5:19 pm Jun. 15, 2012
Not many 80-year-olds receive a birthday present in the form of a rave from the music-review site Pitchfork, let alone 80-year-old experimental composers.
But composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros is not your typical 80-year-old.
“I don’t know what retirement means,” she told me earlier this week while sitting in her Kingston, New York home. (I knew she was sitting, since Oliveros prefers remote interviews to be conducted via Skype, rather than over the phone.)
Though that may sound like a cliché, or a tag line from a boomer-focused investment company advertisement, in Oliveros’s case, the “who me, retire?” bit really rings true. A contemporary of John Cage and someone who worked alongside Terry Riley at the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center in the late 1960s (where she is pictured below, with Tony Martin, Bill Maginnis, Ramon Sender, and Morton Subotnick), she is still teaching full-time at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and has kept up a healthy recording and performance schedule around the world.
Oliveros also travels often to take in performances of her notated pieces, for which she doesn’t have to play at all. Her 1970 orchestra piece To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation played at London’s Tate Modern museum in May—just one of her back pages that’s getting thumbed through again by others as she enters her ninth decade.
And yes, the rave Pitchfork review was for a 12-C.D. retrospective of Oliveros' electronic and tape works from 1961-1970, on the (correctly named) Important Records imprint, with their “best new reissue” garland.
“I read that review and I was really pleased with it!” Oliveros said. “I thought [the writer] just did a beautiful job.… Because there were very few of my '60s electronic pieces that had been out, in recordings. Most of my material on this 12-C.D. set has been sitting on the shelf all that time.”
This weekend, Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band (pictured below, courtesy onewe[x]mb) will come to the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, as part of this year’s 12-hour Bang On A Can Marathon. Oliveros says they’ll be playing three pieces during their set, which is scheduled to start in the 4 p.m. hour of the Sunday festival.
But aside from her familiar collaborators, Oliveros will be bringing something new with her. She recalled how, ever since recording in a cistern that carried a 45-second reverberation time in 1988, she’s been itching to bring that sonic experience to audiences in other, less cavernous venues. (“You can’t very well have an audience in a cistern,” she said, sensibly.) With the help of acousticians and colleagues, the Deep Listening Band now has, after a two-decade waiting period, a simulating device that processes live performances in real time, and makes them sound as if they're coming from a deeply resonant, underground space.
“I think people sometimes have difficulty understanding what I’m saying—what we managed to do was create the acoustics of the cistern in the concert hall. We took one space and put it in another.” This “simulated cistern,” when used along with the band’s 9-foot Tibetan horns, conch shells, as well as Oliveros’ own modified accordion, should make for one of the highlights of the festival.
It’s tempting to say that all aspects of Oliveros' career—early tape experimenter, orchestral composer, and small-ensemble performer—are coming into focus for audiences in a way that’s never been possible before, given the challenges women composers have long found in getting their works heard.
Oliveros doesn’t disagree, but notes that this evolution wasn’t a passive one.
“Well, there’s been a lot of activism! And there has been a change of consciousness I think. And there’s more impulse or movement toward egalitarianism and equality—and that’s what we want to have.” Some of that activism comes from Oliveros’ pieces themselves, she notes, citing the piece dedicated to Solanas and Monroe.
“I know that’s embodied in that work; I based the structure on the Valerie Solanas S.C.U.M. Manifesto, so it was about equality and about the individual in relation to a group." She noted the Tate performance. "There was an ensemble of, I think, about 17 women who played—and they played it really well. It was on the bridge, there. And there was a great audience; when the piece ended, there was just silence, and nobody moved. Nobody wanted to move for quite a while. It was very striking.”
So while the classical music establishment may still be laggard in celebrating the Oliveros oeuvre—good luck hearing her traditionally notated music in uptown concert halls—recognition has been steadily coming her way from less-likely corners, contemporary art venues and indie-rock websites being just two.
An early hint of a surge in Oliveros-appreciation came in 1999, when Sonic Youth performed her piece Six for New Time on Goodbye 20th Century, their album celebrating modern composers. Meanwhile, Oliveros has also influenced the contemporary-art world through her teaching. Art star Cory Arcangel, a former student of Oliveros', contributed a short essay to the Important Records box set, in which he credits her for helping him develop his own practice.
“Yeah, well I had a semester at Oberlin in 1999,” Oliveros remembers, “and there were several [students] I’m still in touch with, from that seminar I gave.”
Arcangel was one of those students. “Oh, I remember him very well,” she says, “because I thought he was very interesting! He was, you know, a little uncertain. Because he’s original! He was doing very original work at the time, so he didn’t have a great deal of support or anything. I thought: wait a minute, this guy’s doing something that’s going to be very interesting. And so he has!”
Oliveros would know about those sorts of things—originality, being interesting—as well as not having a ton of institutional support. Thankfully, that last bit has been corrected of late—which might help answer the question of why Oliveros is so reluctant to retire.
Once the world has caught up to you, she seems to be saying, why bow out?
Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening Band are scheduled to perform at the Bang On A Can Marathon on Sunday at 4 p.m.
More by this author:
- The surprising and genre-confounding collaboration of Hillary Hahn and Hauschka
- A free Philip Glass show, and more treats from him on deck