Deep Listening

Composer, accordionist, educator, Pauline Oliveros talks about landscapes, soundscapes, the history of ambient music and the future of the recital hall.

Composer, accordionist, educator, Pauline Oliveros has done more to humanize technology than virtually any other living musician in the classical tradition. Whereas much of the world, caught up in this age of accelerated culture, accepts that electronic art must be hyperkinetic by nature, Oliveros finds nothing short of solace in the machine. Despite its technological inception, Oliveros’ work as composer and performer is best heard alongside the music of contemporary composer-mystics, such as Arvo Part. Part’s generally ethereal work is a descendant of early European polyphony, of composers such as Thomas Tallis and Palestrina, who composed with the innate resonance of the Church sanctum in mind. And even though Oliveros has left the Church far behind, she similarly composes spiritual music with a keen sense of place.

Her longtime ensemble, the Deep Listening Band, records deeply felt sonic picturesques; these highly reverberent soundscapes reveal not only the musicians’ simpatico, but their artful facility with recording equipment. Her work with the Expanded Instrument System helps suggest the recital hall as a living instrument unto itself. And as Oliveros explains below, her fondest performance experiences occur outside of traditional venues (preferably outside literally), where the audience and musicians alike contribute to the definition of the site as a place for musicmaking.

Oliveros’ work with electronics, her embrace of the nuts and bolts of contemporary musical creation, can be traced back to Mills College in the mid-1960s, when she helped found the school’s renowned Tape Music Center. Later, as a professor at the Univeristy of California at San Diego, she helped found that school’s strong program in new music. Since the early ’80s, having left San Diego after 14 years, she has continued to promote new music from her own tier in the non-profit arena, the Pauline Oliveros Foundation.

Oliveros is back at Mills for the moment, teaching composition this autumn. Music Now is proud to have her as our guest for two performances as part of CSUS’ annual Festival of New American Music. Following is the transcript of an interview with Pauline Oliveros, conducted the day after she oversaw a performance at Mills, which doubled as a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the school’s center of new music. Complementing the interview is an excerpt from her writing on the Expanded Instrument System (described on the web site of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation), as well as a selected discography (courtesy of the web site of New Albion Records), should you wish to explore her music beyond the upcoming Music Now events.

Marc Weidenbaum: The word “immersion” always comes to mind when I’m describing your music. I find it’s more appropriate than, say, “environment.” There are musicians who create sonic environments that are purposely violent, or ascetic, what have you. But your work is uniformly concerned with a sense of intimate space. Is there a place in your childhood back to which this sense of enclosure — wonderment, grace — can be traced?

Pauline Oliveros: It can be traced back to my fascination with listening, which was always with me, from as far back as I can remember. I came from Houston, Texas, which in the ’30s was really a wonderland of sound: insects, birds … and mammals. You would hear an amazing variety. You mention the word immersion, and I was immersed in natural sound from very early on.

Weidenbaum: Not just sound, but this sense of landscape, as well.

Oliveros: Houston is lowland. And I did spend many hours exploring the bayous, forests and so on, since I lived in the country a lot of the time, and also down at the Bay, in Kemah and Galveston — a lot of time spent by water, as well.

Weidenbaum: Much of your music makes an instrument of sorts out of the space in which you’re performing or recording; this process emphasizes the immediate present. Have you ever set out to reproduce sounds from your past?

Oliveros: Yes, there’s at least a feeling of it in, particularly, my electronic music. In the ’60s, the time I was working with electronic music and recording that, I was getting closer to that experience, of childhood, yes.

Weidenbaum: I assume there was a sense of play with that work.

Oliveros: Oh, yes. Play, because I didn’t do the cutting and splicing of the electronic music studio — the classical electronic music studio — of the day. I set it up so I could play it; so it was “playful.” I always liked the feeling of performing what I did.

Weidenbaum: So you were involved even then with shaping sound spaces.

Oliveros: Yes, exactly.

Weidenbaum: I think your work has contributed enormously to “humanizing” technology. Today, many young musicians are comfortable with the assumptions that you helped suggest in the first place.

Oliveros: As I said, I was performing my electronic music before there were any synthesizers, also before there was Brian Eno and Fred Frith; so, as a matter of fact, I wrote an article in 1969 that sort of covered tape techniques that I had been working with. It’s called Tape Delay Techniques for Electronic Music. It’s in my book, Software for People. That summarized things as they were at that time, in that era, and also I had suggestions for the future. And now that’s been realized and transcended, especially in the development of the Expanded Instrument System [see sidebar], which I use and which the Deep Listing Band uses very much. And we just did a mammoth concert here at Mills, with the Expanded Instrument System, and a guest station. We had a large number of people moving in and out of that station, and using it.

Weidenbaum: Explain what you mean by a guest station.

Oliveros: Each one of us has a station, so to speak, in the Expanded Instrument System. We each have a monitor; we can view what changes we’re making in our performance parameters as we play. So, we have it set up so that a guest can come in, sit down and play.

