Interview with Pauline Oliveros

Bad at Sports

Interview with Pauline Oliveros

By Bad at Sports, Brian Andrews, Patricia Maloney January 26, 2015

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


In this conversation, sound artist and Machine Project collaborator Chris Kallmyer joins Bad at Sports correspondents Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney in interviewing pioneering sound artist Pauline Oliveros. They sat down with Oliveros in the UC Berkeley Art Museum’s cavernous atrium just before her second evening of rehearsals in preparation for her performance with the Thingamajigs at the museum on November 21, 2014, exactly one month before that location would be closed permanently. The feelings of anticipation and even pending loss that hung in the space—with its long history and recent program of performances and atmospheric soundscapes—yielded to the attentiveness and deep calm that Oliveros generated.

Oliveros is a revered figure in contemporary American music. Her career spans fifty years of boundary-dissolving music making. In the ’50s she was part of a circle of iconoclastic composers, artists, and poets gathered in San Francisco. Since the 1960s she has influenced American music profoundly through her work with improvisation, meditation, electronic music, myth, and ritual.

A recipient of the the John Cage Award in 2012 from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Oliveros is the Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, and the Darius Milhaud Artist-in-Residence at Mills College.

You can listen to the full conversation on Bad at Sports, Episode 483.

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Brian Andrews: We are sitting in the incredibly open, resounding atrium of the UC Berkeley Art Museum, the space that you plan on occupying this week with a performance. Is that correct?

Pauline Oliveros: Well, yes. Last night, we had our first rehearsal, and we’ll be rehearsing each evening until Friday, when we do the performance.

BA: What’s the plan?

PO: Plan?

BA: The plan. [Laughs.] Well, you’re rehearsing something, aren’t you?

Pauline Oliveros performing with the Thingamajigs at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 21, 2014. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

PO: Yes, we are. I’m very interested in vertical space and in occupying the upper regions of this place. So, if you want a plan, then I’ll give you the first thing that we’ve done, which is to play glasses. The glass players are up and out of sight. They’re moving, very slowly, and changing direction, turning—anything to affect the quality of the sound in the space. In different ways, the different reflections affect the sound.

BA: In a space like this—a very large, concrete, vaulted room of all flat angles—reflection and sound are prominent.

Patricia Maloney: It’s a fan-shaped building composed of a series of cantilevered galleries that extend out over the space that we’re sitting in right now. And these galleries—at least the overhangs of the galleries—are designed to serve as viewing balconies into whatever activities or performances that are happening in this main atrium. But it becomes an incredible echo chamber, considering it’s all glass and concrete.

PO: I want the players to listen to their sound in such a way that they hear the complete sound they make before they make another one. So that means that they hear the tail of the sound. Because of the reverberation, there’s always more to the sound than just the sound.

I want them to emphasize that, and through their own listening, influence the audience to listen to these things as well. I’m going to talk to them tonight about tuning the glasses because I want to evoke a lot of beat frequencies between the glasses. And rather than make a harmonic chord, I want to make it more of a mass of sound where different frequencies pop out unexpectedly because of the reflections. That’s one of my plans.

BA: I am sitting in this huge, vaulted space where I hear echoes of everything, from what’s going on in the loading dock to the people moving around in the gift shop. Do the glasses actually have enough volume to really carry?

PO: Oh, they carry very well. [Laughs.] And you can hear them at a distance. As I said, I’m trying to get them to move in such a way that they keep changing the possibilities of how they sound. Some players are very distant and some are close. Their journey will be to come down here, but that journey takes quite a while.

BA: And will the audience be situated in this main space, so the musicians will come to them?

PO: We haven’t decided everything yet. But it might be fun to have audience members wander up the ramps as well, so they can listen from different vantage points. They also have very unusual instruments stashed in various places as well. So after a long section of the glass playing, you’ll hear an instrumental sound emerge from some undisclosed location. There’ll be a lot of mystery about the sound, I think.

