Rhinegold Photo credit: Vinciane Verguethen

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Pauline Oliveros (30 May 1932 – 24 November 2016)

10:56, 28th November 2016

Composer, accordionist and teacher Pauline Oliveros died in her sleep at her home in Kingston, NY on Thursday. She was 84.

Her work focused on sensory perception, introducing the concept of ‘deep listening’, defined by the Deep Listening Institute as a way to explore ‘the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature – exclusive and inclusive — of listening.’

Born in Houston, Oliveros began playing accordion at the age of nine. She later took up violin, piano, French horn and tuba, and decided to become a composer aged 16.

Aged 20, she moved to California, where she studied with Robert Erickson and came into contact with Terry Riley, Loren Rush, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, David Tudor and John Cage.

Oliveros began working with technology from early in her career, working with magnetic tape and prototype synthesisers. She created the Expanded Instrument System, in which improvising musicians can control a variety of parameters in order to transform their acoustic input to the system during live performance, and co-founded and later directed the San Francisco Tape Music Centre (now the Center for Contemporary Music).

Photo: Ione
Photo: Ione

Speaking to the New York Times in 2012, she admitted that the Vietnam War prompted a change of creative direction in 1971. This turning point produced works including Sonic Meditations, 25 text-based instructions intended to provoke thoughtful, creative responses, and she also began to incorporate elements of ceremonies and rituals into her work.

A pivotal moment came in 1988, when Oliveros recorded drone-based improvisations with Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis in a disused cistern. The resulting pieces were issued on a CD titled Deep Listening – not only a reference to being 14 feet underground, but also ‘listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear, no matter what one is doing’, according to an interview with George Chambers for CM earlier this year.

In 2005, the Pauline Oliveros Foundation became the Deep Listening Institute, spreading the principle through retreats, workshops and lectures. Oliveros also founded the Deep Listening Band, a trio comprising herself, Dempster and David Gamper, which specialises in performing and recording in resonant spaces.

She taught at the University of California, San Diego from 1967 to 1981, and served as research professor of music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from 2001.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2012, Oliveros said her mantra was to ‘listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening’.

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