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Diffuse, open and non-judgmental: Frances Morgan on Pauline Oliveros’s early electronic music

December 2016

What’s to be learnt from Pauline Oliveros’s contribution to 1960s electronic music? Frances Morgan finds as many answers as questions in Important’s 2012 box set Reverberations

In 2012 the Important label released Reverberations, a 12 CD set of electronic music made between 1961–70 by Pauline Oliveros. The CDs contain around 12 hours of music in total; each consists of two or three long compositions. I bought Reverberations when it came out but it took me many months to listen to the whole collection and even now I feel as if I’m still discovering it. It may be that this feeling will continue indefinitely, because this music constantly makes and remakes itself.

Reverberations suddenly put into circulation many more hours of Oliveros’s early electronic music than had been available before. This fact alone had, or should have, implications for those documenting the history of postwar electronic music, for whom Oliveros is recognised as an important figure, but one known more for her subsequent achievements. Oliveros’s focus, from the early 1970s, on the practice of Deep Listening, with her Sonic Meditations series, the Deep Listening Band, and the development of interactive environments for performers and digital media, has somewhat eclipsed this period of studio-based experimentation. Yet her interactive work, which she termed her Expanded Instrument System, has its roots in Reverberations’ 1960s pieces, in which she, as composer and performer, documented her own conversations with sound and technology, and theirs with her. Her electronic works also helped to define the philosophy of deep listening that would inform all her work. In her 1977 essay “Software For People”, she writes about how working with electronic sound enabled her to “give equal attention to all the entered the sound field”. She continues, “This kind of attention is diffuse, open and non-judgmental as compared to focused, selective attention which is narrow, clear and discriminatory but limited in capacity.”

It’s interesting that Oliveros uses the word discriminatory rather than discriminating. Today, the first word carries strong connotations of prejudice and marginalisation, of determining in advance, based on certain criteria, what has value not only in the sonic field but also the cultural and social sphere. According to Oliveros, the spontaneous aspects of her electronic music did not fulfil some of the expectations people had of the form: she recalled, in 1990, a critic of her 1966 tape piece I Of IV (which had appeared on the 1967 compilation New Sounds In Electronic Music) dismissing it because it had been “thrown together in real time”. But although the structure of the piece had not been pre-composed in any traditional sense, Oliveros pointed out that its complexity lay in her setting up of the instrument – the studio itself – which guided the direction the music would take. “The design of how [the pieces] would come into existence was what I mapped, not the content at all,” she told interviewer Cole Gagne. “It was a kind of performance architecture using tape machines and understanding certain operations in the circuitry which was non-linear… I didn’t have time to think about it in rational terms, but had to act in the moment.”

I of IV was composed at the Electronic Music Studio of the University of Toronto where Oliveros had gone to work with composer and instrument builder Hugh Le Caine in 1966. The piece’s counterparts, named II, III, IV and, playfully, V of IV are included on Reverberations. The series was apparently made in just a few days, and it teems with strange but precisely rendered sonic life-forms. Oliveros made the pieces using the studio’s 12 sine-wave generators connected to a keyboard, a spring reverb unit and two tape recorders. The keyboard is a means of control rather than a melodic instrument: it’s used as a switch for the tone generators, most of which are tuned to frequencies outside of normal hearing range, but when combined with one another and the tape recorders produce new tones – the same kind of ghostly, unintentional ‘combination’ tones that Oliveros first discovered when playing her accordion. On II, the spectral sine tones are at turns sombre, almost horn-like, and unruly, swooping through the volatile space opened up by the reverb. IV develops from uncompromising mid-range drones into something restless and a little rough and tumble, as if Oliveros is playing an intricate game with the studio, provoking it into a sharp-toothed response.

The music’s austerity makes it sonically demanding – there are no overdubs, and the only layering is that created by the delay and reverb. The same goes for Oliveros’s synth works on Reverberations: on tracks such as Big Slow Bog (1967) a companion to the better known Alien Bog, she limits herself to what she can do in real time on the Buchla 100, building up a glacial call and response between bubbly low end swells and those ghostly overtones again. The piece is speckled with tiny silences that feel like breaths, moments in which you picture Oliveros sitting back for a just a second, listening for – not thinking about – what she should do next, listening to where her hands should go, listening to the decay on that one pitch, listening for what the room tone says to her. I think these moments, which you could say are of reflection or indecision or humility, make these pieces uncomfortable, or just ephemeral, somehow incomplete for some listeners, but I also think that they are part of what I love about Reverberations. We – she and I and the machines – are discovering the sounds together. The sounds are discovering us.

Sometimes when I listen to Oliveros’s early electronic works, I think about how I can only explain certain audio phenomena or functions on a synthesizer by gesture – by demonstrating on a machine or, in the absence of something with dials and knobs, by waving my hands around, drawing shapes in the air. This is not to say that Oliveros could not verbally articulate what she was doing when she created heterodynes with sine-wave generators or made sticky waves of white noise on a Moog system – her facility as a writer and teacher proves that she clearly could. It’s more that Reverberations reminds me that there are many ways in which electronic music and sound can be understood, and that some of them prioritise giving one’s attention to the hand and the body and the energy coursing between human and instrument – the “air in the waves” as Oliveros once wrote to a younger female composer, neatly reversing the correspondent’s “the waves in the air”. And that this – although not always useful for a writer – is not such a bad thing.

I’m also reminded of the ways in which some electronic music has not been understood, to the point where its makers’ work is less widely heard, or even not heard at all, because there have not been the tools to talk about it – or no one has bothered to look for the tools. Much of the analysis of Oliveros’s electronic music has so far come from feminist musicologists such as Martha Mockus, Linda Dusman and Heidi Von Gunden. When people talk about Oliveros’s music as feminist, they tend to mean her more polemically titled pieces, such as To Valerie Solanas And Marilyn Monroe, or the Sonic Meditations, which were developed initially with an all-female ensemble. But if we view all her art – as, indeed, I think we can view all art by all people – as potentially political, it might be easier to understand how certain aspects of it have been given less attention than others. While something like I Of IV sounds abstract on first listen, its commitment to honouring physical experience, its welcoming of ‘hidden’, unruly frequencies, its commitment to collaboration – with the studio – and its disruption, through those aspects, of the idea of the autonomous musical work position it alongside the feminist and queer art emerging at the same time in other media. It’s easy to make those ideas clear in representational forms such as film, photography and performance art, but in music we have to listen closer for them: Reverberations provides a wealth of resources for anyone who wants to do so, and to add to what should be a much bigger body of thinking and writing about the politics of electronic music.

In her book Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros And Lesbian Musicality, Martha Mockus quotes a letter to Oliveros from Annea Lockwood, written in 1970. Lockwood writes, “Seems possible to me that however intensively we compose with them and process them, sounds process us much more deeply.” I don’t know how Oliveros replied to her friend, but I am grateful that, so many years later, on Reverberations, I am able to hear for myself these systems of communication between sounds and bodies that Lockwood describes so well, and that these were collected and released in Oliveros’s lifetime. I am grateful, too, for having heard what must be one of Oliveros’s last works, The Mystery Beyond Matter, performed in London earlier this year. I am grateful to her for opening these spaces, this air in the waves, for us to think with our hands and ears about how we make sound and how sound makes us.


I am glad that someone is writing about Pauline Oliveros and her music. She was a visionary artist far ahead of her time and her creations are still the best I can find in the field of the electronic music.

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