Pauline Oliveros performing with the Thingamajigs at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 21, 2014. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Chris Kallmyer: So much of your work is about inviting people to listen, perhaps for the first time. Do you feel like mystery is something that betrays that invitation or encourages that invitation? I love how ambiguous you are about this: “It may happen, it may not. I don’t know.” There could be some tubas stashed up there, maybe even something more unusual. Who knows? [Laughs.] I mean, life is a bit mysterious, isn’t it?

PO: Well, I don’t think we’d be too interested if it wasn’t. [Laughs.]

PM: I am so freaking ridiculously sentimental now every time I step into this space and think about the fact that this incarnation of the Berkeley Art Museum is about to end. The museum is vacating these premises because it was decided over a decade ago that all this cantilevered concrete apparently does not do well in an earthquake. As we’re getting closer and closer to that date of closure, the institution has loosened itself up and given itself over—at least the atrium—to people, to performers to act in it in ways that haven’t been imagined before. And so I really wanted to ask you about your impressions, your feelings, as you are about to perform in this space for the last time.

PO: I just had that experience at the Whitney Museum in New York, which is moving to another location. I had an installation there for the Biennial. I closed the show, the whole thing—my show and the whole show. It was the last thing at the [Breuer building], which is also closing.

BA: So a dirge, if you will, perhaps.

PO: I think that this performance with the Thingamajigs is going to be an exploration of the acoustic space and particularly the vertical space, which we don’t think about so much. We think about sitting in a space and hearing some music by having our ears pointed forward towards the musicians sitting opposite us. I’m really not following that paradigm at all. The first thing I thought of when I walked in and looked was exactly that. So I feel…well, things move on, things change, you know? They’re not going to be the same, and this is a part of our time, this particular era where there’s so much change happening.

BA: I know more about the pioneering electronic work you’ve done, which, while related, is very different to the type of research or experience that we will have here in this space. What you’re proposing is a completely tactile, non-electronic, site-specific lived experience as opposed to using technology to create something synthetic for the sound. How do these two threads weave together for you?

PO: Well, they do. [Laughs.] The base skill is listening: how I’m listening to the material, how I’m listening to the space. With electronic sound, it’s a similar situation of how to produce it and place it so that it works in a space. The first consideration is adopting the space and having work that resonates in the space. I have a variety of ways that I make music, but I’m working with the Thingamajigs in a particular way, which is: They are bringing to me their performance skills and their unusual instruments, which I’m relishing. They’re really beautiful. The other thing is improvisation—these players improvise and they do it very beautifully, as a matter of fact. We could have presented what we did last night, but it’ll be different, it will be very different because they just didn’t even have all of their resources with them last night. I try to influence this improvisation in two ways. One is by centering on reflections, in both senses of the word: acoustic reflections as well as visual reflections from a mirror or surface, and then reflecting on the material in a contemplative way. The other influence is listening to the tails of the sounds that you make.

Pauline Oliveros performing with the Thingamajigs at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 21, 2014. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

BA: Almost like a Buddhist parable in a way, where the whole point is to experience the entire sound.

PO: Yes, the whole thing, from start to finish.

PM: I want to go back to Chris’ question earlier about whether mystery encourages or discourages listening. It relates to that impulse that you just noted in which our tendency is to cut off sounds, as if we presume that we know what they are. How do we encourage an audience to open up and to listen all the way through?

PO: Model it.

CK: It’s the presence that the performers bring, the listening quality the performers bring. Someone might say the lackluster listening that you see in the average symphony hall comes from the lack of listening from the orchestra itself.

I have to say, as a listener, but also as an educator working with people who deal with visual information, like my visual-arts students, helping them to open up their ears, your listening exercises are invaluable. Have you ever done those exercises with your audience as a kind of aperitif to a concert or as a kind of opener?

PO: Yes, I have.

CK: Are you doing any of that this week? Do you find that helps?

