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Pauline Oliveros 1932–2016

The American composer, accordionist and San Francisco Tape Music Center pioneer has died aged 84

The American composer, improvisor and accordionist known for coining the term deep listening died on 24 November. A key figure in the development of electronic and tape music, Pauline Oliveros was also a lecturer, theorist and writer, whose sought-after 1984 text Software For People: Collected Writings 1963–80 was republished at the beginning of this year.

Oliveros was born on 30 May 1932 in Houston, Texas. She learned the accordion at a young age as well as studying the tuba and french horn. For most of her life she lived in California and New York. In his article in The Wire 164, Richard Henderson described Oliveros as “a soft-spoken but stern willed maverick among modern minimalist composers”.

She became a key player in contemporary composition, working and studying alongside Terry Riley, Loren Rush, Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick. She moved to San Francisco in 1952, where, at a composers' workshop, she came into contact with Robert Erikson, a meeting that had a profound effect on her theories. She studied with him for six years, describing that time to Henderson as an experience that “was of lights being turned on everywhere. Here was a person who understood some things and could guide me without the impositions that I felt in others.”

Theories of deep listening were central to Oliveros's work. She composed a 25 piece series Sonic Meditations, aimed to aid focus and listening. “I use the word meditation, rather than concentration, in a secular sense to mean steady attention and steady awareness [...] for continuous or cyclic periods of time,” she stated in her essay On Sonic Meditation.

In 1958 Oliveros began experimenting with recording directly to tape. From the early 60s on, she played a key role in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where she worked until 1966. When it moved from Mills College to East Bay it was renamed the Centre for Contemporary Music. She took the post of director for a year before moving to teach at San Diego's University of California, where she ran a graduate programme in electronic music for 14 years.

Alongside Stuart Dempster and Peter Ward aka Panaiotis she formed The Deep Listening Band, a group which often explored the sound qualities of underground spaces such as the lava caves in Lanzarote or the underground cistern which gave their first release Cistern (1988) its title. She also worked with many choreographers including Welland Lathrop, Elizabeth Harris and Merce Cunningham. Oliveros studied chi kung and tai chi, stating that the energy flow of the body was linked to the breathing and energy flow of playing an instrument. Talking to Henderson she noted proudly what made her accordion different to standard versions. “The lnstrument does have a row of pedal tones that are not on standard 120 bass accordions,” she stated. “Mlne will go down to string bass E, and up to a plccolo hlgh C, whlch is a very nlce range. It's a good model, actually deslgned by my former teacher Wlllard Palmer for the Tltano company. I got it in 1983, and had retuned in Just Intonation in 1986. I use a couple of Countryman mlcs on the right hand side and an AKG mic on the left, all of them clip-ons. The actual attachment of the microphone to the instrument is especially Important, as the bellows are movlng all the time."

Oliveros was the author of five books, Sounding The Margins: Collected Writings 1992–2009 (2010), Initiation Dream (1982), Software For People (1984), The Roots Of The Moment (1998), and Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice (2005). She never shied away from discussion of gender in her writings. In the chapter ”And Don't Call Them 'Lady' Composers” in Software For People, she addressed the often asked question: “Why have there been no 'great' women composers? [...] The answer is no mystery,” she offered. ”In the past, talent, education, abiliity, interests, motivation were irrelevant because being female was a unique qualification for domestic work and for continual obediance to and dependence upon men.” In 1970 she composed To Valerie Solanas And Marilyn Monroe In Recognition Of Their Desperation on reading Valerie Solanas's Scum Manifesto.

Subscribers can read Richard Henderson's full interview with Pauline Oliveros via Exact Editions.