Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016)

Over a decade ago I used to set a practical assignment for students: to write an obituary of a person who was quite happily alive, as if they were writing for a newspaper to hold “just in case.” The composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros was the subject I set one year, and the most successful. No matter what musical tastes the students had, they were fascinated by Oliveros the person, of her ideas about music, and of the implications that her life had for feminism and lesbian rights, of her spouse, Ione, who has been her collaborator, representative, and rock for many years. I had never thought about Pauline Oliveros’ mortality, any more than I considered the mortality of any other subject in that assignment. Therefore, I was very stunned to read on Friday that Oliveros had died. It shouldn’t be unexpected that someone should die at 84, but given that she had been performing only days before, it was a shock. There are pictures of her this year, holding that enormous accordion and playing it with such ease, the only sign of advancing age being a walking stick that she carried with style.

For those who followed her, Pauline Oliveros was amazing. While most women have been shunted into performance rather than composition, or moved their compositional style to match the current thinking of academia, recreating rather than creating, Oliveros took the hardest route. She was a central figure in the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s. Even in the 1970s, electronic studios were male-dominated, hard for any but the most talented and most determined woman to push through. She used the medium of text notation for her Sonic Meditations, became a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and founded her Deep Listening projects. And she came out as lesbian at a time when it was career suicide; in fact, at a time when just being a woman, any woman, brought up brick walls, never mind glass ceilings.

At the moment, I’m editing some interviews with American composers in the early 1970s and am constantly confronted by the masculine pronoun used exclusively for composers (one, in particular, only mentioned one female: his wife, whom he referred to as “mein frau”). Even though I was a university student at that time, I’ve been shocked when looking back at the pictures of all-male composer parties, of the unknown student being “he” and “him”, when the “guys” in class were not a colloquialism like “folk”, but real boys and men. And when I briefly considered studying composition—and needed an experimental composer as a model, not a historical figure like Amy Beach, or concert composer like Ruth Crawford (or Mrs HHA Beach or Ruth Crawford Seeger as was)—Pauline Oliveros was pretty much the only one that anyone mentioned. (Knowledge of Alison Knowles, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Carla Bley, and the others came later…). And yet, and yet… When these composers were asked who else should be interviewed, most of them said “you should ask Pauline”. There was respect. And, according to most of her contemporaries, her students, and, in my limited contact with her, me, she was extraordinarily nice to people, and very, very kind.

There are a lot of great tributes to Oliveros out there, but I was really taken with an article based on Houston Library archives from 1999, which someone shared on Facebook, and which deals with the epistolary exchanges between Oliveros and her mother. It’s yet more evidence of Texas as the birthplace of creative, independent musicians: . And although there are many examples of Pauline’s more austere, meditative, Deep Listening music about, this piece, “A Love Song”, recorded in a drained reservoir in Germany, is more beautiful and poignant than any other piece by her that I’ve heard.

That’s not an end; it’s a start. Pauline Oliveros is, quite rightly, the subject of books: biographies, articles, analysis… I wish I had thought to write a proper, professional obituary when I set the assignment for the students. The literature on her, her music writings and recordings, and the politics of her life and work is rich—too rich to clarify just now.

Author: Virginia

Virginia Anderson is a writer who messes with the EMC Blog. She specialises in the study of experimental, minimalist, and free improvisatory music. She also plays clarinet, and has recorded on Zanja, Advance, and Rastascan Recordings, specialising in new works for Eb clarinet and free improvisation.

6 thoughts on “Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016)”

    1. Thank you, Virginia, for this marvelous entry. What a great assignment, and it makes sense that it would have been successful. Those of us who worked closely with Pauline were constantly delighted with her energy, multi-faceted interests and open ears, heart and mind. Joy to you in Deep Listening and continuing Pauline’s transformative work/play.

      1. Thanks, Tom, for your comments, and for keeping Deep Listening at the forefront of musical practice and especially for running the Cornelius Cardew Choir. A Cardew presence of long standing on the West Coast!

  1. Pauline Oliveros! Around 1979/80 ( I cannot remember the exact dates) she stayed in Jerusalem for a short while. I guess that was her first and last visit to this city; or am I wrong? She was invited, as a guest of honour, to a short-lived festival of women-composers. As a young ex-student I had already known about her and her music and musical philosophy, by which I was really fascinated. And so, I decided to interview her for the then moderate left-wing daily newspaper ‘Al Hamishmar’. I was quite naive then: I remember I was astonished (shocked, as a matter of fact ), realizing that Oliveros was not hosted,
    not even mentioned, by any academic institute here, nor by the local Composers’ League. Well, well…

    She stayed at a private , small apartment (no hotels!). She received me with a nice smile. It was a beautiful sunny day, and she suggested we sit on the roof and talk freely. This was quite a lesson for me ( perhaps for any young musician): here is a well known, so original and quite influential composer who is just a friendly, non-pompous human being.

    1. Thank you for this memory, Oded! Her generosity sounds typical. Her lack of “official” recognition by the establishment is, sadly, something that happened elsewhere, and I can’t see why. Some years ago (would have been about 2007-8?), when I was working at A.N. University, I had an opportunity to bring PO to talk to the students at a discounted rate. She was appearing at a festival nearby, which was why this was such a special circumstance. I was really grateful to her and Ione for considering coming, because it was around the time I had set the obituary exercise, and so many of the students were fascinated by her and Deep Listening. I got a good response from my immediate superior, only for it to be quashed by someone higher up. After having that occur with another major composer I gave up. Sad for the students, though….

Comments are closed.