Interview: Carl Stone interviewing Pauline Oliveros
Pauline Oliveros is Professor of Music at University of California at San Diego. She was Director of the Center for Music Experiment at UCSD from 1976-79. She is represented in "Music with Roots in the Aether", a series of video portraits of American composers by Robert Ashley and Phil Makanna. Her current interests include modes of human attention and Karate for self-awareness. She holds a black belt in Shotokan style.
Carl Stone: Pauline, you were born in Houston, were you not?
Pauline Oliveros: Right. Born in Houston and lived there until I was twenty and then went to San Francisco in 1952.
CS: And been in California ever since?
CS: And what was musical life like for you in the '50s?
PO: In San Francisco, the only new music activity was the Northern California chapter of the Composer's Forum, which gave concerts at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco and I used to go to those concerts. People who were involved in that forum in those days were people like Jerome Rosen, Richard Swift, Leon Kirschner, who was at Mills at the time. And at UC Berkeley, Andrew Imbrie and those folks.
And then by 1953 I had started to go to San Francisco State college and I was involved in the composer's workshop there. That year Robert Erickson happened to be teaching at San Francisco State as a substitute and he had a piece on the workshop, and that's how I met him. Then I started to study with him privately. Then, KPFA. He became the music director there. About 1953. It was after I met him, and KPFA began to play a large role in new music in the Bay Area. They began to do studio concerts. And of course, they played whatever they could get, tape recordings and...
CS: Was it a kind of yeasty situation there, a feeling of a lot of activity and a lot of shared information?
PO: Well, it seemed to be so, yes. My working with Erickson was very important. Loren Rush was also working with him. We started studying with him at about the same time. Also, the other people in the Composer's Workshop were Stu Dempster and Terry Riley. That was about it though, as far as new music was concerned in the Bay Area, that workshop, the forum, and KPFA.
CS: How was it for you as a woman in the Composer's Workshop_was that a difficult situation?
PO: No, it wasn't. Being a woman didn't have anything to do with it, the difficulty was my music. It would sort of clear out of the workshop. As soon as Wendell Otey would turn his attention to my music everybody would walk out, except Loren Rush. And the same thing would happen to him, so I didn't feel like I was exclusive. There would be one person staying besides Loren after a while, and that was Terry Riley...and then, Stuart Dempster.
CS: So it started expanding. And these are really the names that we remember now.
PO: You don't really hear of any of the other students that were in the workshop with us.
CS: So tell me then how things developed at that point. What other people appeared on the scene, say, a little later?
PO: By 1959 Morton Subotnick was around and he was operating with the Composer's Forum, playing clarinet and involved in studio concerts with KPFA.
By 1960, Bob Erickson organized the American Composer's Workshop at the San Francisco Conservatory. That was a really exciting and large event, compared to anything going on at that time. He had organized concerts and rehearsals and lectures and all sorts of things, and Thomas Nee came to conduct and Glenn Glasow came, Phil Winsor, Will Ogden, Ernst Krenek was the featured guests.
And then I had a piece played , my Variations for Sextet, which later won the KPFA-Pacifica Foundation award. Mort had a piece on that, an Elliot Carter orchestra piece was played, and a number of things like that.
CS: Did composers at that time, these people that you mentioned, have a kind of, at least a feeling of, commonality or purpose, or was it very competitive and individual?
PO: I think there were cooperative feelings. There was some separation between UC Berkeley composers and others, and then there was a feeling of academia. There was a division which was represented by the Schoenberg-Stravinsky polarity. I remember that was one of the things that was thrown at me often, that particular polarity. And my music seemed to be representative of the Schoenberg side at the time, except I was never a twelve tone composer. I mean I never used any theory or techniques at all.
Ramon Sender was going to the Conservatory and in Bob Erickson's class there and we met and the product of that was Loren Rush, Terry Riley and myself had begun to do free improvisation, group improvisation. By 1958, Ramon Sender, Loren Rush, Terry Riley, and myself were using KPFA as a studio to go in and improvise and record. That was a very important thing to us. We began to meet about once a month, once a week, I forget, and do that activity.
