Echo SpacesPauline Oliveros

Echo Spaces

In thinking about my own obsession with sound, nothing resonates with me more than Pauline Oliveros’ offering in Dissolving your Ear Plugs (2016): ‘Take some time—no matter where you are—sit down and close your eyes for a while and just listen - When you open your eyes consider what you heard as the “music”. Later try to remember what you heard and express it with your instrument or voice.’

‘Do this practice often until you begin to hear the world as music.’

As a producer, I think we especially must listen intently to sounds often dismissed as ‘non-musical’. City noise makes beautiful backdrop in an otherwise meticulously structured track; human brains can pick up rhythms and melodies in apparently unorganised clamour of sound. I don’t believe the joy through attentive listening should be limited to producers or composers, either. While her reputation as an innovator is very much deserved — her seminal album Deep Listening, recorded in an enormous cistern with 45 seconds reverb time, developed into an ensemble, an institute, and a philosophy central to her life’s work — I’ve never felt her music was alienating or exclusive. Oliveros’ hope in our human capacity to sympathise with one another and appreciate creativity shines through her oeuvre. Out of her comprehensive catalogue, I’ve chosen three of my favourite pieces.


Recorded at the San Francisco Tape Center, of which Oliveros was a founding member, Bye Bye Butterfly (1965) is a manifestation of her deep passion for sound and technology, striking in its disruption of outdated narratives. High-pitched oscillators freely move through the whole piece, sporadically punctuated by the deliberate placement of tape machine pop, inviting the audience to listen to the sparse — and surprisingly organic — purity of her electronic sound world. Suddenly, an excerpt of Madame Butterfly rings through, dapped in delay and reverb; the sample and oscillators take turns inhabiting centre stage, fluctuating in melody and volume. Madame Butterfly’s glorified apologism of orientalist misogyny is ousted from its canonical status, broken into a dissonant, unsettling fragment within Oliveros’ immersive space. Eventually, we are fully returned to the oscillators, but this time with darker, richer effects, the pulse of the tape machine carrying us forward. This piece established Oliveros as not only a composer and accordionist but a pioneer of sonic technology, a brilliant mind who made us hear our musical future and organic selves in the world of computerised sound.


It’s hard to overstate the significance of feminism in Oliveros’ work. An out lesbian despite the intensely homophobic and misogynistic climate of mid-late 20th century, she actively invoked women’s solidarity throughout her life. To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation (1970), written in the aftermath of Monroe’s suicide and Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and failed murder attempt of Andy Warhol, Oliveros brings together the same suffering of two seemingly very different women: Monroe was famous and subject to immense male attention, whereas Solanas was destitute, mocked, then forgotten; Monroe assimilated into the gender role imposed on her, whereas Solanas vehemently rejected it. Yet their fates remained the same: a woman whose artistic and intellectual potential were stripped at the hands of men, and Oliveros dedicated this piece to their pain. The piece invites the members of ensemble to select and sustain five pitches throughout the performance, while remaining cautious to not overpower others; if an element becomes dominant, others are instructed to raise their volume until equality is achieved. In effect, Oliveros wanted to forge a non-hierarchal collection of sound, every element feeding one another. The size and instrumentation can greatly vary — from a 14-piece ensemble at its 1970 premier at Hope College, to the 1977 Wesleyan University recording by a 43-piece orchestra — but every performance is unfailingly haunting, fortified by the performers’ ceaseless cycle of giving and receiving.


‘Tuning Meditation’ is another set of thoughtful, simple instructions for a vocal performance. The participants begin by listening to their surroundings; they inhale deeply, then begin exhaling at a note of their choice, eventually choosing a pitch of another and joining in. At the next exhale, they sing a pitch no one else is singing. These two steps are repeated for a duration of anywhere from three minutes to twenty; the piece has been performed at concerts, museums, classrooms, symposiums, often with the onlookers being encouraged to join in themselves. The resulting sound is organic, alive: pitches congregate then fall away from each other, again and again, full of intent. The unconstrained yet unifying nature of this piece, perhaps, is the best way to enter Oliveros’ world, where boundaries between ‘musician’ and ‘non-musician’ are blurred. Though the music world was eager to glorify her as as an experimental pioneer, Oliveros repeatedly reminded us: music is for everyone.

  • Published
  • Dec 03, 2016