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Oliveros, Pauline

Oliveros, Pauline

Accordion player, composer

Pauline Oliveros is one of the foremost composers of the 20th (and 21st) centuries as well as a pioneer, alongside forerunners like Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley, and Ramon Sender, of electronic music. In addition to performing, teaching, and composing, she has promoted her concept of Deep Listening, a means of becoming attuned to the multitude of sounds in the environment and connecting those sounds to the body.

Oliveros was raised in a musical family; both her mother and grandmother taught piano and she regularly attended concerts by the Houston Symphony. In addition to the classical music she heard at the symphony and on weekly radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Orchestra, she was exposed to country and western, Cajun, and swing music.

When Oliveros was a young girl, her mother brought home an accordion intended for her brother. Oliveros became enamored of the instrument, however, and her mother allowed her to keep it. Unable to play accordion in the school band, though she picked up the tuba and the French horn instead. Her first love remained the accordion, though, and she often transcribed her horn pieces to play them on it. By age 16, she knew she wanted to be a composer. After graduating from high school she went to the University of Houston, which offered an accordion major. Seeking greater independence and immersion in a vibrant arts scene, Oliveros left the University of Houston after three years and moved to San Francisco, where she supported herself by teaching private French horn and accordion lessons and working as a file clerk. Eventually, she enrolled in San Francisco State College, completing her composition degree in 1957.

While at San Francisco State, where she studied with Robert Erickson, Oliveros began experimental improvisations with collaborators like Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster, and Loren Rush. In 1958 Oliveros had a creative epiphany when she placed a tape-recording microphone on a window ledge while listening intently to the sounds around her. Upon replaying the tape, she realized she had been unaware of a number of ambient sounds. Her lifelong interest in Deep Listening and recorded sound were born at this moment.

In 1959 Oliveros, Sender, and Subotnick set up a studio at the San Francisco Conservatory with Erickson's help. There they began using tape recorders to augment their improvisations, presenting the results in a 1960 concert called Sonics featuring Riley and Phil Windsor along with Oliveros and Sender. Oliveros's first tape piece, "Time Perspectives," grew out of these experiments.

In Talking Music, Oliveros described the potential she saw in the tape studio. "I fell in love with it," she said. "I was very, very happy with what I could do with tape. I had a Silvertone tape recorder from Sears Roebuck which I had to hand wind, so I had manual variable speed. I had fun imagining how things would sound if I dropped them an octave or if I speeded them up.... So I used all sorts of acoustic phenomena and milked it in various ways. I worked with that tape recorder in an improvisatory way."

The musicians left the conservatory in 1961 to form the San Francisoco Tape Music Center, where they continued their explorations in electronic improvisation. Oliveros began writing a nonelectronic piece, "Sound Systems," which won the Gaudeamus Foundation Contemporary Music Center Interpreters Competition that same year.

From 1961 to 1966, the Tape Music Center became an integral part of the San Francisco music scene, with a growing subscription audience for its monthly concerts and favorable reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1966 the center moved to Mills College in nearby Oakland, California, with Oliveros as its first director. The following year she accepted a teaching position at University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

While at UCSD, Oliveros began to develop her Sonic Meditations, an unconventional composition that issued written directives to musicians instead of using standard notation. The first meditation, "Teach Yourself to Fly," for instance, instructs the musician: "Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity of the vibrations to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible, naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own breath cycle. Variation: translate voice to an instrument." A later meditation instructs simply, "Listen to a sound until you no longer recognize it." The meditations were greatly influenced by Oliveros's study of t'ai chi, a meditative Chinese martial art that she began to practice in 1969.

In 1971, noting a growing conservatism among her students, Oliveros left UCSD and moved to New York City and from there to upstate New York, where in 1985 she founded the Pauline Oliveros Foundation, an incubator for new and innovative musical works. She also continued to perfect her Expanded Instrument System (EIS), a complex electronic processing system that allows musicians to imbue their instruments with a variety of time- and sound-related effects. The recordings Crone Music (1989) and Roots of the Movement (1990) both rely heavily on EIS.

In 1988, along with trombonist Dempster and singer Panaiotis, Oliveros performed in the "cistern chapel" near Seattle. A buried, two-million-gallon water tank, the chapel was a unique sound environment for the trombone, didgeridoo, accordion, conch shells, and metal scraps that the musicians played. The performance launched an ongoing exploration of alternative sound environments for the group, which eventually became the Deep Listening Band. Additional performance sites have included a ceramic silo, a power plant cooling tower and Tarpaper Cave in Rosendale, New York, where Troglodyte's Delight was recorded. The group returned to the cistern chapel in 1990 to record the Ready Made Boomerang.

For the Record . . .

Born on May 30, 1932, in Houston, TX. Education: Attended University of Houston (194952); graduated from San Francisco State College, 1957.

