Pauline Oliveros was an American composer, accordionist and a central figure in the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music.
She was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, and served as its director. She taught music at Mills College, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros authored books, formulated new music theories, and investigated new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of “Deep Listening” and “sonic awareness”.
In 1988, as a result of descending 14 feet into an underground cistern to make a recording, Oliveros coined the term “Deep Listening”, a pun that has blossomed into “an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. This aesthetic is designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations”.
Von Gunden names a new musical theory developed by Oliveros, “sonic awareness”, and describes it as “the ability to consciously focus attention upon environmental and musical sound”, requiring “continual alertness and an inclination to be always listening” and which she describes as comparable to John Berger’s concept of visual consciousness (as in his Ways of Seeing).
Oliveros discusses this theory in the “Introductions” to her Sonic Meditations and in articles.
Von Gunden describes sonic awareness as “a synthesis of the psychology of consciousness, the physiology of the martial arts, and the sociology of the feminist movement”, and describes two ways of processing information, “attention and awareness”, or focal attention and global attention, which may be represented by a dot and circle, respectively, a symbol Oliveros commonly employs in compositions such as Rose Moon (1977) and El Rilicario de los Animales (1979). Later this representation was expanded, with the symbol quartered and the quarters representing “actively making sound”, “actually imagining sound”, “listening to present sound” and “remembering past sound”, with this model used in Sonic Meditations. Practice of the theory creates “complex sound masses possessing a strong tonal center”.
Oliveros’ album Accordion and Voice (1982) and her Stuart Dempster and Panatois collaboration Deep Listening (1989) are considered landmark ambient records. At the time of her death, she was the Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Darius Milhaud Artist-in-Residence at Mills College. A distinguished explorer of sound, she shared thoughts on deep listening, tape improv, and teaching with Pitchfork in 2011.
“I feel that students always learn more from each other than they do from their professor,” she said. “They learn by doing.”
Oliveros talks about John Cage and how his composition 4’33” was influential for her work.
It was August 19th, 1952 when “4 minutes, 33 seconds” was premiered at the Maverick Music Hall in Woodstock. David Tudor, who was the premier pianist in the world at that time–he could play all of the most difficult music that there was, including all of Stockhausen and Boulez and so on–was working very closely with John Cage, and he did the premier of “4 minutes, 33 seconds.” It was of course greeted with sneers and unrest at the Maverick Music Hall. People were obviously focused on the framework of what a typical concert was supposed to be like, and here was David sitting at the piano with a stopwatch and to indicate the different movements of this “4 minutes, 33 seconds.”
He opened the piano lid for 30 seconds, which was the first movement, then closed it and opened it again– not the piano, but the keyboard, the lid for the keyboard. The second movement was 2:23 and again, the last movement was 1:53. In those 4 minutes and 33 seconds, one could hear the most beautiful sounds coming from the outside, because it was summer, and it was a beautiful time for frogs, tree frogs and so on. So that if you were listening, there was something to hear. However, it was presented and taken up as ‘the silent piece’, which of course it was.
Cage had been inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s white canvases. He had been thinking about this so-called ‘silent’ piece for a long time. I think that was probably one of the most influential pieces of John Cage’s, and it’s a direct link between his study of Buddhism and music and the understanding that you really can’t have sound without silence or vice versa. Cage really liberated the notion of what could serve as musical material; the silent piece, I think, is very important and I respect it greatly.
As a matter of fact, the Deep Listening Band did a trope on “4 minutes, 33 seconds” at Mills College in September 1996, which resulted in a recording, which is called “Nonstop Flight.” It’s on Music and Arts. Our trope was that we expanded the time of 4 minutes and 33 seconds to 4 hours and 33 minutes.
We had a group of 27 people participating. There were three ensembles, the Deep Listening Band plus the Able/Steinberg/Winnant Trio at Mills and the Hub, which was a computer network group. Then there were 12 soloists and an ensemble of musicians wandering around the hall. We used the time structure of “4 minutes, 33 seconds.” We began the piece with a traditional performance of 4 minutes, 33, and then continued for the 30 minutes.
Then, the next performance of 4 minutes, 33 seconds occurred at the start the second movement and on to the third movement and then finally at the end. So that was the time structure, and it was optional for any performer or any group to perform 4 minutes, 33 seconds at any time during the 4 hours and 33 minutes. It was a wonderful time structure, and as I said, resulted in a really interesting recording, which had to be of course, edited down to 70 minutes I believe.