- As a member of the postwar American avant-garde, Pauline Oliveros worked alongside the likes of America's most revered early minimalists—Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Morton Subotnik. She was an accordionist and an academic, and as a result her unorthodox musical mixtures haven't been reissued as steadily as her contemporaries. But over the decades—as audiences for electronic music have grown and the influence of her contemporaries has been made more explicit—interest in Oliveros has become a bit of a cultish hobby among pioneer hunters.
Four Electronic Pieces: 1959 – 1969, a new collection by the Belgian label Sub Rosa, presents some of Oliveros' earliest works. Oliveros was one of the original members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which in the early to mid-60s served as a loose meeting point for early American electronic experimentation. The earliest piece, 1959's "Time Perspectives," manipulates the various speeds of a basic tape recorder from a Sears Roebuck store, and uses cardboard tubes for filters, a bathtub for reverb, and soup ladles and kitchen knives for effects. "Time Perspectives" is the most engaging piece here because it's the crudest and most surprising. Oliveros was just 27 at the time, and this was—and still is—extreme music, closer to Florian Hecker or Merzbow than the more refined compositions of her more classically inclined mentors. There's an overarching sense of joy in discovering the harsh sounds she can pull out of those bathtubs, ladles and knives to make this mess of frequencies.
The remaining three pieces—1965's "Mnemonics III" and 1966's "V of IV" and "Once Again/Buchla piece"—all belong to larger series. By this time, Oliveros was using oscillators and keyboards to manipulate tape, and the results sound more like studious cycles than fresh explorations. Oliveros herself abandoned this approach to electronic music as she got older and returned to her childhood love of the accordion as the central focus of her music. Future work would be more spiritually inclined and meditative, and because of the accordion, exponentially more distinct.
Sub Rosa can be, at times, a label of prescient extremes. With this collection, they present a portrait of Oliveros at her most rigorous and academic. While Four Electronic Pieces 1959-1969 adds to our understanding of her development, this collection is ultimately a master class for the musique concrète fan and not a gateway for anyone looking to find out what Oliveros is all about. Long stretches are unlistenable to all but the most ardent ear. For that, you might be better served by two recent reissues from Important Records—Accordion & Voice or The Wanderer. Four Electronic Pieces is a portrait of an artist who (at least early on) pioneered through extreme impulse. In other words, don't start here.
01. Mnemonics III
02. V of IV
03. Time Perspectives
04. Once Again / Buchla Piece