Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros performing at the Centre Pompidou in January 2011. (Photo: Vinciane Verguethen)

Composer and educator Pauline Oliveros is the recipient of the 2012 John Cage Award. This year, she will perform in several events. On May 3, she will present the keynote address at the Her Noise symposium at the Tate Modern, which will be followed by a performance of a score from 1970 that she describes below. On the 5th, Oliveros will perform in the Europa Jazz Festival in Le Mans, France, and on the 10th, a concert in a simulation of cistern acoustics from her seminal Deep Listening album will take place at EMPAC in Troy, New York. More information on Oliveros’s upcoming events can be found on her website.

TURNING EIGHTY HAS BEEN FANTASTIC. Forty years ago, people weren’t so familiar with performance, and they certainly didn’t know my work very well. But now esteemed groups such as the International Contemporary Ensemble play my compositions, and it’s very heartening. Receiving this year’s John Cage Award was a total and welcome surprise, too. I thought this would be a relaxing time in my life—a time to retire! I was wrong.

As Cage said, composing is organizing sounds in time—and you are a composer if you are organizing the way sounds manifest in duration. It certainly isn’t necessary to be a schooled musician who knows how to notate pitches on a staff. Nonetheless, I have still noticed that women have had a more difficult time actually calling themselves composers. So many women go to school to study English or theory or musicology. Perhaps they don’t enter the composition programs because they don’t have enough role models who are women, and this must change. Several composers, and some former students of mine, are working toward amending that: Clara Tomaz, Maria Chavez, Jaclyn Heyen, Brenda Hutchinson, and Ellen Fullman.

In 1970, shortly after I read the SCUM Manifesto, I finished a piece that we’ll perform at the Her Noise symposium—To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation. I remember that I was impressed with Solanas’s politics and her structural thinking, and I began to wonder how a more equal distribution of rights in society could be manifested or paralleled in music. Monroe had died eight years earlier, and after Solanas shot Warhol in 1968, I began to see a connection between Monroe’s and Solanas’s lives as the growing, and very exciting, women’s movement gained momentum. I titled the piece this way not because I wanted to directly comment on Solanas or Monroe, but rather to reference the women’s movement in general and its various sides and the significant effects it was having on culture.

Structurally, the piece is based on Solanas’s exposition about equality and overall it is nonhierarchical: Each musician chooses five different pitches and one of the pitches has to be in a different dissonant relationship to the others. There are three sections to the work that correspond with lighting overhead—a yellow, red, and blue section. In a way, these changes really conduct the piece, as the players have to perceive them to understand the queue. The duration of each section depends on what is happening, on what the musicians decide to do. It could be a very long meditation, with each part lasting more than thirty minutes.

In the first section, the players can only work with one pitch, and somewhere in the middle of that a photoflash goes off and then the second part begins. Then the musicians are free to imitate the pitches the other players are using, so there is some exchange that begins to happen. They can actually modify those pitches, articulating them in very different ways, and they begin to play with different qualities of sound. In the middle section they introduce four more pitches each. In the last section they return to their first choices. Finally, there is another photoflash and after that they are back to the very first pitches they chose and they work it back toward the end of the piece. Of course, this is a very broad outline of the piece. We’ll see how it goes in London.