Bye bye butterfly

“I made my own way of making electronic music in the late-’50s, early-’60s, using test equipment — oscillators and patchbays and tape recorders. While everybody else was cutting and splicing materials, I was finding a way to improvise with the electronics. That improvisation system was using difference tones between oscillators. Setting oscillators above the range of hearing and using the difference tones between the oscillators in a tape delay system caused a lot of beat frequencies with the bias of the tape recorder. That’s how I made my early electronic music, like I of IV, Bye Bye Butterfly. I used large tape recorders with big reels. I’d take the supply reel and run it through the deck and over to another machine, several feet away. Sometimes I think I even ran it through three machines. They would all record, and feed the resulting sound back to the first machine, and the second machine.” ¹

So Pauline Oliveros, the leading experimentalist in post-war electronic art music up until her death at the end of November aged 84, describes her early experiments in tape music. Bye Bye Butterfly (1965) is the work of hers featured in the suggested electronic listening list for Music from the Present to the Past. The title refers to Madame Butterfly, which was at hand in the studio at the time and spontaneously incorporated.

Her summer course in 1966 at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studios allowed her to expand her methods into amplitude modulation using twelve signal generators, one of the results being I of IV.

Oliveros began composing for horn and harp, wind quintet, violin and piano at the University of Houston in 1951, leaving for San Francisco the following year where she was to meet and begin collaborating on free improvisation with Terry Riley. Her first tape piece, Time Perspectives came in 1961. The next year she received the Gaudeamus International Composers Award, Ligeti being one of the judges that year, for Sound Patterns for Mixed Chorus. Performed using mouth noises and vocables with a unique method of notation, the piece reflected her recent interest in electronics and predated similar vocal works by Ligeti and Stockhausen.

She was one of the founding members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1963 with Morton Subotnick, which was to move to Mills College with Oliveros as director. Today it is known as the Center for Contemporary Music. She began lecturing in Electronic Music at the University of California San Diego Music Department in 1967, as Director of Music Experiment.

After attending the first scientific conference on consciousness in 1970 held at UCSD, Oliveros was to develop Sonic Meditations, sets of instructions for directing attention to listening in group exercises that produce musical results without the need for prior training. Her Deep Listening Institute is now established as the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The difference between listening and hearing is a cornerstone of her philosophy:

A central interest of Oliveros’ was the processing of live sound and the shaping of virtual space as a dynamic element in music. She began developing the Expanded Instrument System (EIS) in 1983 through the use of delay processors controlled by foot pedals with her signature instrument the accordion. Delays of up to ten seconds could be looped with modulations by sine, square waves and envelope, with speed and depth control. Her Deep Listening Band sought not only to perform in acoustically unusual places (most famously in the 1988 Fort Worden cistern, with its 45 second reverberation time), but to then simulate them in the concert space. It was with the band that she developed a central interface for the EIS, used for Inside/Outside/Space 1991 for fifteen players, who all effect real time transformations of their sounds through foot pedals supported by a computer program helping them access different functions.

Her 2001 move to RPI as Professor of Practice saw the continuation of her lifelong pioneering of electronic music technology. Experimental Telepresence developed as her research project, which allows performing with others at a distance in the same virtual space. She also launched Adaptive Use Musical Instruments (AUMI), an interactive computer program which enables individuals with severe physical impairments to participate in musical improvisation. This software is available to download at no cost and is used by therapists all over the world, with a focus on children who have profound physical disabilities.

Vancouver Calling is for three groups of players, intended to coordinate the groups so they can perform together from their different locations and situations. Based on call, response and listening, each player invents a signature call that is used to establish identity and develop a relationship to another player. Oliveros describes the instructions for the piece and shows a short clip of a performance, from around 12 minutes in this video, by Avatar Orchestra Metaverse (AOM) in online virtual world Second Life, Adaptive Use Musical Instruments players and instrumentalists at the Vancouver Forum.

Pauline Oliveros – Symposium 7 “Internet Auditoriums” from LOCUS SONUS on Vimeo.

Bibliography: Oliveros, Pauline. “Reverberations: Eight Decades”. Jefferson Journal of Science and Culture. 2012 (2): 41-55

¹Pauline Oliveros: Deep Listening, composing, just intonation

Also published on Medium.


  1. Fionagh Bennet 21 December 2016 at 10:44 am

    You have educated me this morning, Charlotte! I knew nothing about this, but since I am also working on Present to the Past, I will be looking at this excellent lady’s work. Thank you.

  2. John Read 6 January 2017 at 2:52 pm

    Well I’m just an old fuddy duddy but I think the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is a great deal more interesting and much less pretentious.

    I often sing in a very resonant building – Gloucester- and frankly the 6 second echo is damn nuisance as everything gets smudged unless you are singing music which takes this into account. I heard David Briggs playing a Parry prelude which I had played for an organ exam: it was all but unrecognisable.

    The first piece puts one in mind of the sounds in jungle. Attractive in its way but this could never be anything but background music.

    No doubt this person pioneered some techniques in electronic music but that’s rather like creating a new instrument, worthy in itself but it’s what you do with it that counts. Wendy Carlos did some arrangements of the Brandenburg Concertos which remain some of my favourite interpretations to this day, all done on an early Moog synthesiser.

    It would be interesting to learn a little more about the AUMI work with children.

    Of course there is a difference between listening and hearing. The first is an active process in which the brain interprets the patterns of sounds it hears. And how it interprets these depends on your background and everything you have experienced. Being pattern seeking animals we will look for structure and resemblances to sounds we have heard previously. Perhaps I am missing something but does anything more need to be said on the subject.

    Incidentally i found the speech which casually threw in ‘space time continuum’ suspicious, perhaps trying to convey an intellectual depth which wasn’t really there..

    Well, I did say I was an old fuddy duddy.

    1. Charlotte Adams 22 January 2017 at 3:51 pm

      When Oliveros mentions ‘space/time continuum’, she refers to the space/time continuum of perceivable sound. She describes this as the acoustic space where space and time merge as they are articulated by sound, or by vibrations. She encouraged an expansion in perception of sounds.

      I do not know what you mean by ‘the sounds in jungle’…


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