What I Learn from Pauline Oliveros
How I know her
I first met Pauline Oliveros while taking her Deep Listening course at the Northwestern School of Music in 1997.
We stayed in touch, and she presented my work at the Deep Listening Space in Kingston in 2001. In 2014, she invited me to lead her Deep Listening class at RPI on a three-hour Silent Walk to practice listening. I last saw her in a May 2015 performance of her work at the ongoing Brooklyn concert series Music for Contemplation.
Art exists in community
When talking about her work in San Francisco with Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley, Oliveros said, “Take care of your community, and your community takes care of you.” She affirmed that creating music is a group effort, and supporting others’ work always supports one’s own. I keep this in mind, especially when my internal “score card” begins to get annoyed with what I perceive as “all the work” I am doing for my colleagues. It’s not about a favor game. Everything I do to support the musicians with whom I resonate supports my work.
One of the last times we spoke, Oliveros animatedly discussed her work with the mayor of her hometown of Kingston. She understood public policy as well as how art and music serve the local community. This tells me that participating in local government is definitely part of the work of the artist, and that there are practical contributions I can make to my neighborhood and town.
Many opponents as one
In February 2015, Oliveros joined a team of advisors in helping me to clarify the direction of my work. I asked what to do about all of the projects I had going at once. Pauline talked of a martial artist confronted by many opponents, who treats them as one opponent with many limbs. She suggested I consider that I have one project with many parts. This helped me to go deeper into my primary aim and to see how my various projects fit into that one aim. I was able to let go of those things that didn’t fit that aim, and then see how the different projects related to and supported each other.
Put money in its place
In the 1997 Deep Listening course, I was worried about how I would support myself after graduation. “Oh, that’s an easy one,” she said as my jaw dropped, “just add up the amount of money you need to live, and get enough money to cover it. Different people need different amounts to be comfortable, so you’re the only one who can know how much that is.”
Whether selling her book Software for People after a concert or on her website, discussing artist fees, or fundraising for the Deep Listening Institute, Oliveros was upfront and pragmatic about money. She clearly stated what she needed, told me what she could offer, and then did what she said she would do. Her transparency and forthrightness created a safe space for money, freeing up energy for creative work.
Sound is in the body
Deep Listening includes sensing vibration throughout the whole body. As this experience is in the body, it’s possible to rely on the body when responding to it, when performing, during instrumental practice, and when composing. Feeling is a tactile sense, and working by intuition has a physical, practical basis. Pauline showed me that this capacity can be practiced, expanded, and relied upon.
When I understand this part of Oliveros’s work, the simple text instructions of her Deep Listening exercises become an invitation to personal work. It’s not about what “the composer” intended, it’s about how this particular piece resonates in my bones. Getting in touch with and listening to this resonance takes time, attention, and practice. But this is a practice which is sustaining and worthwhile as an end in itself. The performance of that work is a side effect of practice, but not the aim. The quality of that performance depends upon the quality of individual practice, which is as varied as the individuals involved.
Although she passed away last November, Pauline remains very present for me, and I find that her spirit and words come to mind a few times each week. I’m not alone: her work continues in the Center for Deep Listening, through her publications, and in the lives of many musicians and Deep Listening practitioners around the world.