Pauline Oliveros: Creating, Performing And Listening

Pauline Oliveros: Creating, Performing And Listening

7. Working with Other Musicians: From Quintet of the Americas to Sonic Youth

FRANK J. OTERI: So getting back to this notion of replication and scores, and improvisation versus composition, or having something that other people can do or work with. You were one of the earliest people to experiment with alternative forms of notation – graphic notation, etc. When you’ve dealt back then to now, I mean now this is stretching back more than half a century. How do classically trained performers respond to those scores, how do they initially respond…

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well of course early on, the most radical departure was to do Sonic Meditations and just to transmit a score orally. I’ve found that the most receptive people were people who were not trained musically.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s ironic.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: They didn’t bring that baggage to the experience. Early reactions, as far as musicians were concerned, they weren’t interested, or they were ready to put it down because it didn’t resemble what they were used to engaging with.

FRANK J. OTERI: And now?

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Now it’s much easier because the musicians have experienced so much and have been exposed a great deal. But you still run into attitude.

FRANK J. OTERI: And from all different perspectives.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Sometimes when you don’t think it will happen it does.

FRANK J. OTERI: Getting into this whole idea of sharing music, and what that means, and what a composer can do who shares music. In addition to playing music yourself and co-creating music live with other performers, you’ve also written works for other people to do. And the range is so interesting. Everything from working with a wind quintet, like Quintet of the Americas, to a chorus, like American Voices, to the rock band Sonic Youth, one of my favorite bands of all time… These are a wide range of people who had to deal with a score of some sort from you. I’d be interested in hearing how the Quintet of the Americas reacted and then how Sonic Youth reacted because they have very different backgrounds.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well, Quintet of the Americas, I worked with them on Portrait and with that piece, they each get a pitch set and metaphor.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s really a piece about them.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yes it is. I’ve asked them to work from a feeling base. Here’s some pitches – there’s one called signature and maybe there are 3 pitches, make your signature with those 3 pitches, if you chose to go to that particular place in the map to play. There are also instructions there for listening in certain ways so that they can move away from those given pitches into more improvisation, but with guidelines for how to listen to other people or other sources of material. And they were scared because they hadn’t done anything like that before. They hadn’t really had any experience with performer choice, or improvisation, or whatever you want to call it. But still, the guidelines are there. It’s like here, here are some guidelines, make a piece out of it. Well, you think, “That’s not a score because there aren’t any notated pitches.” Well it’s not pitch-centered in the first place. We have pitch, we have rhythm, we have harmony and timbre, texture, density, volume. We have sound, we have silence and you put it together.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, this is an interesting challenge to the notion of replication, a piece tailor made for an ensemble. It wouldn’t make sense for another wind quintet to play this piece because this is their piece.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well another wind quintet could have the score. Anytime anybody plays the piece they get a set of pitches which is unique to them. It’s computer generated, it’s program designed. So the pitch comes from information which is the name of the person, the date of birth, the place of birth, and the time of birth, and that information is then interpreted by the program and a set of pitches comes, and they are absolutely unique to that person. Each player in the quintet had a set of pitches that were unique to them, so that the 5 people were each contributing their own portrait to the overall portrait of the Quintet of the Americas. So it can be a solo piece or an ensemble piece, or duo, trio, or whatever, an orchestra.

FRANK J. OTERI: In our library at the American Music Center, we also have an orchestra score from 1981 called Tashi Gomang which looked really interesting to me.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yeah, I have a tape of it right here.

FRANK J. OTERI: Ooh. I’d love to hear it… I imagine that your approach with Sonic Youth was quite different from these.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Sonic Youth got a piece called Six for New Time and I wrote it especially for them for 4 guitars and 2 percussion. It also is a performer choice piece but it’s designed for some of the attributes of the group. There are noise components, in the pulse rhythm, and so on, and they have choices they can make. There’s kind of a map – there’s a hexagon that had different choices around the hexagon, and also ways of listening. I think maybe there’s a scale they can choose to use as well. I was not able to be at the recording session. They wanted me to be there to work with them, but we could never get our schedules together. They had to work with the score themselves, and William Winant was one of the percussionists; he has an office across the hall.

FRANK J. OTERI: I noticed that.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: He’s played a lot of my pieces. In fact he was on this recording Tashi Gomang from 1981.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you really can’t speak to what it was like to work with Sonic Youth.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: No because I didn’t get to work with them.

FRANK J. OTERI: But I guess you can say what you feel about the recording.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yes, well I like it. I think it’s really fine. I mean I wish I had had a chance to work with them. I might have been able to bring out more aspects of the piece.

FRANK J. OTERI: I found that the whole recording project they did so thought provoking. In the classical music field we talk about this ghetto of new music, and all the established rules, “You can’t program a piece by a living composer or by an American composer because no one will come to the concert, etc.” Sonic Youth does this album with your music, with Christian Wolff‘s music, John Cage..


FRANK J. OTERI: All this music. And they have a huge fan base and people are buying it and people are hearing very experimental music, sounds they’re not used to hearing, and loving it.


FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve been to Sonic Youth concerts and their own music is informed by their knowledge of the experimental music tradition, and there are young people, thousands of young people hearing these unusual harmonies, unusual guitar tunings, unusual intervals and loving it.

PAULINE OLIVEROS: And I’m finding that I’m being very, very well received by young people, and I really appreciate it, I like it. I play with lots of different people. DJ Spooky and I played together…it’s very interesting.

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