updated 23 January 2018
© Pieter Kers

Pauline Oliveros

American composer born 30 May 1932 in Houston; died 24 November 2016 in Kingston, New York.

Pauline Oliveros was born in Houston on 30 May 1932. Her mother was a pianist and her father a dancer. At a very early age, she became acutely aware of the sounds which surrounded her: the crackles of her father’s short-wave radio, bird songs, the croaking of frogs, the voices of her parents mixing with the sound of the car engine on road trips, etc. At the age of 9, her mother brought home an accordion; she developed a passion for the instrument, going on to study it with Willard A. Palmer at the Moores School of Music (University of Houston), alongside studies of horn and tuba.

The realisation that she was homosexual led her to leave her deeply conservative home state of Texas. Resolved to become a composer, she moved to San Francisco in 1952, where she taught accordion and horn to make a living and pay for her studies with Robert Erickson at the San Francisco State College. While there, she met Terry Riley and Loren Rush, with whom she formed a short-lived improvisation trio in 1957, the year in which she graduated with a degree in composition. In 1964, she attended the premiere of In C by Terry Riley, a seminal work of musical minimalism.

In 1958, she experienced a kind of epiphany when she found that her tape recorder was able to pick up sounds that she herself could not perceive. This led her to focus her energy on listening, as attentively as possible, to the sounds that surrounded her. The following year, she worked alongside Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick (with additional input from Robert Erickson) on the creation of an electroacoustic music studio at the University of San Francisco. In 1960, compositions by the three composers combining improvisations and pre-recorded sounds were presented in a concert titled “Sonics.” During her time at the studio, Oliveros composed her first work for fixed media, Time Perspectives (1961). Sender and Subotnick left the university in 1961 in order to establish the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Oliveros subsequently wrote the vocal work Sound Patterns, heavily inspired by her experiences with electronic music; the piece was awarded the Gaudeamus Prize in 1962.

In 1966, she composed a series of electroacoustic works at the University of Toronto. In the same year, the San Francisco Tape Music Center received financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, and the following year, a $15,000 grant in order to merge with the Mills Center for Contemporary Music, with Oliveros being named as Director. In this setting, she composed the Bogs series. In 1968, she accepted a teaching position at the University of San Diego, where she met physicist and karate master Lester Ingber. The two collaborated on research on music perception, giving rise to the composition of Sonic Meditations in 1971.

Oliveros left San Diego in 1981, briefly interrupting her teaching activities in order to live and work in Kingston (upstate New York). In 1985, she created the Pauline Oliveros Foundation (which would become the “Deep Listening Institute” in 2005), an organisation whose objectives included promoting of the work of female composers (specifically Anna Rubin, Shelley Hirsch, Lois V. Vierck, etc.). In 1988, she developed the notion of “deep listening,” a term applied to her work on combining music with meditation.

Following an invitation from Joe Catlano, in 1991, Oliveros participated in a “tele-musical” production in which musicians in six different cities (Kingston [NY], New York [NY], Houston [TX], San Diego [CA], Los Angeles [CA], and Oakland [CA]) performed together remotely. In 1996, she became the Darius Milhaud Composer-in-Residence at Mills College. From 2001 until her death, she taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy (NY). Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, her works, many of which had rarely been performed, were recorded and released (in some cases, re-released) by a number of experimental music labels (Lovely Music, Important Records, Table of the Elements, Sub Rosa, Pogus, Hat Hut, etc.).

In 1999, Oliveros was the recipient of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States Prize for her life’s work. In 2009, she was awarded the William Schuman Prize from Columbia University, and a retrospective concert of her works (from 1960 to 2010) took place at Miller Theater (also at Columbia University) on 27 March 2010.

