Interview with Pauline Oliveros at the Deep-Listening Retreat in the Alps at Murren, Switzerland July 4 - 11, 1999 (Lutz Felbick)

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The sound of the interview : short impression (493 KB)

Thanks to Monique Buzzarte for helping with transcribing the text.

Interview  mit Pauline Oliveros beim Deep-Listening- Workshop in Mürren, Schweiz4. - 11. July 1999 (deutsche gekürzte Version)

LF: Pauline, you work with people who are musicians as well as with people who are not musicians. Does it make any sense to be a musician?

PO: (laughs) Of course it does. Of course, it makes sense to be anything, to train in the way that you want to. In my work, I'm interested in the facilitation of creativity and I feel that basically all people are musical really, but that it gets lost, and it gets lost in a variety of ways. It gets lost for a lack of encouragement in some cases and so I like to make it possible for people to have some experiences even if they haven't had musical training. And sometimes musical training gets in the way, is an obstacle for musicians who are focused on expertise of particular thing and so are not able to embrace a larger, or something that's different from what they are doing. I understand this but at the same time I feel it is important to be able to be more flexible, to include more variety of music.

LF: I read some thoughts of John Cage who said that he hated harmony. There may be a difference or evolution between John and you? PO: Well it's interesting. I know this famous statement that he didn't understand harmony and I think he did understand it but he doesn't want to use it in the way that it was taught because it was too confining into particular style or mode of music. As a matter of fact, later in life we met at a conference at George Lukas's Skywalker Ranch in California for a conference for sound design, and I played a little bit of the Deep Listening Band CD [Deep Listening] that was made in a big cistern that had a 45-second reverberation time and then I also played a solo of mine called The Roots of the Moment for accordion and my Expanded Instrument System, and it was during that that John publicly stated that he now understood harmony based on hearing the Deep Listening CD. He was also thinking about James Tenney's piece called Critical Band and this had to do with reflections of sound and space and he was thinking of harmony having a whole new understanding of harmony coming from the consideration of space, reverberation, echoes and reflections. Because this is more like unintentional harmony and the harmony that he could feel harmonious with in his own way and he began to write in his later pieces based on that new understanding that came about at that particular point of time. So it was very interesting. For myself I think of harmony as a spatial organization for myself, and that every space has a different kind of harmony. I mean in some places where you play the 19th century harmony it wouldn't sound good.

LF:... you mean even the place and the moment...

PO: ... exactly. So I think space is underrated, is not as well understood as say the four-part harmony of Bach, for example, which is the model for harmony courses, I mean that's okay. I mean it's fine to learn that harmony, but it will not teach you to be a composer. It really will not!

LF... greater understanding of harmony

PO: ... it's a different kind of understanding and it has it's place in the spectrum of everything but it shouldn't be the only thing. It's not the only way.

LF: I read a lot of books about listening and in those books they told about the ability of memory which is very important. Miller said that you may remember seven things plus or minus one in your short-term memory. What do you think about those connections between the ability of memory and listening?

PO: I think it's an analogous to photographic memory. People who can remember everything they see. And there is a special state of consciousness that goes with this and it's a very clear, open, receptive state of consciousness. So it's almost like (finger-snipping) quick camera. And I believe that this is true for sound as well. It requires to be very open, receptive, to be that, and that this will help memory. I think the short-term memory can be opened to the long-term memory, don't you think?

LF: Maybe if people tell you five telephone numbers I can't remember all those numbers.

PO: There is a so-called idiot savant person who has a very highly developed memory for a very narrow kind of thing. Some have memory for numbers like that, and just have a phenomenal memory. but not for anything else.

LF: That the science has proved ...

PO: I don't necessarily think so because it also depends on the way things are measured. Every day now there is some new discovery about it that moves some, what used to be boundary, to some other location. It seems to me like we create a lot of our boundaries. We repeat over and over again that human beings could only run one mile in four minutes but maybe... maybe ... somebody comes along and changes that. So I don't know ... I like to be open to possibilities. I mean it's like saying that human hearing is 16-20,000 Hertz. Well there may be true. For somebody else that may be different. Maybe lower or maybe higher or maybe less, it's not that fixed.

LF: A theme that goes in the same direction: When I talk to people I always make a hierarchy of the words. If I listen to people I select the important things and the less important things get a lower priority in my brain. For me it seems there is a natural way of listening for example, in the speech and maybe even in music.

PO: That come through training. It's a way of listening, it's establishing the culture of understanding, a knowledge base and then possibly something happens and I want to shake it up so that there are new possibilities, different possibilities, so that more can be included. And for some people that brings fear (spoken in a high tone) because it may be changing the ground that you stand on. I know that this is true. Well may be.... (laughing) ? Well maybe there is something else too. What I like to think about is living in a world of possibilities rather than a world of limitations.

