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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Pauline Oliveros--An appreciation

Pauline Oliveros

Acclaimed electronic music ensemble Swarmius founder/composer Joseph Martin Waters has a unique take on Pauline Oliveros, the renowned "deep listening" electronic music composer/accordionist who died Nov. 24 at 84.

"I didn't know her personally, but we were Facebook friends, and I saw her perform a couple times--most memorably with her collaborator, the legendary dancer Deborah Hay," says Waters, also professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University.

"The two were perfect complements: Pauline was performing slowly undulating drones on accordion, and Hayes was sitting almost motionlessly on the floor, with such amazing presence that one could not look away. Every part of her was alive and present. It remains one of my vivid concert memories."

But memorable, too, was Waters' initial encounter with Oliveros's music when he was a high school student in Madison, Wis., and headed a band, Spindlebean, that included the son of the owner of a local music store.

"His dad would bring home all the records that nobody wanted to buy and give them to him--and his ever-present band members--to listen to," Waters continues.

"So this meant all of the experimental electronic music and avant-garde music that came into the store as demos, and for several years we would get high and listen ritualistically to [music like] minimalist composer Steve Reich's early tape loop masterpiece 'Come Out,' in which he recorded a young black youth describing his injuries in the race riots in New York City in the early '60s. The phenomenon was remarkable to us [and] stood our notion about music on its head: It's not like we were some sophisticated group of kids with privileged musical backgrounds--we were just ordinary high school kids who were ravenously curious about music and life, and this was the '60s after all, when our collective minds were open to the sky."

The ordinary high school kids were likewise introduced to the music of the extraordinary Oliveros, albeit via a prank.

"It was a Saturday afternoon, and Bob's parents were away for the weekend," says Waters. "So as usual, we had the run of their very beautiful home, and for the occasion we were going to drop acid and listen to vinyl of two new releases: Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money and the latest album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. We were lying on the floor, the acid had kicked in, and Bob announced that he was putting on the new Paul Butterfield album. Instead he put on a new release he had received from his father, with an electronic work by Pauline Oliveros that consisted of early '60s electronic emulations of insects at night and other weird loops and musical wiggles."

This was before the Moog synthesizer revolutionized electronic music, notes Waters, "so the electronic vocabulary had no melodies or rhythms or chords. And I listened to this music, imagining that it was the new Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, and loved it! And I was so inspired that this music would be coming from a blues band! I was amazed that the Butterfield Blues Band, which I had always liked but never loved, had evolved in such a spacey and imaginative direction. After about 15 minutes Bob let us in on the joke and put on the real Butterfield blues album, which was pretty good--but in my mind I still associate it with Pauline Oliveros' strange electronic concoction!"



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