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The Sonic Rituals of Pauline Oliveros

Part One

Pauline Oliveros
Photo: Becky Cohen
by Ron Drummond

I first encountered her as a name in a program book. One May afternoon in 1979 I found myself attending on a moment's spur the Contemporary Music Festival at the University of California at San Diego. With mixed emotions I listened to a series of jagged compositions in the Mandeville Recital Hall. At the end of these someone announced that the final work, El Relicario de los Animales, was being performed outside in one of the sunken courtyards, and that it had already begun, so you'd better hurry. I wondered why they couldn't wait for the audience to arrive. Following the small crowd, I glanced at the program. Hmmm, something about animals. Pauline Oliveros?

Passing through an open corridor to the plaza beyond, I heard the sound of someone blowing a long, fog-shrouded note on a conch shell, though the day above was clear blue. The audience was gathering along the waist-high wall girding a forty-foot square, twenty-foot deep courtyard, one of several that opened across the plaza. Below, in the center, a woman in a long dark dress stood on a mound of earth surrounded by an array of empty chairs and music stands with instruments placed on or around them. Rocks cracking together ended each long tone of the conch, which seemed to be coming from a long way off. Soon three more conch shells were blowing and everywhere the air became filled with their sound. Already little chills were buzzing up and down my spine. Finally the conch trumpeters became visible, walking with slow, ritualized movements from out of the west, east, north, and south toward and on the same level as the audience. Four more people appeared, each carrying a pair of rocks and cracking them together, moving inward from the compass points between the trumpeters. Presently they all disappeared down a stairwell to reappear in the courtyard below.

Meanwhile, the woman in the center had begun singing a strange word, bunching the syllables up into a dark, plaintive animal call, and addressing the sky. Already the sense of the sacred in the ceremony was over-powering, as a young woman appeared in the courtyard and moved slowly to sit down and take up her violin. It shrieked into a jagged cry. Over the next several minutes twenty-plus musicians slowly made their way one by one into the courtyard and joined the piece as they arrived. There were two of each instrument being played – flutes, clarinets, alto saxophones, trumpets, trombones, violins, cellos, string basses – plus the singer, who I later learned was soprano Carol Plantamura, and four percussionists. Everyone was facing inward toward Plantamura and directly opposite their counterpart.

The trombones blared noisily like elephants, the percussionists with their array of instruments rattled and swayed and rustled like windy treetops or populous underbrush, the flutes leapt in shocked ascents and settled in quiet murmurs. Many of the sounds seemed totally unrelated to each other, but certain noises, rhythms, melodic gestures, caesuras, and dynamic figures were echoed and transformed and enlarged upon by various musicians. The clamor became increasingly loud and insistent with convoluted activity, with Plantamura occasionally screeching and turning slowly around on her pedestal of red earth. The effect was outrageous. I found myself incapable of thought, as little buzzes happened all over my body and a strange tension over my stomach drew me into the music and completed the mesmer. The feeling was not an unpleasant one, merely foreign to any musical experience I had had before.

Suddenly Plantamura screamed loudly, throwing her hands over her head like some kind of pan-tribal magician, and instantly total silence fell. She glared almost defiantly at the audience above and all around her. Slowly she lowered her arms, and the sound tapestry began again, softly at first, but building once more. As the clamor grew, I noticed the percussionists had stopped playing and taken up tall, dry palm branches, waiting with them at attention. Again the cacophony reached its peak and abruptly stopped – but this time the only sound left was the rustling of the branches. It seemed to go on for minutes, quiet and endless like the wind. Carol Plantamura rang her Tibetan finger cymbals, a single, sparkling sound that sang out and joined the gentle rustling. The peacefulness of the sound was in sharp contrast to the previous chaos. She began singing again, this time like the hooting of an owl under a full moon, and the musicians slowly joined in to develop this theme.

The piece lasted fully 45 minutes, moving through a pack of wolves howling (which was marvelously effective, with others joining Plantamura in the singing and the saxes weeping mournfully in reminiscence of Paul Winter's "Wolf Eyes") to the hen-pecking and squawking of a parrot-like bird, with percussionists developing appropriate polyrhythms. Throughout, Plantamura was dazzling in the range of her vocal explorations, from the hauntingly beautiful to the disturbingly primal.

