Dusted Reviews

Pauline Oliveros - Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1963-1970

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Pauline Oliveros

Album: Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1963-1970

Label: Important

Review date: May. 23, 2012

As birthday presents go, this one’s pretty swell. Not for you, the prospective recipient of this massive (12 CDs, 10 ½ hours of music) set, although you’re certainly welcome to put it on your birthday list. I’m talking about Ms. Oliveros’s birthdate. She turns (turned) 80 on May 30, 2012, a week after this boxset’s release.

Oliveros has faced down all manner of daunting obstacles, starting with being born female, in Texas, in the middle of the Great Depression, on her way to becoming a singular figure in music. Her uniqueness asserted itself early. She grew up with an abiding affection for the popular music she heard over the airwaves, songs by people like Bob Wills or Les Paul and Mary Ford, but developed an equally rich affection for the sounds located between the stations, which she cultivated during hours spent twisting the tuning knob of the family radio. She overcame not only prejudices against her gender but her chief instrument, the accordion. She merged improvisational and compositional practices. And she was, along with Bebe Baron and Daphne Oram, one of the first women to create electronic music (more on that in a minute).

So how come Oliveros isn’t toasted as vigorously as John Cage, whose 100th birthday is also being celebrated this year? I reckon that all the aforementioned barriers have had something to do with it, but there’s also her choice to put her energy into workshops and retreats more than albums. These may have worked well as means to transmit the value of Deep Listening, a central tenet of her creative practice which involves striving to be aware of the many sounds that one routinely tunes out, but they’ve kept her from asserting significance through sheer productivity the way that Cage did. Much of her work involves the sharing of experience rather than the generation of scores, texts and records; she has done all of that stuff too, just not as much of it.

In the 1960s, when Oliveros made most of her explicitly electronic music (currently she works a lot with electronically enhanced acoustic sounds), the task of making the stuff was arduous in the extreme. Reliant on computers the size of a new kitchen and tape that had to be manually cut and spliced, it could take a composer many months to come up with a five-minute piece of music. One thing that set her apart from the pack was her choice to make electronic music that was performance-based. It wasn’t always done in front of anyone save the people rolling the tape. But even when it was made from primitive chains of oscillators and tape decks, with the duration of the tape delay determined by how far apart the tape decks were, it was performed. This means that while she didn’t get a whole lot of it released at the time, plenty of it got on tape. The 12 discs in Reverberations are organized by recording location. “Time Perspectives,” the earliest piece here, is literally home made; her bathtub was the echo chamber, and she varied the speed of her Sears Roebuck recorder by hand.

From there she moved on to the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a collective founded by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender that also included Joseph Byrd and Terry Riley. She ended up in charge of the operation at one point, and when the need for a massive cash infusion compelled the Center to affiliate with an academic institution, she joined the faculty of Mills College. Other CDs in the set come from extended residencies at the University of Toronto and U of C-San Diego. Regardless of the location, Oliveros’s work favored a spontaneous approach. This yielded performances that were not particularly suited to the confines of vinyl — 10 of the set’s 35 tracks are about half an hour long — but which fit pretty handily on CD.

Oliveros’s early adventures with the radio dial seem to have become her guide; “The Day I Disconnected the Erase Head and Forgot to Reconnect It” and “Fed Back 1” sound like they could have been plucked out of the between-station radio ether. On accordion, Oliveros often sounds like she’s approximating an orchestra’s timbral reach and complexity, but she’s pretty willing to let her electronics sound electronic and act like electricity. Sometimes they’re mesmerizing, sometimes playful, and sometimes downright brutal; “50-50 1 Heads” is as brain scouring and ear-damaging as anything that’s come out of the recent Midwestern noise underground. When she does approximate other sounds on a series of “Bog” pieces, she reaches for the natural world. “Boone Bog” shimmers with insectoid drones, which are in turn interrupted by whirs and chirps strongly reminiscent of birds and other bugs. Decades before the advent of samplers, Oliveros recognized in electronics a medium that gave her a range of sound as wide as nature itself.

By Bill Meyer

Other Reviews of Pauline Oliveros

No Mo

The Roots of the Movement

Accordion & Voice / The Wanderer

Four Electronic Pieces 1959-1966

Read More

View all articles by Bill Meyer

Find out more about Important

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.