Pauline Oliveros by Cory Arcangel

BOMB 107 Spring 2009
Issue 107 0  Cover
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Oliveros in Cologne, Germany, 2008. Photo by IONE.

For more than 50 years Pauline Oliveros, a pioneering American composer, has been at the forefront of composition, improvisation, education, and meditation. Recently Oliveros’s practice has been defined by “Deep Listening,” which merges the disparate fields of improvisation and spirituality. Deep Listening is a philosophy of sound awareness that recognizes the difference between involuntary hearing and the process of concentrated selection that is listening. It introduces environmental sounds into the listening vocabulary in the form of improvisation. Her Deep Listening Band is celebrating its 20th anniversary with concerts in New York this April (with Roscoe Mitchell) and in Seattle in May. Pauline has created works in electronic music and experimental composition that stand as turning points for each genre—from playing the accordion in collaboration with the moon, to her iconic early series Sonic Meditations (ephemeral compositions focused on collaboration), to pioneering work in the genre of electronic improvisation.

I will always remember the day in 1999 that I met Pauline. I was enrolled in her class at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She walked into the room and unfolded a brand new Wall Street model Macintosh Powerbook. Presiding over this rarely seen, top-of-the-line laptop, she proceeded to tell us how she started working with electronic music when sounds were still recorded onto wire spools. That’s Pauline. She has been at the fore of technology during every decade she has worked in, and because of her humor and natural tendency to pioneer, she transcends any particular historical moment.

Cory Arcangel Of course we stop talking now that the pressure is on.

Pauline Oliveros Well, let’s begin by saying we’re celebrating ten years of friendship since you were in my class at Oberlin in 1999.

CA I still have such memories of that class. The funny thing is that you didn’t teach, exactly; you ran the class in this other way. I don’t remember any assignments or homework or anything in line with other types of class structures that were in the conservatory. There was no plan, but there was definitely a system.

PO I try to teach without teaching. I get my students to do things, both individually and collaboratively.

CA I read an article of yours where you proposed a curriculum and while I was reading it, I was like, That’s exactly what our class was.

PO Well, I wrote that article because I was giving a keynote address at the University of California, San Diego for “Improvising Across Borders,” the first conference ever given on improvisation in a university. Now that particular article is published in DJ Spooky’s book Sound Unbound.

CA The thing I took away from your class was about living more, about how to conduct yourself on a daily basis. It sounds crazy, but I just remember thinking about creativity as something bigger than “composition” or “counterpoint” or “performance.” It was a way of being that involved listening to others and the world … and responding. What are your classes like now?

PO I’m still practicing what I preach. I teach a Deep Listening class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that has become very popular. I have engineers, physicists—everything under the sun that technology school teaches—in the class. Some of them are really good musicians and then some of them are EMAC students—that’s electronic media and communications. But the class, by and large, is unwashed.

CA Unwashed?

PO Not necessarily well-versed in the arts. They come in and do what they do. My book really lays out what I teach in that course. I do have a plan, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like one because it’s non-linear. I still want there to be improvisation. So, in the Deep Listening class I teach experiencing a heightened awareness of sound and sounding and silence, without drugs. We do energy exercises based on Qigong, Tai Chi, yoga, and other movements. Moving the body is essential and basic to heightened awareness. Energy refers to heat, electricity, and magnetism, and the exercises promote a feeling of flow in the body. What happens is that your own serotonin—dopamine—is released when you experience the pleasure of listening and you don’t necessarily need anything to amplify that, although some people need drugs to break through to the point where they can have that experience. It’s why there’s so much drugging going on in the student population. Deep Listening is an inexpensive, healthful, and accessible alternative to drugs. Drugs take over the body whereas the effects of Deep Listening come from one’s own abilities. It’s accessible to anyone who is willing to sincerely try.

CA Yeah, totally, I remember doing movements, listening in the dark … all stuff I would have never done in any other setting. It was great. At that point in my schooling I wasn’t very open to new things, but somehow in your class, I was up for whatever. I want to talk about your style of improvisation because it is definitely related. It could be considered the same thing as listening.

PO It is, definitely. I mean that my improvisation is based in listening to all that I can perceive inside and outside of myself before I make a sound—or silence. Maintaining that level of listening is basic to my improvising.

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IONE and Pauline Oliveros in Kanazawa, Japan. Photo by Heroko Ikeda.

CA On your website you wonder about what Data from Star Trek would be like as an improviser. Do you still think about things like that?

