Talking Music by William Duckworth (c) 1995 by Schirmer Books ISBN 0-02-870823-7 excerpts 1664w

- pg 165 -

DUCKWORTH: What caused you to leave the University of Houston and go to San Francisco?

OLIVEROS: I felt the need to have my own private space. I had been living at home until I was twenty years old, and my ambition was to live by myself. I also had heard a lot about the West Coast -- a friend of mine had gone there -- and I wanted to go connect with some of the music I'd heard about. It was as an act of independence for me. It took me a year to get my feet on the ground and begin to work again musically, because I had to earn my keep. I worked as a file clerk for about nine months. Then I began to get a string of accordion students and casual engagements playing around town.

DUCKWORTH: Were you a student then too, or were you just working?

OLIVEROS: I was just working. Then I went back to school at San Francisco State. That's where I met Loren Rush, Terry Riley, and Stuart Dempster. We all were in class together there and were involved with the composers' workshop, which was run by Wendell Otey. They were the first people I could relate to as peers, in terms of composition, who didn't think I was crazy. Loren, Terry, and I began to do free improvisation in '57. We would go into the studio at KPFA, sit down, and play. We'd record what we played and then listen to it and talk about it. We played all kinds of things. I played the horn or a whole battery of stuff. Actually, our first improvisations were done with Terry playing piano, Loren playing bass, and me playing horn.

DUCKWORTH: That sounds like a jazz combo.

OLIVEROS: No, it wasn't jazz. Terry had the French -- the Poulenc -- kind of style; Loren had been studying koto and was interested in Japanese music; and I was interested in Bartok. So it was a pretty amazing melange.

DUCKWORTH: Were these improvisations broadcast?

OLIVEROS: No. The first thing we did because Terry had to do a five-minute soundtrack for a film, so we improvised for the soundtrack.

DUCKWORTH: Was there ever an aesthetic conflict in your mind between the music you were composing and the music you were improvising at the radio station?

OLIVEROS: Not at all. I used to sit down and improvise my way through a piece like the Variations for Sextet. I think of composition as a slowed-down improvisation, and improvisation as a speeded-up composition.

DUCKWORTH: But there are so few models for this kind of improvisation in classical music. Why did you think improvising was musical at that point?

OLIVEROS: Because I'd recorded it, and listened to it, and it sounded like music.

DUCKWORTH: You didn't have any philosophical problems with the fact that it wasn't notated on the page and frozen in time?


- pg 166 thru 170 -

DUCKWORTH: How did the San Francisco tape music studio come about?

OLIVEROS: About 1959 I met Ramon Sender and he was interested in electronic music. Bob Erickson, who was our composition teacher, was at the San Francisco Conservatory. Ramon managed to get them interested in having a studio there. I had a tape recorder at the time, so we put some stuff together and made the first pieces of tape music that either Ramon or I had made. Then we did a concert called "Sonics" at the conservatory in 1960. It consisted of pieces by Ramon, myself, Terry Riley, Phil Windsor, and an acoustic group improvisation that we did together. That was the beginning, the nucleus, of it.

DUCKWORTH: So the center came about because the three of you pooled your resources?


DUCKWORTH: Did you have a physical space in which to work?

OLIVEROS: Yes, up in the attic of the conservatory. When it became apparent that the conservatory was not going to support the tape music center, Morton Subotnick and Ramon joined forces. I was away in Europe when they founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, but when I came back I gradually became involved in it.

DUCKWORTH: Had your interest in tape music emerged slowly, or had there been some event that created sudden interest?

OLIVEROS: No, it was a natural development. There were tape recorders, and there was the opportunity to work with others who were interested in it.

DUCKWORTH: Did you immediately see the tape studio as a way to realize some of the sounds you had been hearing in your mind?

