I was struck, on learning late last week via social media that the composer, improviser, and teacher Pauline Oliveros had passed away on Thanksgiving morning, by how many of her friends, colleagues, and admirers posted something to the effect of “I thought she’d always be here.” And it was true: Pauline had meant so much to so many of us for so long, for a wide variety of different reasons, that it seemed her presence might continue indefinitely.
Which, of course, it will, precisely because so many creators were influenced by her work, so many artists taught literally in her courses or figuratively by her example, so many listeners touched by her art and her spirit.
I had the privilege of being asked by NPR to talk about her background and impact in a segment that aired Sunday evening on Weekend All Things Considered, and also of being invited by my colleagues at The New York Times to write the obituary the newspaper published today. So I thought about Pauline a lot over the weekend, and about how much she’d meant to so many.
I’m pretty sure I first learned about Pauline in a long, long, long-ago conversation with the pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, whose participation in one of Pauline’s Deep Listening retreats had been a life-changing experience. I’m also reasonably certain I first encountered her in person at the late, great Lower East Side performance space Tonic, in an improvising group with Butch Morris on cornet (for what seemed like the first time in ages), tenor saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin, Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) on upright bass (!), percussionist Susie Ibarra, and possibly DJ Rekha on turntables. An odd mix, to be sure – but entirely in keeping with the open-mindedness and magnanimity with which Pauline approached life and art.
I’m grateful to have had numerous opportunities thereafter to hear Pauline perform, and to hear her music taken up by others on increasingly regular occasions. During my stint writing regularly for the Times I reviewed three performances in which Pauline or her music were featured: the Bang on a Can Marathon in June 2012, a Darmstadt Institute career overview later that month at Issue Project Room, and a remarkable double bill at Issue in Sept. 2013, which Pauline shared with Olivia Block, a superb Chicago-based composer-performer who, as it happened, like Pauline had hailed originally from Texas.
The Times also provided my opportunity to meet Pauline, when I interviewed her for an 80th-birthday profile in 2012. She and her spouse, Ione, welcomed me into their Deep Listening headquarters in Kingston, NY, for the better part of a work day. Pauline spoke candidly and at length, and – something I very much want people to know about her – laughed heartily and often as she recounted her story. I’ve always been grateful for that opportunity, and we kept in touch electronically thereafter.
Today, I find that I’m still not done thinking about Pauline, not by a long shot. So as a last gesture of honor and appreciation, I’ve gathered links to a handful of striking articles – not exhaustive, but good places to continue exploring. Shaila Dewan’s article in particular is rich and fascinating, and strongly recommended even to those who know Pauline and her work well.
I’ve also assembled a 2.5-hour playlist that attempts to span Pauline’s oeuvre… I say “attempts” because not everything is available on Spotify, of course – go here to listen to a recording of her important, inimitable orchestral work To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, to address one important omission. But the playlist touches on many high points from a long, distinctive, significant career, from early tape and electronic pieces through accordion soliloquies to Deep Listening improvisations and latter-day compositions.
It’s mostly in chronological order, with two major and intentional deviations. It seemed necessary to start with Bye Bye Butterfly, Pauline’s best-known and most revolutionary early tape piece. And A Poem of Change, a 1992 piece that mixes spoken word and accordion with sounds recorded during World War II, wouldn’t settle anywhere but at the conclusion.