PO Oh, absolutely, all the time. Lieutenant Commander Data can, of course, play and analyze music perfectly. The challenge in my mind is about the possibility of his ability to be creative—or to improvise. With all his number crunching and analysis, this ability seems to be elusive—just like emotions. Data is mystified by emotions and emotions are missing from his program. So my speculation is that Data, the android, is simply not equipped to improvise.

CA Maybe I should give you a better question. I’m improvising.

PO That’s what I like; that’s where I’m most comfortable. Have you been yet to EMPAC, RPI’s big new experimental music center?

CA I heard it’s just gorgeous.

PO Cory, you have to come up. It’s great. I was there yesterday to see my colleague Michael Century. Michael has had a little residency going for himself at EMPAC, and he’s been having a fantastic time with the Disklavier—a piano that can play by itself—and has started to play the accordion. He’s transformed himself after a long stint of administrative work (pushing data around), opening up the pleasure centers in his brain by making and playing music. Michael’s administrative work and intellectual interests kept him with too little time to devote to his creative music-making. Though he’s been playing the piano since he was a little kid—he went through academic training at a conservatory, all of that—Michael confided to me that he wanted to learn how to play the accordion. I managed to loan him a free-bass accordion, a really good one, so it really sounds fantastic, and he’s learning to play all sorts of pieces on it, including Terry Riley keyboard studies.

Anyway, let me see if I can describe this session yesterday, because there is a point to my story. Michael started working with a Disklavier, as I said, and he’s doing a version of the Expanded Instrument System (EIS) that is his own. My version of EIS has 40 delays with algorithmic controllers that can determine how many delays sound, the durations of the delays, how and when the delayed signals are modulated. Michael’s system is MIDI driven, so he can play the piano and a middle pedal captures what he plays and then the piano will start to play with him. Then you get inversions and retrogrades of the material that he played. So he plays for about 20 minutes on this piece and then he gets up and he walks away and the piano still plays. I asked what he learned by having this other entity responding to him and he talked about the pleasure of it. There is something very compelling about the mirroring and elaboration of working with machines in this interdependent interactive way. I know that it makes me happy.

CA You would know—you’ve been using electronics for a long time.

PO A long time, since the ’60s, when I started with tape delay. Then I wanted to challenge myself to hear more than just what I could play normally on accordion. I had been doing that already in terms of venues because I’d listen to the space and figure out what I could get back from it. Different spaces give you different qualities, so you play differently. With electronics, it gradually got to the point where I’ve now got a system that gives me a lot back, but it’s really challenging.

CA So the EIS system, an interactive music system that you developed in the ’60s, is a series of delays and audio controls hooked up to foot pedals. The system allows you to do all kinds of manipulations to the sound of your instrument. You can fabricate the sound of new spaces, add delay, and so on. Over the years, how much do you tweak it? Do you still use the EIS system?

PO Oh, yeah. I still use it and tweak it a lot. It’s a continuing evolution. No matter how much I do to it, I want more because there are just endless things you can do. It’s about the human/machine relationship or interface—the power of technology to expand the mind. You find solutions to creative problems and those solutions lead you into new territory where new solutions have to be found. For example: how can you make sound that flies from around your feet on the floor, up to the ceiling, and then moves around the room?

Back to Michael: we were talking about interactivity and how we were both tired of that word because it doesn’t mean what we’re talking about. So we finally agreed upon interdependent interactivity, where the system is dependent upon input from the player and the player is dependent on the feedback from the system. Each informs the other, and that’s what I mean by “expanded,” because you begin to expand your capabilities.

CA Did you just come up with the term interdependent interactivity yesterday?

PO Yeah, I think it’s a real key idea that has come out of a wonderful collaboration with Michael. Yesterday he played me a piece that Guy Klucevsek, the virtuoso accordionist in Staten Island, has written. It’s a tango, actually, for two instruments. He had the accompaniment, or the second part, programmed on the Disklavier.

CA Oh, that’s cool. So he’s playing the accordion with a robot piano.

PO Right, like Data, it does what it is programmed to do. But it was so funny because the Disklavier had about a 25 cent difference in tuning than the accordion. It was just hilarious; it was wonderful.

