Pauline Oliveros: Anthology of Text Scores (2013) | featured image

Pauline Olivero’s Visual Music for Non-Musicians

Experimental electronic musician Pauline Oliveros’ Text Scores will fill a musician’s head with sound, a literature reader with poetry, and a visual artist with illustration.

Anthology of Text Scores
Pauline Oliveros
Deep Listening
July 2013

The visual fascination aroused by the descriptive notations of electroacoustic music is due in part both to their aesthetic beauty and to the creative variety of the scores themselves, whose ability to visually represent such a revolutionary/contemporary musical genre paralleled the innovation that the musical world was going through in the avant-garde years. While classical notation has, over the centuries, become the universal system that fixes in writing a composition, melody, or any idea of such an order, and music theory express the relationships that a composer expects to be interpreted by a musician-performer in notation, notation in contemporary music is in search of its own universal identity and is still in the early days of a journey that began in the 19th century. As an emblem of our speech, here we talk about “text scores” with a specific reference to the composer Pauline Olivero‘s writing.

The role of visual representation is not simply ascribed to correspondence on a purely symbolic-abstract plane with respect to the musical plane, but traces in its very reasons for being the archetype of ancient/classical music which, after making the quantum leap from orality to notated writing, could finally be interpreted and inherited by generations of other musicians. Musical notation, or “text scores”, opened an epochal watershed, such as the one that was traced by the advent of the magnetic/digital medium then and which has, as we can all witness in contemporary times, paved the way for the universe of fixed sounds (Musique des sons fixés). An interesting discussion of this topic can be found in “The Notation of Electroacoustic Music“. Peering into the past to contemplate the future (Stefano Alessandretti, Laura Zattra).”

The new visual tools made by the composer-designers themselves (John Cage, Brian Eno, Krzysztof Penderecki, Cornelius Cardew, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sylvano Bussotti, and so on) have brought out extensive pictorial/representational abilities of the same. This enabled musicians to encapsulate in the abstraction of signs and symbols a form of writing that is poetic, anti-standard, and close to the sometimes constructivist, sometimes art-nouveau, and sometimes abstractionist pictorial art, a profound journey straddling two artistic worlds so related.

One thinks, for example, of 2011’s Visual Rhythms: Luigi Veronesi in European Abstractionism (Ritmi visivi. Luigi Veronesi nell’astrattismo Durope), which could be derived from multiple electroacoustic compositions, but could instead represent the underlying compositions in an alternative visual order, provided one organizes the correspondences between chromaticisms, proportions, toponomastics, and sonic elements or performing devices.

The prospective analysis of electronic music and some of its subgenres, such as Glitch Music, propose some themes be investigated, such as:  

  • the figure of the “non-musician and philosopher” who makes music and art, which relates back to the theme of this paper regarding “text scores” for non-musicians. Most glitch composers were not musicians but computer scientists, advertisers, visual artists, sound engineers, philosophers;
  • music that, through its digital visual representation (waveform) takes a paradigm leap into a new dimension of thinking (seeing) music; sound can also be seen and edited in real-time. Sound can be acted upon with the body. Sound can be read with words.

Our reflection delves into some transformational processes that will likely be around for a few more years as researchers, musicologists, music computer scientists, and sound engineers continue researching this field. Were the scores of electroacoustic pieces forerunners of this shift between abstract music connoted with classical notation? Or vice versa, does electroacoustic and experimental music seek its visual identity as if it were its spiritual half?

In the 1950s, progressive composers defined alternatives to the staff to experiment with new, more expressive forms of graphic and textual musical notation that went beyond the standardization achieved over centuries of music that radically changed its generative and productive connotations.

With his “Pendulum Music for 4 Microphones and Amplifiers (1968)”, for example, composer Steve Reich (1936 New York), who, along with Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley, is part of the minimalist current, provides a simple set of written instructions describing how the piece is staged and performed by another figure.

Pauline Oliveros’ Text Scores

Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) was a pioneer in electronic music who explored the relationship between music and meditation. Her experience is formalized in what is referred to as “Deep Listening” a discipline that, through music and meditation, realizes “Sonic meditations”. Anthology of Text Scores by Pauline Oliveros (2013) brings together four decades of creative work by Oliveros, who has been writing “text scores” since 1971. The anthology was published at the end of a year-long celebration of Oliveros’ 80th birthday; it features group and solo meditations, as well as performance pieces for ensemble and soloists. This volume is for artists, scholars, adults, children, musicians, and non-musicians alike, as the philosophy of inclusiveness is at the heart of Oliveros’ Deep Listening music.

The Center for Deep Listening in upstate New York has become the heir and promoter of this practice, which in Oliveros’ words, is summarized as follows, “a way of listening in every possible way to whatever you are doing.” In honour of Oliveros and in celebration of what would have been her 90th birthday (on 30 May 3022), the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer invited all who have been touched by the philosophy and practice of Deep Listening to submit scores to A Year of Deep Listening. A huge number of scores have been collected at the end of the call, and those selected are published each day for 365 days on the centre’s website.

Oliveros’ answer to the fundamental question, What is Deep Listening? states that it should be considered a lifelong practice. The more one listens, the more one learns to listen. Deep Listening involves going below the surface of what is heard, expanding to the whole field of sound while finding focus. This is how to connect with the acoustic environment, all that inhabits it, and all that there is. 

On each page of Anthology of Text Scores – which contains a hundred pieces covering four decades of creative work – Oliveros proposes a new perspective on music that transcends notation so that performing a score requires no prior musical knowledge. Text-based compositions are among the most evocative of those pioneered during the 20th century, as they hinge on a language that is both visual and interpretable by the reader/interpreter, as prose can be, as it shares with it the word that provides the lexical description of a musical work.

Indeed, no music theory or specific analysis is needed to understand the notations, but just reading the scores themselves raises music’s power. While this may seem like a simplification, it engages a challenge related to compositional and performance practices that shifts the perspective plane to a different approach to the discipline and potentially engender new ideas.

This collection formalizes the Deep Listening approach to music, in a nutshell, and should be considered the most important book of this innovative musician. It’s like having 40 years of Oliveros’ life’s work, more than 100 pieces, in a book small enough to put in your purse. You don’t have to perform the pieces, you can just sit on a couch and read them. Each page will fill a musician’s head with sound – a literature reader with poetry, and a visual artist might see it as an illustration manual. It tickles your imagination and your ears. You don’t even have to have an open mind, as Oliveros’ Anthology of Text Scores will open it up for you. 

Works Cited

Alessandretti, Stefano and Zattra, Laura. “La notazione della musica elettroacustica. Scrutare il passato per contemplare il future”. HAL Id.

Bolpagni, P., Di Brino, A., and Savettieri, C. Ritmi visivi. Luigi Veronesi nell’astrattismo Durope. Fondazione Centro Ragghianti. 2011

Disley-Simpson, Anna.Exploring Text Scores“. 14 February 2020.

Oliveros, Pauline. Anthology of Text Scores by Pauline Oliveros. eds. Samuel Golter Lawton Hall. Deep Listening Publications. 2013.

Pauline Oliveros’ sonic meditations (1974) the complete text and scores”. 13 September 2016.

Pauline Oliveros on Deep Listening“. The Center for Deep Listening.

Stamp, Jimmy. “5 1/2 Examples of Experimental Music Notation“. Smithsonian Magazine. 5 June 2013.