Pauline Oliveros

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Pauline Oliveros in Oakland, 2010
Oliveros (right) playing in Mexico City in 2006

Pauline Oliveros (born May 30, 1932 in Houston, Texas) is an American composer and accordionist who is a central figure in the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music.

She was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, and served as its director. She has taught music at Mills College, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros has written books, formulated new music theories and investigated new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of "Deep Listening" and "sonic awareness".[1] She was an Eyebeam resident.

Early life and career[edit]

From a very young age Oliveros was interested in the sound field around her and started to learn to play music as early as kindergarten. Oliveros learned to play the accordion at nine years of age from her mother because of its popularity in the 1940s as a relatively lucrative instrument.[2] She later went on to learn the tuba and French horn for grade school and college music. At the age of sixteen she had decided to be a composer. [3]

Oliveros arrived in California and supported herself with a day job and supplemented this by giving accordion lessons to students.[2] From there Oliveros went on to attend Moores School of Music at the University of Houston studying with Willard A. Palmer and earned BFA degree in compositions from San Francisco State College where her teachers included composer Robert Erickson, with whom she had private lessons and who mentored her for six to seven years. This is also where she met artists Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster and Loren Rush.[2][4] At the University of Houston, she was a member of the band program and was a founding member of the local chapter of Tau Beta Sigma Honorary Band Sorority.

When Oliveros turned twenty-one, she obtained her first tape recording deck, which led to her creating her own pieces and future projects in this field.[4] Oliveros is one of the original members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which was an important resource for electronic music on the U.S. West Coast during the 1960s.[5] The Center later moved to Mills College, where she was its first director, and is now called the Center for Contemporary Music. Oliveros often improvises with the Expanded Instrument System, an electronic signal processing system she designed, in her performances and recordings.


In 1967, Oliveros left Mills to take a faculty music department position at UCSD.[6] There, Oliveros met theoretical physicist and karate master Lester Ingber, with whom she collaborated in defining the attentional process as applied to music listening.[7] Oliveros also studied karate under Ingber, achieving black belt level. In 1973, Oliveros conducted studies at UCSD's one-year-old Center for Music Experiment; she served as the Center's director from 1976 to 1979. In 1981, to escape creative constriction,[8] she left her tenured position as full Professor of Music at UCSD[9] and relocated to upstate New York to become an independent composer, performer, and consultant.[9]

Deep Listening[edit]

In 1988 as a result of descending 14 feet into an underground cistern to make a recording Oliveros coined the term "Deep Listening"[6] a pun that has blossomed into, "an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. This aesthetic is designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations."[10] Stuart Dempster, Oliveros and Panaiotis then became Deep Listening Band and Deep Listening became a program of Pauline Oliveros Foundation, founded in 1985). The Deep Listening program includes annual listening retreats in Europe, New Mexico and in upstate New York, as well as apprenticeship and certification programs.Pauline Oliveros Foundation changed its name to Deep Listening Institute, Ltd. in 2005. The Deep Listening Band, which includes Oliveros, David Gamper (1947-2011) and Stuart Dempster, specializes in performing and recording in resonant or reverberant spaces such as caves, cathedrals and huge underground cisterns. They have collaborated with Ellen Fullman and her Long String instrument, as well as countless other musicians, dancers, and performers. See Deep Listening Band Chronology by Stuart Dempster ( and Center for Deep LIstening at Rensselaer under the direction of Tome Hahn is now established and is the steward of the former Deep Listening Institute, Ltd. A celebration concert is projected for March 11, 2015 at Experimental Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at RPI in Troy NY.

Sonic awareness[edit]

Von Gunden (1983, p. 105-107) describes and names a new musical theory, developed by Oliveros in the "Introductions" to her Sonic Meditations and in articles, called "sonic awareness." Sonic awareness is the ability to consciously focus attention upon environmental and musical sound, requiring continual alertness and an inclination towards always listening, and comparable to John Berger's concept of visual consciousness (as in his Ways of Seeing). "Sonic awareness is a synthesis of the psychology of consciousness, the physiology of the martial arts, and the sociology of the feminist movement" and describes two ways of processing information, focal attention and global attention, which may be represented by the dot and circle, respectively, of the mandala Oliveros commonly employs in composition. Later this representation was expanded, with the mandala quartered and the quarters representing actively making sound, imagining sound, listening to present sound, and remembering past sound. This model was used in the composition of her Sonic Meditations. Practice of the theory creates "complex sound masses possessing a strong tonal center", as focal attention creates tonality and the global attention creates masses of sound, flexible timbre, attack, duration, intensity, and sometimes pitch, as well as untraditional times and spaces for performance such as requiring extended hours or environmental settings. The theory promotes easily created sounds such as vocal ones, and "says that music should be for everyone anywhere."

