Introduction by Maggie Molloy with subsequent contributions from staff and community members
“Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening,” Pauline Oliveros said in her 1998 keynote address at the ArtSci98 symposium.
Nearly 20 years later, those words have come to encapsulate the astonishing legacy left behind by the late composer, who died on November 24 at the age of 84. An artist, accordionist, and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music, Oliveros is remembered for her revolutionary tape experiments, her poetic and aleatoric musical scores, her groundbreaking musical philosophies, and above all, her unwavering devotion to the exploration of sound.
Oliveros investigated new ways of listening to music, most notably through her philosophies of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness,” ideas which explored the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening.
Throughout her career, her music and her teachings promoted experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, and discovery—and her work inspired not only musicians, but also artists, scientists, philosophers, and everyday people to think critically about the way we listen.
To celebrate her lasting legacy, we asked Second Inversion staff and community members to share some of their favorite memories and musical works by the extraordinary Oliveros.
I first met Pauline through my teacher, mentor, and friend: Stuart Dempster. She was visiting Seattle when I was in graduate school at UW, and I had the honor of talking with her about music. That led me down a decades-long rabbit-hole of deep listening and sound awareness.
I think that much of the experimental music in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is deeply influenced by her work and teachings. So many of the artists I work with and play with in Seattle have a connection to her musical thinking. I know that her influence and reach is national and global. But there is something about the work in this part of the country that owes a great debt to her long and dedicated explorations. She will be missed, and we are all fortunate for her body of work. Listen.
– Tom Baker, Professor of Composition at Cornish College of the Arts
I never formally studied with Pauline, but I learned a lot from her and consider her a mentor as well as a colleague and friend. She was always supportive and encouraging, always so present. Her generosity and boundless curiosity were inspiring, she never stopped being open to and learning new things.
I love that her main instrument was the accordion, which some consider an anachronism, yet she was consistently on the cutting edge of new technological developments. I would be a very different composer (perhaps not one at all) and possibly even a very different person without her influence and example.
– Steve Peters, Seattle-based composer, sound artist, producer, curator, and writer
thank you for your guidance
as we struggle
to hear beyond
what we see
and even what we think
as we try to
silence our busy
and find instead
that silence is not
but sound moving
us and each other
and within us
busy seeking order
and you taught us
that sound moving from one
to the other
is merely truth
and all else flows
just from that
– Heather Bentley, violist and co-founder of North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO)
My first exposure to Pauline’s music was with the tape pieces she made in the 1960s. These often originated as improvisations using simple oscillators processed through filters and elaborate tape delay systems that she designed herself. Pauline was intrigued by the sustained sounds of modern life, things like motors, ventilation systems and electric hum. So rather than simply tune oscillators to static pitches, she created complex electronic drones that simulated the “myriad shifting of a constant tone or noise” in real-life drones.
I love the quivering, trembling sonorities in “Once again / Buchla piece” and the intense crackling sounds in “Big Mother Is Watching You,” which dates from 1966 but resembles a lot of today’s dark ambient music. Pauline was one of the true godparents of ambient, and was also an enormous trailblazer for women in electronic music.
I first met Pauline at a 1984 conference in Ohio where the evening concert billed her, Jerry Hunt, Urban 15 and myself (all Texas natives!). Frank Zappa had just delivered a funny but acerbic keynote speech railing against both the music industry and university composers. Since the latter comprised the bulk of the audience, there was a bit of tension in the hall, but it soon dissipated when Pauline opened with one of her soothing solo accordion and electronics sets. Nevertheless, my heart still belongs to those gritty early tape pieces!
– Michael Schell, Seattle-based composer and intermedia artist
I’ve just recently come to Seattle. I remember the feeling that came over me the moment the plane’s wheels left the ground the second time I traveled to this city: I’m going home. When I realized the place where John Cage’s prepared piano was born was a few minutes away by public transit, it was startling and wondrous. Now, when I discover that the immensely echoic cistern that gave name to Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening” is just on the other side of the Sound at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, I am unsurprised.
This place calls for it. It calls for transformative listening, for progressing the world by observing it, getting it. Maybe it’s something in the air that wanted to be filled with 45-second reverberations.
Maybe it’s something in the water. Maybe it’s what we call the water:
– Jacob Mashak, Seattle-based composer, conductor and variable instrumentalist
In the most basic sense, the heart of every great composer’s talent is a heightened ability to communicate. The psychology of Pauline Oliveros’ creations is one of communication and the bringing-together of souls, and many of her works use a Cage-like aleatoric element to achieve this in a way that is very physical and immediate. I am particularly awed by the power of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, which harnesses collective improvisation to reconcile the community and the individual, and to present a sonic memorial to the experiences of Solanas and Monroe. Bringing together a sex symbol and a feminist thinker as the work’s subject matter helps highlight the similarities in their vastly different lives. Solanas wrote SCUM Manifesto, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and is excerpted in several feminist anthologies, and was first read by Oliveros in 1968. Both women suffered at the hands of men, and both lives were marked by violence, as Monroe killed herself and Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol. As Oliveros said, “Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality.” Her composition asks the performers to choose five pitches each and to play very long tones, modulated or unmodulated. In the middle section of the piece the performers are invited to imitate each other‘s pitches and modulations. If any one player becomes dominant, the rest of the group should rise up and absorb that dominance back into the texture, “expressing at the deep structure what the SCUM Manifesto meant.” It’s a fascinating work in its conception, powerful in its execution.
– Geoffrey Larson, KING FM and Second Inversion host/contributor and Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra
Pauline Oliveros does not allow listeners to cut corners; whenever you sit down for one of her pieces, you’re in for the long haul temporally, intellectually, and emotionally. Although she was not a “minimalist,” her music does have a similar effect (at least on me). By wrenching listeners out of their normal experience of time, she creates experiences that are nearly automatically profound. Sound Geometries for chamber orchestra, expanded instrument system (EIS), and 5.1 surround sound is an excellent way to experience her special use of time. This piece puts familiar instruments through a compositional filter that yields a soundscape only reminiscent of the idiomatic uses of those instruments in the faintest of ways; these sounds do not represent those of a traditionally-structured ensemble. That is one of the reasons why Pauline Oliveros’s music is good for us; it stretches us in a way that we desperately need and reminds us to seek the expressive limits of the tools we already have.
– Seth Tompkins, Second Inversion host/contributor
I first encountered the work of Pauline Oliveros through her witty feminist deconstruction of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Her 1965 piece, titled “Bye Bye Butterfly,” is a real-time tape-delay collage work which utilizes a recording of Puccini’s opera—along with two oscillators, two amplifiers in cascade, one turntable with record, and two recorders in a delay setup.
But the cool thing is, you don’t have to be a 1960s electronic music gearhead to understand and appreciate it. Amplified sounds oscillate through sky-high frequencies amidst haunting excerpts of the Puccini classic, transforming the operatic arias into an eerie, intergalactic sound experiment.
Composed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which Oliveros co-founded in 1962 along with a number of other musical giants of the avant-garde), the significance of “Bye Bye Butterfly” is twofold: not only was it a bold departure from the classical traditions of the past, but it was also a pointed commentary on centuries of socially-prescribed gender roles.
Ultimately, Oliveros’ Puccini deconstruction was a critique of Butterfly’s tragic fate—her life defined and ultimately destroyed by a society that insists on male dominance. The piece ushered in a new generation of classical music, bidding farewell, as Oliveros wrote, “not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”
– Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion host/contributor