A pioneer in the field of electronic music, Pauline Oliveros, has died. She was 84.
Ever curious, Oliveros explored cutting-edge technology throughout her life, from magnetic tape and analog synthesizers in the early ’60s to real-time digital signal processing and telematic performance in recent years.
As a writer and educator—at the university level (U.C. San Diego and Mills College, among them) and through her courses at the Deep Listening Institute—Oliveros influenced a generation of artists and musicians with her emphasis on attention and awareness of sound.
As a young person, Oliveros was fascinated by the sounds of her grandfather’s shortwave radio and the Morse-code rhythms produced by his telegraph key. Not surprisingly, after studying accordion and composition at San Francisco State University in the ’50s, she quickly moved away from traditional musical forms and into the direction of electronics, improvisation, and performance art.
In the early ’60s, Oliveros—along with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender—formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and it was there that she began her seminal work with electronics and tape. An important aspect of her music was the use of difference tones produced by the heterodyning of high-frequency oscillators. These tones, which would mix with the ultra-high bias frequencies on the tape, provided her with a rich palette of broadband sound.
Oliveros’ early attempts at audio processing included using her bathtub as a reverb chamber, as well as filtering sounds though different lengths of cardboard tubing, which had mics stuck into one end.
However, she first became known for her virtuosic use of tape delay. By threading a reel of tape through two or three recorders, and interconnecting the inputs and outputs to create feedback paths between the machines, Oliveros was able to get a variety of echo effects (including an impressive 8-second delay). Her best-known works with this system include “I of IV” and “Bye Bye Butterfly.”
Oliveros created the pieces “Alien Bog” and “Beautiful Soop” during her year as director of the Mills Tape Music Center, where she combined the new Buchla 100 Series modular synthesizer with her delay system. A chapter of her book Software for People (1984) is devoted to her tape-delay setup.
What’s notable about these early tape pieces is that they were generated from real-time performances. Oliveros’ way of working—improvising with live electronics and using the studio as an instrument—stood in contrast to the standard methods of the day, which often relied on collage forms or highly deterministic structures. As a result, her pieces have a freshness that has withstood the test of time.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in these works, resulting in a pair of CDs—Alien Bog/Beautiful Soop (Pogus) and Electronic Works (Paradigm)—and the box set Reverberations: Tape and Electronic Music 1961-1970 (Important).
The study of T’ai chi ch’uan in the early ’70s led Oliveros in new directions and ultimately to one of her most influential works. Sonic Meditations (1971) is a collection of verbal instructions designed to help people explore the relationship of attention and awareness in a variety of activities (although not necessarily in a concert setting). Oliveros created the pieces so that anyone could use them, “regardless, or in spite of, musical training.”
“Music is a welcome byproduct of this activity,” Oliveros said about the work.
The instructions in Sonic Meditations range from “Focus mentally on stopping or starting a sound at a particular time” to “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.” Although a connection to the text pieces of John Cage, La Monte Young, and the Fluxus movement are evident, Oliveros’ intentions are much different.
“The enhancement and development of aural sensation is one of their goals,” Oliveros wrote about her verbal scores. “Sound, both inner and outer, real and imaginary, is the stimulus of Sonic Meditations.”
Improvisation, the accordion, and real-time electronic processing played an important role in Oliveros’ work throughout the rest of her career. For example, she developed the Extended Instrument System (EIS), a sophisticated setup of digital signal processors designed for use in live performances, which can be heard on recordings by the Deep Listening Band, among others.
Oliveros kept a busy schedule of composing, teaching, and performing until the end, including an evening of readings from the book The Selected Letters of John Cage on November 21, 2016, in New York City.