I woke at about 3PM on the day after Thanksgiving (having worked the previous night shift) and I checked my e-mail and then, on Facebook I learned of the passing of theorist, composer, musician, teacher and all round wonderful human being Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). She had died peacefully in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day. Going over the copious posts and comments I was saddened at her passing but oddly comforted by the fact that these posts honoring her are effectively eclipsing the ones on the obnoxious political issues as well as demonstrating the incredible reach of her influence. Thankfully, Pauline will not have to endure the regressive politics which now dominate our country and, indeed, the world.
I first encountered Pauline’s work, as many did, through the Columbia Odyssey LP curated by none other than David Behrman in his Music of Our Time series. There are several composers on the disc including Steve Reich (Come Out), Richard Maxfield (Night Music), and Pauline Oliveros (I of IV). Over the years I collected and listened to most of her recordings Discogs lists 55 recordings but no doubt there are many more and likely a plethora of unreleased material which will grace our ears for years to come. Like her older contemporary John Cage it is difficult to identify a “masterpiece” and, also like Cage, she didn’t aspire to such notions because she aspired to learn and subsequently teach the art of listening. Her Deep Listening Institute is based in Kingston, New York.
I was pleased to be able to see one of the incarnations of the Deep Listening Band in Chicago at the Harold Washington Library. This concert occurred on the night of the famed “Chicago Flood” (1992) in which a construction mishap diverted thousands of gallons of water from the Chicago River into the disused coal delivery railway tunnels which connect most of the downtown buildings. I brought along a postcard from her album The Well and the Gentle hoping to get her autograph. It was my first face to face meeting with this icon of new music. She graciously took the card into her hand and immediately exclaimed with a smile, “Oh, this is from the Well”. She quipped that next time they would hold their concert in one of the “deep tunnels” which are a part of the Chicago’s massive flood control rainfall overflow system. I still treasure that autograph and the memory of my first meeting with Pauline.
I can hardly tell you my level of excitement when vegan chef and musician Philip Gelb announced that Pauline with her partner Ione would be appearing at his next dinner concert. The opportunity for a close encounter with this master was certainly heaven sent. (Pauline later wrote the lovely introduction to Philip’s first vegan cookbook.)
Indeed, as I sat across from Pauline no doubt babbling some starstruck nonsense, I encountered in both her and her partner Ione two warm and unpretentious people. While I knew I was in the presence of genius I was given to feel very welcome as they both engaged me and the other guests in lively conversation at this spectacular vegan meal. In the pause just before dessert they gave a wonderful performance with Ione speaking improvised and passionate poetic utterances while Oliveros played her quirky improvisations in parallel on her digital accordion.
I later got to see Pauline as a returning guest composer/performer at Other Minds 20, a series lovingly and painstakingly curated by composer, broadcaster and new music impresario Charles Amirkhanian. I believe this was her last major bay area appearance.
Every year at the Garden of Memory summer solstice concert the open membership Cornelius Cardew Choir performs Oliveros’ Heart Sutra every year. The verbal score describes how one enters the singing circle and intones basically the note of their choice with one hand over their heart and the other on the back of another singer. I screwed up my courage to participate in this ritual a few years ago and it is now an essential part of the beginning of my summer. Pauline has taught me much and no doubt will continue to teach me through her writings and recordings. For that I am eternally grateful.