The sudden passing at age 84 on Thanksgiving Day of Pauline Oliveros, an internationally known and celebrated electronic music composer and performer who resided in a rambling Victorian house in Kingston’s Rondout neighborhood with her long-time partner and collaborator Ione, shocked the many people who knew and loved her, locally and around the globe.
“I can’t speak to the scope of her influence because it’s overwhelming,” said Lisa Barnard Kelley, a close friend and former employee of Oliveros’ Deep Listening Institute. “The outpouring and response from people all over the world as well as locally is profound.”
“We’re crushed,” said composer and musician Peter Wetzler. “We played with Pauline several weeks ago at the Midtown Arts District kick-off event. She and Ione were so touching. They were the elders of the Midtown Arts movement.” His association with Oliveros goes back to the 1980s, when she performed in the dilapidated church Wetzler and his wife, painter Julie Hedrick, had just bought in Rondout. “We miss her terribly.”
Oliveros’ influence has “an intergenerational aspect. She had students from the 1960s up to now,” Kelley said, referring to Oliveros’ teaching position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. “She fostered so many careers. Her level of generosity was equal to everyone.”
Julia Haines, a musician, composer and music therapist in Shokan, who first met Oliveros when she was teaching at the Creative Music Foundation in West Hurley, called her “the great mother of new music and a fearless feminist. She was a responsive wise woman and a great friend to everyone. She was very generous in all forms and a consummate networker.”
Back in the 1980s, Haines performed one of Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations, called “Horse Sings through Cloud.”
“Pauline created openings for so many people in all different genres of music,” said Haines.
The 84-year-old sound artist performed with her digital accordion in numerous prestigious museums and performance spaces around the world (Kelley noted that Oliveros and Ione had recently returned from Amsterdam) and was the recipient of numerous awards and commissions. Her accordion was an “electro acoustic” instrument that had a delay in the sound when a key was struck, which was further modified by foot pedals. She sometimes deployed a software interface that further transformed the sound.
Oliveros began playing the accordion when she was a child growing up in rural Texas, performing with a 100-piece accordion band. She moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s and formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick and other influential experimental musicians. The center moved to Mills College, with Oliveros serving as co-director. In 1967, she was hired by the University of California at San Diego to establish a program of electronic music.
In 1981, Oliveros left the university and came east, initially to help run the Creative Music Studio in West Hurley, whose teachers included such innovative giants as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. She was artist in residence at the Zen Mountain Center, in Mount Tremper. The development of her Sonic Meditations, prose instructions designed to direct attention to listening “with the whole body” — “take a walk at night and walk so silently the bottoms of your feet become ears” is an example — marked her radical departure into the areas of listening and attention.
She started the Pauline Oliveros Foundation in 1985, changing the name to Deep Listening Institute after a seminal performance with Stuart Dempster in an abandoned, underground Army cistern in Washington State in 1988. The extraordinarily long reverberation time in the cistern — 45 seconds — inspired new ways of playing and responding.
After moving to Kingston in 1988, Oliveros started hosting Deep Listening retreats and began offering a certification program so people could teach the practice themselves. She had been teaching at Mills College every fall semester for a number of years when she was wooed to RPI in 2001. RPI’s development of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, which was designed to combine arts and technology as the basis of research and performance, fell right in line with her interests. The Deep Listening Institute is now the Center for Deep Listening at Troy and Deep Listening Certificate holders now number 75 and counting.
“Certainly as a musician and composer she was giant,” said Peter Aaron, music editor at Chronogram and most recently the author of The Band FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Fathers of Americana. “In her field of avant garde and contemporary and experimental, she was the equal of Sonny Rollins in jazz, Levon Helm in rock ’n’ roll, and Pete Seeger in folk.”
She “reshaped the definition of what music can be,” he added. “Especially with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, she was really a pioneer in the sampling and looping and use of found sounds,” techniques that later made their way into popular music, he noted.
Her explorations into the nature of listening are just as much a part of her cultural legacy, Aaron said. “Her philosophy of deep listening, of a meditative acceptance of the sounds you would normally shut out, can influence a person as an artist or musician,” he said. “Having that perspective can carry over into other parts of life, to the way people see their place on the planet and in the universe.”
A partial list of Oliveros’ commissions in 2012 shows her original approach to composing continued to make experimental in-roads. They included pieces for the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, a group of composers and artists who gather pieces for the online computer game Second Life; the New York Miniaturist Society, which commissioned 100 one-minute pieces; and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, a work that involved simulating an experiment in which a bell curve created by a random movement of balls was altered into a more interesting shape by a participant’s concentrated thought.
Oliveros also developed a software interface that enabled mobility-impaired kids to create their own music. Simply by moving their heads, users are able to activate a series of digital switches displayed on the monitor, each of which is attached to a particular note.
Oliveros’ extremely busy schedule did not preclude her local arts activism. During the administration of Mayor T.R. Gallo, in the late 1980s, Oliveros and Ione were “very zealous” in pushing for more support of the arts, said T.R.’s brother Shayne Gallo, who later served as mayor himself.
“After I was elected, she was adamant in pointing out what my brother had accomplished and having me get behind an arts council advisory board,” said Gallo. “She was a linchpin and was very passionate about connecting art to education and technology. She wanted to empower people through art. She was amazing, thoughtful, kind and very patient.”
Richard Frumess, co-founder of the emerging Midtown Arts District, said that “Pauline and Ione always showed up” at the initial meetings. “She was one of those people looking to draw from a number of initiatives. The loss is really great, because music is one of the areas we wanted to build on, and as a legendary experimental musician, she represented such a unique aspect.”
Lisa Barnard Kelley said that one of the biggest challenges in working as a research assistant and marketer for the Deep Listening Space was “keeping up with this 80-year-old woman. She had a lot of projects coming up.” Kelley traveled to Sicily with Oliveros and Ione in 2004 on a “sacred journey” in which Oliveros was measuring the resonance of ancient temple sites with the help of a couple of scientists from Princeton University. “Her greatest teachings were about being present — not just within, but with everyone. What comes out of that constant listening of the present moment is much joy and play and communication.”
Wetzler said he was one of 85 composers hired to compose an 85-second piece that was to be performed on Oliveros’ upcoming 85th birthday on May 30. “I’ve been writing this piece for accordion and my gamelan group, and now it will get played at her memorial. We miss her terribly.”
Said Haines: “She valued all humans. It’s very sad she’s now in the great mystery.”
Added Gallo: “Her cosmic footprint will forever live on in this city.”
The Midtown Arts District committee is meeting this week and is planning a memorial for Oliveros. Stay tuned.