Pauline Oliveros died in her sleep on 24 November 2016, at the age of 84.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2018

By Pierre-Yves Macé


Sounding the Margins. The title given by Pauline Oliveros to the collection of her writings published in 2010 situates her creative position squarely in the American tradition of the solitary, independent, and somewhat eccentric composer — the figure of the maverick. Oliveros is an outsider, in more ways than one: a women composer in a largely masculine milieu; a performer whose instrument, the accordion, was long ostracized for its popular origins; a creator who collaborated with artists of diverse backgrounds, including composers Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick, improvisers Joëlle Léandre and Joe McPhee, sound artist Stephen Vitiello, DJ Spooky, and the rock band Sonic Youth. Her catalogue is staggering, as prolific as it is eclectic. Academic pieces written for classical instruments stand alongside open-ended performance pieces without defined instrumentation or length, tape improvisations, participatory happenings, and pieces consisting of meditation or art therapy. Such an output disrupts the Western paradigm of the master-composer. Oliveros does not create forms, in the objective sense, but ratherformations, a word that should be understood in all its possible resonances: formation as a process of becoming-form, and formation as education and training, of individual creators, professional performers, and amateurs, to engage in a shared fundamental activity, listening.

Oliveros’s first creative decade, from 1956 to the end of the 1960s, traces a path of decentering, a progressive shedding of the canons of musical tradition. Her first scores, written in the course of her studies with Robert Erickson, bear the imprint of the then-fashionable post-Webernian aesthetic. If the Serenade for Viola and Bassoon (1956) constitutes Oliveros’s one and only venture into dodecaphonicism, her two song cycles — Three Songs for Soprano and Piano (1957) and Three Songs for Soprano and Horn (1957) — adopt a free atonality. The pronounced athematicism of these early scores soon called for the suspension of certain written parameters: a piece like Outline for Flute, Percussion, and String Bass (1963) asks musicians to transition, very quickly, from interpreting partially notated music to entirely free improvisation. The Variations for Sextet (1960), meanwhile, introduces sounds sustained over a long duration, meditative breaks that mark a strong contrast with the density of the writing.

Little by little, conventional music notation disappears, ceding to verbal instructions. To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation (1970) is based around the organization of five pitches freely chosen in advance for each performer. In Willowbrook (1976) for wind ensemble, a game of exchanging pitches takes place between a first group of performers (the “generating group”), with a second group (the “reflecting group”) playing the role of an echo chamber. The score establishes the rules of the game, the forms of which are indefinitely renewable. As Oliveros’s musical notation thins out, bodily presence is brought to the fore and subjected to increasingly detailed instructions: a seemingly conventional duo for piano and flute is enhanced by a page turner whose numerous gestures are given in a separate score (Trio for Flute, Piano, and Page Turner, 1961). Even more overtly theatrical, the work Pieces of Eight (1964) sets into motion various objects, ranging from the mundane (a clock, wooden crates) to the totemic (a bust of Beethoven), transforming the musical performance into a form of ritual or ceremony. Amid this 1960s aesthetic of musical theater, and extending through to her folklore and surrealism, emerges another longstanding and more personal preoccupation in Oliveros’s oeuvre: the dislocation of musical practice from the concert hall. This ambition finds its terrain of choice in Link (1970), a durational performance meant to take place on a university campus over the course of an entire day. Its continuous, accidental, or intermittent sound events are mapped in advance, and the everyday space becomes a stage on which everyone finds themselves at once performer and audience, listener and producer of sound.


Even as she broke away from musical conventions, Oliveros reaffirmed a major trope of American music: the figure of the composer-performer who interprets her own music. Having since her youth relished playful experiments with her wire recorder and her transistor radio, Oliveros committed early on to improvise directly with sonic material. Her activity as an accordionist — which intensified following her departure in 1981 from her professorial post at the University of California San Diego — became a central site of experimentation. It voiced the various developments of her aesthetic: the Cageian heritage of Duo for Accordion & Bandoneon (1965), performed with David Tudor; the meditative minimalism of Horse Sings from Cloud (1977); the modal improvisation of Rattlesnake Mountain (1982); the just tunings of The Roots of the Moment (1987); and so forth. Her intimate rapport with her instrument came to define a poetics implicating the entire body: “In the late 1960s some of my musical colleagues were trying to […] align themselves with the scientific method. The resulting music was complex and intellectual and brought about a kind of separation from the body. […] I went in the opposite direction.”1

In 1971, Oliveros joined the Big Jewish Band of San Diego as accordionist, notably to record the music for a multimedia project by poet Jerome Rothenberg. This brief foray into the accordion’s popular register bore fruit in the form of The Wanderer (1982), a piece for accordion ensemble with percussion, animated by central European dance rhythms as well as the music of klezmer, Bulgarian, and Cajun cultures. Notwithstanding this exception, Oliveros’s use of the accordion is abstracted from any reference to folk traditions: rather, it draws upon the instrumental mechanism itself, which acts as an extension of human respiration, mixing sometimes with the performer’s voice. The first on-disc recording of Horse Sings from Cloud for accordion and voice (released in 1983 on the label Lovely Music) perfectly illustrates this intimate collusion between body and instrument, composition and performance, writing and improvisation.

