Pauline Oliveros, the influential American composer, musician, thinker and teacher, died late last month at the age of 84. She had spent several decades at music’s cutting edge, and was an inspiration to some of the most renowned figures in experimental composition, including John Cage, Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley.
She was also an outspoken advocate for female musicians. As early as 1970, Oliveros wrote in the New York Times: “It is still true that unless she is super‐excellent, the woman in music will always be subjugated, while men of the same or lesser talent will find places for themselves.”
Unfortunately, this statement proved to be more-or-less true for Oliveros herself. Over the decades that she spent making music, Oliveros developed a broad network of students and admirers who revered her for her unique insights about sound and performance. But to the general public, her name and her music was far less familiar than most of her male counterparts — including some who cited her as an influence.
We phoned up two musicians who knew and worked closely with Oliveros to learn more about what made her such an extraordinary presence in the lives of those who made music with her. Tina Pearson is a composer based in Victoria. She first met Oliveros in 1979 at York University, where Oliveros had been invited to play a concert. Randy Raine-Reusch is a Vancouver-based multi-instrumentalist who recorded with Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band.
Before they had ever played together, Randy Raine-Reusch saw Oliveros play at the New York art festival Artpark.
Randy Raine-Reusch: We were both doing sets. I was on a little tiny stage and performed for about 300 people or so. She was on a concrete pad in the middle of the woods. There was a hill facing the pad, and there were logs for sitting. Pauline just sort of sat on the pad for two, three, four minutes with her head bowed and accordion in her lap and then she just played one very long, extended note. And then she played another one. And by the time she hit the third, all of a sudden a strange acoustic phenomenon happened: every sound that I could hear all of a sudden came into perfect synchronicity. Pauline would play a pitch, then a car would come into that range — but after Pauline played it. And then Pauline would move to the next note and a bird would sing that exact pitch. Nothing was random. It lasted for 40 minutes, and not a single random sound. Kids screaming in the background, trees swaying in the wind, trees squeaking.... It was so excrutiatingly wonderful that I purposely tried to kick a rock randomly to see if I could create a random sound and no, I could not.
I think that there's some people out there thinking, "Well, this might be a little bit hocusy-pocusy." But it's very odd when you experience it and there's Mr. and Mrs. John Doe sitting beside me and they're going, "Wow, did you hear that? Everything was perfectly in harmony! Yeah, it was like 40 minutes of it! You hungry? I wanna go eat lunch. Waddaya want, a hot dog?"
Fanciful or not, this effect of every sound coming into harmony with every other sound was the result of Oliveros's musical philosophy of "deep listening" (more on that shortly). Tina Pearson's first encounter with Oliveros was perhaps less transcendental, but no less life-changing.
Tina Pearson: When I met Pauline I was 19 or 20. I grew up in a tiny little town in the remote Canadian Shield where there was nothing remotely new. But I was really searching for a way to proceed with my ideas about sound and music. When I moved to Toronto and studied music, it really was filled with men. All the teachers were men, and the works that we studied were male works, by and large. Meeting and getting to know Pauline was really like, "Oh finally! Thank God!" And once you came into Pauline's orbit, she kept you. She didn't toss people aside. She kept encouraging me. Frequently, when I was younger, I would think, "How would Pauline manage this situation?" So she was really quite a mentor to me.
I think the first piece of hers I heard was Bye Bye Butterfly. This was an astonishing piece for me. It's an analog oscillator playing with Madame Butterfly. And i just found it so beautiful, and lovely — and irreverant, I guess. It's like a dance between this analog oscillator, and Pauline's mind, and this opera singer, and the resulting tones and textures. I just found it so refreshing and beautiful.
In 1988, Oliveros and a couple of her associates made a recording of themselves playing music inside a reverberant cistern, buried underground. They quickly realized that the environment in which they were playing, which could echo for as long as 45 seconds, had a sensibility of its own and was in effect another collaborator in the music. Oliveros took this lesson to heart and began formulating her philosophy of "deep listening," which eventually progressed well beyond simply listening to what's happening nearby.
Raine-Reusch: What you're listening to is not just the sounds around you, but you're listening to the memories of sounds. Every aspect of sound in your body. Every aspect of sound around you. You're listening with your body and your psyche. This leads you to experience the world in a different manner. The first time I visited her in her house in Kingston, New York ... I'm sitting in the front room where a lot of the instruments are stored and I just started playing them, and I was like, "Wow! This place is amazing to play in!" And it was just like a simple little living room on an ordinary street. And I mentioned it to Pauline: "The acoustics here are amazing!" She said, "Yes, I tune it every day!" And I really thought about that, and this is what she does when she plays. She is tuning her whole neighbourhood.
