America lost a treasured and transformative artist on November 24, 2016, with the passing of Pauline Oliveros, composer, performer, and tenacious humanitarian.
The art world lost a vital creator of new music, a renowned electronic music innovator and composer, the creator of deep listening and other experimental practices, a genius inventor of sound making software, and a fearless champion on issues of gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation.
I lost a beloved mentor who shaped my artistic sensibility and my core approach to living on this planet. In the words of Diamanda Galas, “The word ‘innovator’ pales in the face of Pauline’s aloneness as tribal leader, compass of the fallen, and challenger of trespass. A mighty soul has died.”
I invited Diane Willow, artist and professor at the University of Minnesota, to share stories of Pauline as a way of memorializing her legacy. Diane and I were introduced to one another by Pauline when Diane and her partner Jo. E. moved to the Twin Cities from Boston. It seemed only right to collaborate with Diane on listening for Pauline.
Eleanor Savage: My first encounter with Pauline was working on Njinga the Queen King, a collaborative theatrical project she created with her life partner, writer/director Carole Ione (IONE) in 1993. The Walker Art Center co-commissioned the work. At that time, I was the Walker’s Associate Director of Events and Production, and I was charged with getting the show up and running in Red Eye Theater’s space. This work wove together the story of Njinga, who ruled 17th-century Ndongo—now Angola—as a “king” because tribal custom forbade her to rule as a woman. The story was synthesized through song, dance, Pauline’s score and electronics, traditional Kongolese music arranged by Titos Sompas, and Brazilian music arranged by Nego Gato.
I developed an instant art crush on Pauline. She was a kindred spirit in her unapologetic butch lesbian persona and fierce feministic stance. She had no qualms about taking a screwdriver to incredibly expensive electronic devises to “see what would happen if.” She was playful and had a spirited sense of humor. She talked about and modeled the integration of artistic practice with day-to-day life. And she introduced me to her deep listening practice, sharing ideas of listening versus hearing, integrating consciousness, compassion, and quantum physics: “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”
Pauline taught me the art of listening.
“We listen in order to interpret our world and experience meaning.” —Pauline Oliveros
Diane: My introduction to Pauline was through a cassette tape recording of the The Well and the Gentle. My partner Jo.E. gave this to me, music for a Boston-to-Montreal drive, just as we were getting to know one another. Literally carried away by the sounds, I had to pull over to the shoulder of the road, reorient myself, and wait until I was no longer driving to fully experience her entrancing work. Transcendent is the only way that I can begin to describe my experience.
Eleanor: Shortly after the Njinga project, Pauline and composer Ellen Fullman invited me to Austin, Texas to design lights for a film shoot for a collaborative video and audio recording session for the Suspended Music Project. Fullman’s Long String Instrument was installed in The Candy Factory, which was literally a former candy factory. This instrument is made from rows of stainless steel and bronze strings, 100-feet-long, stretched taut between wooden resonators that amplify the sound. She plays it by walking along the length of its strings and rubbing them with rosined fingers.
Pauline had setup her Expanded Instrument System (EIS), an evolving electronic sound-processing environment that provides improvising musicians individual performance control over a variety of parameters during live performance. Pauline and the Deep Listening Band (Stuart Dempster and David Gamper) and Ellen with the Long String Instrument, performed Pauline’s Epitaph in the time of AIDS (Parts 1–4) and Ellen’s TexasTravelTexture (Parts 1–4).
After a full day of filming, with the usual stops and starts and take after take, Pauline announced that she wanted to play through Epitaph all the way through before we left. Everyone was exhausted, but it is impossible to say “no” to the ever-loving but indomitable Pauline Oliveros. I perched against a wall on a stack of platforms to listen. The long tones were hypnotic and I slipped into a waking dream state. I remember the feeling of movement in the air around me as if the room were filled with currents of energy. When I opened my eyes there was nothing visible. This was one of my first experiences with the way that deep listening expands the boundaries of perception.
