Pauline Oliveros playing accordion surrounded by two computers and other electronic gear. (Photo by Ione.)
Magical Yet Practical—Remembering Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)
Photo by Ione

Magical Yet Practical—Remembering Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

“Over, under, and with a twist” — this was how Pauline Oliveros described the technique she was demonstrating for coiling an audio or video cable for efficient storage or transport. This was also my personal introduction to Pauline in the fall of 1977, when I arrived at UC San Diego as a graduate composition student. All incoming grad students were required to take a kind of basic training course—taught by Pauline that year—that instructed us in the essential survival skills for a composer in that department. The “Over, under” method for coiling cables (which is also good for staying on good terms with your technical staff – another important but often-overlooked ability) was one of two practical skills covered that first week. The 2nd was tape splicing, a procedure now only practiced the way anthropology students are taught how to make a stone arrowhead by chipping obsidian or chert.

I first became familiar with Pauline’s work I of IV as a teenager in the late 1960s from the LP release on Columbia’s Odyssey label that also included Richard Maxfield’s Night Music and Steve Reich’s Come Out. This disc (along with Terry Riley’s In C) changed my life.  I had also spent most of 1972 through ‘74 hanging out at the Center for Contemporary Music (at Mills College and then under the direction of Robert Ashley), which was the institutionalized evolution of the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center of which Pauline was a co-founder. The Tape Music Center’s recording archive was available at Mills, and I was able to hear many of those early electronic works by Pauline and many others. In fact, my decision to select UC San Diego for graduate school was made in large part because Pauline was on the faculty there along with composer Robert Erickson, whom I had seen listed as both Pauline’s and Terry Riley’s teacher.

Close on the heels of those first two practical assignments was another of a rather different character: to keep a dream journal for the whole semester. This was a process that required learning techniques of awareness during dreaming that facilitated remembering one’s dreams upon waking and then getting them down on paper. (This was, after all, well before personal computers.)

While Pauline was fully grounded in the practicalities of making music, she was always able to connect directly to a place that can reveal mystery and magic.

While it was not evident to me back in 1977, that mix of the extremely practical (how to coil an audio cable and splice tape) and whatever its opposite might be (the dream journal) in many ways exemplified something essential about Pauline.   While she was fully grounded in the practicalities of making music, living and thriving in the physical world, she was always able to connect directly to that place in our less-than-conscious experience of the world—a place where we experience the moment more deeply than we assume possible and a place that can reveal mystery and magic.

I am somewhat at a loss for the right term here, as the easy words to describe Pauline’s work and impact all evoke the “spiritual” realm.  While that is certainly how many people experienced much of Pauline’s later work, such as the Sonic Meditations or Deep Listening, I don’t think the term “spiritual” gets at the truth of this place for her. I believe her inspiration was more a recognition of the potential for depth and magic in every moment of experience, whether it be listening, playing, or any other human endeavor.

It took me some time to arrive at this viewpoint about Pauline. I’ll admit to being a “spiritual” skeptic, having lived through the self-indulgent and shallow spirituality that seemed emblematic of the 60s and 70s.  So, it was with some reluctance that I participated in my first session of Sonic Meditations with Pauline at UCSD’s Center for Music Experiment (then in a WW2-era Quonset hut) in the fall of 1977.   A group of perhaps thirty graduate and undergraduate music students sat on the carpeted floor, and Pauline gave us simple instructions for how to listen and then select our own pitch to sing.  I vividly recall my own transition from guarded observer to immersed participant, as her simple instructions quickly yielded what I can only describe as transcendental sonic and temporal experiences.

Over the course of that year, I participated in a number of additional sessions of Sonic Meditations, as well as some performance events co-created and led by Pauline and her partner at the time, Linda Montano.   In all of these experiences there was, in the transition from observer to participant, a move into a vibrant present moment that for me has always been the goal of performance.

By the early 1980s Pauline had departed from UCSD (simultaneous with the department’s change of emphasis towards computer music technology and a more Euro-centric practice of composition). She became one of the founders, along with Robert Ashley, of New Music America.    This festival, which was almost like a convention or trade show for the experimental wing of American contemporary music, was mounted by a new producing team and in a different city each year.   One could say that John Cage was the godfather of the festival and Pauline the godmother.  I recall that when the collaborating team of each new festival was being developed, Pauline was—with a mix of both humor and deep truth—given the title of the “chaplain,” an acknowledgement that she provided, in addition to leadership and artistic vision, a moral compass for the whole community.

With her passing, we celebrate her life: a complete and uncompromising life lived with inspiration, creativity, compassion, and without boundaries.

The last time I saw Pauline perform was with the Deep Listening Band at a festival of New Albion Records artists at BARD College in the summer of 2008.    It had been a number of years since I had listened to Pauline’s work and some of my skepticism about the “spiritual” resonance around her work had returned.  The DLB closed the multi-day festival (where I had earlier performed In The Name(less) a work for my Invented Instrument Duo with Joel Davel), which was produced in the remarkable Spiegeltent.   There on stage was a grand piano and a large collection of instruments, including Pauline’s big accordion, miscellaneous toys, a trombone, didgeridoo, plastic pipe, reams of electronics, and a trio of “old folks.”   But from the first sound through the entire hour-long performance, Pauline, along with the amazing trombonist Stuart Dempster and pianist David Gamper, wove a dense tapestry of sound (mostly improvised) with such clarity, depth, sensuality, and humor that it came to me that THIS music, which exemplified the “deep listening” aesthetic, was in fact the source and inspiration for numerous other artists’ explorations of drones and slowly evolving musical textures.  I left the concert laughing with pleasure—these “old folks” totally rocked!  And Pauline left us with what “old folks” are supposed to give us:  wisdom.  With her passing, we celebrate her life: a complete and uncompromising life lived with inspiration, creativity, compassion, and without boundaries.

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