Over the course of her extraordinary career, Pauline Oliveros has had her cutting-edge works commissioned by artists ranging from celebrated choreographer Merce Cunningham to seminal alt-rockers Sonic Youth. She's collaborated with electronic composer Morton Subotnick and played New York City's Lincoln Center in his adaptation of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which racked up a total of 150 performances.
Most recently, a 12-CD set of her recordings, Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970, was released last year by electronic label Important Records, just in time to commemorate her 80th birthday. A number of those earliest pieces found her pioneering a form of ambient electronica in which she looped tapes between reel-to-reel recorders, a technique that Brian Eno and Robert Fripp would explore in their collaborations a decade later.
Not only that, but Oliveros may also be the only artist alive today who can truthfully claim that legendary avant-garde composer John Cage actually played on one of her works.
The daughter of two music teachers, Oliveros grew up in Houston, where she picked up her first musical instrument, an accordion, at age 9. Not long afterward, she performed at a local rodeo as part of a 100-accordion band, and she continues to incorporate that instrument into her music today, albeit in a considerably more electronically enhanced way.
Oliveros also has a black belt in karate; recently finished her third opera with partner Carole Ione; and has adapted meditative techniques into her work as founder of the Deep Listening Institute in upstate New York, where she now resides. In addition to its educational programs, Oliveros' institute has directed the development of Adaptive Use Musical Instruments, which combine hardware and software to provide students with disabilities an avenue for musical expression.
She's performed her music in museums and cathedrals, was honored with the 2012 John Cage Award for outstanding achievement in the arts, and recorded an album (which she's punningly described as an "underground hit") in an unused, bomb-proof, two-million-gallon cistern.
As New York Times critic John Rockwell put it, "On some level, music, sound consciousness and religion are all one, and she would seem to be very close to that level."
Oliveros will be coming to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs for a short residency this week, which will culminate in a public performance on Saturday, presented by the university's Peak FreQuency collective. (See sidebar, here.) Last week, the artist spoke with the Indy about her earliest sonic experimentation, as well as a legacy of recordings that, upon repeated listenings, reveal music of unparalleled depth and innovation.
Indy: I'd like to begin by asking about your piece for Sonic Youth and your collaborations with DJ Spooky. What qualities would you say those artists share with the spirit and substance of your own work?
Pauline Oliveros: Well, when Sonic Youth did Goodbye 20th Century, they intended to play scores by experimental composers like Christian Wolff and La Monte Young and Yoko Ono and so on. And they asked me to participate in this. They thought they were gonna play a score of mine from way back, but I decided to write a piece for them.
It was fun to do, and I like the piece — it's been played now by other artists as well. But I like Sonic Youth. I like the spirit of what they do and, you know, their social understandings. I think it's a good group, a great group.
Indy: In what ways did you make the piece specifically for them versus something you'd have done for yourself?
PO: Mainly I wrote for their instruments. And that specifically was two percussionists, which is a little unusual for them, but that's what they had decided to do. And four guitars. And bass guitar. I wrote a piece they could play that could keep renewing itself. Although the outside form was the same, they could play it in different ways.
Indy: So it had room for improvisation?
PO: Oh yeah, there was that, and then there was also a text by Ione that they could perform. The piece was kind of a hexagonal diagram, which gave them choices that are oppositional. And so they can start the rhythm and then somebody else can play the opposite rhythm. So they could work in different ways with that diagram, and they handled that very well, I thought. [Scroll down to hear Sonic Youth's performance of the Oliveros piece in its entirety.]
Indy: And then DJ Spooky, you performed together onstage?
PO: Well, he joined the Deep Listening Band onstage at one point during a concert at the library in Columbia University. And then I played with him at the Tonic in the East Village of Lower Manhattan one or two times. He's a really versatile performer.
Indy: Did he play turntables when you performed live?
PO: No, he played stand-up bass.
Indy: I didn't even know he could do that.
PO: Yeah, well, he can do a lot of things people don't know about. [Laughs.] DJ Spooky and I are still looking to play together again soon. And you know, I've played with a lot of different performers that you might call crossover artists. Like Cecil Taylor for example, we have a DVD out. And then Joe McPhee is a pretty well-known jazz player.
