4. Role Models and Contemporaries
FRANK J. OTERI: Who were the compositional heroes in your early years? Here you are in Texas, you have a mother who taught piano, and you’re playing the accordion now, and you enter the realm of academic music composition.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well, I was always interested in music that I had never heard before. I was interested in all kinds of music, and the only reason why I might not have been interested in new music, or music that was being written right then and there is because I wasn’t exposed to it. Otherwise I would have been interested. I’m really, what should I say, a little resentful that, for example, I didn’t get to hear music by Ruth Crawford. I mean she was alive until the mid 50s; she died in 1953. I heard a little bit of Schoenberg, but that was the most recent music that I’d heard by 1949, or 1950.
FRANK J. OTERI: You were at UCLA at that point?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Right. And I had heard of Charles Ives, but I didn’t get to hear his music. And also in the late 40s and early 50s, there weren’t that many recordings available. So to be exposed to a lot of current or contemporary music was just not what could happen. And nobody was playing it in Houston so I couldn’t get to hear it.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you went to study composition.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yes. I was in the University of Houston, I was actually an accordion major. I had a really fine teacher Willard Palmer who I studied with for 6 or 7 years. He was trying to have the accordion be an academically acceptable instrument, and helped to build a repertoire for it, and he made transcriptions for it. So my acquaintance with Baroque music and some classical music came through transcriptions. When I went to University of Houston my major was accordion. He had established that as a major at the University of Houston. And I also took composition, but I had already made the decision by the time I was about 16 that I wanted to be a composer, I just didn’t know how to be one.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now at the time, now that we get to the loaded gender question., I remember reading in one of the articles that you had written how you were the only woman in composition class, and what that was at the time. You weren’t able to hear Ruth Crawford Seeger’s music, and there were no models. What were the attitudes of the male students in the class and the teachers?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well, actually, there were other women in that composition class at the University of Houston. I had composition for a year before I left – that was my third year – but I think the real cue came for me when my mother came home one day and she played some pieces for me that she had composed for a modern dance class at the YWCA. They were interesting, dissonant little pieces that looking back I realized that was a subliminal cue. There really were no models other than that.
FRANK J. OTERI: Even still there’s an assumption, and it’s disappearing more and more, but if you look at the rosters of the major publishers in this country – Meredith Monk just got signed to Boosey and Hawkes, but until then Barbara Kolb was the only living woman composer on their roster. At Schirmer the situation is very similar – Joan Tower is there but few others – Presser has more, including all three women composers to win the Pulitzer thus far. But there’s still this double standard where at this point in time there shouldn’t be. There are as many interesting women composers out there as there are men composers today.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yeah, there are lots; there are quite a few. There are more than I knew about coming up. When I came to San Francisco in 1952, I was in a composer’s workshop at San Francisco State, and on that case there were 25 people there, and I was the only woman at that workshop. And I was writing dissonant music at that time.
FRANK J. OTERI: Were you writing serial stuff?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: No, I never wrote serial music. (both laugh)
FRANK J. OTERI: Was there a reason?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: I wasn’t particularly interested in that, I was interested in what I heard, and I think some of my music sounded serial, but it wasn’t. I had it by ear, so to speak.
FRANK J. OTERI: There’s this question of intuition versus rationalization. In the middle of the 20th century, academia became dominated by really hyper-rational music, and intuition was largely discredited. It was unfortunate, because if you listen to earlier dissonant pieces by Ives or Varèse…
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Or Ruth Crawford…
FRANK J. OTERI: Or Ruth Crawford. And it coheres to the ear in a way that an equally dissonant piece that might be structural along all sorts of rational visual systems does not because all of these composers were writing what they heard.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: That’s right. I knew that was what I was doing; I was writing what I heard. That was what was important to me was to follow that, follow what I wanted to hear.
FRANK J. OTERI: But there’s definitely a stylistic break between your early work and, dare I use the word, your mature compositional style. What would you say was your pivotal moment?
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well I think it was quite pivotal when I began to work with tape music. That was at the end of the 50s. I began to play with sound on tape and I also began to improvise. So improvisation and tape music, and then electronic music, took me into another level of listening and formulating sound.
FRANK J. OTERI: And how to describe it? Longer, sustained, tone-based music…
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Yeah.
FRANK J. OTERI: Where it’s much more concentrated and time is slowed down. And that was sort of a zeitgeist in the 60s with people like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and yourself, and later Meredith Monk and Reich and Glass. It’s interesting because traditionally you don’t get lumped with that group of people, yet in some ways you inspired all of it.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: (laughs)
FRANK J. OTERI: Because you were doing stuff with tape loops before anybody.
PAULINE OLIVEROS: Well, that was really part of the time. It was a pretty natural thing to have happen. Different people would have done it sooner or later.