Reflecting and Dwelling; Echo and Reverberation in Pauline Oliveros’s Work

By Benjamin Ethan Tinker

(This article originally appeared on Ben Tinker's blog and he has very kindly allowed us to reproduce it here. Our thanks go to Ben and we urge everyone to visit his blog where he has written a number of other interesting articles).


When listening to Pauline Oliveros’s work one cannot dismiss the sense of physical space, from the internal nature of “artificial” echo of the early tape pieces to the site-specific use of natural reverberation of later performances, from recorded uses of her bathtub in her early 1960s San Francisco apartment to this year’s endeavour of utilizing Ann Hamilton’s Tower at Oliver Ranch.

There has been much discussion and thought, both in her own and other’s writing and lectures on her life and work, about community on a macro and micro scale. What is echo and reverberation but a call and response, a conversation with the community around her, whether through wires of technology or through a venue/space which responds to particular frequencies in particular ways?

Pauline Oliveros was born and raised in Texas, big country. Nowhere has the concept of space been more prevalent on this earthly plane than the American West. The mythic proportions of wide expanses, canyons and the dream like perspectives of the lone figure in a vast space call to mind not only the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and his ilk, but also the European surrealist painters such as Georgio de Chirico. When driving on Texas’s highways, the sense of time and travelling are on a different scale than most other locals; one sees another vehicle coming the other direction and the response time of actually passing it is delayed.

Though this desert topography might be more in this author’s imagination than in Oliveros’s real-life childhood in Houston, when she talks of her childhood, formative times she often mentions the Texas wetlands auditorily: “there were lots of insects – it was a like a really thick canopy that changed through the seasons: tree frogs, cicadas, crickets, all these wonderful sounding critters.” One can’t help but see this as breeding ground for the ‘Bog’ electronic tape pieces in the 1960s.

This vast space in turn becomes a time machine, much like Oliveros’s audio delay system, either in the early analogue tape domain, or later in the digital domain of her constantly evolving Expanded Instrument System (EIS): “I think of the delay system as a time machine, because first you have to be present to make a sound and play it. Then it’s recorded and played back in the future, so that what the future is essentially dealing with is really the past. So it sort of expands your sense of time.”

Utilizing first a wire recorder in the 1940s, and then, a tape recorder given to her by her mother later in the 1950s, Oliveros took in sonic elements of the environment, via the machines, and sent out and listened back. Both time and space are recorded and revisited. She talks of hearing the natural world in all of its glorious mundanity, and, in a sense, listening deeply for the first time. These earliest and most basic, yet impactful experiments taking place latterly as she was practicing and performing in conventional, local and youth orchestras.

In addition, she was listening and playing with the dial of her family’s home radio, the hearth in those days. She talks proudly and with glee about the hours spent creating swaths of white noise by turning the knobs between the stations.

This unconventional way of listening to broadcasts, or, more specifically, non-broadcasts, sits side by side with her appetite for popular songs heard on the actual broadcasts of that area and era; western swing hits such as Vaughn Monroe’s Ghost Riders In The Sky, which, not so coincidently, is laden with “artificial” echoing and reverb.

While in the territory of the mythic American West, let’s diverge to the myth of Echo. Feminine identity, an issue naturally to be taken up by the initially solitary Oliveros, who is often seen as a sole woman in rosters and documentation of contemporary composers. She has done much work to advance the change of this patriarchal disparity, but to indulge in allusion, perhaps one can loosely link the idea of the myth of Echo to issues of Feminine identity. “The Echo Myth suggests some important attributes of echoic sound effects: echo as feminine, echo as voice (and implicitly, mind) without body, echo as repressed functions, and echo as a kind of sentient (but in that she can only repeat the syllables of others, nongenerative) spirit of place.” writes Peter Doyle in his book Echo and Reverb. Perhaps we can see Oliveros’s work as liberating Echo from her limited role? Perhaps this “spirit of place” can become generative? Is that not what happens in her four channel tape piece from 1961, Time Perspectives, wherein she utilizes elements of domesticity (her home, kitchen utensils, bath tub) to, as critic Bill Meyer claims, “encroach on the men’s club of high-art composition.”

Once in San Francisco Oliveros fell in with a small group of artists and composers dealing with space and time both sonically and visually, leading to a new type of theatre hybrid and recorded media with deep roots in Dada and the wave of happenings taking place through out the western world in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This group, initially dubbed Sonics, took on the name The San Francisco Tape Music Center, and as can be inferred, technology was a central part, however archaic and kludged it may have been in reality. It was at this time that Oliveros created what is considered one of the “classics” of 1960s electronic music, Bye Bye Butterfly. Using her tape delay system, oscillators and a phonograph record and player, she created this piece seemingly as something of a response to the demonstration to the center by Don Buchla of his100 series, the Buchla Box, taking place earlier that same night. Perhaps in subtle defiance of the encroaching automatic technology, as she stated: “the days of the classical electronic music studio were numbered.” The piece is very hands on, including hearing sounds of machines being switched on and the needle hitting the vinyl. By stretching quarter inch tape between two machines, one spooling from the supply reel as record and playback (short delay) unit and the other to the take up reel as a playback unit, configuring the audio wired outputs and inputs variously, as well as the distance between the decks creating a delay system that is still hailed to this day. Credit for the creation of this type of tape delay system is debated, and indeed harkens back to some of the approaches, systems, tools, and, in the recording industry, known as “gimmicks” that were utilized by the likes of the afore mentioned Western Swing that heavily relied on echo effects and multi tracking to evoke the scale of the mythic west.


