Once there were virtually no women composers, and today they still are the exception. So what, Pauline Oliveros is asked, if she had been a composer 150 years ago instead of now?
"Well," she explains with characteristic feistiness, "I guess I would have to escape from society and come back disguised." After a moment's reflection, she adds: "Probably as a man."
Minority or no, however, Oliveros, now 53, has carved out a loyal audience for what is one of the more distinctive, and on the surface incongruous, blends in music.
She has feet in several camps. So many, in fact, that it is necessary to label her performances -- like the one she gave at the Kennedy Center in February and the one she will give at the Washington Project for the Arts tonight -- with generic generalizations like "sound events" instead of something so seemingly unrestrictive as "compositions."
She has a foot in the vaguely popular world, as demonstrated by the improvised work that will open tonight's event. Asked about the planning for such a piece, in which she will be joined by colleagues Malcom Goldstein and Dan Knack, she says, "We don't. And we don't rehearse. We warm up. Really. We walk in and we start to listen to each other. And if it gets going right, the conversation can be very exciting musically."
And Oliveros also has a foot in the classical world. She is a noted specialist in electronic music (both for instruments and voice) with effects characterized by lengthy drones and static sounds.
Then there is her stage presence, for which she is probably most widely known. With both feet, literally, bare -- and with her short, graying bob and her stocky figure -- Oliveros somewhat resembles a benign, weathered earth mother.
Her principal instrument is the accordion. But her 12 years of karate training also plays a role.
Theatrical as Oliveros' events may sound, they are intended to go beyond that -- somewhat in the direction of the classical happening, but with greater overtones of myth and ritual. Some, like the revised version of her "Earth Ears" to be performed tonight, have prose "guidelines" instead of scores.
If all this sounds like an incongruous amalgam, it is united by at least two factors -- the composer's philosophic "dharma-minded" sincerity and her gentle sense of humor. Nothing is strident or dogmatic. She spent many years in California and reflects the tendency of West Coast composers to write music that is less European in style.
More than one composer has used the term "people-oriented" to describe their music -- often in a participatory sense. But Oliveros takes the concept a step beyond the usual definition, to make it consciously therapeutic. Influenced by Buddhism, she wants her music "to be beneficial to me and others." In her "sound environments," she works for a kind of heightened experience that illuminates human "attention strategies" and "meditational series."
Arcane and unpredictable though it is, Oliveros' work can be surprisingly accessible. Even the bare feet serve a philosophical purpose.
"One reason is symbolic," she has said, "because what it means is 'to serve.' " Another reason is that "I can hear better. I feel the vibrations of the music through the floor. I am better grounded."
The accordion has a special role in "the feeling of wholeness" Oliveros seeks in her music. She doesn't feel the same way about other instruments, because they don't have the same unconscious associations.
"My mother brought one home in Houston. And at about 9 I picked it up and took a few lessons. I fell in love with it."
As for the karate training, the composer says, it increases her sharpness of concentration -- both in her work and in her daily life. "Only yesterday," she says, "I was picked up at the hotel to go to the rehearsal hall, and we were going into an intersection when I realized that a car was coming toward us through a red light. It was coming very fast. I called out and we stopped just this far from it. It was all or nothing." She holds out her hands about six inches apart.