An Interview with Pauline Oliveros
The American composer, performer, and humanitarian Pauline Oliveros performed a two-day Deep Listening Intensive and Sonic Meditation alongside her partner, author and dream specialist Ione, and jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran and his band, the Bandwagon, on April 1 and 2 as part of the 2016 Artists Studio at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. We spoke with Pauline about sound, spirituality, and Donald Trump.
Over the years you’ve seen so much change in the world; there’s been huge social, political, economic, and cultural shifts. Taking a moment to think all the way back to the 1930s—your formative years growing up in Houston, Texas—and tracing your artistic development to today, how has your view of music and its role in the world evolved?
Well the central concern for me has always been listening; I’ve always been enamored by sounds. As a kid I was constantly listening to what was going on around me. I used to love to listen in the car when I was with my parents, for example. When I’d be in the back seat, I’d hear the sound of the motor mix and modulate the sound of my parents’ voices. It has always been about my fascination with sounds and their accompanying phenomena.
How did you take this love of sounds and translate it into composing?
I was mentally hearing a lot of sounds and those sounds eventually became musical phrases. That spurred me to want to be a composer. But, I didn’t know how. I would sit at the piano and try to pick out what I was hearing and write it down. In that manner I learned how to notate things. But after a while, traditional Western notation failed to represent what I was hearing in my head. It wasn’t until I began using tape to record things (around the time I became involved in the San Francisco Tape Music Center) that I began to achieve in my music what I was imagining or, as I like to say, “auralizing.” That’s a long trajectory, but that’s how it worked.
When you decided to become a composer at the age of 16—entering into an almost entirely male-dominated field—did you encounter any resistance from family or friends? After all, Texas in the 1940s was not necessarily the most progressive of places.
There was actually no opposition to it. My mother herself was a songwriter. She would come home and play little old pieces that she improvised for dance classes. Her composing of songs and improvising for modern dance class was a good model for me. She and my grandmother were both, what we called “piano girls”: they supported the family by teaching and playing piano. My grandfather died at the age of 51 and my father went off to World War II. During that time, my mother and father divorced, making my mother and grandmother the sole breadwinners of the household.
I imagine, coming up in the music world as an openly lesbian composer in the first half of the 20th century, that you encountered those who tried to fit you and your work into boxes—limiting categories.
You’re right. I’ve been jumping out of those boxes my whole life.
What sort of obstacles did this sort of forced categorization create for you?
Well, I resisted dressing in the way you were “supposed to.” And well, I’m not even sure how to say it, but not fitting into social norms was a big obstacle. But then again, it didn’t stop me from doing what I did.
Have you always had such an open, accepting, and deeply spiritual approach to music-making? Was this something that came from your upbringing?
My mother was a very spiritual person and taught me some valuable lessons through her actions. She loved to throw birthday parties for my brother and me when we were young. At one such party, when I was about five or six years old, a little girl showed up. She was kind of a stray—a little bit ragamuffins. And I thought: “What is she doing here?” In my actions, I was a bit rejecting of this young girl. My mother came up and welcomed her to the party, making sure the girl felt accepted and had a wonderful time. And I think that lesson has stuck with me all along—it’s a very important one.
Your deep listening intensives seem to be less about you and your music, and more about community-building—bringing people together through a communal exploration of sound. When and how did you first discover this as an integral part of your practice?
I started composing sonic meditations at the end of the 1960s, beginning of the 1970s. At the time, I was composing in prose, not music notation, because I wanted anybody who was interested to be able to participate. In fact, we even translated some of these text scores into other languages. Composing sonic meditations took me in a new direction that was very different from what the Western paradigm was at the time.
How much did your interest in Eastern philosophy impact your sonic meditations?
Everything impacts [laughs]. I wasn’t trained in any Eastern philosophy or practice at the time. I was simply listening internally to what I thought I needed to do. This was during the Vietnam War. There was a lot of violence and distress at the time. I started looking inward and began listening to long tones—what I thought was meditation. And this is without having studied any traditional meditation styles, of which, of course, there are many.
Why do you think that some composers shy away from engaging with the spiritual side of music-making?
Well, look at what religion has done. Look at the wars and killings. That’s not spiritual, but it’s in the name of religion. It’s what spirituality has done in wrong-mindedness.
Were you influenced by John Cage’s works—particularly his engagement with Indian philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and the I Ching?
I began a friendship with David Tudor in 1963. David of course was working with John a lot. And it was really David who had the deepest impact on me. (I think David’s approach to anything—his approach to making music, cooking, you name it—was much more about an understanding of Buddhism than anything else.) David and I became friends and began performing together. He introduced me to the whole New York community too. So, it wasn’t John.
In 1964, David and I organized what we called Tudorfest at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. It became a very important festival, influencing our whole group of composers at the time—Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and many others. We were all together and one-way or another passing through the Tape Music Center, working together to make music. It was a really amazing community at the time. But it was David’s influence, I would say, as much as Cage’s. We all, of course, played Cage’s music. And for us, it was the first time for all of us to actually experience performing the music. So that, I think, was a very important occasion.
Why do you think Cage, at first, had such an aversion to improvisation (the word and the idea)?
I think Cage was opposed to improvisation because it brought in the ego. But then again, I was at the 1989 International Symposium on Sound Design at Skywalker Ranch where Cage performed his first improvisation—or what he thought was an improvisation—his piece for voice and tape, “How to Get Started.”
While at the Skywalker Ranch I played a CD of my “Deep Listening”—a work I had recently recorded with trombonist and friend, Stuart Dempster and vocalist Panaiotis in a cistern 14 feet beneath the earth (that’s where the pun “Deep Listening” originates). The cistern had a remarkable 45 seconds of reverb. After hearing the recording, Cage got very excited, saying that he finally understood harmony.
What is deep listening?
It’s an investigation of listening, which is not as understood as hearing. Hearing can be measured, but listening is a different thing—it’s time-based and subjective. So listening is very hard to understand, except through consensus.
VAN recently did an interview with the Austrian composer, Olga Neuwirth. She spoke about the patriarchal structures in the new music world and how these forces have held her and her fellow female composers down. She describes the situation as pretty dire, saying that it has actually become nastier in recent years. You’ve led a life of an openly lesbian composer in a time when perceptions of women, not to mention gay people, have been less than favorable. Do you agree with Neuwirth’s assessment of the music world today?
I don’t think it’s worse today. I think it was far more hurtful and worse back in the time when I was coming up. Right now I enjoy a very nice position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. My colleagues are all very supportive, all very wonderful. When Ione and I had our marriage ceremony, for instance, I came back to school, and the whole department greeted me with a big party. It was very special. I was really surprised that that would happen. So, no, they’re very enlightened people who I’m working with there and so are the students. So it’s a very comfortable situation in terms of social interaction. I feel very accepted.
As a humanitarian, what would you say still needs to change in the world?
What I think needs to change is what Donald Trump is espousing—the hatred and all of the people he’s drawn out. I mean, one of the things he’s done, is make them more visible (which is a good thing). So you know who they are and where they come from. I grew up with that kind of discrimination and hate. That’s what has to change. People must learn that they get back what they put out. ¶