2. Rethinking the Canon
FRANK J. OTERI: Well that’s what I really want to get into further as we talk about your not wanting to write masterpieces. Do you even feel it’s valid to want to be a part of the western canon of classical music?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well, what that canon is at this moment is kind of a question. I mean the western canon – you think of what’s being taught in academic institutions which generally center around 18th century so-called common practice.
FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s common to a few countries in central Europe. (both laugh)
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well it certainly came from the first Viennese school which was definitely riddled in aristocracy, music for intellectual pleasure. If we’re talking about that, I have as much influence from that but it’s balanced with a lot of other influences of music from around the world.
FRANK J. OTERI: At this point of the game, I mean now that we’re at the dawn of the 21st century, it’s really foolish to even think of a western canon. I mean we really have a world music that we can examine now with the development of recordings.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well, we’ve got a 100 years of recording and the recording is probably the single most important technological development for musicians in the 20th century. That in the first half of the 20th century, second being the computer, and then the integration of computer and recording, of the computer technology and recording. Those are 2 very, very evolutionary developments. It has certainly made possible the exposure of world music, music from different parts of the world. But it has also made it possible to have a mirror image in sound.
FRANK J. OTERI: And for there to be communication between cultures.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: And that.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Because of the mobility it’s possible for those musicians to mingle with one another.
FRANK J. OTERI: One of my favorite stories is about an old Jimmie Rodgers song winding up in Kenya in the 1930s and influencing a whole style of music there. They started building their own guitars. There’s even one group of people in Kenya that deified Jimmie Rodgers because he must have had super natural powers; he was able to communicate through this recording but he was so far away.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yeah, right. It really is about ancestors and respect for ancestors.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, we can perhaps talk a little bit about several world music canons instead of just a western canon. In America in the 20th century we have a whole experimental music canon going back to Ives. I would argue that it goes back even further than that to the string quartet attributed to Benjamin Franklin and the hymns of William Billings. Most of the interesting concert music in America has been experimental in some form or fashion. And your music has been on these series that Michael Tilson Thomas did here at the San Francisco Symphony, the American Mavericks Festival. Your music was also part of a concert that the New York Philharmonic did of American experimentalists. Do you feel you fit in with that group of people? Another loaded question.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: I would say that I find myself feel collegial and had peer relationships with a fairly large group of people that where that was most apparent was probably began in 1979 with New Music New York which became New Music America for a good 10 years. There were New Music America Festivals moving from city to city. So the first one was in New York, the second in Minneapolis, then San Francisco. The idea was to move the festival to a different city every year. And in that festival were people who were composer-performers, or people who were so-called experimentalists or from the so-called avant-garde tradition were brought together every year. So there was a lot of camaraderie and exchange and places to go to play, and that festival served a really amazing function. They grew every year until it blew over the top and it ended. The last one was in Montreal.
FRANK J. OTERI: That was a great way to show the geographical diversity of new music in this country. The cliché is always for people think of New York and the San Francisco Bay Area as the two hubs of experimental music. But provocative things are happening all over the place. I think you offer an interesting perspective on this also since you grew up in Texas completely outside all of this. How did you come to music initially?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well initially it was because my mother and grandmother were piano teachers, and I heard music lessons every day, and I sort of gravitated to music myself. There was always music around one way or another, I heard a lot of music. Houston, where I grew up had a lot of different kinds of music. It wasn’t a town for new music, or for jazz. I don’t remember hearing Stan Kenton, for example, in Houston.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting because nowadays the Houston Opera is quite adventurous. They commissioned Meredith Monk‘s Atlas, and John Adams and a lot of interesting productions have come out of Houston. People always say New Yorkers have this snobbery about new music. Well, when I first realized that Houston was doing all these new operas, I was thinking, “Wow, we don’t even do all that in New York.”
PAULINE OLIVEROS: This is true. It’s a little more decentralized. In New York we have the Metropolitan Opera that doesn’t do new music.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow, when did they do that?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: In 1903.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow, I didn’t realize they had done that.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yes, and it was a big success. But they’ve never done another opera by a woman since.
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to get back to that later.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yeah, we’ll go up and down. (both laugh)