In Memoriam: Pauline Oliveros

In Memoriam: Pauline Oliveros

Professor of Practice

Photo of In Memoriam: Pauline OliverosPhoto of In Memoriam: Pauline Oliveros

It is with profound sadness that HASS notes the passing of Distinguished Research Professor of Music Pauline Oliveros, on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016, at her home in Kingston, New York.

Pauline Oliveros is widely recognized as one of America's most important composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. She became a leader of the avant-garde and a pioneer of improvisatory music, alternate tuning systems, contemporary accordion playing, electronics, and multimedia events.  Since the 1960s, she has profoundly influenced American music through her work with improvisation, meditation, electronic music, myth, and ritual.  Many credit her with being the founder of present-day meditative music.  All of Oliveros’ work emphasizes musicianship, attention strategies, and improvisational skills.

To those who knew and worked with her, Pauline was a humanist who rejoiced in the mysterious beauty of the sonic world that surrounded her. She was a generous and kind-hearted spirit and is deeply revered and missed by her colleagues, students and friends at Rensselaer and all over the world.

Her legacy of Deep Listening is being stewarded by Rensselaer’s Center for Deep Listening under the leadership of Professor Tomie Hahn.  We strive to uphold her humanitarian and artistic values in all that we do. 

Born in 1932 in Houston, Texas, Pauline Oliveros earned her B.A. in Music Composition (Cum Laude) at San Francisco State College in 1957. She was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, and served as its first director when it was absorbed by Mills College. In 1967 she joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, where she taught until 1981. She joined the Rensselaer faculty in 2001.

"As a musician, I am interested in the sensual nature of sound, its power of synchronization, coordination, release and change,” said Oliveros. “Hearing represents the primary sense organ - hearing happens involuntarily. Listening is a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture. All cultures develop through ways of listening. Deep Listening ® is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one's own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is. As a composer I make my music through Deep Listening."

During the 1960s, John Rockwell named her work Bye Bye Butterfly as one of the most significant of that decade. In the 1970s she represented the United States at the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan; during the 1980s she was honored with a retrospective at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The 1990s began with a letter of distinction from the American Music Center presented at Lincoln Center in New York, and in 2000 the 50th anniversary of her work was celebrated with the commissioning and performance of her Lunar Opera: Deep Listening ForTunes. In 2012, Oliveros was honored with the John Cage Award, which is made in recognition of outstanding achievement in the arts for work that reflects the spirit of composer John Cage and also the GigaHertz Preis from ZKM Karlsruhe for lifetime achievement in Electronic Music.

Oliveros received the Resounding Vision Award for Life Time Achievement from Nameless Sound in Houston TX,in  April 2007. She also received an honorary membership in the Society for American Music, honorary Doctorates of Music from Mills College and University College Cork (Ireland), an honorary Doctorate of Arts from DeMontfort University in the UK, and the William Schuman Award for lifetime achievement from Columbia University.

In addition to her work at Rensselaer, Pauline was the Darius Milhaud Artist-in-residence at Mills College in Oakland, California. 

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Eulogy for Pauline Oliveros

by Michael Century, Professor of New Media & Music

Rensselaer Annual Faculty & Staff Memorial Service

Chapel and Cultural Center, Troy NY

March 31, 2017

 

About Pauline’s global stature as artist, humanitarian, teacher and visionary, not much needs to be said here.  The outpouring around the world following her passing last fall already spoke volumes.  Instead, I begin with remarks about Pauline as a colleague.  Her classes, seminars, advising, participation in critiques and yes, department meetings, enriched the lives of us all. She infused the mundane routines of academia with her own special qualities– empathy and rigor, wisdom and spontaneity, generosity and grace.  Her transformative influence on countless students is legendary. Pauline was a beacon leading all of us to rise to a higher standard, to be better than ourselves.

How did an experimental, feminist, queer virtuoso musician find herself at home, indeed, beloved, within a preeminent university for science and engineering?  Consider this sentence from her article on Quantum Improvisation: "Improvisation is creative problem solving and is a portal to quantum thinking – thinking in more than one state simultaneously." In this phrase we can hear the futurist in Pauline, the artist always eager to understand the leading edge of scientific knowledge – who was not only fearless in the way she brought new technologies into her artistic work, but also in the way she envisaged the capacity of the human mind and body for evolutionary expansion.

When I think of Pauline against the long arc of music history, I locate her along two strands. One is the lineage of the American musical maverick, which is near and familiar and almost entirely male; the other the female musical visionary, which is less familiar and perhaps more distant precisely because women composers and musicians so often were written out of history.  Speaking more of the American mavericks – Ives, Cowell, Varese, Partch, Nancarrow, Cage – there is certain trope about them: pioneering, ruggedly individualistic, iconoclastic; and then I stop to re-consider this lineage.  Take the word iconoclast: to shatter a holy image – an act of breaking asunder. What if we were to shift the terms to find something more appropriate: not the visual, but the sonic; not to break but to reconcile: to make an accord, the root of which is to bring to the heart; not iconoclasm, not a shattering, but a sonic accord: bringing together sounds in the heart. So can it be any accident that Pauline was a virtuoso of the accordion?  

Along the other long strand, the female musical visionary, we can connect Pauline to that distant mistress of music and the spirit, Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic saint, composer, healer, botanist, mystic, and theologian, who flourished a thousand years ago in Germany, when music was one of classical liberal arts, and a fundamental part of learning at large, alongside mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.  In a Polytechnic Institute that prizes the arts as this one does, Pauline will forever be an inspiration and a dearly remembered spirit.