The Maverick, Pauline Oliveros–Don’t Call Her a ‘Lady Composer’

Pauline Oliveros 1947 Photo by Corwin Smith

Pauline Oliveros always thought outside of ‘the box.’ During her sixty-year career as a composer, musician, performer, researcher, writer and educator in the field of sound, she utilized a “conventional instrument,” the piano accordion, as an unconventional tool in her work.  Not only did she focus on music as a sequence of sound, but she advocated for, and theorized that the very act of listening is “the very basis of creativity and culture….We cannot turn off our ears, but we can turn off our listening…How you are listening is how you are developing a culture and how a community of people listens is what creates their culture.”  In time, through her work, Pauline Oliveros became noted as one of the most influential composers and music philosophers of the Twentieth Century and credited as an early pioneer of electronic music.

Pauline (Center) and friends c. 1940’s

Born in Houston, Texas in 1932, Pauline enjoyed a childhood filled with ‘beautiful noise’– music and the rich sounds of nature surrounding her. Pauline’s mother was a piano teacher who, during the early 1940’s, brought a piano accordion home to increase her earning potential by learning and eventually teaching the very popular instrument. Pauline was an extremely bright nine-year old, who later became adept at teaching herself various instruments such as the tuba and French horn. She immediately began to learn the piano accordion. This knowledge granted Pauline Oliveros access to further musical experiences, such as performing as a member of bands, orchestras and quartets. Musical groups had vacancies during World War II, and with the diversity of the piano accordion, she was able to fill in for a variety of instruments.

In addition to her involvement in music performance, Pauline was always very interested in the mechanics of sound, and the electronic side of music. An old wind up phonograph from her home provided a lot of fun and she loved it when the old Victrola began to run down and the music began to “droop”. She listened intently to her grandfather’s crystal radio, a challenging instrument to tune in stations, but she loved the “whistles…pops” and static generated in the process. Radio was influential throughout her life because it expanded her vocabulary of sound as a child as well as an adult.

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Pauline Oliveros c. 1970

But, nothing altered her world more than two events: moving to San Francisco in 1952 to attend college and, the following year, buying a device marketed for the home called a tape recorder. It was her associations with other like-minded artists who also experimented with sound and music at San Francisco State University that began to shape the artist that she would eventually become. The tape recorder replaced an old wire recorder that she had in Texas and she used it to create music from sound in her immediate environment.  In 1959 she produced her first tape piece, “Time Perspectives.” It utilized two stereo machines and four channels and debuted in a program called “Sonics” at San Francisco Conservatory. With two associates, Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros founded a cooperative studio which evolved to become the San Francisco Tape Music Center. It eventually fell under the wing of Mills College, then finally it became the Center for Contemporary Music. Pauline Oliveros became the director of the Mills Tape Music Center for one year.  During that time she created many pieces, including the classic electronic tape piece, “Bye-Bye Butterfly”.

Because her “interest was always in live performance”, Pauline began to use tape recorders in live performance. It “was achieved by making a tape delay system, which later became…the expanded instrument system.  I made all the sounds with my accordion, but they’re processed through the expanded instrument system,” and later added a computer interface. “I created a system that was quite unstable, but, very interesting, and I could use it to create a vast variety of sounds”. With this method, she created, “One of Four,” a classic electronic piece well-known to those familiar with new music.

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Pauline Oliveros

As Pauline Oliveros wrote new music inspired by her environment, it was a challenge to rely on conventional notation. Although she used it at times, from very early on, she used her own system and in her book, “Software for People,” she recommends the dissolution of conventional notation.  In 1967, using her own system of notation, she wrote a whole series of compositions inspired by a nearby pond, notably “Alien Bog.” Sometimes, it was impossible to write down the sounds that Pauline Oliveros created in her work, but if recorded, “it’s all there,” she said. However, some of her work was spontaneous and intentionally not recorded.

Pauline left the Tape Center at Mills College for the University of California San Diego, when she was hired to establish an electronic music program for graduate students. She would stay with UCSD for fourteen years. The “Music Department was very invested in composers.” But there was a great deal of political upheaval in America at that time, especially in universities across the nation. Pauline Oliveros was not immune to the strife, and began to search for ways to work with sound “so I could discover more inner peace amidst the violence and unrest of the time.” Pauline composed her first “Sonic Meditation” in 1969, and called it, “Teach Yourself to Fly.”

About that time, the New York Times contacted Pauline Oliveros and asked her if she wanted to write an article, and she said that she would like to do that. As a feminist activist and as a composer, she knew how it marginalized her and diminished her credibility when she was referred to as a “Lady Composer”–as though she was not quite a ‘real’ composer. She believed that women “have been held down for so long in music …” Her editorial “Don’t Call Them Lady Composers” presented her view of “how hard it is for women to be taken seriously as creators of music.” Music is a powerful ‘message,’ controlled by males who still restrict women in the creation, performance and production side of music. Because females experience their lives and interpret their world differently than men, their creative efforts are often subjected to gender bias because of fear that women will change the ‘message.’  Pauline Oliveros questioned such restrictions over women’s lives and abilities. She recommended that, first, private music teachers move to teach their students compositions by women and composers of color and second, that artists, bands and orchestras actually perform them.  “This grass-roots initiative would make a difference and be a….conscious effort to integrate all that has been excluded from the Western establishment of traditional music.”

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Pauline Oliveros

Also in 1969, Pauline began to study Kinetic Awareness with Elaine Summers. a dancer and bodywork educator in New York City. She eventually incorporated Summer’s activities with movements such as sitting, standing, lying and walking, as central to her “Sonic Meditations”. Pauline’s sound exercises, which she called “recipes” for listening, were innovative and  began as sound and body experiments with a women’s group. An exercise commanded, “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.” She also incorporated martial arts such as Tai Chi in her experiments with meditation and listening. Pauline Oliveros published her meditations, and cited her goal as expanding consciousness, for humanitarian and healing purposes.

Pauline Oliveros described her theory of “Deep Listening” as a process of focused listening and open listening. When one’s attention is focused on something, it’s called exclusive listening, and when one expands one’s attention to include other things, it’s called inclusive listening. Her goal was to train participants at retreats, and redirect their attention, to create a heightened state of awareness, so as to become receptive to one’s environment and be able to evaluate internally and externally on a higher level, before taking action.

But, if raised eyebrows were ever a reaction to her work, Pauline Oliveros ignored them. In the 1980’s, with Stuart Dempster and the vocalist, Panaoitis (David Gamper), she descended fourteen feet down into a massive underground cistern in Fort Worden, Washington.  As the Deep Listening Band, they recorded a self-titled album of electro-acoustic music deep in the cistern. The event was an intentional pun and an experiment, at the same time.

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Pauline Oliveros and The Deep Listening Band

We can only imagine how future applications of the work of Pauline Oliveros will impact human experience.  But if her mother had not brought that piano accordion home, it is probable that Pauline Oliveros’ extensive work in the field of sound and music composition would have been impacted and may never have taken place, at all.

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Pauline     Oliveros         1932-2016

For further reading about the work of Pauline Oliveros:

American Mavericks: An Interview with Pauline Oliveros by Adam Baker

The Guardian: A Guide to Pauline Oliveros

The Guardian: Pauline Oliveros Obituary

Quantum Listening

A Sounding Happens

Writings by Pauline Oliveros