The piece ended the way it began, as at first the horn players walked in slow, dignified steps from the courtyard, again playing their conch shells, and then one by one the others laid down their instruments and followed them. Carol Plantamura was alone again. The conches called quietly from far away. She hung her head low and stepped unsteadily from the mound as someone came up to her and offered a hug, which she took gratefully, looking drained, but happy and misty-eyed. The audience applauded, and I walked away, somehow different from when I had arrived. Someone rode by on a bicycle, the birds twittered, people talked in low whispers and, although the fading conch was already a memory, it seemed the piece never really ended. For the next several hours I was acutely sensitive to every sensation, sound, touch, and sight. (I was not under the influence of any drugs before, during, or after the performance.)

From that total transformation in my awareness there arose an intense curiosity about the composer of this extraordinary ritual. Just who is Pauline Oliveros? As it turns out, the answers to that question begin in many distant places, at many distant times …

On hot summer nights out on the rural plains of Texas, from under Cottonwood trees and out of pecan orchards, comes the dry, stinging, otherworldly whine of the locusts and other insects that help or hinder the human caretakers of the land. That sound, as it hangs palpable and pulsating in the hot, still air, is perhaps one of the most alien songs Mother Nature has yet produced. If you were the least bit fanciful, it might seem an uncannily appropriate anthem for an extraterrestrial invasion. When I heard a recording of the sound without knowing its source, I was convinced it was a synthesizer. But this eerie insect-song was one of the common features of Pauline Oliveros's aural environment as she grew up on farms just outside of Houston. That, and the many, more familiar (at least to most of us) sounds of the farm – the wind, the rain, the animals and birds – sensitized her appreciation early on for the unusual and continually shifting ways that Nature spontaneously organizes sound, as if the animals were not only keenly aware of their sound environment but knew just how their own calls would fit in with it. All this fascination with Nature and her music coincided with an education in human music. Pauline's mother and her mother's parents – who lived with the family – were all accomplished musicians. Ma and Grandma were piano teachers. And whenever Pauline would listen to the family radio, her interest went beyond the music and theater to the whistles, groans, and static found between the stations.

As a child Pauline learned to play the accordion and later the French horn. And although her training was classical and necessarily disciplined, an important element was the playfulness of her family. "They were all very playful people," she says. "They always had a lot of fun improvising in various ways, just fun things. Not necessarily music, but just that spirit of playfulness." Besides teaching, her mother frequently played piano for dance classes in Houston. Pauline has only recently come to realize how important that was to her developing musical imagination. "I think a real key thing was that she played for a modern dance class at the YWCA when I was about 14, 15 years old. She would come home and tell me that she had made up some pieces for the class. And she'd play them for me and they'd be funny and unusual. It was just something she was doing and enjoying and excited about, but that transmitted to me."

At 16 she decided to become a composer "because I heard imaginary sounds in my mind." When, three years later, she composed her first piece, she began a lifelong process of evoking, contrasting, integrating, transforming, clashing, and harmonizing all the sounds she heard in the world around her and in her own fertile imagination.

Pauline left home at 20 and moved to San Francisco where she majored in music at San Francisco State University and supported herself by teaching accordion and French horn privately. It was here that her musical world really exploded. She was beginning to realize just how limited her exposure to human music had been. "I had not the slightest notion of the existence of so many manifestations of music." Her scope had been limited to Western European classical and romantic music, popular music, jazz, Dixieland, and country & western, and she only vaguely understood that there was other music. As she puts it, "Mozart's Turkish Rondo and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies were only faint clues." And so, as she threw herself into her studies at State, she began what would become a huge collection of recordings of music from diverse and often obscure cultures around the world, in addition to attending the occasional concert where these musics were featured. She also had her first exposure to the avant-garde here.

In Wendell Otey's composition workshops at State Pauline began discovering others who thought along the same lines as she and together they experimented with different forms of improvisation. This process of discovery was a bit unusual considering that every time Pauline performed one of her compositions in class all of the students would leave. For even then she was trying to transform the accepted boundaries of musical expression by inventing new and additional ways of organizing sound in a coherent, albeit unusual, manner. Soon up to three students were sticking around for Pauline's performances, and, as it turned out, these same students were remarkably efficient at emptying classrooms with their music, too. Pauline had found her crowd.

