As revealed in Daniel Weintraub’s new documentary, which is largely narrated by the late American composer herself (through archived interview footage), Pauline Oliveros was from a very early age obsessed not so much with music as with sound – how it is, or can be, made and what you can do with it. An accomplished musician in her youth, equally adept on the piano, violin, French horn and tuba, she settled on the accordion as her weapon of choice, taking a much-derided instrument primarily associated with French cafes and village squares and somewhat improbably repurposing it for use in avant-garde composition.
At San Francisco State College, Oliveros had the good fortune to find herself in a creatively stimulating environment, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Terry Riley and Stuart Dempster, who recognised her talent – as did Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, with whom she subsequently set up the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) in the early 1960s. The SFTMC proved to be remarkable in a number of ways, its envelope-pushing mixed-media events encompassing music, visuals and choreography and effectively foreshadowing the countercultural “happenings” of hippie-era California and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable in New York.
The film portrays the period as one of anarchic, gleeful experimentation, underlining the fact that cutting-edge composition needn’t be forbidding and po-faced. On the contrary, the likes of Tropical Fish Opera (in which fish swimming up and down in a tank were treated as notes in a three-dimensional score by musicians sat around it) and Pieces Of Eight (which involved musicians performing while someone crowbarred open a wooden crate to reveal a bust of Beethoven) illustrate that Oliveros and her co-conspirators had a sense of surreal, mischievous fun to match their fertile imaginations.
As its name suggests, the SFTMC was also a hub for pioneering work exploring the potential of tape recording and the sonic capabilities of other electronic devices – instruments that, as Oliveros points out, were primarily scientific rather than musical, designed for the lab rather than as compositional tools. This marked the start of a lifetime of eagerly embracing technology, using it to not only make but also manipulate music, and subsequently developing what she called the Expanded Instrument System, which helped to open up a new world of electronic audio signal processing.
Perhaps unusually for a composer, Oliveros seems to have been almost as preoccupied with how sound is perceived as with how it’s produced. Hearing demands care and attention. While some cynical viewers might be inclined to scoff at the scenes shot at rural retreats as hippyish claptrap, her “sonic meditations” and concept of “deep listening” – a form of what we might now call “mindfulness” – have clearly struck a chord with a lot of people, musicians and non-musicians alike. This spiritual element of her practice also has an ethical and political dimension; in the context of current events, it’s hard not to feel that if we genuinely listened to each other more often, with respect and empathy, the world would be a better place.
At a shade over two hours long, the documentary is perhaps a tad baggy, and the typos in some of the captions are an annoying distraction and suggestive of a project finished off too hastily. Weintraub might also have given greater consideration to the fact that the SFTMC and the world of modern classical music were almost exclusively male domains, just as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was for Oliveros’ British counterpart Delia Derbyshire. Even among her radical free-thinking contemporaries, Oliveros was often the only woman in the room (and a queer woman at that) – though her gender and sexuality don’t appear to have impeded her artistic career.
Deep Listening concludes with footage of the extraordinary performance of Oliveros’ Sensational Sounds For Hearing And Non-Hearing Performers, that took place in an old municipal swimming pool in Bergen, Norway in August 2016. Robert Demeter was given the opportunity to guide the musicians through gesture, despite being deaf and having never conducted before. The result – bearing out Oliveros’ conviction that sound is not so much heard as felt in the body – moved the composer to tears. She died three months later.
As the credits roll, we’re invited to participate in a performance of her Tuning Meditation. This being an auditorium full of British music nerds, everyone is too reserved to join in – but most of us stay in our seats, listening in silence, brought together and transfixed by the power of sound.
Dir: Daniel Weintraub (12A*, 125 mins)
Seen as part of the 2023 Doc’n Roll Festival
words BEN WOOLHEAD