Experimental Pioneer Pauline Oliveros Still Wants You to Listen Closely

Her work in the 60s helped shape American music, but today the composer and accordionist is embracing being a “digital immigrant.”

Oct 20 2016, 3:56pm

Kate Killet

All photos by Kate Killet

Pauline Oliveros is a major figure in the development of electronic and experimental music, starting with her early work in the 60s with the San Francisco Tape Music Centre. She developed a unique system of tape loops, delays, and reverbs for live effects processing in 1965 called the Expanded Instrument System, which she has continued to update as technology has slowly caught up with her concepts.

Her Deep Listening philosophy has had an immeasurable impact on avant-garde music, and came out of a 1988 performance in an underground cistern that possessed an enormous natural reverb. In addition to using electronics, Oliveros has made the accordion her unlikely primary instrument, although often augments it with technology in various innovative ways.

Released this year, her latest album Four Meditations/Sound Geometries, finds the 84-year-old American composer and musician working with Belgian ensemble Musique Nouvelles. She filters the group's live playing through her surround sound-based system, as well as improvising alongside them with her long-time collaborator Ione.

THUMP recently caught up with Oliveros in Toronto, after a performance as part of the Music Gallery's X Avant Festival, where she spoke candidly about her career, the pros and cons of digital recording, and why she's hopeful for today's generation of female composers.

THUMP: Many of the techniques you've used throughout your career have become so integral to techno and other modern dance music forms. Could you ever have imagined that those ideas around looping and echoes might take that trajectory?

Pauline Oliveros: No, not at all. I wasn't thinking along those lines, I was just interested in sounds, and what I could do with them. The scene in the 1960s is maybe a little different than it is now, but it was the rise of rock and roll, and the rock musicians got interested in what the Tape Music Centre was doing, so they would come by and learn about some of the processing ideas.

Has popular music influenced your own work in any significant way?
Well, quite a bit, but it was the music of the 50s or if you go back further, country music. I used to sing duets with a friend of mine, doing country songs, hillbilly songs, cowboy songs. That was something we did, and I played a lot of different music on my accordion. But I also played classical music on the accordion.

I would say I was influenced by everything, but more particularly, I was influenced by critters. You know—the bugs and birds that were singing in my hometown of Houston. It was more like a rainforest back then. Now it's covered over with cement and asphalt. Then, it was just an amazing bank of sounds, and I was always listening to that. I would say that was my biggest influence, nature.

Tell me a bit about your experience with modular synths in the early era.
Don Buchla, who just passed away, he was informed by the Tape Music Centre. He developed his Buchla modular synthesizer from his interactions with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender and the Tape Music Centre. There were a number of composers who are very well-known today that were working together at that time, and who were either involved with the Tape Music Centre or around it, in one way or another.

Do you think there's a big difference between working with tape, or the more modern equivalent of sampling, or digital audio?
Yeah, there's a big difference. I'm an analog native, so to speak, and a digital immigrant. There's a difference in the quality of the sound. What's happening now is that vinyl is coming back. Why? Because it sounds good. The digital world can sound good as well, but there's a lot of short-changing going on. Like not respecting frequency response for example, compressing what's happening. That's just one example. What we did painstakingly with tape, cutting and splicing, can be done very quickly with computer cutting and splicing. Maybe it's too easy?

Do you think that labour part of art is important?
In a way, I'm just joking, but maybe it calls for some deeper thought into how to produce the best sound.

The setup that you were using last night was very digital-based though.
Yes, of course. I think [York University assistant professor and composer] Doug Van Nort is doing really beautiful work with his particular setup, with his patch. It's kind of based on the Expanded Instrument System, which I've worked with since the 60s onwards, and which is continuing on its evolution. I didn't use mine last night, because I knew that Doug would be processing and that would be plenty.