The collection of electronic pieces composed over the 1960s should be read as an extension of this instrumental output. As she wrote, “My accordion playing informed my electronic music and my electronic music informed my accordion playing.”2 As a musical instrument, the machine is only apprehended through its interaction with the body. Contrary to French musique concrète, Oliveros’s tape music foregoes the structuring possibilities of montage in favor of a focus on real-time performance. And contrary to German elektronische Musik, her tape music is not organized by any predetermined calculation. Drawn instead toward the phenomenon of continuity rather than the sonic object, she explores in this music a sonic continuum ranging from sinusoidal sweeps to biting white noise (A Little Noise in the System, 1967). Taking inspiration from natural phenomena (frogs croaking) as well as from industrial soundscapes (the hum of a power plant), the music unfolds in extended temporal frames, favoring long, sometimes static forms (as the series of “Bogs,” akin to a sound installation). Yet always, the gesture giving rise to the sound remains perceptible.

What is at play across these electronic pieces is the embryonic form of a live electronic system, which Oliveros would continue to develop over the years to interact with instrumental performance. This system, which Oliveros baptized EIS (Expanded Instrument System) would feature in many of her solo performances and would be refined as technology developed. Her first electronic piece, Time Perspectives (1961), created in her home, uses rudimentary equipment, everyday objects manipulated in front of a microphone: cardboard tubes and bathtub pipes used as resonators, a variable-speed tape recorder, and the like. Starting with the series of Mnemonics (1964-1966), created in the studio of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, she used Hewlett-Packard oscillators, test instruments appropriated for musical ends. With these devices, she could generate “resultant sounds” — sounds created by the superposition of two proximate frequencies, which she had previously discovered on the accordion thanks to her teacher Willard A. Palmer — by means of frequencies situated far beyond the limits of human perception. Bye Bye Butterfly (1965) opens with this type of sonority, at the threshold of the audible, until the quotation from Puccini (from which the work’s title is derived) appears, enshrouded in reverberation.

Later on, she would use Buchla and Moog synthesizers, although her interest was focused less on sound-generative devices than on those that process a signal and emit it into space. She was particularly interested in the phenomenon of echo, which she discovered accidentally through the lag between the pickup and the recording head on her tape recorder. Deployed in a quasi-systematic way in her electronic pieces from the 1960s, this technique allowed strict canons of melodic motifs to emerge out of a continuum of frequency sweeps (V of IV, 1966). Elsewhere, the densely amassed use of this technique modified the texture of the original source sounds. When Oliveros combined performance on the accordion with the EIS, she used a pedalboard allowing her to regulate in real time the various properties of echo and reverb. A disc such as Crone Music (1990, Lovely Music) shows how such changes in computing played a role in structuring her music. Technological developments would allow her to work in particular on the question of trajectories: with a piece like Moving Spaces (2006), she managed to attribute a distinct space to each of four component sound sources (woodblocks, conch, thunder tube, and a serrated wooden shell).

Attentive to technological evolutions throughout her life, Oliveros ceaselessly explored how technology could augment or extend the capacities of the human body. In a 1999 article, she drew upon the transhumanist prophecies of Ray Kurzweil to envisage a technology of neural implants that could have effects on improvisational practice, such as to enable the ear to “recognize and identify instantaneously any frequency or combination of frequencies” or “perceive and comprehend interdimensional spatiality.”3 Once again, the idea is to push limits: sounding the margins.