LF: This morning you quoted that "here are no borders." In the twenties or thirties in Germany there was a strange movement which was very tolerant because they said there are no borders and they accepted very much. So in Germany in the thirties Adolf Hitler came and people had to say there is a border: You may not do this. So I think there must be a border. If the evil is coming you have to make a border, that it should not...

PO: Is it life-threatening? And if it hurts some? Than we have to deal with it, but we have the conflict of the dark side, or the evil side. We also have to overcome our fear (laughing and being quiet for some seconds).

LF... but maybe I did not understand you? There are no borders and maybe there are no enemies? (laughing)

PO: Well first of all, you think of countries: here you have Germanyand here you have Switzerland. We have to have a border. We can thinkabout these. Or we have towns. This town has a border or then we have a whole continent, a whole Europe, we have North America and South America. We have borders. But these borders are artificial borders because we all live on this planet.

LF: Those borders are the material borders, but I felt you mean the spiritual borders or the borders between good and evil, maybe ...

PO: mmm...

LF:...because I know a very spiritual man called Paul Tillich and he has said that you will make the best experiences just staying on the borders. If there are no borders you can't have those experiences (both laughing very deeply!).

PO: Well that's interesting. Sure... Let's put it this way. The thing that's important to understand is what is relative as opposed to what is absolute.

LF: Exactly that's my question...

PO: I mean there is very little with absolute. Everything is relative to one thing or another. So good, relative to evil. I mean there are good things which can result in evil. There are evil things which can be done for good reasons. It's a relative issue.

LF: Maybe there could not be a general solution for this?

PO: Maybe not. I don't know. It could be an absolute evil to take someone's life. Well I mean if you are defending your country and you take a life you have done an evil thing by killing someone. But you have done a good thing by protecting your country. So that is relative there, but it's still if you believe, it's a evil to take a life and you have done it for a good reason. There is no solution, you have to make a decision.

LF: ... not generally like a philosophy

PO: sure. This is our dilemma with the borders or the so-called borders.

LF: maybe...

PO: maybe... You learn your life lessons that we are here to learn just with I think...that's my understanding but I don't know about absolute ... not too many... (laughing) So there'll be a lot of ambiguity and changes around relativism.

LF: Now I'll ask a question which is not so hard. I see if you do your Deep Listening Retreats there is always a lot of humor (laughing) Why? What is the connection between humor and Deep Listening? (both laughing) Could be a secret? So I go to my next question....maybe (laughing)?

PO: What is the relationship? Well I think humor is very, very wonderful in terms of shaking things up. When you're going in a certain direction, to be very serious, it opens up eases things. It eases when something gets too tense and makes for ease .... release and opening. So I think humor is very important. It's very important to me (laughing)!

LF: I think in the history of music we lost the improvisation...

PO: Yes! Right!

LF: ...and I think as I understood you that's connected with losing Deep Listening maybe?

PO: I think maybe in a way, because Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were excellent improvisers and were very well known for this. Even, their improvisation was more important than their composition. But then you are going into the 19th-century, into the notion of the genius composer and the great composer. I mean before that, the case composer was in the medieval time, it was different...

LF .. handicraft? ...

PO: ...yes, but the idea of the genius starts to distance people, make them feel like they were not capable of doing such improvisation and also because the printed score became more and more important through this time, and musicians came to rely on the scores and composers too, constructing more and more complicated forms. So improvisation fell away, something that was too hard to do. I think that's what happened. I'm not totally sure but it seems to me something like that, and it was only existing for organists in churches to improvise..

LF... Jazz musicians?

PO: ... well of course. Jazz did not have a status of classical music, improvisation was very, important to what was happening. Of course, now the two streams are mingling so there is not so much difference in current music between "Jazz" and "New Music" - they are working together in a way, so that is very interesting but improvisation is having more currency also in the world. In 1960 improvisation was not very well known. I mean not in the sense it is today in the nineties.

LF: Even the "Avantgarde" hated those kind of improvisation because they said there were some cliches...

PO: ...exactly.. always the same stuff coming up...

LF: ... well I think there was an interesting concept of the "Avantgarde" of the fifties, because there was a challenge for hearing

PO: ...oh yes...

LF:... even Pierre Boulez...

PO: .. yes, this is true...

LF: ... he created very crazy things. So it's a challenge for listening.

PO: ...right, exactly.. but in my experience, in my own work for example, it's important for me not to throw away something : Not to throw away conventional notation if I want to use it, or not to throw away the written music, or constructive music, because one thing informs the other. There is information going back and forth just as electronic music informs acoustic music. So it becomes a synthesis and exchange .I mean one thing effects another as I was saying this morning in listening effects, you can effect change by listening and I think that musicians, like any people, can get stuck in one kind of expression or fixed on something and so it's important to understand how to expand to get some more information but then also how to use it . How do you break up all patterns? First of all you have to recognize them, and if you don't recognize then (laughing)...