Diane: Nearly two decades after first hearing her music, I invited Pauline to participate in the studio-based symposium I curated, Digital Dialogues: Technology and the Hand by MIT Media Labs. Jo.E. prompted the invitation by asking me whom I would invite if I could invite anyone. My immediate response was Pauline Oliveros. We had attended her mystifying performance at Mobius in Boston, involving cabbage leaves and the live transmissions of radio signals that were bouncing off of the moon.
Pauline accepted the invitation to travel to the Haystack School in rural Maine. Exquisitely perched upon granite outcroppings edging deep-water seas, the spaces designed for working with paper, metal, and clay were hybridized with all manner of digital technology that we hauled from MIT. This symposium brought together two creative communities with little permeability at the time: artists and researchers whose creative palette was digital and material based artists from the extended Haystack School community. Pauline was a wild card invitee.
My most vivid memory is of her compositional strategy for an improvisation including all of the sounds made as we transformed a meeting space, with rows of chairs facing a podium to be occupied by one, into a circle formed by everyone in the now open space. Hands accustomed to being immersed in mud and those that were habituated to keyboard coding were joined as Pauline conducted the circle. I could never have imagined friends and colleagues from the Media Lab holding hands in a circle sending tactile and vocal pulses meant to supersede the cognitive with this intuitive transmission of energy. Only Pauline could have catalyzed that.
Eleanor: In 2009, I did a Deep Listening Retreat with Pauline (and her ongoing partners in crime, IONE, and Heloise Gold) at the Rose Mountain retreat center in New Mexico. Pauline introduced and lead the assembled cohort in an exploration of many ideas and scores found in Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. This immersive experience included several days of silent retreat. The beginning of this extended “no talking” time was followed by a meal. Everyone went into an odd reverential state as we ventured into silence, not looking at one another, defaulting to a quietness as well as silence. This was disrupted by a loud clatter from the end of the table where Pauline was sitting. She was trying to hang spoons off her nose and cheeks. We erupted into to laughter and joined in the fun. A spontaneous score emerged of clinking, clattering, and giggling. Pauline later talked about how not talking does not mean you can’t communicate and about the world of difference between silence and quiet.
Diane: In September of this year, Pauline was in Minneapolis where Jo.E. and I now live. She and IONE had stayed with us literally days after our move from Cambridge, Massachusetts over a decade ago (and introduced us to Eleanor). This more recent visit was made possible by the funding generosity of the Winton Chair at the University of Minnesota. She was the embodiment of this fund’s paradigm-changing directive, “an individual who challenges established patterns of thought.” Pauline brought together artists and musicians, dancers and cultural theorists, art historians, biologists, computer scientists, and architects for her Deep Listening workshops and Participatory Performance. Her reach was consciously boundless, always creating space for the emergent. Not one to be defined by disciplines nor social demarcations of separation, she composed contextual experiences that unified.
Eleanor: I am so grateful to have visited with Pauline and IONE during her September trip to the Twin Cities. In hindsight, it was a true and rare gift to see her before she left the planet. Pauline has touched so many lives. She was a virtuosic artist and thinker, a brilliant instigator and connector, and a beloved friend. She forged an extensive community of listeners during her 84 years.
Dear Pauline, we love you and will forever be listening for you, for ourselves, for humanity, and for the universe. Our hearts are with you IONE.
Diane and I invite you to share your listening stories for Pauline Oliveros.
The Heart Chant (2001)
By Pauline Oliveros © 2001 Deep Listening Publications
Stand together in a circle with feet about shoulder width apart and knees a little soft.
Warm up your hands by rubbing palms together until you feel the heat.
Place your right hand over your own heart. Place your left hand on the back of your left hand partner (back of the heart).
After a few natural breaths sing/chant/intone “AH” on any pitch that will resonate your heart. Sense the energy of your own heart and that of your partner over the course of several breaths.
Can you imagine that the heart energies are joining together for healing yourself and others?
Can you imagine heart energies traveling out into the universe as a healing for all victims and toward the end of violence?
When The Heart Chant ends, gradually release your palms and bring them forward parallel in front of you. Sense the energy between the palms as if there were a sphere or ball that can be moved around. Then bring your palms to your own center, fold them over and store the energy.
Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.