Composer/Musician Pauline Oliveros passed away last week-here is what The Guardian reported: US-born experimental composer and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros died on Thursday, aged 84. She was best known for her philosophy of “deep listening”, an approach to music that she described as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing”. Her work explored the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening.
Nearly sixty years ago, Pauline Oliveros found her mantra. "Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening". This simple but transformative thought has filled her life in music.
Oliveros (born in 1932), then in her early 20s and living in San Francisco, turned a tape recorder on, and, listening back to the sounds she had preserved, heard things that she had not realised were happening in real time – and a philosophy of listening and sonic exploration was born. It's an approach to music that would lead to her Sonic Meditations and to Deep Listening, an album recorded in a disused cistern 14 feet beneath the earth in Washington State that changed composer Simon Holt's life when he heard it (a disc that's become an "underground hit", Oliveros told me – it's also spawned a plethora of puns). Her development of the idea of listening as ritual, healing, and meditation also led to her founding the Deep Listening Institute.
Let's rewind a bit. When she was 16, Oliveros announced she wanted to become a composer. But the five staves of conventional music notation weren't enough to express or communicate the sounds she was hearing inside her, or to reproduce the bird, insect, and machine noises she heard around her. To realise these required new technology, and Oliveros was quickly at the vanguard of electronics, working with early tape machines, and was one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where she collaborated with Terry Riley (she played in the first performance of Riley's In C) and Morton Subotnick, and would develop collaborations with Steve Reich and David Tudor, as well as becoming a friend, colleague, and performer of John Cage and his music (her listening conversion, incidentally, happened before she knew about Cage's (non-)silent piece, 4'33'').
But Oliveros's relationship with technology is philosophically ambivalent. In a lecture at the Her Noise symposium at London's Tate Modern last week, she spoke of how every computer in the post-war period is indebted to the Manhattan Project and the machines that were created to make the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But just as computers can destroy, they can create. The digitally enhanced accordion that's her main improvisational tool these days is proof of one way Oliveros embraces the outer limits of what's possible and how she's still finding new sounds and new expressive possibilities. The Expanded Instrument System is another. Oliveros has always used technology as a means to express human experiences and to connect as directly as possible with her listeners. Listen to Bye Bye Butterfly, a piece Oliveros made in 1965 that deconstructs a recording of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, realised in a single improvisation. It's a witty, tragic, and moving comment on the fate of Puccini's operatic heroine, which, as she says, "bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalised oppression of the female sex."