Pauline Oliveros: An appreciation

(Photo by Pieter Kers)

(Photo by Pieter Kers)

“Listening is not the same as hearing and hearing is not the same as listening.”

-Pauline Oliveros

In 2011, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Pauline Oliveros told Pitchfork, “I feel that students always learn more from each other than they do from their professor. They learn by doing.” The sentiment itself is not remarkable; its implied emphasis on (inter)action, attention and inclusivity above all other values is utterly consistent with what the composer, accordionist, educator, feminist and philosopher of sound had been saying (and demonstrating) throughout her long career as a leading independent voice in the American musical and cultural avant-garde. What is notable and vastly meaningful is that Pitchfork – that divisive, stimulating, smug and inarguably influential indie-rock and urban-pop webzine – was interviewing Oliveros to begin with.

Pitchfork’s keen interest in Oliveros speaks to ascendancy of the 20th American avant-garde in the world of pop, hip and youth. The methods, arguments and sounds of the last century’s experimentalists have been inching their way onto dancefloors, punk basements and do-it-yourself cultural manifestos for several decades, in the process elevating and authenticating the reputations and influence of Oliveros, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, John Cage, LaMonte Young and other unconventional 20th-century composers. It has been an unexpected validation for artists who were more often viewed as conceptual gadflies than as serious contributors to the canon: artists of outlandish daring, revolutionary simplicity and a global purview, for which they were often marginalized, dismissed and mocked in the worlds of serious and popular music.


If many of the big names of musical experimentalism preferred a contentious, noisy, heterogenous and randomized sound, most of Oliveros’ best-known work embodies the other approach: meditative, dwelling, concordant and, in its own earthy way, lush. She was every bit as revolutionary as Cage in her efforts to strip serious music of its elitism, its many centuries of accumulated manners and expressive devices and its deeply ingrained gender inequality. And while both Oliveros and Cage urged audiences to “just listen” and just attend, Oliveros’ own product was uniquely soothing and immersive in a genre known for its assaults on consensus taste. Hers was a genuinely pleasant place to relearn the art of listening.

It wasn’t always this way, however. Before arriving at what would be her mature voice, Pauline Oliveros entered early on into the world of radical experimentation and noise, working with synthesizers, electronic music and tape manipulation at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early ’60s, collaborating there with Subotnick and Ramon Sender. She was also an ardent free improviser, working with the likes of Terry Riley and Loren Rush.

Over the next five decades, Oliveros would be a prolific composer, improviser, writer, academic and the founder of the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, holding distinguished posts at Mills College, the University of California at San Diego and most recently at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where her presence for more than a decade had much to do with RPI’s emergence as an international hotspot of experimental music and multimedia.

Pauline Oliveros died in her home in Kingston on Thanksgiving Day, at the age of 84. By the next morning, this writer’s Facebook feed was overflowing with grief, remembrances and most of all thankfulness for her dynamic presence and agency in the cultural life of the mid-Hudson Valley, for the many programs, venues and initiatives developed by the Deep Listening Institute. Between Basilica in Hudson, EMPAC in Troy and the wealth of musical and multimedia experimental programs in the art-rich riverside region of Beacon, our Valley has become a central node in the resurgence of interest in experimental art, and we have Pauline Oliveros’ gentle and instructive presence among us to thank for that.