And then terry met with LaMonte Young and began to work with him and with Ann Halprin. Also, Mort Subotnick began to work with Ann Halprin, so there was a lot of activity generated around her Dancer's Workshops.
Then in 1960, Ramon came on the scene and organized the first electronic music studio at the Conservatory. We did a program there in 1960 called Sonics and that was the beginning, actually, of San Francisco Tape Music Center, only it wasn't known as that at that point. The following years, Mort and Ramon pulled out of the Conservatory and started the San Francisco Tape Music Center, in a place on Jones Street in San Francisco, an old Victorian building.
Then the next year it opened at 321 Divisadero in San Francisco and it was there that a lot happened, over the next three years. We gave concerts once a month and a lot of people came through to work in the studio. By 1965 we had a grant from Rockefeller for $15,000.
The following year the $400,000 (?) grant was offered, but we had to move to Mills in order to accept it, because there had to be a way to administer the money. And then it became the Mills Tape Music Center and I was the first Director there. But I think the Tape Center played quite a role in the musical life of the city at that time.
CS: So then, when it moved to Mills, was it any information loss, did people drop out at that time, or did you pick up new ones?
PO: Naturally it was a big change. What I had asked to be written in was that it be a public access studio always. I don't think Mills cared for that aspect. But, that's the way it was...people could come to work there with no academic credentials. There were also people around, doing work, that has been true to the present day.
CS: At this point was Don Buchla involved?
PO: Well, Buchla worked with Mort and Ramon to develop the first Buchla Box in 1965. That's when it happened. That's when the prototype was ready, about December of 1965. And he had demonstrated that at the old tape center.
CS: At this point how much cross-cultural influence do you think that you felt as a result of, say, the proximity of California to the Orient and Pacific cultures? Was it kind of a cultural force for you at that time?
PO: No, not that I knew of. I was only aware of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and what we were doing. And what was going on in general in the Bay Area. Gradually things that were coming in from Europe; Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio.
CS: Did you have much contact with Henry Cowell at all?
PO: No, not at all, as a matter of fact.
In 1963 I met David Tudor. The following year we had a festival at the Tape Center with David Tudor and the works of Cage and then people like George Brecht. That was rather a big event also. That's when the influence of Cage was really clearly felt again in the Bay Area. It was the first time his music has been played there for a long time, since probably the '40s. For instance, on a version of Atlas Ecliptical, the performers were Terry Riley, Mort Subotnick, Ramon Sender, myself, Douglas Levy, John Chowning, Rush, Stuart Dempster.
CS: Did you ever spend much time away from California after this period?
PO: No, I went to New Hampshire in 1962 to play in the New Hampshire Festival Orchestra n the summer__that was sort of my first experience in the East Coast at all. Then I went that September to Holland and spent a couple of months in Europe and came back to New York and arrived back in San Francisco in January. That was my first time away from California.
CS: When did it become apparent to you that there was a California aesthetic or a set of concerns that weren't common with people from the East Coast or from Europe?
PO: I was very startled to find people who didn't know anything about improvisation anywhere, because Loren and Terry and I had started this free improvisation group and the only people who were doing anything about improvisation were Lucas Foss, but they were doing very guided improvisation. We were dismayed to see that they had prompters on their music stands. We didn't have any music stands.
CS: When they saw works like your Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon (with Optional Myna Bird)...?
PO: They really just didn't have any relationship to that. I think that's really funny, considering what's happening now.
CS: Yes, one of life's little ironies. So now after almost 30 years in California you're moving to New York.
PO: I'm kind of interested in change and what it would be like to be in the East Coast after all these years. I do have a number of friends [there], and it will be nice to connect with them on a more day-to-day basis. I don't know, I might be right back in California after a while.