Let's see, who else? Roscoe Mitchell, we've played several times together, and Anthony Braxton. So there are lots of different performers that you would categorize maybe one way, but then it turns out that you can't quite do that.
Indy: I also want to ask about last year's 12-CD set of your early electronic works. Listening again to all of those recordings so many years later, what kind of memories and emotions did they bring back?
PO: Well, certainly it brought back memories of the places where I made those pieces. Some of my electronic pieces from that era are pretty well-known and were already out there. But then there was this whole slew of pieces I made that sat on the shelf until the box set came along. And so the box set doesn't include the pieces that are already out. And so it's wonderful, for me, to have all that music from working with two oscillators and equipment that was never made to make music.
The first piece I made was "Time Perspective," and for that I had a tape recorder that I bought from Sears Roebuck. [Laughs.] And this tape machine was pretty interesting. It had just two speeds, 3 and 7½ ips [inches per second], but it also had the capability of recording while hand-winding the tape, so I could get variable speeds, and that was fun. I could record something and then take it up or down an octave.
And for that piece in particular, you know, I didn't have any kind of studio equipment. I just had my tape recorder, so I used cardboard tubes for filters, and I used the bathtub for reverberation.
Indy: Which I'm guessing doesn't give you quite as much reverb as a huge cistern?
PO: No, not quite. [Laughs.] I also used a wooden apple box to amplify small objects with a contact mic. That was my processing: an apple box, bathtub and cardboard tubes!
Indy: Let's turn to your primary instrument of choice. People tend to associate the accordion with artists like Astor Piazzolla, or Kurt Weill or, you know, Lawrence Welk. At what point did you realize the instrument could be taken in an entirely different sonic direction?
PO: Well, I was always interested in the most new kind of thing I could hear. When I was 16 or 17, I heard some Bartók for the first time, and anytime I heard anything remotely new, I was interested. I actually knew I wanted to be a composer by the time I was 16. So as I got into composition and then improvisation, I wrote some pieces for the accordion and finally began using it to improvise.
Indy: What were those early compositions like?
PO: Oh, well, they were dissonant. I can't even remember exactly, that was very early.
Indy: When did you begin processing sounds?
PO: That kind of happened in 1965. I had begun using tape-delay processing in my electronic music. And then I started to apply it to performing with the accordion.
Indy: What kind of tape recorder were you using then?
PO: I had a couple of Sony triple-7s in the '60s, and I was carrying those around. And that's a load, let me tell you. [Laughs.]
Indy: Was this around the time you moved to California?
PO: No, this was after. I went to California in 1952. I was interested in finding a community of composers and I found that in San Francisco, so I stayed there. And eventually I was offered a job at the University of California, San Diego, because they wanted me to establish an electronic music program, which I did. And then I went to New York because I was performing at [Lincoln Center's] Beaumont Theater for The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Indy: Having worked with vintage synthesizers, do you ever find yourself missing all those patch cords?
PO: Um, yes and no. I used to do a lot of patching, and you know, it still is somewhat necessary. But when I was making my electronic music in the beginning, there wasn't very much patching to do because I was using tape delay and I was generating sounds from two oscillators.
We had a patch bay, like a telephone operator's patch bay, so that we could send signals, but it wasn't as elaborate as, say, the Buchla synthesizer or the Moog. It was about 1966, '67 that I began making music with the Buchla synthesizer, and I had mixed emotions about it, because I liked the sound of the tube oscillators a lot better than the transistor-type oscillators in the synthesizer. I thought those sounded a little thin.
Indy: Although tubes got pretty hard to find after a while.
PO: Yes, but I can still get them.
Indy: Do you still have that kind of equipment lying around?
PO: I have a couple of the tube oscillators, yeah.
Indy: So what's your favorite piece of equipment, besides your accordion, that you could never do without?
PO: Something I could never do without?
Indy: Or would never want to do without.
PO: [Laughs.] Well, I guess having good speakers would be the next thing. And good microphones. Because the input and the output are absolutely essential. You know, it's hardware that you can't do without. That's if you're using amplification.