PO: Here, I’m not sure. We still have some rehearsal time. So I don’t know. Because I’m thinking of the audience as being ambient, meaning not sitting focused but being in the space and exploring it while listening to the players.

BA: Ambience invades or permeates through everything else. It removes this boundary between the performer and the perceiver.

PO: Possibly. There are four players in Thingamajigs, and they’ve invited about twenty listeners, as they’re calling them, to participate in this. They’ll be playing glasses as well, so we can have a glass orchestra. It will be pretty special to have twenty-four people wandering around playing. I’ve asked that all these players bring a mirror because Keith, who is in the Thingamajigs, will be working with Super 8 projectors and turntables and very interesting contraptions to project out into the space. I thought that it would be interesting to have a mirror and grab a light and shine it around in different ways. It’s an analog to the acoustic reflections that we’re going to be trying to activate as well.

Pauline Oliveros performing with the Thingamajigs at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 21, 2014. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

CK: There’s a difference, though, between this idea of the tail and the activity of the mirror. The tail is an interesting model, because it’s almost like a function. It’s this thing that the performer can concentrate on, to bring presence to. The tail is different from the body of the note; as the tail disappears, very gradually, it blends with the rest of sounds in the space. [It shifts] from sound to what we call non-sound, which is the sound we all perform music upon. Are you interested in the ambient sounds in the space as well? The kind of rumble of the bus going by, things like that?

BA: Maybe this brings us to the idea of focus? We exist above all of these sounds in the world because we’re not focusing on them, and we’re not paying attention to them. Listening is just a way of directing auditory focus into a particular way. Focus in visual space is sort of the go-to human activity for experiencing a space or an artwork. It becomes destabilizing to be aware of your body in a different way with sound.

PO: There are these sounds that come from outside that work really well if you’re listening. If you’re not listening, if you’re blocking them out, then you don’t get it. You don’t get the merger of what the players are doing with everything, listening to everything.

Last night there were some beautiful things that happened when the glasses were sounding. I heard the motor sound of a jet going over and bending. It just worked with the glasses beautifully. Then at one point there was a bell; it just sounded once. I was wondering why it didn’t sound some more, and you could hardly tell whether it was outside, inside, part of it, or not part of it.

CK: When did you go from a mode of performing sound to listening to sound? When did that transition happen?

PO: It was around the end of the ’60s, when I began to compose sonic meditations. Before that I was doing a lot of reflecting on myself, and listening to long tones. I would play a long tone on my accordion, or I’d sing one, and I would note how it felt—what it did with my mental space. These were meditations that I did. When I composed the first sonic meditation, I realized that I was composing the direction of attention. So I got very interested in attention and awareness and how to achieve certain states through understanding this. I wrote my sonic meditations and started using them with students. I took a bunch of UCSD students out to Joshua Tree and we did the sonic meditations on the boulders.

So that was the root of it, where I made this transition. The students were missing out a lot in their ensemble playing because they weren’t listening to each other or the environment. After they did the sonic meditations, I would observe them in their ensembles, and the ensembles improved incredibly. [Laughs.] So I knew I had something to do and something to say.

Pauline Oliveros performing with the Thingamajigs at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 21, 2014. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

BA: This may be a good point of entry into the Deep Listening Institute. Could you let us into what you’re doing with that?

PO: I’m just doing it! [Laughs.] I’m practicing.

BA: How does the Deep Listening Institute operate or reach out to people to engage with this activity of listening?

PO: First, the Deep Listening Institute is dissolving and is now the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The legacy of the twenty or thirty years that we’ve been operating is now transferred to RPI. The Center is under way there, and the curriculum is going to be informed by it, and many things will be happening there. But it’s going to take about a year or two for the transfer to be completed. We have a certification program so professionals can teach deep listening. We have about forty-three certificate holders right now, and in about a few weeks we’ll have forty-nine, because we just completed a one-year online course with six people.

In my Deep Listening class at RPI, I always do an hour of energy exercises to start with. Then we do a listening meditation after that, after the body has been loosened up and warmed up and is ready. We do the listening. After that, there’s the journaling of the experience, which they do each time throughout the semester to the point that I have them write a final paper on what they’ve experienced.