“Just Listen”

In her writings and interviews, Oliveros enjoyed recounting one memory in particular: in 1958, she received as a birthday present a tape recorder, which she placed one day at her window to record the street sounds of San Francisco. Upon listening to the recording, she realized that the microphone had picked up sounds that she, for lack of attention, had not heard herself. From that day onward, she committed herself to a self-discipline of rigorous listening, the pillar of a truly musical life: “Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening.” She kept a journal at that time and wrote summaries of listening that have the precision and the penetrative power of musical compositions in their own right (see, e.g., “Some Sound Observations,” published in Source Magazine4). For Oliveros, listening and hearing are different activities, distinguished according to their relation to the body: the act of hearing transmits sonic information to the brain via the auditory channel, whereas listening is located deep within oneself — “deep inside.”

Oliveros twice sought to convert this depth into experience. In 1983, she performed a piece for the collaborative disc Vor der Flüt in a disused cistern in Cologne; and in 1988, she, Stuart Dempster, and Peter Ward recorded the disc Deep Listening (on the label New Albion) in the underground cistern of Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington — a space with a volume of 75 million liters, in which reverberation lasts 45 seconds. In such a space, it is nearly impossible for a musician to distinguish between direct and reverberated sound. The multiplication of reflections acts upon an instrument’s timbre, reinforcing or attenuating certain partials. This situation demands that each instrumentalist concentrate on how her sound affects the space and is affected by it. To play in such a space was, Oliveros tells us, like finding herself immersed “in a hall covered in sonic mirrors.”

These two experiences gave rise to the concept of “deep listening,” which traverses the realms of aesthetics, ethics, and therapeutics. The adjective “deep” evokes both the intensity of the act of listening and the complexity of that which is to be heard — the profusion of exterior and interior worlds. As a discipline, deep listening designates an effort to encompass the full sonic spectrum in order to apprehend, as much as possible, its full scope and richness, all while remaining conscious of individual sounds and their trajectories. By extension, the term refers to a musical ensemble (the Deep Listening Band, with Dempster and Ward) and to a community of followers (the Deep Listening Institute).

The development of the concept of deep listening represented an important turning point in the work of Oliveros. Its roots actually go back to 1971, when she conceived her Sonic Meditations, a collection of twenty-five textual scores intended for “group work.” The collection is not specifically addressed to musicians, but to “any persons who are willing to commit themselves.”5 The pieces are not improvisations, but exercises with precise directions — like tai chi or meditation — and require sustained engagement as a group. The scores invite performers to not only produce sounds, but also to imagine sounds, to hear ambient sounds, and to recall past sounds.

The author explains this turning point in her work with reference to the violent events that marked the end of the 1960s. She cites the self-immolation of a student at the University of California San Diego protesting the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Mỹ Lai massacre. “So I began to center myself with the work I was doing on Sonic Meditation, feeling that people needed connections, interconnections, rather than separation in order to play together well for one thing (as musicians), but also to be together well as human beings on the planet that is shared by all.”6

Sonic Meditations raises the question of power head-on. Music, she writes in her introduction to the score, exerts a clear power on the body, which has been used by institutions (the Church), wealthy patrons, and industry (the Muzak corporation) in order to control people. Muzak, known in common parlance as “elevator music,” represents the summit of this impulse to control: it is music with the explicit aim of reaching the body at a subconscious or reflexive level to enhance its energy and work capacity. Practicing deep listening is a means of refusing such insidious domination. To develop an awareness of sounds is, by the same token, to develop one’s ability to master one’s own power.

It is difficult to read this idea without hearing a resonance with Oliveros’s feminist thought. It is no accident that the composition of Sonic Meditations occurred at the same time as she was founding an all-women ensemble, the ♀ Ensemble. Given the examples of her mother and grandmother, both of whom were pianists hindered by their expected social roles as homemakers, Oliveros was confronted early on by the effects of the patriarchal oppression of women’s freedoms. In a 1998 article, she called for the mass participation of women in musical life. She wished to bring about a true paradigm shift — to end the cycle of women musicians’ and composers’ careers being stifled or shattered by the shadow of men (citing the case of Alma Mahler as an example). Seeming almost to echo Walter Benjamin’s “heroes of music history,” she rallies the “musical heroines” of our time to “respond to the call of all the lost musics of women through the ages.”7

