The keyboardist and healer Pauline Anna Strom communicates an acute sense of space and sensation on her enchanting synthesizer home-recordings, suggesting motion and the elements as well as scenes from the distant past, which she relates to as if they’re her own memories. Strom, who was born blind, describes her music using the phrase “trans-millennia consort” – a companion for traversing time.
Trans-Millennia Consort is also the name of Strom’s first album, released in 1982, and the name of the label she formed to self-release six more albums throughout the decade. Selections from all but one of them appear on RVNG Intl.’s new Trans-Millennia Music, the first-ever authorized reissue of Strom’s work. The compilation represents her supple melodies and beguiling timbres, her painterly, nonlinear compositions and painstaking emulations of extant sounds — what journalist Britt Brown calls “inner space music” in the liner notes.
Strom grew up in Kentucky and Louisiana, enamored of classical music and the Catholic Mass, and then followed her husband to his military post in San Francisco as the psychedelic era crested. An avid fan of the amorphous work of European artists such as Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, she accumulated an array of analog synthesizers and emulators, often working through the night in her modest home studio. Strom has lived in the same apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco for decades – she counts rent-control among her blessings – with two pet lizards her most constant companions. When we met near her home recently, she got teary-eyed when asked about the renewed interest in her work, and lamented selling her gear during times of financial hardship. In this interview excerpt from her Fireside Chat on Red Bull Radio, Strom spoke at length about the dual development of her spiritual and musical practice, as well as her enduring dislike of the phrase “new age.”
You grew up in the South. Can you tell me about the important musical encounters of your childhood?
I listened to classical music a lot, and I of course was Catholic and the Latin Mass was in vogue then. I like the ceremony, the mystery and the ancient form of that. It brought me a lot of peace. I’d listen to that when we went to church. I was more into the ceremony than I was the philosophy of Catholicism.
They had a really good choir, and if you know what Gregorian chants are, that gives you an idea of what I listened to. Then I listened to a lot of Bach and Beethoven and Chopin. I was influenced mostly by classical music. I played the organ a bit, but I just dabbled. I wasn’t really a musician.
You played the organ at church?
No, at home. We had a small one. When I got married and came to California, because my husband got stationed out here, my husband bought me a small organ, too. But that didn’t really fulfill me, because I always wanted to go in-depth with sound creation and that sort of thing. That’s why I got into synthesizers. I got the Prophet 10, a [Yamaha] CS-80, a [Yamaha] DX7, two [Yamaha] QX1s – you name it.
What are some examples of classical music you liked as a kid?
I listened to a lot of German composers, I don’t know why. I was in tune with that era of time – I still am to a big degree. I always felt out of place in the modern world. Of course, then when I began to make music with the equipment I got, it just grew from everything I’d experienced. I create soundscapes.
How else did your Catholic upbringing influence your spiritual development?
When I was a little girl I wanted to be a nun. When I grew up more and discovered boys I wanted no part of that life! But no, seriously, I think it influenced the emotional part of the music. You probably know I’m a spiritual counselor and a healer. I sort of take bits and pieces of everything I’ve ever explored and create my own system.
I’m not a practicing Catholic at this point, but occasionally I’ll go to church for the experience. I tend to take things from that, take things from Buddhism, and mingle different aspect of things I’ve explored. I figure if I were wrong then, whatever power there is, God will show me I’m wrong.
After you arrived in San Francisco, how did you discover synthesizers?
My husband took me to a shop. I think it was the Yamaha dealership that’s gone now, down on Market Street. I fell in love with what I found. It’s that simple.
I think most of what I created came from the deep recesses of my mind.
Do you remember the first one you laid your hands on?
I think it was a little Roland, but then I got to the Yamaha equipment. I got the Prophet 10, which was a Sequential Circuits machine, and then the DX7 – they really captivated me.
I understand you were turned on to a lot of synth music through [KPFA radio program] Music from the Hearts of Space
I was turned on to a lot by Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Vangelis. Hearts of Space was on at night, and if I caught it, I caught it.
What did you like about Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream?
Their music was timeless, and it travelled. The spaciousness of it, the timeless quality, where it can be in any universal realm – that’s what captivated me. It didn’t make you sad, it didn’t make you romantic. It was just driving, and it made you want to explore.
Were you influenced by the environment or community of San Francisco?
I think most of what I created came from the deep recesses of my mind. I don’t think it was influenced a lot by the city. I’d sit down to create, get lost in my imagination and come up with ideas and scenarios, spaces in time from the past.
What was the first track you created at home?
I think it was the first piece on Trans-Millennia Consort, “Emerald Pool.” I’d just got a lot of the equipment. There’s the water, in “Emerald Pool,” and then the harp sound and the vocal part, which was a synth. How I did the water was, I filled a bowl that I’d make bread in, a big ceramic bowl, and I had a microphone in one hand – it’s a wonder I didn’t kill myself – and my other hand in the bowl of water. That created the sound.