BA: What parts of the mission are they bringing forward? Is that going to change when you change institutions?

PO: No, the mission won’t change. It will continue to be what it is: to spread the practice of deep listening and introduce it to people, to do workshops and retreats and certification programs and so on. We have a very large constituency in the world from all of the years that we’ve done workshops, retreats, and talks. I would say there a few thousand people out there that have some relationship to what we do. In July 2013, we held our first conference. It was called “Deep Listening, Art, Science,” and it had 110 international registrants. That’s pretty good, I’d say, and it was very successful. We did it again this past summer. We won’t have one this coming summer but we will again in 2016.

CK: So much of your work is highly aesthetic, but the Deep Listening Institute seems to be based in ethics as well and have a moral imperative to the project. Is there?

Pauline Oliveros performing with the Thingamajigs at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 21, 2014. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

PM: And I would also say a mission for perpetuation, so that it extends beyond just your individual practice and instead is something that can go out in the world, be replicated, and taught.

PO: Yes, that’s true.

PM: Let’s talk about EIS, which has been prevalent in your practice.

PO: It’s stands for the Expanded Instrument System. Maybe I’ll start from the initial idea, what motivated me to do that. In 1953, I had access to a tape recorder. Tape recorders were not widely available.

PM: And I imagine that it wasn’t a tiny, portable cassette-tape record.

PO: It was not. No, there was no cassette tape back then. It was a Sears Roebuck tape machine. [Laughs.]

CK: Do you remember the first thing you made a recording of with it?

PO: I put a microphone in the window and recorded the ambience.

CK: The street? Beautiful. So, 1953: the cassette player.

PO: No, cassettes aren’t…

CK: Not the cassette! It’s a reel-to-reel. So sorry—in 1953, the tape player.

PO: You gotta know your history! [Laughs.]

CK: I know! Help us!

PO: Okay, well anyway, I noticed you could monitor the recording that you’re making, but you could also monitor the playback head. There’s a little distance between them and so you get an echo, right? If you change the amplitude of, say, the playback and play with that, you get different qualities and different sounds. So I was very interested in that phenomenon. When we had the San Francisco Tape Music Center, we had a couple of Ampex tape machines there, and I could string tape from one machine, past the heads, and over to the next machine to the supply-reel amp, and have another delay there. I became interested in the delay, having sounds recorded and played back and then come back. I did many different configurations of sending signals from one track back to another track, or to the same track, or crisscrossing them and so forth. I worked on masking the delays so when I played into the machine, I would make long tones and collect sounds in such a way that you didn’t hear the delay, although sometimes you did.

CK: So you were, at this point, part accordionist, part listener, and part tinkerer?

PO: Well, I was working with it. I was going to tell you about this tape machine that I had from Sears Roebuck, which had 3¾ and 7½ IPS playback, but you could record by hand-winding the tape, so you could do variable speeds as well.

BA: It’s not filters or anything else. How are you making these physical changes to create these auditory…

PO: I didn’t have any sophisticated equipment at all. The equipment we had in the studio at the time was not intended to make music; it was for testing purposes. So we had to repurpose all the equipment to make music. That made me try a lot of different things.

BA: It’s very tactile, even though we’re talking about electronic sound. It really does seem like we’re talking about instrument making in this way that is physical.

PO: Right, it is. It is very physical.

PM: You mentioned the San Francisco Tape Music Center, whose name implies that what we’re talking about is recorded music. But in fact, the Tape Music Center was very invested in live performance and incidental performance and live sound.

PO: In the beginning we were making tape music, meaning, we were making music on tape. My first tape piece was made with that Sears Roebuck recorder. I modified sound using cardboard tubes with a microphone in the end to filter the sound. I had a wooden apple box with a Piezo [contact] mic and little objects that I could amplify on the box. I used the bathtub for reverberation. [Laughs.]

