"What sound makes you feel creative?""What sound changes your mind?""If you were a silence, what sounds would you be in between?""Are you listening now?"
These are the kinds of questions Pauline Oliveros asks as she invites us to think about the sensory--and sensual--nature of sound and our relationships with it. Since 1961, when she became co-director of the San Francisco Tape Center, Pauline Oliveros has been at the forefront of new music, blurring the lines between music and theater, music and ritual, composer and listener. Currently on the faculty of Mills College and in her fiftieth year of composition and teaching, Oliveros continues to break new ground, challenging listeners, performers and composers to rethink and reconfigure their relationships with music and, even more fundamentally, their relationships with sound itself.
One way to understand Oliveros' unique artistic philosophy and compositional career is through her relationship with the accordion. Like the banjo, the accordion comes with enormous cultural baggage; it is not an instrument that is typically associated with classical music or high art. Introduced to the accordion by her mother at the age of ten, Oliveros was immediately drawn to it. The instrument continued to nourish her as a composer and teacher as she explored its unique sound qualities and how, like a giant lung, it breathed with her as a performer. However, her desire to use this instrument in her compositions and performance often met with disfavor and disbelief. Avant-garde accordion? Not content to be silenced, Oliveros kept playing.
Likewise, in her compositions and writings Oliveros challenged and challenges preconceived notions about musical life. Her 1970 New York Times article, "And Don't Call Them 'Lady' Composers," was one of the first to identify the biased practices of classical music in which historians and critics either ignored women's contributions or dismissed them. It received enthusiastic responses from other women composers and helped set the tone for more work in the field of women in music. This essay is also a plea for the cause of new music, and Oliveros has spent her career trying to open up venues for experimental kinds of music and other arts.
Born in 1932 and raised in Houston, Texas, Pauline Oliveros grew up in a family that welcomed music-making and female creativity. Her mother, Elizabeth Gutierrez, was a professional pianist and teacher who, in her seventies, became a composer herself. Not surprisingly, Oliveros cites her mother's gift for improvising music for dance classes as one of the formidable influences on her career, along with her natural surroundings that provided a "dense canopy of sound." From an early age Oliveros was rarely content doing one musical activity; by high school she was performing on violin, horn and especially her beloved accordion. At age 16 she knew she wanted to be a composer when she began to hear imaginary sounds unlike those she'd heard before and struggled to decipher them. At the University of Houston she pursued the study of composition and accordion before receiving her Bachelor of Music degree from San Francisco State College in 1957.
As a child, Oliveros excelled at softball, an activity she claims nurtured her interest in teamwork. As a performing composer, she has been an articulate spokesperson for collaborative artistic teamwork of all kinds. During the 1960s and 70s, as educational institutions increasingly embodied isolation through ever-expanding curricular offerings, Oliveros worked tirelessly against such isolation within the arts. After joining the faculty of the University of California-San Diego in 1967, she spearheaded the "What's Cooking" festivals that brought together artists and performers from a number of disciplines. Throughout her long and distinguished career she has created free improvisatory compositions, large-scale musical theater works, dance compositions, performance art pieces, and films with collaborators such as pianists David Tudor and Ursula Oppens, bassist Bert Turetzky, performance artists Linda Montano and Robert Ashley, dancer/choreographers Doris Hay, Anna Halprin and Paula Josa-Jones, composers Alvin Lucier, Stuart Dempster, Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick, and the avant-garde pop band Sonic Youth.
Although her compositions "Bye, Bye Butterfly" (1965) and "I of IV" (1966) are considered crucial works in the field of electronic music, in recent decades Oliveros has become more interested in meditational music, the resonance of acoustic spaces, musico-theatrical rituals, and the practice of what she calls "Deep Listening," a term she coined in 1988. Since the 1970s she has created a number of "Sonic Meditations," written instructions that guide individuals and groups in creating sound and becoming deep listeners themselves. These sonic explorations challenge the notion of composer as sole creator, calling instead for audience participation. Critics have described these soothing composer-audience interactions as akin to "watching a cloud change shape."
In 1988 she made a recording with composer and trombonist Stuart Dempster in an underground cistern with a 45-second reverberation time. Later christened the Deep Listening Band, this partnership--which now includes pianist David Gamper--continues to explore the individual qualities of acoustic spaces, often through the use of highly-specialized computer technology. Critic Mark Swed has proclaimed Oliveros the ultimate chamber musician and composer through her attention to the individual acoustic qualities of performance spaces.