Is there any particular reason that you've stayed with the accordion as your primary instrument?
It's an old friend. I started playing it when I was nine and I've been playing it ever since. I know it, it's like part of my body. Part of it is the articulation of sound [makes accordion pumping gestures]. This arm, the left arm, it controls how the sound is going to be attacked, and how it is going to be released. So you have that kind of control over the sound, and that's important, as far as I'm concerned. And also the breath-like quality of how you make a sound. It's akin to singing, because you have to take a breath at some point.

You used a digitally-enhanced accordion last night, right?
This accordion is digital, it's all digital. There are no reeds, and there's no air going through vibrating reeds to make a sound. The bellows have accelerometers, and all of the sounds on that instrument are physically modelled.

How long have you been using that setup?
Since about 2006, I guess.

Why did you switch to it?
I just got interested in it! It was fun, and there's future in it too, because I'll be adding in sounds of my own as well. The one thing that's important in a keyboard instrument is that each key is another version of the same sound, and that's true in the digital instrument as well. But I would like to have it so that each button has a different sound. You'd have a range of sounds that you could choose ahead of time, but they would be different from each other.

What kinds of sounds are you thinking of modeling? Acoustic instruments?
No, I'd like to have noises. "Noise" is an interesting word, because it has different meanings. In the ordinary definition, it's some sound that is not wanted. Audio engineers don't want noise on their recordings, right? So I would take those sounds, put them on my keyboard, and play them.

It seems like a lot of your work is very site-specific, and that much of it can't really be done justice with traditional recordings.
Probably not, but that's true of quite a lot of my work. It uses the space, but not in the traditional way of projecting forward, but using the whole space.

Did you ever feel conflicted about approaching work that way, rather than focussing on the recorded results?
Whatever I'm doing is what I'm doing. I can't be limiting myself to a particular medium. I like recording, and I like to have documentation of what I do, but, for example, one of our Deep Listening Band's very well-known recordings is called Deep Listening. And it was recorded in a cistern, where the sound was like being in a hall of audio mirrors. What you hear is a documentation of that, but it's not what it sounded like when you were in the middle of it. We couldn't make that recording yet. 3D recording would be really nice.

Speaking of 3D recording, I was very impressed last night by how effective moving sounds around the room with the multiple speaker setup was. When did you start working with that kind of approach?
I couldn't tell you exactly, but quite a while back. I can tell you this: I was commissioned to do a piece for the Nouvelle Musique Ensemble in Brussels, in 2003 or 2004. I called the piece "Sound Geometries," and I had ten geometric patterns that I wanted to be included in the Expanded Instrument System, so that I could send the sound around in a circle, or in a pentagram, or a hexagram, and so forth. And those sound geometries were included in what you heard last night. They're still going. That was the beginning of formalizing that into the Expanded Instrument System, but I was always interested in spatializing.

That's right, there was that early tape piece for four speakers that you did.
That was "Time Perspectives," which was about 1961.

What inspired that interest in 3D sound?
Just listening. We hear things all around us: it's not just two speakers facing us. I think there's quite a lot of research going on right now about that, and people trying different sorts of things. It's an exciting time.

Does it surprise you that the issues you brought up in your 1970 essay "And Don't Call Them 'Lady' Composers" are still so relevant in music today?
No. No, it doesn't surprise me at all, because of classical conservatism. If you're a woman, and you're thinking of going to a university, trying to decide how to major, and you look at composition as a major, you see hardly any women calling themselves composers. Certainly the professor is still almost always a man. It could be unconscious, but on the other hand it could be very conscious. "I don't see a place for myself, so I'll take theory instead," and that still goes on.

There are many more women now who are showing themselves as composers. I have a little more hope for this generation. They're doing okay, and asking good questions, and they have good interests. But if you look at equality, then you really have to start questioning things all across the board, in many different ways.

I suppose Donald Trump has made it obvious that we still have a very long way to go when it comes to gender equality.
He has done us a favour in bringing it to the foreground, I think. We have to deal with it. We have to. Now we can practice with him.

Benjamin Boles is on Twitter.