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by Seth Colter Walls

June 15, 2012

Pauline Oliveros at 80: A Career Retrospective

by Seth Colter Walls  |  June 15, 2012

Pauline Oliveros, a totemic figure in the tradition of experimental American improvisation and composition, turns 80 this month. Even if all she'd done, along with folks like Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick, was help put the San Francisco Tape Music Center on the map in the late '60s -- a period recently given the deluxe treatment at the hands of a 12-CD set from Important Records (sample a few of the set's more notable tracks here) -- that would be sufficient occasion to celebrate her work.

But over the course of her half-century career, Oliveros has proved much more than just an early master of electronic-based drone and harsh noise. With the founding and development of her "Deep Listening" institute -- and band -- in more recent decades, she's been as venturesome an explorer in meditative, peaceful realms as she once was amid the more outre zones of aggression; her 1989 album Deep Listening was actually recorded inside a cavernous cistern, the better to achieve blissful resonances. Meantime, albums like Crone Music and Ghostdance foreground her inimitable accordion playing, in which polyrhythmic riffs (produced via her tricked-out, specially made instrument) gradually develop into transcendent, otherworldly folk tunes. Even when the instrumentation changes -- as with Lion's Eye/Lion's Tale, scored for a gamelan ensemble -- the results bear Oliveros' unmistakable imprint.

There can be a bit of patience involved in coming around to her music - some of the pieces are long, and many will take a couple hearings to begin to fully understand -- but once you do, you'll hardly regret the time spent. Take "Bye Bye Butterfly," her contribution to the seminal compilation New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media: Women in Electronic Music - 1977: It may not seem like much at first, but by the time the tape-looped soundscape has drawn an operatic aria into its swirl, the piece has more than earned its place alongside early tracks by Laurie Anderson and Laurie Spiegel.

The playlist above spans all these above-mentioned eras of her own playing - as well as other pieces written for classical musicians like the saxophonist John Sampen and the new-music ensemble Zeitgeist. I'd call it a sort of "happy birthday" to Ms. Oliveros, except the gift-like pleasure of this music is really all ours.

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