CA You know the band Van Halen? There was a concert video of theirs that got very popular online recently. There’s a keyboard part in the song that was apparently on a playback, and I think what happened is that it played back at 48 kilohertz and the actual recording was 41 kilohertz. They’re in a hockey rink and the concert starts and then the keyboard starts a whole tone-and-a-half above where it should be. And the band goes, Wrrrnnn. You can see them realizing and trying to adjust to being pitched one-and-a-half semitones off. But they’re on stringed, fretted instruments, so there’s nothing to do about it, know what I mean? It’s this amazing video of a totally off-tune, half-atonal performance. The guitar player bends up every note and the singer goes up, but the bass player has no idea what to do. It was fantastic. All my training in all that stuff came back to me and I was like, This is actually quite modern!

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Oliveros with John Baldessari’s Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) at the Kunstverein in Bonn, Germany. Photo by IONE.

PO This reminds me to tell you that I’m also teaching a seminar at RPI called Experimental Telepresence.

CA Oh, boy!

PO Since 2001, when I arrived at RPI, I’ve been working on Internet2, which is a more or less private Internet developed by DARPA, a US government-operated research unit that conceptualizes and creates military technology. It’s designed for transmission of large audio and video files, so you can do what you can’t quite do on ordinary Internet because there’s not enough bandwidth. In 1990, I started using video telephone technology to make musical connections with long-distance partners. I proceeded with PictureTel, using DSL lines, then the Internet, and finally Internet2. Multi-site performances, collaborative performances … there’s a whole history of that now. There are now some repertoires growing, so Deep Listening Institute commissioned several composers to do pieces for the telematic medium using the Internet for co-located performances. I made a connection with Chris Chafe at Stanford University. Chris has designed JackTrip, which is low-latency software with CD-quality audio that can be transmitted in eight channels.

CA Really? Isn’t that crazy?

PO Well, it’s crazy and it’s wonderful and it sounds really fantastic.

CA Wow, eight channels of CD quality. I can’t even believe they can do that now.

PO It’s happened and it’s happening, and our group with Chris and RPI is kind of pushing the field. We’ve presented a lot of concerts, we’ve done papers at the Acoustical Society of America, the International Society for Improvised Music, and the International Computer Music Conference. So we’re creating a field that has to do with telepresence and telematic music. The ideal is that you lose the boundary between what’s being televised and what’s real. (Pauline’s phone rings.)

CA Speaking of telepresence!

PO That was just a reminder that I had to meet you. Where was I?

CA Internet2.

PO I’ll tell you a few things that happened. My nonprofit, Deep Listening Institute, recently did a project called the Deep Listening Convergence. We had 45 musicians in a virtual residency using Skype. The project was to have new ensembles form and rehearse online for five months. Then we brought them all together upstate at the Lifebridge Sanctuary, which is a really beautiful place, and we did three real concerts of only material that had been developed online.

CA What keeps pushing you to drive in these directions which haven’t been driven in before? To take what you just said as an example, video telephones certainly were not designed for small musical ensembles, but you decided to push the technology in that way. And now you’re working with DARPA technology to organize multi-site performances. These technologies were not designed for these uses, and yet you have continually bent them to your vision.

PO I could fall off the cliff. What keeps me going is the interest and excitement. It’s very amazing to work with people in that way, and it’s also very difficult. I do believe that relationships are the Wild West, and that working physically and virtually is part of developing a more peaceful world. This has to be learned through listening and negotiating. Improvised music is a great model for community building and reconciling differences. My work with Deep Listening supports this idea. A community of Deep Listeners has grown out of the summer retreats and workshops are given in many places in the world. People who listen together grow and expand together.

CA Do you ever think about how all the things you have been working in for so long are now the direction that everything has taken? Like the online collaborations—look at the online networking sites. It’s amazing to look at all the things you’ve been hammering away at for years and now see what has happened in culture. The average funny Internet video or audio clip that gets passed around more often than not is the result of a multi-site collaboration. Most media today is participatory in this way. There might be rock bands in the future that will get together in the same way as the ensembles you brought together did.

PO Alex Carôt in Germany made a software called Soundjack to rehearse his rock band.

CA There you go.

PO Yeah, there it is. It’s very high quality and low latency; I’ve worked with it. You can download it at, which is a website where you can get all kinds of expert advice on using different technologies. That’s the net: you can start collaborations with people anywhere in the world—except for the places that don’t have the Internet.

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Detail of a score for Primordial/Lift, 1990. © Deep Listening Publications.

CA Is that an iPhone? You have an iPhone! You’re ahead of me.

PO Yeah, I used the iPhone four-track recorder today for the first time.

CA I can’t believe there’s a four-track recorder on the iPhone. You started recording onto tin wire. What is it like for you to now have something like this? In the ’60s the top technology cost a badrillion dollars. Only the Beatles had a four-track, you know?

