Imagine a music that is created more by listening than by playing notes. The sounds are determined by the time and place in which the musicians gather, and the players are guided not so much by a score but by their heightened sensitivities to each other, their environment and their common values of collaboration.
Such is the sonic universe of Pauline Oliveros, a 70-year-old composer and accordionist, internationally known as a leader of experimental music. A longtime resident of Kingston and a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Oliveros has fashioned an influential aesthetic, codified (and trademarked) as “Deep Listening,” which she embodies and teaches regularly in classes, retreats and concerts.
Adventuresome concertgoers in the Capital Region will have several opportunities to hear Oliveros in the coming weeks. She will be performing with Kim Cascone this Wednesday at RPI, and with her trio, The Space Between, on Dec. 5 at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, also in Troy. In addition, through November she hosts a “Sound Festival” with a variety of guest artists at the Deep Listening Space in Kingston.
A trickster spirit
Students of meditation and the spiritual concept of “mindfulness” will find commonality in Oliveros’ definition of Deep Listening, which is at the core of all of her work: “Listening to everything inclusively all the time, and reminding yourself when you’re not.” She adds, “That’s been my practice for about 48 years now.”
“Pauline is a trickster spirit, a challenger and nurturer, and also a very funny woman,” says composer Anne Lockwood, a friend of many years and colleague from Crompond, near Peekskill. “Her generous spirit sparks and sustains musicians all over the world in thoroughly practical and direct ways.”
Born in Houston, Oliveros arrived in upstate New York in 1981 after walking away from a tenured professorship at the University of California-San Diego. “Everybody’s jaw dropped when I left such a position, in such a part of the country,” she says during a recent interview at her RPI office.
“I had spent a sabbatical leave in the summer at Saugerties, and found it really beautiful with lots of interesting activities,” she says. The Creative Music Studios, a teaching and performing collective for free jazz and experimental music, was the impetus for the activities in the region. “By the time I got there, it was on the wane,” she says. “I worked with them a little bit, but I really wanted to start my own organization, a not-for-profit, which I did.” In 1985, she established The Pauline Oliveros Foundation to support artists in making new works.
Apart from a two-year stint in New York City, Oliveros has remained in the region for more than 20 years. She settled in Kingston in 1987, a year after she met her companion and frequent collaborator, Ione, an African-American playwright, author and stage director.
Ione has served as librettist and director for several of Oliveros’ largest works, including “Njinga the Queen King,” an operatic pageant on the life of an African warrior princess that was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993, and “Lunar Opera,” presented at Lincoln Center two years ago. But aside from their prestigious commissions, books and CDs, Oliveros and Ione are also the leaders of a community arts organization in Kingston albeit one dedicated to mostly cutting-edge work.
Since 1996, the foundation has been based in its own building, known as the Deep Listening Space, which houses administrative offices and a state-of-the-art recording studios, while Oliveros and Ione live a few blocks away. The Deep Listening Space Gallery hosts art exhibitions, performances, workshops and rituals. The city of Kingston supports some activities, including an annual series of parks concerts called “Celebration of Cultures.”
When it comes to talking about art (or just about anything else), Oliveros is plain-spoken, articulate but never verbose. She speaks with a low and gentle voice, and laughs from the belly. Her attire is the simple-country but vaguely Buddhist style mastered by residents of the Woodstock region. At times, when her weight is up and her silver hair is cut short, she bears an uncanny resemblance to photographs of Gertrude Stein.
Just as Stein turned the English language on its head, so too has Oliveros shaken up people’s conceptions of how music can be made. In many of her compositions she abandons standard notation (lines and spaces, sharps and flats, and the like) in favor of lists of instructions and graphics that are more suggestive than literal.
For example, the score to “Portrait of Quintet of the Americas,” a woodwind quintet written in 1996, consists of a series of circles or mandalas with connecting lines that form spokes. The piece begins and ends at the center, which reads “Stillness/Listen.” Successive rings of circles carry instructions like “Sense,” “Feel” and “Intuit” and suggestions like “Signature” and “Quotation.” Each player is given a particular set of pitches that form the basis for improvisation within the pathways of the score. The piece’s duration and profile vary dramatically with each performance.
In addition to her graphic scores, Oliveros continues to write with standard notation, and she works with the latest electronic music technologies as well. At Wednesday’s concert at RPI, she will play an accordion that is connected to her own “extended instrument” system of electronic processing.
Collaboration is another essential element of Oliveros’ work she always welcomes others into the process of making music. It’s not that she’s shy or self-doubting. She’ll play a solo if asked, and can be firm in her opinions. But looking at the “Portrait of Quintet of the Americas” again as an example, the performances that result from a score that is so open, even vague, say as much about musicians as as about the composer.
Oliveros has even been known to begin a concert by asking the audience to make sounds. “I began to do that in about 1972 to involve audiences in doing things. I don’t always do it in that overt a manner, but I do invite the audience very often to help me create whatever the piece is going to be by the way they listen,” she says.
It is the sharing of the creative process (and not the funny-looking scores or strange-sounding electronics) that makes Oliveros such a genuine, if mild-mannered, radical.
“My work is political in any number of ways, starting with the fact that I share creative activities,” she says. “I try to pass on to my students the principals of collaboration, communication and co-creation. It’s a politics that’s not so visible, like holding up a sign.”
Oliveros’ impact on the experimental fringes of the music world is well-established. But what of audiences in the Capital Region and in Kingston?
“We have a definite local following,” Oliveros replies with her characteristic bemused smile and matter-of-fact tone. “Sometimes we have hardly anybody and sometimes a full house; just depends upon what’s going on.”
Originally appeared in the Times Union, November 17, 2002.
A story on Oliveros and the 2007 Deep Listening Convergence is available in my book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region.