As composition became central to her musical activities, Pauline felt she had to re-think her approach. In Paul Reps' book Zen Flesh – Zen Bones, a story is told wherein a university professor calls on a master to inquire about Zen. The master serves tea. He pours his visitor's cup full, then keeps on pouring. The professor watches the overflow until he can no longer restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!" "Like this cup," said the master, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" In the same way, Pauline felt she had to empty her musical cup. She became interested in dwelling on single pitches in her music and how the ambiguity of a long, sustained note increased against a shifting background. A tone in and of itself became of interest, instead of where it might lead. She began tuning in to the various drones that were present in the environment: "The mantra of the electronic age is hum rather than Om." Now, only one thing remained to finally establish the range of influences that would serve as a lifelong wellspring of inspiration for her considerable compositional aspirations.

After receiving her Bachelor's Degree in Composition in 1957, Pauline conducted the experiment that would change her life completely. She had begun working with electronic means and the whole field of time and sound became her material, as John Cage predicted for composers in 1937. Sitting in her little apartment on Presidio Avenue one day, Pauline pointed a microphone out an open window and recorded the sound environment until the tape ran off the reel. While the recorder ran she sat and listened carefully, and discovered upon replaying the tape that she had not heard all of the sounds found there. "I discovered for the first time how selectively I listened and that the microphone discriminated much differently than I did." From that moment she became determined to expand her awareness of the entire sound field. To do this, she gave herself a seemingly impossible task: to literally listen to everything all the time. Why? "If nothing else, music in all its multitudinous manifestations is a sign of life. Sound is intelligence. If I don't listen I don't learn, I don't expand, I don't change." Through this exercise, which by now has become a lifelong process, Pauline began to hear the sound environment as a Grand Composition. The rhythms and relationships that occurred began to enter her work consciously.

But her listening assignment proved painful at times. Whenever she found herself not doing it, she realized this caused gaps in the Grand Composition, at least for her. And the artificial environment and its wastes were snuffing out what must have been a world symphony of natural sounds. Anyone can attest to how distasteful industrial noise pollution can be. But Pauline's work with electronic music provided a channel for that and allowed her to experiment further with tonal composites, splintering, overtones and partials, and what she calls "the delightful ambiguity between pitch and sounds."

Even so, doing her assignment soon made it clear that it was possible to give equal attention to all that entered the sound field. This awareness is very general, open, and non-judgemental, as compared to concentrated attention which is narrow, clear, and selective but limited in capacity. What is amazing is that Pauline discovered she could use both modes at the same time, that listening to everything generally did not distract at all from her ability to concentrate on specific things. The two modes are mutually supporting. "There is attention to awareness, there is awareness of attention."

I brought up the objection that many people simply could not concentrate with a lot of distracting noise around.

"I think you can train yourself," she said. "Certainly it's easier to go in a nice quiet place, but it's more challenging to go to downtown San Diego and sit there and …"

"… and do high order calculus," I finished.

We laughed. "Why not?"

I asked her if there were any exercises she had developed for doing that, that could be passed on.

"It's a whole process," she told me.

"It's just doing it."

"Right, of letting go, and practice, practice, practice …" Her voice trailed away.

Pauline soon began to develop another practice – writing down her dreams. She did this whenever she had an unusually strong dream. Her purpose was two-fold. First, Pauline felt she didn't talk in a clear, linear fashion. She knew that learning to write well would help her to speak better, and thought that writing down dreams, which are often so ephemeral and opaque, in ways that are understandable to others would prove to be a key to overcoming her difficulties with speaking clearly. Second, Pauline found it useful "to get in touch with that part of my consciousness and have a record so that I could go back over the themes." Her success is evidenced on the one hand by how easily she imparts sometimes difficult concepts to the listener and on the other by a tall stack of notebooks filled with her dreams.

In the early 1960s, after her experimental forays into electronic music (consisting in one case of subjecting the Beatles' version of "Roll Over Beethoven" to increasing electronic distortion and feedback), her interests again widened, and soon she was including visual, kinetic, and dramatic elements in her music. She began to perceive rhythms in the ways sonic elements, colors, and motions are juxtaposed. An excellent example of how she incorporated these perceptions into a collaborative composition is her Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato, commissioned by avant-garde pianist David Tudor in 1964. (A bandoneon is an old German instrument, a cousin of the concertina, long out of use but in recent decades enjoying something of a renaissance.) A friend of Pauline's, the dancer Elizabeth Harris, choreographed the piece. Harris designed and built a special see-saw for the performance, which, besides going up and down, turned around on a Lazy Susan and was fitted with swivel chairs. The mynah bird was in a mobile suspended over the axis of this contraption, free to make any contributions to the proceedings it felt like making. Pauline and David then took their places and were off! This arrangement produced shifting stereo affects as they played and gave an ever-changing spatial dimension to the music.