OLIVEROS: I fell in love with it. I was very, very happy with what I could do with tape. I had a Silvertone tape recorder from Sears Roebuck which I had to hand wind, so I had manual variable speed. I had fun imagining how things would sound if I dropped them an octave or if I speeded them up. Since I didn't have any processing equipment, I used cardboard tubes to make filters. I'd play sounds through the cardboard tubes and get the tube resonance. When I wanted reverberation I'd put the microphone in the bathtub. When I wanted to amplify a sound, I would resonate it against a wooden wall. So I used all sorts of acoustic phenomena and milked it in various ways. I worked with that tape recorder in an improvisatory way.

DUCKWORTH: How many tracks of tape did you normally work with?

OLIVEROS: Two to four. I remember Ramon and I going down the long halls of the conservatory unrolling the tape so that we could get it synchronized. Unroll it down the hall; line it up; start it.

DUCKWORTH: What was your first tape piece like?

OLIVEROS: My first tape piece was called Time Perspectives. It was a four-channel piece that was really ambitious, considering what I've just told you. It was full of all kinds of noise. I can't imagine what it would sound like to listen to right now.

DUCKWORTH: What were the responses to the concerts that you were giving at the tape music center?

OLIVEROS: Great! There were people who really enjoyed them and were provoked by them. Alfred Frankenstein, who was a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, was very supportive and interested in all of the things that we did. So we had recognition right away from the music community. And it grew very quickly. I guess the timing was right. We gave concerts at the tape center once a month. We developed a subscription audience, and just did our work there. It was a very important period for me, because I was out of school and this was a peer support system. A place to be, hang out, meet people, put the work on, and grow and develop.

DUCKWORTH: How were you supporting yourself?

OLIVEROS: Sometimes I wonder how I managed to get through that. Odd jobs. Piecing it together. Teaching accordion and French horn lessons ... playing ... occasionally some kind of a commission to do music for a film or a play ... occasionally an orchestration or copying job.

DUCKWORTH: Is this the period of time when you were also writing Sound Patterns?

OLIVEROS: Yes, 1961.

DUCKWORTH: What influenced that work? The reason I ask is because that's the piece, because it was recorded, where a lot of people first learned about your music. So I've always thought of it as an important piece of yours.

OLIVEROS: Well, it was. As I just told you, I pieced together my living. And I thought, "Why can't I earn some money as a composer?" There wasn't much in the way of support. I looked around at the contests and a lot of them were for vocal music. So I thought, "Well, I'll write a chorus." I started looking at these various organizations and then I thought, "What am I going to use for a text?" And then I thought, "I don't want to use a text." I liked the sounds that choruses made in between their articulations of words. I liked all of the spin-off sounds.

DUCKWORTH: Did the sounds for that piece come to you in your head in one of these visions you've talked about?

OLIVEROS: I worked on making sounds by listening for the sounds that I wanted to hear, making them myself, and then making up the notation for it.

DUCKWORTH: Were you getting many performances of your nonelectronic music at this time?

OLIVEROS: No. Most of my performances I did myself. My Variations for Sextet won a prize, so that was performed a couple of times. Sound Patterns won the Gaudemus prize. It was published in Darmstadt, Germany, and was subsequently reprinted and performed a lot. And it did receive a lot of recognition at the time. Gyorgy Ligeti was the judge for that prize. He was quite taken with Sound patterns and talked about it breaking new ground. He hadn't seen anything like it at the time, but it wasn't long before other people began to work along that line.

DUCKWORTH: How did you get from tape music to theater music?

OLIVEROS: It seemed to come out of a need to have something happen. When you're presenting tapes, there's nothing to look at, so theater suggested itself quite readily in connection with tape. Also, because of the improvisations that we did. We were sharing the space at Divisadero Street with Ann Halprin and her dancers' workshop, so there were people around who were quite interesting to work with. A collaboration naturally developed.

DUCKWORTH: Am I correct in thinking that Pieces of Eight was the first theatrical piece that you wrote?

OLIVEROS: I did a couple of pieces before that. One was the Theatre Piece for Trombone Player, which was for Stuart Dempster. That was in collaboration with Elizabeth Harris, as was a duo, but Pieces of Eight was the first one that I did on my own.