Weidenbaum: You have quite a fan base on the Internet, both in the classical contemporary circles and in the new electronic pop music community. The earliest work I can find of yours that involves the Internet is the piece titled Njinga the Queen King, where you had Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels running simultaneously with the performance. The IRC channels are a lo-bandwidth Internet resource, which simply allow people to have group conversations by typing. Have you done much Internet-related work since then?

Oliveros: The band has done several distance concerts. The most recent was with Stuart Dempster in Seattle, me in Evanston, Illinois, and David Gamper in New York. But that was done with PictureTel technology, not with Internet.

Weidenbaum: So it was a dedicated line.

Oliveros: Yes. In the Njinga, the thing we that we did, using the Internet, we had a chat line. In addition to the chat line, we had: a live studio performance, satellite uplink, PictureTel, video — oh, and a radio phone-in line. So, just about everything was underway in that version, which was called Njinga Interactive. That was done at RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Weidenbaum: You are teaching at Mills for the semester, in Oakland, which is fairly close to the epicenter of all this so-called Internet activity. Did this San Francisco Bay area audience seem particularly prepared for your mixture of musicmaking and technology?

Oliveros: Yeah. Mills has such a long history of new music people, including John Cage and Lou Harrison, and on through the years. And I actually knew about Mills in the early ’50s, when I first came to San Francisco, and I was first director of the Tape Music Center at Mills, which is now the Center for Contemporary Music. The concert, actually, was also a celebration of 30 years of CCM at Mills. In fact, the former directors and current director were playing in the concert, which was wonderful.

Weidenbaum: Please talk a bit in advance of the Music Now concert.

Oliveros: Howard [Hersh, Nevada City-based composer, founder and music director of Music Now, Sacramento, Calif.’s ensemble of the avant-garde since 1989] wanted to revive AOK, which is a piece from the ’60s. AOK is a kind of layered musical piece that starts with the accordion in the center, on a revolving spool, which is me, and then surrounded by eight country fiddlers, and a chorus, and outside the chorus are, I think, four conductors, who help shape the material that goes by. At times, the fiddlers rotate around, and at times the chorus rotates, so that you have the center rotation, and then the circle rotation around it. And then the audience, ideally, should surround the whole thing.

Weidenbaum: So it’s performed “in the round.”

Oliveros: It should be. It’s going to be a little difficult because the space which could contain that is not available. It’ll have to be done in the recital hall, modified somewhat for the audience. It’s fun to think of doing it again. The piece is based on A, the drone center A. A hoedowns for the fiddlers at times. The chorus works with the As; their vocalizations are shaped by the conductors — influenced by the conductors, I should say — as the chorus rotates past.

Weidenbaum: In a traditional recital hall, the audience sits on the floor and the performers sit on an elevated stage. Your music acknowledges audience and performer as mutual participants in a concert, and seeks to unite, or reunite, them: via settings in the round, and providing guest stations. How else do you break down the distinction between audience and performer?

Oliveros: I try to do performances in unusual places. I like to do things outdoors, when I can, so that audiences gather that wouldn’t necessarily come into a recital hall. But also, doing a concert in an unusual place disorients that relationship. It makes it more possible for a kind of community orientation, and mixing of audience and performers.

Weidenbaum: Which brings us to the Music Now performance in the Rotunda at the State Capitol.

Oliveros: Howard wanted to offer the Rotunda as a place to do something, and I have a piece that seems to be a good one to play there. This piece is called Environmental Dialogue and it’s from a group of pieces called Sonic Mediations. Environmental Dialogue has performers listening to what is going on in the space, or in the environment, and then trying to reinforce what they are hearing, whether vocally or with the instruments. This is not imitating what’s going on, but simply becoming a part of it; so that the sounds blend and merge with what’s happening. So if you have footsteps going across the Rotunda, then you’ll have someone getting inside those footsteps. That’s what it is about.

Weidenbaum: I can’t help but note the irony of performing in a government building because of the recent cuts in funding for the arts. Is that in the back of your mind as you plan this?

Oliveros: It might have been [laughs]. I don’t know. Government funding comes up and goes down, like waves, cycles. There was the WPA, which served a great purpose and then disappeared. Then there was CETA in the ’70s, which also disappeared, when Reagan appeared. Now we slowly have the NEA sinking into the sunset. This is because of the extreme-right activity, but my feeling is that something else will come up, because it does; it’s a need, a force and an energy in the society. And one way or another, there will be another wave.

Weidenbaum: Please talk about the Pauline Oliveros Foundation. Can you describe that transition, from being a young musician looking for funding to one who’s actually involved in —

Oliveros: Raising it, yes. I taught at the University of California at San Diego for 14 years, and then I resigned and I wanted to go east with the idea of establishing my own organization. So that’s what I did. I founded the Pauline Oliveros Foundation in 1985, and it’s a non-profit arts organization. It’s a program for the arts, but the central mission is to create new work, or to provide the context for the creation of new work. We’re not a presenting organization in the traditional sense, at all, although we do presentations, but it has to do with the work created within the program. We have the Deep Listening Catalog, which is a mail order catalog, which is available at And, in that catalog you can find the work of 65 composers, who are hard to find. And if you walk into Tower Records, you may or may not find them, because they order, say, half a dozen copies, sell them out and don’t reorder for six weeks — so, you can’t find what you’re looking for. So, the catalog is online. We’ve had a presence online since 1990. That’s before the web fired up. And, so we’re continuing that, and enlarging it and working on it, as a service. But it also carries the work that’s been created within the Foundation. So, that’s our purpose. We’re not yet a foundation in the sense that we can just give money to people. We can’t do that. We don’t have it. We have to raise it. So, that gets confused some times, and I get maybe once a week or so a request for guidelines, an application form. It’s a curatorial basis of developing projects. If we have a chance of raising the money, then we can go with the project.