Pauline saw her senses as being parts of a continuous spectrum of perception and when this happened those parts became inherently interdependent, even interchangeable. As her works evolved into theatrical productions, her Grand Composition became a Grand Theater Piece and she charged herself with being aware of everything all the time – sight/sound, movement, and all that the range of the sensory system could tune to. Pauline Oliveros, without knowing it or belonging to the tradition, was becoming her own Zen master.

"Sound is energy, and it is an energy that can have a beneficial effect on human beings," Pauline says. "I mean that's just a very ancient knowledge. It's been with us for a long time."

But exactly how long, and in what forms, is an interesting question. Archeological evidence indicates that music has played an important role in every culture since the dawn of civilization almost ten thousand years ago. The oldest flutes date back thirty thousand years, and it would not be unreasonable to suppose that singing is a far more ancient practice. In view of this it is surprising to find that the entire body of notated music in Western Culture dates back only 1500 years. The oldest musical composition in memory – "Entrance Hymn for the Emperor," in China – is twice that old. We have assorted musical instruments from the thousands of years before that, flutes of bone and wood, drums and percussion instruments and even some stringed instruments, and we can make fair surmises as to what kind of music was played on them, but there are whole musical traditions and attitudes which are lost forever, scales fallen from her story's eyes.

But our collective musical heritage runs deeper than history and here, in the mists of antiquity, it may be possible to shed some light. Back to the call of the wild: If we stand at the top of a hill in the wilderness in the middle of the night, we may begin to sense these roots. Where can we find a more mournful song than the cries of wolves under a full moon across the vast mountainous spaces?

The panorama of sounds – the calls, purrs, murmurs, rustlings, and slitherings, the growls shrieks and songs – that consist a forest symphony at night gives us a sense of the oneness Nature can both embody and represent. The birds' and animals' own state of attentiveness allows for the fluid way the trills, tremolos, cries, and shuffles create an orderly and beautiful musical composition. What makes this possible is the fact that most bird and animal calls can be heard over great distances, sometimes several miles. And critters of the same species often echo the long-distance calls of their neighbors. In this way the songs evolve slowly and on the basis of the interactions occurring, so mood and message are shared alike. These family choruses fit in with a matrix of sounds from all the creatures, so subtle tides of emotion and response create a rhythm of conflict and transcendence.

Now, obviously humans were grunting and screaming and cooing long before speech evolved, but is it possible that singing came before language too? The gibbon sunrise ritual in Thailand suggests that this might be the case. Gibbons are small, slender, long-armed, tree-dwelling apes. Like all other apes, they spend the vocal part of their days grunting and hollering. But every morning before sunrise for as long as can be remembered, the gibbons have gathered in the trees and chanted a single E note until the sun rises. What is unusual about this is that all the gibbons have perfect pitch – they each sing an exact E natural, in unblemished unison.

Another perspective on this question can be provided in a simple experiment which you, the Reader, can do. Making sure you are in a place where no one can overhear and think you are totally nuts (wouldn't want that to happen, right?), sing any tone that comes naturally to you for the length of several breaths. Then pause for the same number of breaths and sing another, totally different note. Repeat this until you have sung three or four notes. Pay particular attention to how the tones feel to you. You will likely find that each note feels different and that the feelings are centered in different parts of your body. You can then see how, as grunts resolved into articulated tones based on the feelings experienced, singing would seem to be the first natural linguistic result. (Of all the spoken languages Chinese comes the closest to music.)

Healing through music, as Pauline noted earlier, has long been used. Sufi Inayat Khan, in his book Music, noted that "the knowledge of sound can give a person a magical instrument by which to wind and tune and control and help the life of another person to the best advantage. The ancient singers used to experience the effect of their spiritual practices upon themselves first. They used to sing one note for about half an hour and study the effect of that same note upon all the different centers of the body: what life current it produced, how it opened the intuitive faculties, how it created enthusiasm, how it gave added energy, how it soothed and how it healed. For them it was not a theory but an experience."

But how did this meditational emphasis on single notes and healing practices evolve into what we commonly recognize today as music? Of course, harmony would naturally develop through listening to the ways different sounds and voices sound together, thinking about the various effects they produce, and practicing ways to explore, imitate, and reproduce them. Indeed, a central theme in music, like art, has been the imitation of life. And the process of imitating the various aspects of our existence is what gives great music its form, content, and direction, its very lifeline and emotional impact.