While she has several large-scale works in progress, including Io and Her and the Trouble With Him, a dance-opera to premiere here in Madison, Oliveros' most recent musical theatrical work is Njinga, based on the story of 17th-century African queen Njinga Mbandi who ruled what is now Angola for four decades. The text and scenario were created by Oliveros' partner, playwright, and author, Ione. In typical Oliveros fashion, Njinga utilized the many talents of fellow collaborators, including the KanKouran African Dance Company, Brazilian martial arts master Nego Gato, and Congolese and Brazilian drumming arranged and performed by Titos Sompa and Jose Sena. Njinga premiered at the 1993 BAM Next Wave Festival and was revived in 1996 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D. C. Critics hailed its multi-layered theatricality and the musical score for its mythic power to connect text and visual display.
2001 marks the sixteenth year of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Kingston, NY committed to the creation and continued support of new work in music, literature and performance locally, nationally and internationally. For the past decade, the foundation has sponsored Deep Listening Workshops, combining movement study, meditation, improvisation, and other means to foster creativity that have drawn enthusiastic participants from around the world.
In Spring 2001, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will welcome Pauline Oliveros as an Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence. Her residency will be co-sponsored by the School of Music, the Department of Art, Women's Studies, and the Dance Program. She will teach a course on Creative Collaborations: Intermedia, in which students from a range of disciplines will discover and explore their creative potential. And, with her creative collaborators Ione, Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Oliveros will present her new dance opera, Io and Her and the Trouble with Him, at the Wisconsin Union Theater.
--Susan Cook, Professor of Music and Women's Studies, UW-Madison.
Interview with Pauline Oliveros
(Susan Cook, Spring 2000)
What do you mean by "Deep Listening"TM?
My childhood fascination with listening to the sounds of nature, music and all that is going on around me continues as a lifetime practice. I listen inclusively as I listen exclusively to focus on detail. Such listening can lead to a heightened state of awareness. Heightened awareness brings insight and inspiration.
Where are you today in your creative work?
I create new work often. Currently I have two large projects--Lunar Opera: Deep Listening For Tunes for August 17 at Lincoln Center and Io and Her and the Trouble with Him for April 13, 2000 at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison. I shift attention from one project to the other and also do smaller projects as well while the larger projects are in process. The Space of Spirit: Unfolding the New Born Lotus for chorus, carillon and organ, Elemental Gallop for flute, cello, piano and voice and Red Shifts for trombone, oscillators and noise were composed this year and had premiere performances.
Can you say something about your teaching style, philosophy, and hopes for the course you will teach during your residency at the UW-Madison?
I am not interested in a core course curriculum. Rather I want to draw out ("edu-care") the creative potential of the student. This is best done through listening and guiding rather than imposing specific content. For creative work students learn best from each other and from their interests. As a person of experience, I act as a guide and facilitator. I would like to learn from the students as they reveal their creative potential.
Can you say more about your plans for your performance here?
Io and Her and the Trouble with Him is a dance opera to be completed during my residency. The story and direction is by Ione and the choreography by Joanna Haigood. This collaborative work is in development now, and the Madison performance will be a premiere. Ione is retelling the myth of Io in contemporary and matriarchal terms. The story will be sounded, sung and danced. Ms. Haigood is a very exciting aerial dancer/choreographer. It is unusual to see meditative movement in aerial form as we are more accustomed to circus style formulations. I will be working with UW-Madison students on the music and sound design. The music will consist of vocal, instrumental, and electronic sound with a special configuration of sound system to create audio illusions.
"Why have there been no 'great' women composers?
The question is often asked. The answer is no mystery. In the past, talent, education, ability, interest, motivation were irrelevant because being female was a unique qualification for domestic work and for continual obedience to and dependence upon men...Certainly no great composer, especially a woman, has a chance to emerge in a society which believes that all 'great' music has been written by those long departed...Men do not have to commit sexual suicide in order to encourage their sister in music. Since they have been on top for so long, they could seek out women and encourage them in all professional fields."
Excerpt from "And Don't Call Them 'Lady' Composers," by Pauline Oliveros, The New York Times, 17 September 1970.
Pauline Oliveros Residency Events Spring 2001
Io and Her and the Trouble With Him
Deep ListeningTM Workshop
Course 469: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Arts