Pauline Oliveros: A Love Song


Born in May 1932 in Texas, Pauline Oliveros began participating in music at a very young age. In the 1940s, she received her mother’s accordion, as they were a fairly popular instrument in America at the time. Whilst at school she also learned to play the tuba and french horn, but after the age of 16, Oliveros decided she wanted to focus on composition. She studied at the Moores School of Music at The University of Hudson, where she read for a degree in composition. Oliveros is known for her extensive use of electronics and tapes, and she was one of the original members of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre. She was a pioneer of electronic music on the US West Coast during the 1960s, and her music has been incredibly influential for a lot of musicians.

Oliveros is perhaps most well-known for coining the term ‘deep listening’. Furthermore, Oliveros is also associated with the phrase ‘sonic awareness’, which is the ability to focus consciously upon musical sounds in a given environment. This state of consciousness requires the listener to be alert and concentrated at all times. The music that Oliveros composes has a strong tonal centre, which is surrounded by complex sound masses. In performance, Oliveros used her accordion and re-tuned it into two different systems of intonation, so that the addition of electronics would alter the sound of the instrument and would effectively explore the individual characteristics of any given room.

As well as composition, Oliveros has also written books and taught up and coming composers. In 2009, she won the William Schuman award, and then in 2012, she won the very prestigious John Cage Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her resounding success is reflected in the number of artists she has worked with, the number of awards she has won, and the popularity she has gained across the globe. Her composition for voice and accordion A Love Song was composed in 1985 and was part of her album, The Well and the Gentle.


The Music

Oliveros used this as her mantra when writing and listening to music:

“Listen all the time and remind yourself when yourself when you are not listening.”

This creative work is concerned with finding the meditations within the earth. This is represented by the droning accordion and the sultry voice. The work is reflective, pensive – with dark undertones through the use of harmonics and electronics. The intent with this work is for the listener to be fully engaged, and the music will act as aural meditation. Between the modal vocal fluctuations, and the double-accordion chords this work is static in many ways. There is an other-worldly feeling throughout this whole work, and the heavy reverb that is used on the accordion tapes add to this extension of sound.

The sweeping changes in dynamics between the voice and accordion highlight the disciplined communication between the two instruments. There is a sense of love between the two, which is perhaps where the name came about. The lack of any tonal structure is very freeing for these instruments, and this creates the ‘sonic awareness’ that Oliveros was a pioneer of creating.

The clustered mass of sounds vibrating from the accordions is the real highlight and charm of this work for me. A Love Song is a great example of musical meditation and has been used as such. This is a fantastic work by the inspirational Pauline Oliveros, who sadly passed away in 2016.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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