Pauline Oliveros – Photo by Becky Cohen
There are forces in the world which seek division and misunderstanding. Yesterday (November 25th, 2016) we lost one of our great voices – our saints, in the struggle against them. Over the course of her 84 years, Pauline Oliveros was a sonic traveler who sought knowledge, unity, and creative advancement – always taking great lengths to use her discoveries as tools to build a better world.
Oliveros was among the most striking visionary voices in the Post-War American avant-garde. Not only did she advance multiple fields within experimental sound – particularly tape music, field recording, electronic music, and synthesis, sculpt an entirely singular body of work (with voice, accordion, and beyond), and develop a number of new compositional approaches, her ideas and philosophies have completely remolded the way we understand our relationship to sound, and its organization as a participatory act. Though her name is rarely spoken beyond our ranks, she changed and touched the entire world.
Pauline Oliveros during the 1960’s
In 1952, at the age of 20, Oliveros left her native Texas for San Fransisco to study and dedicate her life to the exploration of organized sound. Before the end of the decade, and increasingly of the course of the next, she quickly became one of the most important voices in American avant-garde music. She was among Terry Riley’s first collaborators, and was a founding member of the San Fransisco Tape Music Center with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender. Most importantly, the brilliance of her work contributed to shattering the gender barriers, which had long plagued the realms of advanced composition.
Pauline Oliveros during the 1960’s
During the late 1960’s and through the 70’s, while many of her peers rose to fame, Oliveros focused on challenging her practice, social activism, and her role as an educator – all of which remained the axes of her the life for the remainder of her days. Despite the towering heights of the work she leaves behind, it is arguably within the last two, that she gifts us her greatest legacy. Oliveros was among was the first to champion the importance of sound as a participatory act – as a collective process in both creation and listening. Not only did she equalize the terms of gender, but she strove to break the elitist barriers of entitlement, endemic within the history of music – both in creation and how we understand it to exist in our lives.
Pauline Oliveros and the ♀ Ensemble performing Teach Yourself to Fly from Sonic Meditations, 1970, Rancho Santa Fe, CA, (foreground to the left around: Lin Barron, cello, Lynn Lonidier, cello, Pauline Oliveros, accordion, Joan George, bass clarinet. Center seated foreground to the left around voices: Chris Voigt, Shirley Wong, Bonnie Barnett and Betty Wong). Pauline Oliveros Papers. MSS 102. Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.
During the late 60’s and early 70’s, while teaching at The University of California, San Diego, Oliveros began to work with ideas of collective creative practice – effectively deemphasizing the archetype of the composer, in favor of group contribution and community. Her seminal text Sonic Meditations (1971/1974), grew from this process and her work within the ♀ Ensemble – a creative collective for women, which pursued personal exploration within a context of group support. Sonic Meditations is high water mark within the history of 20th century music. Through it, Oliveros highlighted the virtues of meditation for making sounds, imagining sounds, listening to, and remembering sounds. It is as much a series of scores as a cumulative workshop for use – setting out to help practitioners realize these new relationships. Its focus is on community, the social power of sound, an extended recognition of its sources, and its deconstruction of hierarchy. Though undoubtedly a revolutionary way of composing, it also proposed a new way of existing in the world, and interacting with others. At the time it was published, it was equally a radical work of composition and a practical application of the new Feminist movement. Today, it crosses all barriers and contexts, not only laying the blueprint for the way that many of us approach sound, but our social and participatory relationship with the entire world.
Pauline Oliveros in recent years
Pauline Oliveros was a light in the darkness – a women who radically changed the world, and who leaves us an astounding cannon of sound – challenging, endlessly rewarding, singular, and alive. It is now her body and her being. Through it, she will continue to give. From it, we can forever learn. She showed us that art and life are one – that organized sound is a vehicle for social change and the building of lasting community. Her great lesson, which distinguished between hearing and listening, was not for sound alone. With it, she showed us a path to discovering the collective voice in our midst. She was among my greatest heroes – the inspiration behind so many of my words. Her departure is met with a stream of tears and profound sadness. For all of us, it is an inconsolable loss. Her contributions to the fields of music and activism will be with us to the end of days. They should be embraced with thanks and joy, and as she would have wanted it – as a tool to help us join together as a collective whole. The sounds she leaves, like her words, are a call in the dark. To our beautiful saint, I say goodbye, but never farewell. You will live forever in my heart.