Composer, teacher, author[edit]

Oliveros received a 1994 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award.[citation needed]

Oliveros currently teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Mills College. She is openly lesbian.[11]

Oliveros is the author of five books, Sounding the Margins: Collected Writings 1992-2009, Initiation Dream, Software for People, The Roots of the Moment, and Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice.

She recently contributed a chapter to Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (The MIT Press, 2008) edited by Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky.

In 2007, Oliveros received the Resounding Vision Award from Nameless Sound. She was the 2009 recipient of the William Schuman Award, from Columbia University School of the Arts.

In 2012, Oliveros received the John Cage Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.[12]

She is a patron of Soundart Radio in Dartington, Devon, UK

Pauline Oliveros' work Deep Listening Room is featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.[13]

Some of her music is featured on the French video game NaissanceE.[14]

Pauline Oliveros is a member of Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, a global collaboration of composers, artists and musicians that approaches the virtual reality platform Second Life as an instrument itself.[15]

Notable works[edit]

  • Sonic Meditations: "Teach Yourself to Fly", etc.
  • Sound Patterns for mixed chorus (1961), awarded the Gaudeamus International Composers Award in 1962, available on Extended Voices (Odyssey 32 16) 0156 and 20th Century Choral Music (Ars Nova AN-1005)
  • Music for Annie Sprinkle's The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop—Or How To Be A Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps (1992)
  • Theater of Substitution series (1975-?). Oliveros was photographed as different characters, including a Spanish señora, a polyester clad suburban housewife, and a professor in robes. Jackson Mac Low played Oliveros at the New York Philharmonic's "A Celebration of Women composers" concert on November 10, 1975 and Oliveros has played Mac Low (see Mac Low's "being Pauline: narrative of a substitution", Big Deal, Fall 1976). (ibid, p. 141}
  • Crone Music (1989)


  • Oliveros, Pauline (2013). Sam Golter and Lawton Hall, ed. Anthology of Text Scores by Pauline Oliveros 1971-2013. Kingston, New York: Deep Listening Publications. ISBN 9781889471228. 
  • Oliveros, Pauline (2010). Lawton Hall, ed. Sounding the Margins: Collected Writings 1992-2009. Kingston, New York: Deep Listening Publications. ISBN 978-1-889471-16-7. .
  • Oliveros, Pauline (2005). Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice. New York: iUniverse, Inc. ISBN 978-0-595-34365-2. .
  • Oliveros, Pauline (1998). Roots of the Moment. New York: Drogue Press. ISBN 978-0-9628456-4-2. .
  • Oliveros, Pauline (1984). Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80. Baltimore: Printed Editions. ISBN 978-0-914162-59-9. .
  • Oliveros, Pauline (1982). Initiation Dream. Los Angeles: Astro Artz. ISBN 978-0-937122-07-5. .

Notable students[edit]


  • 1976 - Music With Roots in the Aether: Opera for Television. Tape 5: Pauline Oliveros. Produced and directed by Robert Ashley. New York, New York: Lovely Music.
  • 1993 - The Sensual Nature of Sound: 4 Composers - Laurie Anderson, Tania León, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros. Directed by Michael Blackwood.
  • 2001 - Roulette TV: Pauline Oliveros. Roulette Intermedium Inc.
  • 2005 - Unyazi Of The Bushveld. Directed by Aryan Kaganof. Produced by African Noise Foundation



  1. ^ Taylor, Timothy (Autumn 1993). "The Gendered Construction of the Musical Self: The Music of Pauline Oliveros". Musical Quarterly. Oxford University Press. 77 (3): 385–396. Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Baker, Alan. "An interview with Pauline Oliveros". American Mavericks American Public Media.
  3. ^ Service, Tom. "A guide to Pauline Oliveros's music". The Guardian.
  4. ^ a b Smith, Steve. "Strange Sounds Led a Composer to a Long Career". New York Times.
  5. ^ Amirkhanian, Charles. "Women in Electronic Music - 1977". Liner note essay. New World Records.
  6. ^ a b An interview with Pauline Oliveros. Alan Baker, American Public Media. January 2003.
  7. ^ Pauline Oliveros. Deep Listening: A Bridge To Collaboration. (1998)
  8. ^ Sitsky, Larry (2002), Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, p. 346, ISBN 0-313-29689-8 
  9. ^ a b Pauline Oliveros. Curriculum Vitae
  10. ^ Jason Ankeny. "Pauline Oliveros Biography". 98.5 Kiss FM.
  11. ^ Ulrich, Allan (May 26, 1998), "Lesbian American Composers" (– Scholar search), The Advocate [dead link]
  12. ^ "Pauline Oliveros". Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  13. ^ Whitney Museum of American Art. 103 Participants Selected for 2014 Whitney Biennial, To Take Place March 7–May 25, 2014. N.p., 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.
  14. ^ "About". Limasse Five. Retrieved 21 October 2014. [self-published source]
  15. ^ "Avatar Orchestra Metaverse". 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]