Indy: Do you still take your accordion out to a creek somewhere and play it acoustically?
PO: Well, not lately. But the 17-year cicada is coming back, and we had a cicada festival 17 years ago, so we're gonna have another one in June. So I'll probably have my accordion out down by the river.
Indy: I'd like to talk about some the ideas behind your Deep Listening Institute. The guitarist Fred Frith — whom you've played with — has talked about the idea of "virtuoso listening." And I'm wondering what advice you might have for people who think of more experimental music as, you know, quote-unquote difficult. What sorts of things should they be listening for, in order to better appreciate it?
PO: Well, I think the best thing to do would be to get something that disturbs them, and play it over and over again, until they're no longer disturbed.
Indy: You're not gonna get many people to do that.
PO: Well, you know, it's up to them. But the experience is worth it. Because you find out quick that the more familiar something becomes, the more interested you are.
Indy: With a lot of more experimental music, it does seem like there's nothing to hang onto during the first listening, because you're still kind of in uncharted terrain.
PO: Right, and then the terrain becomes more familiar, and you can find your way around and hang onto something.
Indy: I wanted to ask you about the distinction between sound and music. I know those are really ultimately just words, but I'm wondering, in your view, if you could identify at what point sound becomes music? What has to happen to it for it to become music?
PO: It's the way you listen to it. You can listen to the sounds of daily life and hear it as music. At least I can. [Laughs.]
Indy: I'm curious about that, actually. When you were a kid growing up, I assume you heard a certain music in your head, as most musicians do. How different was that from what you heard around you, and how similar was it to what you would end up doing?
PO: Well, I think that I listened to nature a lot. I mean, I certainly heard all sorts of musical ensembles and a wide variety of music: country music, Dixieland jazz, classical music, orchestras. You name it, I had been exposed to it. But the thing that I was really fascinated by was the sounds that the insects and birds were making, which was very, very lively and loud in Houston, Texas, where I was born.
Indy: Did they have cicadas down there?
PO: Yes, they did. And I loved listening to them. It was a real clamor.
Indy: Speaking of clamors, Glenn Branca [who released Sonic Youth's first few albums on his Neutral Records label] performed his symphony for a hundred electric guitars at the World Trade Center a few months before 9/11. But more than 50 years earlier, you performed with a hundred accordion players at a Texas rodeo.
PO: I did.
Indy: I'm guessing the two of those were pretty different. What do a hundred accordions actually sound like?
PO: [Laughs.] Well, I don't know if I can describe it to you. I think that a hundred anything sounds pretty impressive.
Indy: What songs did you play?
PO: At the rodeo? I can't remember, but I'm sure they were probably patriotic songs, because it was World War II time. Back in the '40s, the accordion was very popular, and the GIs were bringing them back from Europe. In Houston, there were several very large accordion schools, you know, where you could go and take accordion lessons. It was the thing to do, I guess, at that time.
Indy: I once got to interview John Cage, and I remember him talking about how much he loved Oakland, which is where you were director of the Tape Music Center. Did you two know each other? Did you ever collaborate?
PO: Yes, I knew John. I was commissioned to make a piece for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1969. My piece was called "In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer," and the performers for that piece included John Cage, David Tudor and Gordon Mumma.
So I did know John, but who I knew better was David Tudor, who was a very important mentor to me. He had a very beautiful kind of concentration, and stillness, because he was an absolute virtuoso in whatever he did.
Indy: Sometimes when people look back on a body of work, they discover something about their younger self, like maybe they were more advanced than they'd remembered. Have you ever looked back and been surprised by something you did so early on?
PO: Yeah, well, I did have some of those feelings, you know. "I did that, huh?" So that's kind of interesting from this distance of 40 years or so.
Somebody just the other day was saying — oh yeah, it was [musician] Mike Bullock — he said he was listening to something on the radio that sounded like Pauline Oliveros 50 years ago. And it turned out to be a piece somebody had just made recently! [Laughs.] So some people are picking up on some of the things which had happened that long ago.
Indy: It took a little while.
PO: Yeah, it does take a while. It takes time.