In Memoriam: Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016)
by Alvin Lucier

Pauline Oliveros in the studio at the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Buchla 100-series modular synthesizers, 1966, photo: David Bernstein, courtesy: IONE

I first met Pauline Oliveros in 1965 in Cleveland, Ohio. Pianist David Tudor had been asked to perform a concert at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and invited Pauline and I to join him. I was happy to do so. David had just begun to split off from his exclusive performing relationship with John Cage and was reaching out to younger composers with which to collaborate. Pauline arrived at the Cleveland airport with a four–track tape recorder on wheels and a sprained ankle.

Our program consisted of Pauline’s Light Piece for David Tudor, one of John Cage’s works with throat mikes, and my Music for Solo Performer. During Pauline’s piece, some guy in the audience began shouting in protest at which point Pauline simply raised the volume nearest the protester quieting him immediately.

Pauline’s first encounters with electronic music were at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, later with the Electronic Music Studio at the University of Toronto. In Toronto, she went against the common practice of tape-music composing based on the manipulation of sounds recorded on tape, the final product of which was a fixed work. In such works as I of IV (1966), however, Pauline set up a large-scale installation in the studio using delays of various kinds to produce a real-time work. She dug into the very innards of the tape recorder itself, for example, using the bias frequency as a high frequency oscillator; various time delays afforded by the short distances between the direct routing of signals from the output directly back into the input jacks; the record and payback heads on the tape recorder; as well as long tape loops extending from one recorder to another. Her notions of time were not based on psychological assumptions accompanied by the usual reliance on willful changes of contrast, timbre, tempo, and all the other parameters associated with a musical composition. Instead, the flow of such works depended more on her deep understanding and utilization of the natural characteristics of the equipment and its configuration.

It was a radical idea at the time: to explore and fathom the very nature of the hardware and software associated with musical technology rather than simply using it in conventional ways. She understood the need to know how machines did what they did rather than simply what they did. This drive to get to the heart of the matter permeated all of Pauline’s endeavors, from her Sonic Meditations to her Deep Listening projects. Her depth of understanding of technology and the real world we live in, as well as the humane and spiritual domains, was unparalleled, and that had the effect of constantly challenging persistent gender bias among composers. In the end, I believe this is the most important gift that Pauline Oliveros has given us.

Alvin Lucier is a composer and sound artist.

Pauline Oliveros with John Baldessari’s Beethoven’s Ear (2007), Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn, 2007, photo: IONE

Posted in Notes on 12.23.2016