LF: Since Arnold Schoenberg the "Avantgarde" had always the idea of being in the point of the present. May be Schoenberg once said that he has a spiritual duty to bring those things from god which had to be done at this moment. And I think Messiaen and some other musicians had the same idea - the spiritual connection. What I understood that they always thought they were on the point of the present and for me this was always the idea of "Avantgarde". But you said "Avantgarde" is old-fashioned.

PO: That's what I thought (laughing). I mean the term seems to be out-dated. It's a military term. So for me, militarism I like to see out-moded (laughing).

LF: But I think its a kind of a symbol when you have a look at time if you have the imagination that time is linear.

PO: Yes but the present moment is gone the moment it happens (laughing very deeply). Where is it? So I think of the circle or sphere, a ball that can continue to expand like the universe, that you can include more and more of, like a circle. That everything is happening all at once ... simultaneously. So there is no point but it's all there anyway (laughing). But we are a little bit stuck in the points of time. We create time with our language. with years, measurements ... think of cycles of these...come around again...

LF: What do you think about MUSAK? You know this?

PO: Yes I know MUSAK (laughing). Well I think that it's a tool of business ... using music to function as a tool to get people to work more, or less, or to get people to buy things, that's what it's function is. The function is not noble. Its not to embrace consciousness or unconsciousness so that they can be manipulated, so its a manipulation and I think that will be good for everyone to understand what that music does and how it does it, and how they themselves relate to it. It should be taught as self-defense. To defend against MUSAK so that you are not influenced by it in that way . You can feel it. So there is some choice ... you can choose...

LF: Maybe Theodor Adorno has had hated this most because he has a special opposition against this society of commercial things...

PO: Well to use something that's so fundamental and basic to human beings to make personal gain or profiteer. It's kind of unethical. So I mean talk about border relatively speaking, a business person, their intention is to make money. And its good if you are in business to make money but is it good to make money by using... to move people in certain ways without their really understanding and knowing that this is what is being done? It's a moral problem it seems to me. But my answer is: Let's listen and learn what's happening to us so we can resist, if we want to.

LF: Those are not the enemies. We have to go on...

PO: So that's the way I think. To take charge, take responsibility to know what is in the environment and what and how it is influencing you.

LF: In the reality of the conservatories there is one subject called ear training. What kind of relation do you have to this traditional subject?

PO: I talk about musicianship as being able to be in the world as a musician if you want to and I feel that what a musician has to be able to do is to discriminate the very tiniest difference between one pitch and another, to be able to know the difference: This pitch is one cent different.

LF:.. one cent?

PO: That's very small difference but that's the very subtle point, to learn to discriminate. Difference is important . And then to be able to discriminate the difference in the pulse-rate to know the smallest difference in the pulse-rate. Those are the basics for me those two things as far as pitch and rhythm is concerned, to be able to do that. So from there you can build an understanding of different systems , many different systems. So I thinks it's important, this kind of ear training.

LF: Yes but you know the problem is that you usually have two years for those students and you have to make a curriculum for only two years. So you have to decide what you will bring into curriculum and you have decide what you bring out. Maybe you study those solfège, maybe you study hearing all the harmonies of Bach chorale. Maybe you study being sensitive for the pitches for the special metrum...

PO: Well I want to have two years for improvisation and composition. Improvisation and composition would have these principles, what people are doing here [in Mürren], they are learning quite a lot of things, not Bach four-part-harmony, but they are learning something if they want go to that direction. So they can chose it. They can chose to go there if they want.

LF: After having the basics?

PO: The basic of creativity , of creating music, rather than taking it in. .. but you can't possibly take it all in, but you can come from the inside out, and then gravitate, go towards something that you find very interesting, and then you learn much faster, much better, much more thoroughly. Because this quite the opposite of what...

LF: Don't you think if you are a musician and you are not able to write down a children's song it could be difficult. If you do a lot of basics but you are able to write down the simplest melody?

PO: Well again that's its possible to be a musician today and not have to write down everything. Everything is possible, because I think everything could be done by ear. That's possible, because we have computers, synthesizers, we have software, there are all sorts of things. There could be a whole different relationship to come about. I mean musicians of the old school who know their harmony and their conventional notation, and can do all the kind of things. They can do all of that but they can not create anything or they can not improvise. But I like to think of the sort of working together, having it happen... out of interest rather than prescription.

LF: Sometimes I felt that you don't start at the "object of music" but you start at the "subject of people"?

PO: Maybe so...

LF: ...and then you come to the "object of music"?

PO: Music is my life and my passion and my motivation. I feel that without the humanity in the understanding of human nature you don't have any music. Not really! So its very important. To bring about a music that can function as healing in this time we have to have people relationship ... people relating to one another in a harmonious way, and not four-part chorales. (laughing very, very deeply).

Pauline Oliveros Foundation