Cofounded San Francisco Tape Music Center with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, 1961; director, San Francisco Tape Music Center, 1966-67; professor, University of California, San Diego, 1967-1981, director, Pauline Oliveros Foundation, 1985; professor, Mills College, 1996.

Awards: Gaudeamus Foundation Contemporary Music Center Interpreters Competition Prize for "Sound Systems," 1962; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1973; Dance Theater Workshop Bessie Award for "Contenders," 1991; Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999.

Addresses: Office Pauline Oliveros Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 1956, 7375 Broadway, Kingston, NY 12402, phone: (845) 338-5984, fax: (845) 338-5986, e-mail:, website:

Oliveros has continued to perfect and promote her Deep Listening concept through annual retreats in New Mexico and classes at Mills College (where she returned to teaching in 1996, often via video relay from New York), and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, as well. On her Deep Listening website, Oliveros describes the concept: "Listening is noticing and directing attention and interpreting what is heard. Deep Listening is exploring the relationship among any and all sounds. Hearing is passive. We can hear without listening. This is the state of being tuned outunaware of our acoustic ecologyunaware that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings has profound effect near and in the far reaches of the universe. We can hear sounds inwardly from memory or imagination or outwardly from nature, or from civilization. Listening is actively directing one's attention to what is heard, noticing and directing the interaction and relationships of sounds and modes of attention.... Babies are the best deep listeners."

Oliveros has enjoyed even greater recognition for her contributions to contemporary music in the new millennium. Two of her important but previously unavailable early works, Electronics IIV and Alien Bog and Beautiful Soop were released by the Pogus label in 1997. In addition, a variety of younger musicians are recognizing their indebtedness to her works. Sonic Youth commissioned Oliveros to write "Six in New Time (for Sonic Youth)," which appears on their 1999 album Goodbye 20th Century. Oliveros has also performed with DJ Spooky.

She continues to utilize new technologies as well, often performing collaborative concerts using simulcasting and other linking devices with musicians in disparate locations. Yet Oliveros remains known for music that comes not from machines, but from the body. As Marc Weidenbaum noted in the Music Now newsletter, quoted on the Disquiet Ambient/Electronica website, "Pauline Oliveros has done more to humanize technology than virtually any other living musician in the classical tradition." In 1999 Oliveros was honored with a lifetime achievement award for her work from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS).

Selected discography

Accordion and Voice, Lovely Music, 1982.

Wanderer, Lovely Musc, 1984.

Well and the Gentle, hatArt, 1985.

Roots of the Movement, hatArt, 1988.

Crone Music, Lovely Music, 1989.

Deep Listening, New Albion, 1989.

Ready Made Boomerang, New Albion, 1989.

Troglodyte's Delight, What Next?, 1990.

Pauline Oliveros and American Voices, Mode, 1994.

Sanctuary, Mode, 1995.

(With Deep Listening Band) Tosca Salad, self-released, 1995.

Non Stop Flight, self-released, 1996.

Alien Bog and Beautiful Soop, Pogus, 1997.

Electronic Works I-IV, Pogus, 1997.

Suspended Music, Periplum, 1997.

Between/Waves, Sparkling Beatnik, 1998.

Carrier, Deep Listening, 1998.

Live at the Meridian, Sparkling Beatnik, 1999.

Timeless Pulse, Deep Listening, 2002.

Selected writings

Sonic Meditations (score), Smith Publications, 1974.

To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, for any group or groups of instrumentalists (6 to large orchestra), September 28, 1970, Holland, Michigan, Smith Publications, 1977.

Lullaby for Daisy Pauline: A meditation for Daisy Pauline Oliveros, Smith Publications, 1984.

Software for people: collected writings, 196380, Smith Publications, 1984.

Deep Listening Pieces, Deep Listening Publications, 1990.

The Roots of the Movement (book and CD), Drogue Press, 1998.



Duckworth, William, Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers, Da Capo, 1999.


San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2001.


"Creating, Performing and Listening," New Music Box, (February 8, 2004).

"Deep Listening," Disquiet Ambient/Electronica, (April 1, 2004).

"Pauline Oliveros," All Music Guide, (February 1, 2004).

"Pauline Oliveros," ESTweb Index, (February 8, 2004).

"Pauline Oliveros," Grove Dictionary of Music, (February 1, 2004).

Pauline Oliveros Foundation Website, (January 28, 2004).

Kristin Palm

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Oliveros, Pauline

Oliveros, Pauline (b Houston, 1932). Amer. composer. Worked at S. Francisco Tape Centre 1961–6. Worked with David Tudor, pianist, and Elizabeth Harris, dancer-choreog., 1963–6. Dir., tape mus. centre, Mills Coll., 1961–7; teacher of elec. mus., Univ. of California, San Diego, from 1967 (prof. 1970–81). After 1963 her works used mixed media and she prefers live elec. perf. to prepared tape. Has written a trio for fl., pf., and page-turner (1961) and a work for orch., ch., elecs., and lights called To Valerie Solonis and Marilyn Monroe in recognition of their desperation (1970).

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