Pauline Oliveros

2005 Honorary Member


Through Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening I finally know what harmony is....It's about the pleasure of making music.
– John Cage, 1989

What sound changes your mind?
If you were a silence, what sounds would you be in between?
What sound is in your heart?
Are you listening now?


Pauline Oliveros
Pauline Oliveros
Photo credit: Paula Court, courtesy of The Pauline Oliveros Trust

These are the kinds of questions Pauline Oliveros asks as she invites us to consider the sensory – and sensual – nature of sound. Since 1961, when she became co-director of the San Francisco Tape Center, Pauline Oliveros has been at the forefront of new music in the U.S. and the world, blurring the lines between music and theater, music and ritual, composer and listener. With a teaching and composition career that spans over 5 decades, Pauline Oliveros continues to break new ground, challenging us as performers, composers, and yes, scholars, to rethink our relationships not only with music but with sound itself.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Pauline Oliveros grew up in a family that welcomed music-making and female creativity. Her mother, Elizabeth Gutierrez, was a professional pianist and teacher who, in her seventies, became a composer. Not surprisingly, Oliveros cites her mother’s gift for improvising music for dance classes as one of the key influences on her career, along with her natural surroundings. Rarely content doing one musical activity, by high school Pauline was performing on violin, horn, and especially her beloved accordion. At age 16 she knew she wanted to be a composer when she began to hear imaginary sounds unlike those she’d heard before and struggled to decipher them.

One way to understand Oliveros’s aesthetic and compositional career is through her relationship with the accordion. Those of us in SAM well know that the accordion, like the banjo, comes with enormous cultural baggage. Introduced to the accordion by her mother at the age of ten, Oliveros was immediately drawn to it. The instrument nourished her as a composer, performer, and teacher as she explored its unique sound qualities and felt how, like a giant lung, it breathed with her in performance. However, her desire to use this instrument in her compositions and performance often met with disbelief. Not content to be silenced, Oliveros is still playing.

In her writings Oliveros also challenged preconceived notions about musical life. Her 1970 New York Times article, “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers,” was one of the first to identify the gender-biased practices of classical music that either ignored women’s contributions or dismissed them. This essay, however, is also a plea for the cause of new music and new arts.

After joining the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, in 1967, she spearheaded festivals that brought together artists and performers across disciplines. Throughout her long and distinguished career she has created free improvisatory compositions, large-scale musical theater works, dance compositions, performance art pieces, and films with a veritable who’s who of interdisciplinary collaborators. Alt

hough her compositions “Bye, Bye Butterfly” and “I of IV” were central to the emerging field of electronic music, in recent decades Oliveros has explored meditational music, the resonance of acoustic spaces, musico-theatrical rituals, and the practice of “Deep Listening,” a term she coined in 1988. Since the 1970s she has created a number of “Sonic Meditations,” instructions that guide individuals and groups in creating sound and becoming deep listeners. For the past decade, she has led Deep Listening Workshops, which combine movement study, meditation, improvisation, and other means to foster creativity and receptivity in a world that all too often appears to have forgotten how to listen.

2005 marks the 20th year of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to the creation and continued support of new work in music, literature, and performance locally, nationally, and internationally. It is a great honor for me to join with the other members of SAM in honoring Pauline Oliveros as this year’s honorary member. Pauline, we’re listening.

Citation by Susan Cook

(Pauline Oliveros died in 2016.)