those were the different sound influences on my childhood. Then of course, I went to all kinds of musical events. In Houston there was a lot happening in the musical scene. There was the symphony orchestra, musicals, recitals, and so on. So it was very rich, as far as my memory can tell you.

Heather: Who were some of your other early mentors or inspirations?

Pauline: My accordion teacher Bill Palmer was a great inspiration, My band teacher in Junior Highschool and in Senior High School.
I loved the country string bands that played at the Ice houses in Houston!
Negative was the kindergarten teacher who would not let me play the drum but always took it away from me and gave it to a boy and gave me a kazoo.

Alan: When you first started structuring that into compositions, when you first started writing music, what else was going on musically? If you could kind of set the scene as to what the environment was that you were creating in…

Pauline: Well, I engaged in musical activity from as far back as I can remember. When I went to kindergarten, there was a kindergarten band-- The Tiny Tots Band-- I loved to play in that. The only bad part about that was that I'd always go for the drum in the cabinet, and the teacher would always take it away from me and give it to a boy and give me a kazoo or something. I played in the junior high school band; I was an accordion player. Since I was a kind of outsider instrumentalist, the band director gave me a tuba and a book and sent me off into a room to learn the instrument, which I did. And I played it in the junior high school band. And when I got to high school, the tuba section was already occupied by 12 sousaphone players, so the band director gave me a French horn and a book and a room to go practice in until I could play it. So I continued with my horn playing, which allowed me to take part in ensembles in college as well. But my accordion… I loved to play the pieces I had learned in band or orchestra on the accordion. And eventually, as an accordionist, I would fill in for any instrumentalists who may have been missing from the string section. For example, in college, this was post-war time and the orchestra was just building up again. So I played my accordion in unlikely groupings, sometimes I'd play string quartets with three other accordion players. I also played my French horn in a jazz band in college, so there were lots of these kinds of reversals available for this outsider kind of musician.

Heather: How do you think your work has evolved over time?

Pauline: My work has evolved from conventionally notated music to tape & electronic music to oral transmissions (Sonic Meditations) to improvisatory forms that come from my Deep Listening practice.

Heather: You have seen so many technologies come and go from popularity. You were at the forefront of the tape music scene when that technology was becoming available in the fifties, really exploring and taking advantage of the possibilities of this new medium. How do you see the role of technology in your work today and how has your interest in this kind of technological exploration changed over the years?

Pauline: Technology has always played a role in my music from conventional instruments (also technology) to analog electronics to digital electronics that I use today. I am always studying the newest developments in technology. I read New Scientist.

Heather: What keeps you interested in sound?

Pauline: Listening keeps me interested in sound. I am always listening to the most subtle variations in wave forms to the most gross!

Heather: What are you working on right now (or next)?

Pauline: I am working on programming in MAX. I have just begun to learn the language this summer.

Heather: I have read (and enjoyed) your article from 1970 – “And don’t call them ‘lady’ composers” in the New York Times. I have to ask, what do you think about the (girrlsound) idea of creating a website and forum focused on women in sound?

Pauline: Connecting and documenting women’s work in particular?
I think it is fine to connect and document women's work. We can all learn from each other. I am not fond of the name girrlsound but that is my own bias. I might like grrrrrrsound!

Artsmania: Did you feel it was challenging being a female composer at the time?

Pauline: Well, I felt a challenge to compose music. That’s where my challenge was, for the most part. I had to cope with attitudes that were not supportive all along. I mean, you still have that. I think the worst thing is stereotyping. You run into stereotypes so that the stereotype filters who you are and what you do, and having to deal with that was the most frustrating thing for me.

Heather: What words of advice would you give other aspiring women in sound?

Pauline: Always be listening.

Much more on Pauline's website: