A Wide Open Place: UCSD & The Birth Of Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations

In an exclusive extract from his new book, *Alien Territory: Radical, Experimental, & Irrelevant Music in 1970s San Diego*, author Bill Perrine describes the heady atmosphere of early 1970s California that led to a new era in the work of one of America's most adventurous composers

Pauline Oliveros at Sonic Acts, 2012. Photo by Rosa Menkman. CC By 2.0

It was 1970 and Alexina Louie, a fledgling Canadian composer, was looking at graduate schools when her professor mentioned a new university on the West Coast staffed by composers, with an emphasis on contemporary music. She had come from a conventional music school with a traditional emphasis on theory, notation, musical history and coursework. Any number of schools offered more of the same, but UCSD promised something much more intriguing. It was advertised as “a wide open place”, she would later recall, “and indeed, it was, to my shock.”

In a setup that resembled a summer camp more than a major university, UCSD’s music department was housed in a series of Quonset huts left over from Camp Matthews, the Marine base that preceded the campus. As Roger Reynolds, a composer then new to the campus, would later recall of his undergraduate students, “they were smoking pot in the back, their dogs were with them, they were lying on the floor, it was incredible”. In keeping with the summer camp vibe, the year’s initial gathering of graduate students was a full immersion in sound improvisation led by trombonist John Silber. Instead of the anticipated meet and greet – polite handshakes and shy smiles peppered with dry considerations of lesson plans and academic targets – Alexina Louie found herself “making sounds, high and low vocal sounds, you know, tapping on things and crawling on the floor. I remember thinking, what am I doing here? It’s a graduate music school and I’m crawling on the floor with my fellow graduate students.” The rumours were true: San Diego was a “wide open place”. As intended, “it completely upended my concept of music study.”

Louie attended her first concert at UCSD on Halloween of 1970: a midnight performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’, its hypnotic repetition a revelation. The atmosphere around campus was heady. Her fellow students were engaged in experimental and environmental music, sound art; activities far removed from her prior study of piano and classical technique. She found herself performing in text based pieces by Robert Erickson. “I had been doing chamber music. We did the Mozart ‘Mass in C Minor’, and here I was participating as a student in these chanting, ritualistic pieces.” All momentous experiences, yet they paled in comparison with the transformation she would experience as a member of Pauline Oliveros’s ♀ Ensemble.

Oliveros had undergone a transformation of her own since arriving in San Diego from San Francisco a few years prior. She had been raised in Texas, a footloose tomboy with an accordion, but had spent most of her adult life working in the fertile Bay Area music scene, where her work in tape and electronic music earned her a reputation as one of the most innovative composers on the scene. As a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Center, she was at the centre of the thriving underground culture of the Bay Area. The move to San Diego, at the behest of her friend and teacher Robert Erickson, was a traumatic one. As she later recalled, “It was terrifically hard for me at UCSD. I considered myself an anti-establishment avant-garde composer in those days. Here I was joining the establishment! I had a conflict of interest. […] Now I had a real job with a salary that I was not so sure I really wanted. By the end of the first year I considered resigning”.

Her initial recordings in San Diego reflect this inner conflict. They are, without fail, phenomenally harsh, seeking transcendence through sheer sonic overload. Whereas ‘Alien Bog’ – recorded in San Francisco in 1967, shortly before her departure – was a cosmic ecosystem organically spawning and multiplying, its San Diego descendents were manifestations of unchecked entropy, cannibalistic societies feeding upon themselves. Working solo and in real time with tape loops, Buchla and Moog feedback, they prize the discovery of the moment over any sort of formal structural logic, rivalling her friend Robert Ashley’s ‘The Wolfman’ (1964) for sheer uncompromising din. It’s harsh and unforgiving, the sound of technology at war with itself.

By 1970 war was everywhere. There was no escaping it, even in San Diego. As Oliveros recalled, “The Vietnam War protests and atrocities were at their height. A student at UCSD sat in the plaza, poured kerosene on himself and burned himself to death . . . I felt the temper of the times. I felt the tremendous Fear.”

San Diego was a military town, with numerous bases and a thriving defence industry; the UCSD campus, like many throughout the state, was a centre of anti-war resistance, with demonstrations, sit-ins and a faculty as radically inclined as the student body. Angela Davis – Black Panther, communist, radical feminist – was a recent graduate; Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist professor as popular on campus as he was despised by the establishment, was the recipient of death threats from the Klan. Fear and anger simmered on both sides of the ideological divide. In 1968, Governor Ronald Reagan sent letters to every university in the state declaring, “A sick campus community in California in many ways is responsible for a sick community around those campuses”. Then, on May 10, 1970, history student George Winne Jr. walked into UCSD’s Revelle Plaza, doused himself in gasoline and lit a flame. He held a sign reading “In the name of God, end the war” and repeatedly screamed “Stop the war!” as the flames devoured him. He died the following day.

The mechanisms of Western music through which Oliveros communicated – composition, form, technology, scales, notes, the central notion of self-expression mediated by the hand and the brain – seemed inadequate to the task of responding to such trauma; as though the nation’s collective nervous system was gravely out of sync with the inherited systems of music creation. Everything was out of tune. And so Oliveros, now in her late 30s, returned to the accordion, the instrument of her childhood, and played a sustained A note. Then she sang with it. She spent nearly a year with that one note, singing, playing, and listening. It was a return to a revelation she had experienced in the late 1950s, shortly after acquiring her first tape recorder: a recording made at the window of her apartment, when played back, revealed sounds unheard at the time of the recording. Oliveros had realised that the attentiveness she had shown to the tape was far greater than her engagement with the sounds of life as it unfolded around her, live and in the moment. Now, as she droned along on her single note, she focused on the sound, on her breath, on that moment there in San Diego. The effect was therapeutic. Slowly, she rebuilt herself, from that single note, as an artist and as a listener.

This focused, meditative practice incorporated lessons learned from the movement meditation of Tai Chi, and from Oliveros’s studies at the nearby Kairos Institute, an Esalen style personal growth programme. As Oliveros reemerged from her isolation, healed by sound, so too would her music become a form of healing for the individual and for the world at large. In its attention

to pure sound resided a recognition of the interconnectedness of all sounds and those who hear them; and in its sense of social consciousness, nurtured by the growing women’s movement, was an emphasis on the power of community action and a radical reappraisal of social structures. If the power dynamics of society needed to change, the structures of music would be changing with them.

The ♀ Ensemble met weekly in Oliveros’s Leucadia home for informal improvisation sessions based on “unchanging tonal centres with emphasis on changing partials”, the small group arrayed in a circle facing one another. Though composed mostly of UCSD students, Oliveros kept the Ensemble independent of the university, and encouraged diversity. “Two or three were composers and some were performers and some were not musicians at all”, she recalled. Breathing exercises and movement work were also on the agenda, blurring the boundaries between music and the body; between healing and creating. “None of us knew what to expect”, Louie recalls. “I don’t even think Pauline knew what to expect.” What they found was a deep meditative state that connected the members on a primal level and reconfigured the musical process, liberating sound creation from the imposition of individual will and reorienting it toward a kind of communal channeling. “After a long period of working together, a profound change occurred: rather than manipulating our voices or instruments in a goal-oriented way in order to produce certain effects, we began to allow changes to occur involuntarily, or without conscious effort, while sustaining a sound voluntarily,” Oliveros would recall.

From this entirely spontaneous, communal inception, Oliveros began introducing gnomic conceptual cues of her own device: a series of strategies for long term work which she called Sonic Meditations. The first was ‘Teach Yourself to Fly’ from 1971:

Any number of persons sit in a circle facing the centre. Illuminate the space with dim blue light. Begin by simply observing your own breathing. Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own breath cycle. Variation: Translate voice to an instrument.

For Alexina Louie, whose background was in notated music and structure, the experience of Sonic Meditation was the most profound of the many aesthetic disruptions she experienced in San Diego, but its effects were more than musical. Not only did she leave each session feeling “cleansed”, the sense of trust between the members and Oliveros was a deep one. “We had this bond that was not verbal. She never talked about what it was we were aiming at. She would present us with these different Sonic Meditations: slow walking, visualizations, sounds, matching pitches in the environment that we heard when we were sitting there in our meditative states. I didn’t realise it then, but it had a real effect on the way I listened to music and how I combine sounds in order to create a piece of music.”

For Oliveros this was the sense of community and purpose she had been searching for in her music; something beyond the mere arrangement of notes. This was a radical rethinking of the modern practice of composition and it would be the basis of her work for the rest of her life. Oliveros made this break explicit in an introduction to the book Sonic Meditations she published in 1974:

“Pauline Oliveros has abandoned composition/performance practice as it is usually established today for Sonic Explorations which include everyone who wants to participate. She attempts to erase the subject/object or performer/audience relationship by returning to ancient forms which preclude spectators. She is interested in communication among all forms of life, through

Sonic Energy.”

Alien Territory: Experimental, Radical, & Irrelevant Music in 1970s San Diego by Bill Perrine is published by Termite House

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