Tape Center cohort Terry Riley, whom Oliveros had met earlier in the 1950’s at what was then called San Francisco State College (presently California State University, San Francisco) both under the training of composer Robert Erickson, heavily relied on these types of systems. The tape loop system can be heard distinctly on early Riley work such as his gossamer-esque Mescalin Mix [sic] and for a long stretch of his live performances in the late 1960s, when he dubbed the tape loop set up “The Time Lag Accumulator.”

The title with the words “Bye Bye” could be seen as a salutation to the classical electronic music studio as mentioned by the composer. Historically though, in its social context, most musicologists see the title as a Feminist gesture, as in this excerpt from a release “…composed by an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, symbolically bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th Century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and it’s attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex. The title refers to the operatic disc which was at hand in the studio at the time and which was spontaneously incorporated into the ongoing compositional mix.”

The fact that this section of this recording was chosen at random is startling in the context of discussing space, echo and resonance, for in this scene the singers are located far out of the “sweet spot” of the recording microphone (for the recording) and/or the audience to dramatically imply the sense of distance and space. Oliveros, in her process takes this serendipitous event and broadens it into the time machine like approach she has mentioned, and has the event happen in two spaces, through the delayed stereo spectrum.

 Likewise, the two Hewlett-Packard oscillators, played with great fingerspitzengefühl and give full sense to the already refined sense of improvisation, move from one speaker to the next, suggesting movement in space via the cross-delay.

Another tape piece of Oliveros’s to use appropriated pre-recorded material would be her Rock Symphony. Made the same year as Bye Bye Butterfly, this piece fully utilizes the left/right speakers as a call and response mimicking The Animals’ track, It’s My Life with it’s “Baby, baby” call and response. Also in this audio soup the composer spins in Mario Savio’s wholly moving speech, known as “Bodies upon the gears”, twice, perhaps calling up her audio “time machine” effect, to return on some important words, much like a conventional chorus section in a popular song, i.e., the basic working materials. Whether the rock in this “symphony” is seen as part of the established money maker, i.e., gears in the machine, or as part of the counterculture and revolutionary is hard to say in the current state of “Classic Rock” as the establishment, but judging from the sentiment of the time I would say the latter.

Another interesting point with this piece is how dependent Rock and Roll, from its beginnings, had been on reverb and echo in both the studio/recorded realm and the in live situations. Interesting to note as well, since it was Rock and Roll that was the prime money maker for recording studios, it was Rock and Roll that inspired the mass manufacturing of tape loop machines such as the Maestro Echoplex, used by the likes of Ramon Sender and Terry Riley, and the Roland RE-201, commonly known as the Space Echo, and later on to the digital gear such as the Lexicon’s PCM series. It is doubtful that the contemporary composers of 20th Century Classical music would have inspired such commercial developments.

As the tape center moved from San Francisco to Mills College in 1966, and Oliveros, along with fellow SFTMC co-founder Tony Martin, became the directors, she continued to investigate tape delay, notably in her 1967 piece Alien Bog. Here, the space is created with a subtler and less stereo-panned delay. The composer has successfully evoked the sounds of night of the Mills campus, “It was part of a series of ‘Bog’ pieces inspired by listening to the frogs and creatures in the pond just outside the studio window at Mills.” Frogs and perhaps insects and bats and their musical call and response, once again using her tape delay technique, and the Buchla 100, which in turn has a wonderful internal spring operated reverb unit as well. This Buchla 100, i.e. the same machine that was being demoed to the SFTMC, sending Oliveros upstairs to create Bye Bye Butterfly, was now yet another instrument that Oliveros was comfortable improvising in real time with, further displaying her willingness to embrace new technology, as she suggests natural extensions of us. “It was a different instrument, that’s all.” said Oliveros, “I had to learn what I could get from it.”

Just prior to taking her position at Mills, Oliveros was invited to work at the well-equipped University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio where she set out to fully explore investigations that she had done at the SFTMC. I of IV and on through to IV of IV, and beyond with V of IV, displaying her characteristic light hearted tendency with titles.

Her losing track of how much material she produced at The University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio would suggest she really got engaged and lost herself in that studio with it’s “twelve sine-tone square-wave generators connected to an organ keyboard, two line amplifiers, mixer, Hammond spring-type reverb and two stereo tape recorders.” One can imagine her immersed, listening deeply, and composing in real time, using the keyboard to produce tones that echo, through electronics, and bounce back to be responded to again and again. It is practically a warm up to the Fort Worden Cistern and Rosendale New York’s Tarpaper Cave pieces. Much like a flight captain or Olympic trainer use simulations to practice, there is a sense, with its keyboard serving as an interface like her accordion she was to return to in full effect shortly, that the work she was doing, primarily by herself, in the studio, was a pathway to the acoustic, site-specific improvised and composed work she would do later solo and with groups, small and large.