Deeply Listening: David Dove on Pauline Oliveros
Edith Guiterrez (Pauline’s mother), Pauline Oliveros and David Dove at the American Accordionists Association Festival in 1995.
In the week following her death on Thanksgiving morning, I had hoped for Pauline’s arrival in a dream. On Saturday night, fully aware in my dream that she was no longer among us on the Earth, she appeared. She was exactly as I had always known her to be: totally present, self-assured, caring and more than a little bit impish. “How could she be here?” I thought. Perhaps her passing was a deception, staged so that she could continue her work in private. This is, of course, extremely unlikely. And if you know Pauline and her work, this would seem impossible. But her passing feels just as impossible. She once told me with total certainty that she would live past the age of a hundred. (Her mother, my friend Edith Gutierrez, lived to 94.) And more than anyone I know, Pauline did what she said she would do.
The loss has been hard for those of us who received so much mentoring, love and support from Pauline. We are many, across the world, and spanning several generations. Perhaps it’s particularly hard for those of us who somehow never expected her to leave. Pauline was writing and teaching and performing and composing and traveling until the end. It is reported that she was teaching karate to her undergrad students just two weeks before her passing. The undergrads were apparently having a hard time keeping up with their 84-year old black belt professor.
Since she passed, I went back and looked at our more recent correspondences and exchanges. I found a Facebook pic of a handwritten score that she donated to the auction of a Nameless Sound fundraiser in April.
At a quick glance last April, I read this as a sweet gesture and a characteristic bit of wordplay. Like Edith, puns and poetics were second nature to Pauline. They fill her conversations, speeches, scores, writings and composition titles. Her wordplay was expressed with an ease that, on the surface, seemed whimsical.
But Pauline would never succumb to easy whimsy just for the sake of being clever. She had things to say, and she was a person who communicated and wrote with clarity and directness. And only after her passing, looking again at this score, did I realize that this was no wordplay at all. In fact, this text score is quite disarming in its plainspoken instruction. Pauline was messing with me. She was challenging the very idea of a “Nameless Sound,” and enlisting the potential performer of this piece as her accomplice in treating me to some named sounds, and their names.
Pauline was a trickster. She was generous, nurturing, thoughtful, compassionate and mentoring . . . and she was a trickster. She was a trickster when she was among us on this Earth. She was a trickster in my dream. And, though she’s gone, she is still tricking me in my waking consciousness. My rereading of this score, “NO SOUND NAMELESS, FOR NAMELESS SOUND,” reminded me of just how far behind the curve I am on following Pauline’s lead. The trickster may use wordplay, or she may be absolutely plainspoken. I’ll spend my whole lifetime trying catching up to her. After all, she left us all so much to catch up on.
Houston, you may not know this, but Pauline Oliveros is probably the most innovative experimental artist to ever have come from your city. She’s likely the most influential as well. (My only hesitation in this argument would be the inclusion of DJ Screw as an experimental artist. Maybe they would be tied.) Her impact was both deep and wide ranging, as she was persistent in a vision that touched on so many various aspects of experimental arts, contemporary artistic practice and avant-garde music. Her influence is felt profoundly in her direct engagement with people and communities, as well as in her body of work.
A few of her many important contributions:
— In the early 1960s, Pauline was key in the development of the first electronic music studio on the West Coast. Her early electronic pieces, which used magnetic tape, oscillators, turntables and other appropriated technology (as well as prototype synthesizers), are foundational in the field. And they’re heavy! (I know a lot of noise people who really love these works.)
— Her Sonic Meditations, originally composed in the early 1970s for an ensemble of women, which included both musicians and non-musicians, are still widely employed as the basis for community workshops. They are as simple and challenging for the musical virtuoso as they are for the non-musician. Avant-garde movements have seen several major efforts toward accessibility and inclusion in music making. No efforts have been as radical and sustained as Pauline’s. “All societies admit the power of music or sound. Attempts to control what is heard in the community are universal. Sonic Meditations are an attempt to return the control of sound to the individual alone, and within groups especially for humanitarian purposes; specifically healing.”
— Pauline was key to the growth and success of important experimental music programs at three major institutions of higher learning. Earlier in her career, she helped develop programs at Mills College and University of California at San Diego. Most recently, she held a post at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she founded The Deep Listening Center. These are three of only about six programs in the US where one can focus on this type of work. She did all of this without ever having earned an advanced degree herself.
— Her understanding and employment of acoustics was virtuosic and unequalled. In performance, her accordion could send sounds in any direction, and shape them in a range of resonances. She was a master with the way sounds move in space. This skill famously led her to recordings in unusual locations such as caves and underground cisterns. It led her to develop the Expanded Instrument System, a multichannel surround sound system that could be used to move electronic sounds through space in an improvisational performance. Among the enthusiasms of her later period were her live improvisations involving collaborators in different countries, performing together through high-speed audio and video internet feeds. She had an appreciation of space that included the acoustic, the electric and the virtual.
— Through her retreats, her teaching, her mentoring and her Deep Listening Institute, she nurtured whole communities. Without question, Nameless Sound here in Houston would never have existed without her guidance, encouragement and supervision. We are only one effort among many worldwide.
— One of her last great efforts was Adaptive Use Musical Instruments, technology that allowed people with severe immobility and disabilities (such as cerebral palsy) to improvise electronic music using only the movements of their eyes.
All of these accomplishments and more fell under her well-known philosophy and practice of Deep Listening, which she defined as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” Among other implications, Deep Listening is a basic practical exercise in inclusivity. It connects such a wide ranging body of work that features so many varied and distinctly ground-breaking and radical activities, including innovations in electronic music, community organizing, clearly articulated and poetic text scores, feminism, etc.
She’s your native daughter, Houston. Her music carried the droning and chirping communication of your cicadas and frogs. Her accordion playing had its roots in your ethnic traditions, as well as roots in the little known history of University of Houston’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classical accordion performance. Her warmly expressed, but sometimes pointed, humor was told in the gentle drawl that we know well. The unhurried, elastic sense of time that her music so profoundly inhabited is familiar to our ears, across the lines of our region’s various musical genres.
Thank you, Houston, for introducing me to Pauline Oliveros. Thank you Pauline for everything. You are deeply missed, and I am deeply listening.
by David Dove