An important source of imitation in music is echo, both the echo we hear in canyons and caves, and the kind of echo that happens when animals call to each other. "If we just thought about the music of Bach for a moment," Pauline says. "Take a Bach two-part invention, a fairly simple piece. One of the principles of the natural world that's in that music is echo. Because if you go out and and shout in a canyon, you're going to get your voice back at different delay times depending on what it bounces off of. And in a two-part invention you'll hear that kind of phenomena through the interplay of parts. And I think that is the basis of imitation in music."

I am reminded of the time I played the flute in the Grand Canyon. There is a horseshoe of mountains there and from a rock projecting far out into empty space near the top you can get seven echoes. Playing the flute and pausing to listen as complete melodic phrases came ringing back from canyons far away and out of sight was an experience I will never forget. If I closed my eyes and listened with all my might, it felt at times like my very being was slipping away with the tones, soaring over the distances. Stepping down from that rock in a daze, I felt strangely calm, deeply immersed in the panorama of earth and sky.

Pauline describes two modes in music and emphasizes that they are complementary and not always clearly defined. "One moves away from the natural and the other moves towards the natural." Over time, as people's lives have become more and more centered on the ever-growing social/political/economic machine, our established musical traditions have become finely articulated and very set in their methodologies. "When you begin to work with musical systems that have come about through various means, then, depending on who you are, you may become more and more loyal to that system, as it becomes more refined and articulated. And so then it becomes less and less true to nature, a bit more against nature. You don't get that natural feeling anymore." Of course, when you're working with echo in the Grand Canyon, it moves back in the other direction. "I don't think that one is bad and one is good," she says. "I think you can reach some very beautiful things, some beautiful feelings, in either mode. It's just where you want to be."

Some rock and roll, especially those ground-breaking, energetic songs from the '60s, returned to simpler, more direct approaches to imitation. Heavy metal, for example, was not so much going against nature per se, as tuning into the energy of the city. Some of the blues guitar work of Jimmy Page, for instance, with its use of electronic echo in the mix and repetition in the riffing, has been remarkably effective at re-creating the tension and passion of urban living. Jethro Tull, on the other hand, often seems more concerned with creating a feeling that leaves the city behind. For example, take the song "Mother Goose," from the Aqualung album. The acoustic rhythm guitar and echoing chorus of recorders in that song sends you on a heroic journey through a green, mythical land. But in both of these cases, the strongest musical suggestion is that we are going somewhere, a musical journey to a distant time or a distant place or a powerful feeling is unfolding, as surely on the passionate echoing of Robert Plant's voice as on the soaring of Ian Anderson's flute. They are out to grab life around the neck and make things happen.

But Pauline Oliveros seeks to integrate traditional musical experience and very ancient practices with a deep sense of the musical and sensual interactions in nature, to create a refreshingly new sound experience. This process of integration is epitomized in El Relicario de los Animales ("The Reliquary of the Animals"). A reliquary is a space where relics, or artifacts, are kept. The piece, as I later discovered, was based on the calls of two animals and two birds, tiger, owl, wolf, and parrot. The musicians were asked not merely to imitate, but to expound on their feelings for the creatures musically. The reliquary was thus the musicians and their instruments and the ears, minds, and hearts of the players and listeners united by the event, its sounds, music, motions, visions, and our experiences of them. What was crucial was the way in which the musicians listened and responded to one another as they played along according to carefully designed interactions intended to evoke feelings and inner tensions, folk memories perhaps, of our arboreal forebears. And indeed, the very life source of the jungle seemed to spring forth from the music.

There is no journey evoked in her music, at least not in that geographical sense of crossing the land or cruising down Seventh Avenue. With Pauline you are sitting beneath a tree and composing yourself into utter calm and listening with rapt attention and silent mind to all the sounds of life erupting and transforming around you. The journey proceeds from stillness.

Copyright © 1986, 2006 by Ron Drummond.

A shorter version of this article was first published under the title "Towards a Rolling Sky: Some Pearls on Pauline" in Interval: The Journal of Music Research and Development, Winter 1985-86. The full length version, of which the above text is a slight revision of Part One, was published in Uncle Jam International in the issues of March/April and May/June 1986, and was reprinted in The Music Paper of New York in the issues of October and November 1986. Part Two, which provides an in-depth look at Sonic Meditations and the possibilities for relaxation and renewal through the positive uses of sound, will be posted in October 2006.