Pearson: Pauline's legacy is listening. Hearing is the mechanism that enables you to take in sound; listening is what you can change and train. You've heard the thing when couples are talking: "You're hearing me but you're not listening!" Hearing's great, but you listen with your heart. So, when you do these practices, it's automatically empathic. You automatically gain an empathy, a softening toward people. The biggest gift I can probably give to you is to listen to you.
An early adopter
Oliveros's early electronic music, like Bye Bye Butterfly, was just the start of a lifelong fascination with technology. Pearson played with Oliveros for 10 years in the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, a group of artists who meet and perform within the online virtual world Second Life. One of the first projects they worked on together with the AOM was a virtual, in-world performance of Oliveros's The Heart of Tones, a piece she'd originally written for trombone and electronics. Performing it inside of Second Life meant coming up with an entirely new virtual instrument for the orchestra members to play it on.
Pearson: This is digital now. This isn't a trombone or a voice. All these little increments within a tone have to be made, and then uploaded into Second Life. And we happened to have a genius script poet who made most of our instruments back then. It took him a long time. She was really exacting. I can't remember how many versions we had. I think we had 30 maybe. But if she had not really pushed the clarity of this vision, we would not have learned what we learned. And it pushed our performance practice to a place that we would not have gotten to if she had not been there. We kept working until we had this beautiful piece that we premiered, actually, in Victoria.
Raine-Reusch: Pauline was the first person who got me on email. I can't remember when I got to know Pauline, exactly. But there was no internet in Vancouver. I had to dial through my little 1,200-baud modem to a long-distance number in Seattle to get online to send emails back and forth with Pauline.
Oliveros and Cage
John Cage once said, "Through Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening, I finally know what harmony is… It's about the pleasure of making music." Cage and Oliveros had some overlapping philosophies. Like Oliveros, Cage valued sounds that many would consider "non-musical." His famous piece, 4'33", in which nobody plays anything and the music consists of the sound that happens in spite of that, is considered a landmark in 20th-century music and conceptual art.
Pearson: You know, a lot of people talk about John Cage and how he really changed significantly the perception of sound and music. I think Pauline's bigger, to be honest. And John Cage acknowledged Pauline. He really came to profoundly understand that what she was doing was really crucial. She pushed us into understanding that listening is everything.
Raine-Reusch: I did a performance with Pauline and her partner, Ione, in Vancouver at the Western Front. It was a year after Cage passed away. And Pauline had suggested that we should dedicate the concert to Cage. Everybody came up with a piece. Pauline chose Cage's piece for conch. Somebody else chose a piece Cage wrote for trombone. And I decided to do a piece that I had woken up with that morning, which felt like a John Cage piece. And Pauline said, "Let's play all of these pieces simultaneously, with windows of opportunity to hear then individually." And that was the only other instruction she gave. I thought that was absolutely beautiful.
Unfortunately this concert was recorded by CBC and 95 per cent of the two-hour concert was total silence. So it was never broadcast.
Oliveros continued to live by the words she wrote about women in music in that 1970 New York Times op-ed. She offered constant encouragement to the younger women composers who looked up to her.
Pearson: She would be very, very supportive — but she'd also not let us get off the hook. She really wanted us to push forward with our work, because it was important that women get their voices out. She experienced quite a bit of negation in her career, obviously. And she saw it as still happening. So, she went out of her way to support women in public. She would go to women's concerts whenever she could. She was incredibly generous and fierce about women getting their music out there, and their words. I think this is more recent, but she also grew to understand how powerful academia could be, so she was encouraging women to write and have their thoughts expressed in articles that could be peer-reviewed.
Raine-Reusch: In all the years I've recorded, the only time I ever had a woman engineer, was working with Pauline. Studio work is an art, but it's an art that anybody can learn. And I don't know why there's only these guys sitting in these dark rooms. And it was through Pauline that I got to work with a woman engineer, which I thought was fantastic. This is the kind of person she was. She was always supporting, creating opportunities for women to break into these male-dominated worlds.
Pauline Oliveros's legacy
Both Pearson and Raine-Reusch remember Oliveros as a great connector: a person who was as devoted to building communities as to making music. They both count her as a foundational person in their musical lives who offered support, encouragement and valuable connections to a global community of like-minded artists.
Raine-Reusch: Pauline's legacy may be a quiet legacy, but it will live on for generations.
Pearson: She paved a path for a lot of us who were looking for ways to work outside of the norm, and outside of the context of concert music. I'm really going to miss her, for sure. I know that her work will have a life and a presence that will continue to be profoundly felt. No doubt. I think what Pauline would say to all of us now is "OK, get on with it. Do your best. Love each other. Make music. Keep evolving."
There are plenty of places online to explore the details of Oliveros's life's work, including the websites for her Deep Listening Institute, and for the AUMI System, a digital instrument that allows physically disabled people to make music. But maybe the best thing you can do to celebrate Pauline Oliveros is listen.
Follow Matthew Parsons on Twitter: @MJRParsons