Living through a pandemic has distorted our already fragile grasp of time. Days turn into weeks at a glacial pace, only for months to evaporate in an instant. How are we supposed to deal with it all? One option would be to rethink how we interact with time entirely, and look towards something more transcendent and liberating. It’s a strange idea, sure, but it’s one that blind synthesist and composer Pauline Anna Strom made a compelling case for throughout her life. As Brooklyn label RVNG Intl. marks the posthumous release of the Bay Area-based artist’s first new music in over 30 years, it feels timely to reflect on the life and legacy of this unique artist, who sadly passed away in December 2020 at the age of 74.
Strom, (Paula, to those who knew her), often spoke of experiencing time differently to others. She described feeling out of step with the present, considering herself to be more in tune with “the depths of the ancient past and the far-flung reaches of an untapped universal future”. Speaking in a rare, early interview with music magazine EUROCK in 1986, she said: “I sometimes feel I have been placed in this chaotic, confused present to draw into it the elements from these opposite realms in order that my interpretations of them through sound and music may in some sense benefit our as yet largely incompetent and immature population.”
Through her three albums and four cassette tapes, released in limited edition runs between ’82 and ’88, Strom channelled her understanding of reincarnation. With an intuitive, self-taught compositional process — one she maintained was helped, never hindered, by her blindness — Strom mapped out uncanny sonic spaces, plucked from vivid scenes she saw in her mind. These inner worlds feel as futuristic as they do primordial, as universal as they are personal.
Strom’s music has a magisterial quality to it, stretching beyond the parameters of the Californian New Age movement she lived alongside. While New Age honed in on escapism, Strom’s music sought to elevate the listener with its rich, purposeful imagery. She would go so far as to describe the hype and commercialisation around New Age as “bullshit propaganda”, with a business structure “as corrupt, political, and superficial as elsewhere”.
Strom recorded all of her music in her apartment in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighbourhood, mostly using the Yamaha DX7, a Prophet 10, two CS1x keyboards, an E-mu Emulator, and a Tascam four-track recorder. Her stunning debut, ‘Trans-Millenia Consort’ (a moniker she also used), laid out her ethos in its liner notes: “This to me is a personal declaration that I have been in previous lives, that I am in this life, and that I shall in future lives be a musical consort to time”.
The album beams with melodic motifs, swirling arpeggios and twinkling percussion. From the lapping sounds of water — recorded by Strom splashing one hand in a bowl, while holding her microphone in the other hand — in opener ‘Emerald Pool’ to the cascading closing chirps of ‘Gossamer Silk’, the album is authentically realised, full of emotion and colour.