Pauline Anna Strom: In Modern Time

The Challenges Of Visual Impairment And Living Out Of Time

Pauline Anna Strom sadly died in December 2020. This piece was first published in 2018, a year after the release of the album Trans-Millenia Music. Pauline leaves behind a truly inspirational and otherworldly musical legacy.

For a long time, Pauline Anna Strom wasn’t making music. The self-described recluse stepped away from her compositions for a number of years following financial difficulties that forced her to sell off her equipment. For several decades, she was off the musical grid, her recordings elusive in both their physical and digital forms. But now she has come back to her musical past, helped by the rediscovery of her work through Brooklyn-based label RVNG Intl., slowly but surely building herself a new collection of music and gear.

Strom’s musical education began as a listener, growing up absorbing a lot of classical music specifically “medieval early music, a lot of early music and a lot of Bach, a lot of Chopin.” She played around on the piano, but switched to synthesizers later on, picking up her first one when she moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s with her military husband.

Pauline Anna Strom in her studio, mid-’80s. Photo: Photographer Unknown. Used With Permission From Archie Patterson’s Eurock Archives

“The first [synthesizer] I had was a Yamaha CS80 and of course I went on from there and got all the other things gradually. The DX-7, the Prophet 10, the Sequential, and the Emulator. All of that was analog equipment… but I looked at the whole group of instruments, including effects units like the Lexicon Super Prime Time [an early-’80s digital delay unit, officially called the Model 97] and all those kind of units as part of the composition,” Strom says. “I looked at every piece of equipment which was a component of one synthesizer. I don’t believe in putting effects on in a mix. I believe in making it work for you and be part of the composition.”

Though the Bay Area has a rich experimental music scene, having played host to the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960’s and many groundbreaking composers — from Suzanne Cianni to Pauline Oliveros to Lou Harrison — she managed to keep herself insulated from drastic outside influences. “I live in my head a lot and I create,” Strom says. “I'm a non-conformist in a lot of ways and I believe that probably the sight thing has a lot to do with that because I'm not afraid to be an individual.”

The “sight thing” is Strom’s visual impairment. She was born blind and has never been able to see. “There's someone that told me not long ago 'that's what I like about you. You say what you think and you don't care what other people think.' And I call it like it is and how I see it and it's somebody else's problem if they don't like it. Oh well. But, it's [about] not being afraid to be an individual.”

“I live kind of very reclusively by choice because it gives me the freedom to create and to not be influenced a lot by other things.” — Pauline Anna Strom

And while it is not a defining feature of her art, in the way that she speaks on her process, it’s clear that it has had an impact on her music and the way she creates. “I basically would interpret and translate visual into audio,” Strom says. “I kind of live out of present time. Like I'm in modern time and present time, but at the same time, I've always felt out of place. Like being more into the past and in the future. In a different realm, rather than present time. So how I handle it all, is I live kind of very reclusively by choice because it gives me the freedom to create and to not be influenced a lot by other things.”

Though many of her recordings were made decades ago, they have an out-of-time quality to them, standing fully on their own. It’s familiar but new, like the wisps of last night’s dream slipping away as you get out of bed. Underneath that dreaminess, there’s energy and a sense of exploration and playfulness as she teases out different sounds, meshing them together into something whole.

“The challenge in a lot of ways… is creating sound. Taking something and envisioning it in your head and creating the sound,” Strom says. “I mean yeah, it's great to have the sounds there for you, but then to jump out of that in time. Even if you never... I used to love to do that. There's sounds I used to make that never got used in anything. I just enjoyed making them, aside from the music.”

She has ordered her life in such a way that she lives mostly in her own space, but she’s not a completely solitary person. In her apartment in the heart of the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s grittiest neighborhoods, she lives with her pet Cyclura, Little Solstice. When Strom isn’t making music, she works as a healer. “I'm a reiki master and practitioner. I do a lot of distance healing, mostly through word of mouth and I don't believe in capitalizing on people's pain so I guess I'm different in that way. I just do it because I want to and if I can help people in that way, I do it.”

Pauline Anna Strom plays her Prophet 10, which she says she treated like “a component of one synthesizer”. Photo: Photographer Unknown / Electronic Musician, Vol.1 Ep.1

Strom’s work as a healer comes across as you speak with her; there’s an energy in her voice. She is a woman who seems to know who she is, what she wants and won’t hesitate to tell you exactly what she’s thinking. “A lot of blind people handle it in different ways but people can be condescending,” Strom says. “Other people let it roll off of them. I call people on it… There was maybe a time, a long time ago where I would be hurt and I would cry over it. Over the years, I've gotten to the point where I’m tough, I’ll tell people just what they can do and I don't care. Because I think shock treatment a lot of times is what people need. Otherwise they keep on doing the same thing.”

With Strom’s break from music at an end, she’s embraced coming back to these things that are still familiar in her music making as she learns to play with some of the newer gear that’s come out during her time away.

“It feels like I haven't been away that long. You know, I mean I think the timing is right. I've come through a lot of personal things and I'll be able to pour out a lot of that complicated emotional stuff into the music that I create now. And to begin to explore the equipment and learn as I'm going, you know, it really, really fulfills me. I don't know how else to explain it right now but it does. But I feel the time is ready. It wouldn't have been ready five years ago, but it's ready now.”

Words: Theodora Karatzas