Did you spend a lot of time recording unusual things around the house?
Oh yes. You fill the bathtub and let it drain, record the draining, process that and make it into something wonderful. A lot of that is fun. In music and other aspects of life, a lot of people have forgotten how to play.
What do you do nowadays to play?
I have some lizards. I have a Cyclura nubila named Little Solstice and a blue-tongued skink named Miss Huff. The Cyclura is not an iguana but it’s similar to an iguana, and she’s big. The blue-tongue is a little smaller, and she’s cute. They’re both intelligent. I’ve had them since they were babies. They’re part of my world.
I actually had this idea of creating a music project related to reptiles. I can visualize in my head, working with someone who does holographic images, all of these Little Solstice’s floating over people. You can touch them, but they’re not real. I know it sounds weird, but I’d love to do that. I need someone with the talent and expertise. Then I’ll do the music.
You asked about using things and sound combined with music. One time what I did was I made the whole room of equipment work as one big synthesizer. I did this piece called “Domestic Peace.” It’s nowhere. I put a plate on a kitchen table and I had my effects unit going and I adjusted it so the echoes were like you’re in a canyon. And then I had a glass of water and I made it sound like it was poured from one side of the room to the other.
A friend of mine called me and said, “You’ve got 20,000 people out there that know you exist and liked your music,” and I said, “What? Why?”
How did you link with Ether Ship to release your Trans-Millenia Music?
I met Lemon [DeGeorge], who was really a nice man. They had the connections to be able to do it. They were responsible for that first record. I recorded it all at home, took it over to a professional studio and basically just transferred it. I recorded all those pieces at home on a four-track.
Why did you end up forming your own label?
It just happened that way. When I did the cassettes, Archie Patterson with Eurock helped me distribute a lot of it.
There’s a four-year gap between releases, 1984 to 1988.
I know. Personal life, changes happened. I had to sell my equipment. I’ll never get it back, but I want to get something new.
What did you think of the phrase “new age?”
I think there’s a lot of phoniness in the new age movement. I can’t stand this. I’m a realist, I’m down-to-earth, I’m practical, and all these people, my God, you know: [mocking] “Gonna have my glass of wine” – please, get over it. They had this phony way of putting on airs. You see through people like that, and it’s sickening.
Did that make you not want to participate in the music industry?
No, it didn’t make me not want to participate; it made me want to participate in my own way. You look at Spectre, you look at Plot Zero and the new things that are in my head – that’s not what new age would’ve wanted. I actually got so much flack for Plot Zero.
What kind of flack?
For the titles. “Mushroom Trip,” “Freebasing” – all of that.
Why were people upset by those titles?
Because they’re stupid. Because they’re ignorant. Think about it. You know, “Mushroom Trip,” “Freebasing,” “Organized Confusion” – it was a mind trip without chemicals.
It seems so puritanical to be annoyed by a drug reference.
Yeah. That’s what I mean. So-called “elegant,” hotsy-totsy people, that’s the way a lot of them are. You’re probably seen it. It’s ridiculous. They’re gonna love this interview.
I understand you weren’t into drugs, so tell me more about the album as a trip.
Right, except alcohol. Obviously a good majority of people do those drugs, so I figured you could do them this way, just put them headphones on and listen and you’ll get some similar effects. Seriously, that’s the way I’d interpret a mind trip from those things to be.
How does it feel to have people rediscovering and appreciating these things that you self-released in small editions so long ago?
I’m really surprised, and really touched by it. People would call me and tell me they’d seen things on the internet. (I’m not a computer person.) A friend of mine called me and said, “You’ve got 20,000 people out there that know you exist and liked your music,” and I said, “What? Why?” I didn’t even know. I guess there’s something in my music that people love. I’m overwhelmed by it.
The first piece on the new collection is “Freedom at the 45th Floor.” Can you talk about it?
“Freedom at the 45th Floor” was like being in a big, enormous skyscraper, the biggest one you can find, and having the freedom to walk around in the building, up that high.
What’s another song with an interesting process of creation?
There’s a piece on Japanese Impressions, which is a tape, and it’s called “Ice Chips.” I envisioned somebody with an axe chipping away at a block of ice, and I created what I interpreted that sound to be. It has random sounds of metal and it has tones to it, but it’s not really meant as a melody. Somebody listened to that and said you could feel the frequencies in your chest. So I do see that a lot of these things affect your chakra systems, affect your organs in your body.
When did you learn about chakras?
A long time ago. I dabbled in things and, you know, I’m a reiki master. I went to massage school. [Reiki] is a form of energy healing. I believe, regardless of reiki or any of these modalities, it all breaks down to one thing – it’s just God’s love flowing through us. You can go into the technical stuff, but I don’t do that. It flows through you. You channel it through you.
Does your sensitivity to sound relate to your spiritual practice?
I think it all intertwines. It really does. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been a rebel. I’ve always been different. I respect and learn from other people, but I quietly take what I want for my own system.