CK: In those early days, when you were developing this work, what hours of the day were you working? How much time would you devote to this type of experimentation? To going on walks? To reading?

PO: All the time. I worked a lot.

CK: Wow. That’s great. Working with sound and doing this kind of extended work with sound, there’s often not a ruler by which you can determine success. When I’m working on a piece in the studio, I have to set aside time for pure experimentation or time for walking, time to not think about anything.

When you were working in this generative mode, this experimenting, tinkering mode, I wonder how you allowed a kind of breath in the studio. Because your work has a breath to it, it’s very human work. It’s not tortured, which is why I’ve always appreciated it. Maybe you feel like you’re tortured by it.

PO: No, not necessarily.

CK: Really?

PO: I had a lot of good times. I had a lot of fun. I liked what I was doing, so I just kept doing it. At the Tape Music Center, I was working from midnight to four in the morning. Because then it was quiet, nobody was there, and I could just do my work. I didn’t have to fool around.

But I haven’t yet gotten to the EIS. You’d think I have, but I have not. I just wanted to give you a little background. So maybe I should start with where it is right now. Now it’s on the computer. That change happened about 1991. It was not possible to transfer the Expanded Instrument System to the computer until then, when 16-bit recording became available. Before that, an 8-bit recording was pixelated; it was really bad. It didn’t serve what I was doing, which was recording live sound and delaying it and feeding it back. This is essentially what the EIS system is: a bunch of delays. Now, I have about twenty per hand and can change the number of delays, change different parameters, the delays to the modulations and so forth. I developed the EIS over the time period that I was just talking about.

BA: You said you had about twenty per hand. Is this an interface?

PO: The interface is in Max/MSP.

BA: Okay. But is it a bunch of buttons that you’re pushing or are they pedals?

PO: I can’t really deal with buttons. And that’s what I keep saying, “Okay, I can’t push buttons, because that means I have to take my hands off the keyboard or the buttons or whatever. Don’t you understand!” I mean, a mouse and a keyboard is not a good performance instrument.

BA: So then what’s the solution? What do you do?

PO: Well, you invent things like algorithms to take care of some of the changes you want to make. The changes aren’t detectable. There’s all kinds of things happening as I play. The sound that I play is delayed, it’s modified, and it’s modulated. It’s an intelligent system; it’s happening now.

BA: So now it’s actually, in many ways, an active collaborator.

PO: Definitely. That was the aim, was to get it to there. It’s taken a long time.

Pauline Oliveros performing with the Thingamajigs at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 21, 2014. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

BA: Obviously you’re still engaged in this practice of improvisation, but in terms of listening, in terms of communicating with audiences, where are you going? Where are your horizons for that? Where are your sights, moving forward?

PO: I’m currently very impressed with the level of understanding and of interest in listening that I experience wherever I go. That motivates me to dig deeper into what I’ve been doing all of this time, to find new ways and also to get over the thought that it’s not happening. Because it is, which is really amazing. Something is happening. We’ll see where we go from there.

PM: You’ve been talking about listening as an embodied experience, and it’s fascinating to me that loudness is not something that can be measured in the way frequency and volume can. Loudness is a subjective experience. Maybe more specifically, our perception of noise is something that’s really subjective. It is defined by the extent to which it abrades us and to which we’re resistant to it. And yet this process of listening—the willingness to give oneself over to listening—seems to be like a whole-bodied process. How do you encourage letting go of that resistance?

PO: It takes time because the habitual response to that is very deep. It goes back to our earliest responses as babies. You have to feel safe, and if a sound is threatening, you’re going to be upset. There are those early responses, depending on how and what kind of experiences you had. People’s experiences are all different, and you don’t know what the person experienced. They know, but you don’t, so I think it’s important to listen carefully to what a person has to say. And not to force them into any direction at all but simply to model what you’ve experienced, model it and also be what I call a Listening Presence. If you’re really listening, then some of the barriers can dissolve or change.

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