Weidenbaum: Where are you based on the East Coast?

Oliveros: Kingston, New York. It’s a town between Poughkeepsie and Albany on the Hudson River. In the 19th century it was a port where ships turned around. There was a lot of quarry work and brick making; so it just now has finished its long relationship with IBM, which pulled out and took away the 12,000 jobs that had been there for 40 years. So, Kingston is reinventing itself right now. And that’s kind of really good, for us, because there’s a mayor who’s really interested in the arts, and who is very supportive, and there’s an entrepreneurial sprit, which is very creative rather than relying on some big institution. So, it’s a very interesting process.

Weidenbaum: Can you speak about the Deep Listening retreat.

Oliveros: This summer was the sixth annual Deep Listening retreat. I’ve had a commitment to do this for ten years at the Rose Mountain Retreat Center in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of New Mexico. It’s a wonderful environment, it’s pretty pristine, ecologically speaking, 8,000 feet up — a beautiful place, this retreat. At the retreat we do various exercises, it’s very disciplined: getting up at 6:30 and taking a walk up the mountain at 7:00, doing some exercises with Heloise Gold, who is responsible for the Taoist movement that we do, and some T’ai Chi. We have a three-hour session in the morning, where I do listening exercises, and scoring techniques for people who are not necessarily musicians, and for musicians as well. And if the weather is good, we can go outside and do outdoor meditation. There’s free time in the afternoon, and an early evening movement session, and an evening session of a couple of hours’ more listening. We do journeying …

Weidenbaum: What is journeying?

Oliveros: Journeying is listening to drumming at a certain rate and traveling, doing inner travel, listening inwardly, in other words. To go into a vision, finding information that may be useful to you.

Weidenbaum: Tell me about the word “band” — this isn’t the most common term to apply to classical composition and performance.

Oliveros: Band? I love it. I always played with the band in high school. And Deep Listening Band, we weren’t an orchestra. And “ensemble” is a little stuffy. Deep Listening Ensemble? Nope. But Deep Listening Band has a ring to it, and it aligns us with all sorts of bands, from the concert band to the jazz band. I mean, jazz bands are really closer to our roots, anyway.

Weidenbaum: There’s one accordionist in particular who comes to mind in terms of playing concert music, Astor Piazzolla.

Oliveros: Of course, though, he doesn’t play accordion per se.

Weidenbaum: No, bandoneon, I’m sorry.

Oliveros: Yes, bandoneon. He certainly is one of my all time favorites. And it was David Tudor who first played his music for me. This is about 30 years ago. We used to listen to Piazzolla’s music all night, cooking up an Indian dinner and having a lot of laughs. In fact, for David’s memorial, two Argentine bands played. Are you familiar with Planet Squeezebox? It’s a beautiful collection of the world’s accordion music. There’s an excerpt of one of my pieces on there. Also, my teachers are on there: Willard Palmer and Bill Hughes.

Weidenbaum: How many accordions do you have?

Oliveros: Three. I have the one I carry with me. Another one, a smaller one, the first tuned in just intonation, as a test. And I have a custom accordion that was special built, and has some very special registration stuff.

Weidenbaum: What are you teaching at Mills right now?

Oliveros: One of them is Deep Listening. I teach it once a week, and I use a lot of the material that has developed in my work at the retreat, although it’s spread out a little less intensely. I have a composition seminar, graduate students working on pieces, and some private composition students.

Weidenbaum: It must be great to teach composition today, when there are so few restrictions on, say, instrumentation.

Oliveros: Exactly. It is as diverse as things are. It really is very diverse.

Weidenbaum: What kind of projects are your students working on?

Oliveros: They can work on their own projects, whatever they would like, but I am also giving them mini-composition assignments. For instance, the first assignment was to bring in five vocal sounds that they could perform and remember and repeat. They did that, then they had to make a piece, because one of the questions we’re exploring right now is what’s the difference between composition and improvisation, and that’s a very powerful question and wonderful to work on in a seminar.

Weidenbaum: I wonder about that, because there’s so much improvisation in your music yet I, like many people, know you primarily as a recording artist. Do you perform differently when you know it’s going to be recorded?

Oliveros: For me it’s just another performance, so I’m not doing anything that I wouldn’t do on a performance.

Originally published in the newsletter of Music Now, Sacramento, Calif.’s ensemble of the avant-garde, November 1996. Copyright © 1996 Marc Weidenbaum. All rights reserved.

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