PO (laughter) I’m going to work on using it. I’m going to record little things wherever I am and start to do some pieces with the sound bytes.

CA I remember when the Deep Listening Band played at Oberlin College. You had to take over the concert venue for like a week just to set up the for the show. The setup was so intense; there was a big audio rig and wires and mics everywhere. I bet now it would all fit in a tiny suitcase. What’s the latest with the Deep Listening Band?

PO The Deep Listening Band is celebrating our 20th year with a new recording—we’re going back to the cistern to record it. The cistern was formerly used to hold the water supply for the army stationed at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, a small town in Washington State. It held two million gallons of water, is made of reinforced concrete, has a diameter of nearly 200 feet, is 14 feet deep, and has a high-quality reverberation time of 45 seconds.

CA Is that where you recorded the first Deep Listening Band record?

PO That’s right, Deep Listening was recorded in 1988 and released by New Albion in 1989. That’s what made the Deep Listening Band happen. After experiencing a 45-second reverberation time we tried to reproduce it electronically. We have never succeeded in doing that, but the cistern is our benchmark space. The reverberation there is unbelievably clear. The direct sound and reflected sound are almost indistinguishable.

CA Most people probably think it’s digital reverb, right?

PO But it’s not; it’s simply acoustic, and the sound is picked up by microphones. We’re going to go back to the cistern and this time we’re going to take an ambisonic microphone.

CA What’s that?

PO It’s a microphone array—about eight microphones—so we can really record the surround sound.

CA Is the cistern just for you alone?

PO Well, we can’t have anyone in the cistern while we record because as soon as anybody sneezes it’s going to reverberate for 45 seconds. (laughter) There’s only one entrance and you have to go 14 feet down a ladder; it’s really not for an audience.

CA I have to come visit one of these days.

PO Well, certainly. I want to come to your house, too.

CA Oh, yeah, just call me up. I’m just sitting at home working on my website or doing whatever I do normally. I did a performance at Sundance in 2007 where I sat in my bed and I iChatted it over video.

PO Good, so you’re into telematics as well.

CA I have not stopped being into telematics since your class.

PO Well, I might stick somebody on you from my seminar to do a little project, just a connectivity thing.

CA Totally, soon the Internet will be just like picking up the telephone and you’ll see everyone you’ve ever talked to, and you’ll have advertisements targeting you based on what you said. That’s how all the money will be made in the future: ad-based data mining.

PO I’ve been surfing technology for 50 years; more than that, probably. But I’m not a technologist, I never pretended to be one, but I’m using it, and that’s different from somebody who’s hacking it. I hack it conceptually. I think about what hardware and software can do, then try to push it beyond what it is supposed to do.

CA Also, hacking takes so much time. Once you figure something out, the next thing is already here. You really have to invest. Hacking is like learning an instrument. As the years wear on, I have more and more difficulty keeping up. I found a solution though: I just started to make work about that difficulty! These instruments are always disappearing and new ones are coming, so in a way it’s better just to surf because you’re able to roll with the punches. In the last couple years, there’s been a shift. I think a lot of the innovation and technology has been towards self-publishing. How do you think that affects the next generation of composers? Now they have immediate access to a global audience, and that’s fairly new.

PO As a matter of fact, I was talking about this with my seminar this semester. I have got people lined up in different parts of the world to collaborate with my students, and I’m going to have them choose who they want to collaborate with. They can choose anybody as long as it’s some distance away. But I’m going to propose that they come up with a concert in April, a borderless concert.

CA Will it be in one space?

PO Yeah, it’ll be at EMPAC on April 30. But it could be that a piece would take place in Second Life. I’ve been working a lot there, performing with the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse. I also made a piece for the group.

CA So do you have an avatar?

PO Yes, Free Noyes. (laughter) N-O-Y-E-S.

CA I’m Brad Pippin. It’s as close to Brad Pitt as I could get.


Cory Arcangel works with video, installation, composition, sculpture, print, the web, and mathematics. He is cofounder of the Beige Programming ensemble, and his art has been included in the Whitney Biennial and in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Migros Museum in Zurich. His projects can be found online at

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Originally published in

BOMB 107, Spring 2009

Featuring interviews with Adam Bartos and A.M. Homes, Jacqueline Humphries, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Andrei Codrescu, Mary Gaitskill, Matthew Buckingham, and Pauline Oliveros. 

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Issue 107 0  Cover