Pauline Oliveros – artist, friend to so many, composer, listener, humanitarian – died yesterday at her home in New York state on Thanksgiving morning. Ione, her wife and partner in so many enterprises, including Pauline’s career-long Deep Listening practice, posted the news on Facebook and tributes are pouring in, as well they should, for Pauline was a person who changed worlds and was someone who changed the musical world. This is not hyperbole.
Many will talk about Pauline’s work – at the San Francisco Tape Center in the 1960s, with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, as an educator at Mills College and elsewhere, as a truly radical composer who put listening at the centre of of all her work. I’ll write more about her soon.
For now, an anecdote from June 2016. Pauline was the invited composer to the Deep Minimalism festival in London, organised by the Southbank Centre at St John’s, Smith Square, a church just yards away from the Houses of Parliament. This photo was taken on 24 June, the day of the UK’s European referendum. I’ve got my ‘Remain’ sticker on. To say that that the political campaign around the Referendum had been vicious is an understatement. It was against this backdrop that we met. As Pauline and I finished talking, we looked out of the restaurant window to see a big lorry with a Brexit slogan – INDEPENDENCE DAY – on it. “Huh!” said Pauline. She had just given me a set of activist postcards she had produced into nearly 1970s: the one that I am holding shows a young Pauline on one side of the picture; she has her toy dagger. On the other side is the artist Alison Knowles as a very scowly baby. “Brahms was a Two-Penny Harlot” reads the caption: Pauline had produced these cards as a playful tilting at the canon of heroic male composers who formed the diet of – just about all of us – for so long. Another postcard in the series has the title “Beethoven was a Lesbian”. Why not? Pauline understood that official history could close down unofficial histories.
The Deep Minimalism festival opened almost as soon as the referendum results were in. Millions in the UK and around the world were shocked at the vote to leave the EU and Westminster was a scene of political mayhem. To lie on mats in St John’s listening to music by Éliane Radigue, Laurie Spiegel and Pauline was always going to be a good experience but, at this point in history, it was amazingly special. On the last day of the festival, Oliveros led the entire hall – some 400 people – in her Tuning Meditation, in which people sing out tones and pick out the tones of those who surround them. As pandemonium reigned outside, she had us listen to one another, to create a community of listening. Never has this been more needed. Bye-bye, Butterfly.
An afterthought: Pauline understood the importance of archives and understood that she was important enough to have an archive. Which is why she continually wrote papers, lectures, books, gave talks, taught generations of composers and musicians, delivered workshops, uploaded papers to Academia.edu. This isn’t anything to do with an overweening pride on her part – she was a humble person, self-deprecating and deeply funny – but an understanding that if the records aren’t there, then you won’t be in the future. This is hugely important. Artists, women, musicians, composers: get your papers in order now.