1. Pauline OLIVEROS, “My ‘American Music’: Soundscape, Politics, Technology, Community,” Sounding the Margins, Kingston, Deep Listening Publications, 2010, p. 231-232.
2. Pauline OLIVEROS, “The Accordion (& the Outsider),” Sounding the Margins, p. 160.
3. Pauline OLIVEROS, “Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence,” Sounding the Margins, p. 53.
4. Pauline OLIVEROS, “Some Sound Observations,” Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966-1973, Larry Austin and Douglas Kahn (eds.), Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011, p. 134-137.
5. Pauline OLIVEROS, score of Sonic Meditations I-XII, Sharon, Smith Publications, 1971.
6. Pauline OLIVEROS, “My ‘American Music’,” Sounding the Margins, p. 232.
7. Pauline OLIVEROS, “Breaking the Silence,” Sounding the Margins, p. 17.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2018


  • Drake ANDERSEN, « Spaces for People: Technology, improvisation and social interaction in the music of Pauline Oliveros », in Organised Sound, 2022, p. 1-8.
  • Alan BAKER, « An Interview with Pauline Oliveros », American Public Media, janvier 2003, http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/features/interview_oliveros.html
  • David W. BERNSTEIN, « Opening the Sound Field: Pauline Oliveros’ Improvisations with Magnetic Tape », notices dans Reverberations: Tape and Electronic Music, coffret 12 cd, Important Records, 2012.
  • Theodore GORDON, « ‘Androgynous Music’: Pauline Oliveros’s Early Cybernetic Improvisation », in Contemporary Music Review, 2021, Vol. 40, No. 4, p. 386–408.
  • Heidi von GUNDEN, The Music of Pauline Oliveros, Metuchen, The Scarecrow Press, 1983.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Initiation Dream, Los Angeles, Astro Artz, 1982.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Software for People. Collected Writings 1963-1980, Baltimore, Printed Editions, 1984.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Roots of the Moment, New York, Drogue Press, 1998.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Deep Listening, A Composer’s Sound Practice, Lincoln, iuniverse, 2005.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Sounding the Margins, Kingston, Deep Listening Publications, 2010.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Anthology of Text Scores by Pauline Oliveros 1971-2013, Kingston, Deep Listening Publications, 2013.
  • Benjamin Ethan TINKER, « Reflection & Dwelling, écho & réverbération in Pauline Oliveros’ Work », notices dans Reverberations: Tape and Electronic Music, coffret 12 cd, Important Records, 2012.

Discographie sélective

  • Pauline OLIVEROS, The Fool’s Circle ; A Woman Sees how the World Goes with no Eyes ; Reason in Madness Mixed ; This Great Fool’s Stage ; Let it Be So ; Let Me not Be Mad ; *Lear on the Road,*Pauline Oliveros, accordéon et élecronique, Panaiotis, électronique, dans « Crone Music », Lovely Music, 1990, LCD1903.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Time Perspectives ; Mnemonics I-V, II of IV, III of IV,IV of IV,V of IV,III;Team and Desecrations Improvisation;The Day I Disconnected the Erase Head and Forgot to Reconnect it;Jar Piece;Another Big Mother;Fed Back 1;Fed Back 2;5000 Miles;Angel Fix;Bottoms Up 1;Nite;Ringing the Mods 1 Heads;Ringing the Mods 2 Tails;Three Pieces I-III;Big Slow Bog;Boone Bog;Bog Bog;Mind Bog;Mewsack;50-50 1 Heads;50-50 2 Tails;A Little Noise in the System;Red Horse Headache, dans « Reverberations: Tape and Electronic Music 1961-1970 », coffret 12 cd, Important Records, 2012.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Horse Sings from Cloud ; Rattlesnake Mountain, dans « Accordion & Voice », imprec, 2014.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, « Water Above Sky Below Now », 1 vinyle Morphine Records, 2015, Doser027LP.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, « Half A Dove In New York, Half A Dove In Buenos Aires », 1 vinyle Smalltown Supersound, 2022, STSLJN407LP.
  • Pauline OLIVEROS, Quintessential ; Sound Piece ; Horse Sings from Cloud ; From Unkown Silences ; David Tudor ; Tree / Peace, dans « Sound Pieces », 1 CD Another Timbre, 2023, at207.

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en mai 2023).