Oakland, CA—November 28, 2016
Pauline Oliveros, a distinguished American composer who played a major role in the development of experimental music, passed away peacefully on November 24, 2016. She was a treasured member of the artistic community at Mills College. Her presence at Mills had a profound impact on her colleagues in the Music Department and on many generations of Mills students.
Born in 1932 in Houston, Texas, Oliveros pioneered collaborative mixed-media compositions with electronic sounds, light projections, and theatrical elements during the 1960s. She also created tape music compositions now considered classic works in the history of electronic music and contributed to the early development of free improvisation. Along with composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick, she co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1961 and became the director of the center when it moved to Mills in the fall of 1966. Oliveros established a progressive, open-minded creative vision at the Mills Tape Music Center (later re-named the Center for Contemporary Music), which, after a half century, continues today.
In 1967 Oliveros accepted a position at the University of California, San Diego and was a vital part of its new music program for fourteen years. In 1985 she established the Pauline Oliveros Foundation (subsequently renamed the Deep Listening Institute), a non-profit program supporting the creation, presentation, and dissemination of experimental music. Oliveros returned to Mills in 1996 as the Darius Milhaud Composer in Residence. Although in 2001 she accepted a position as Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she continued to teach a composition seminar at Mills every year.
Oliveros was a staunch advocate for women composers both as a teacher and in her writings. Her essay “And Don’t Call Them Lady Composers” appeared in the New York Times in 1970, long before feminist musicology gained momentum. She also made path-breaking contributions to feminist aesthetics by advancing a non-hierarchical performance practice as an alternative to traditional assumptions concerning the separation of performer and audience, authorship, and talent. Oliveros developed a new form of integrated listening in the 1970s through her work with an all-women improvisation ensemble and the research she pursued with a team that included a dance kinesiologist, a psychologist, specialists in biofeedback, and an optical physicist. These activities culminated with her Sonic Meditations, a series of compositions consisting of verbal instructions aimed at cultivating a form of integrated listening that applies what she described as focused and global attention to both musical and environmental sound.
Oliveros embraced the infinite variety of sounds in our world. She viewed this sonic multiplicity as a “a grand composition” and was committed to developing and teaching perceptual skills that made it possible for both musicians and non-musicians to appreciate this global “sound environment.” She extended this praxis to “Deep Listening,” a form of meditative art that focuses not only on the sounds of the external world, but also on the more ephemeral sounds of our innermost thoughts. (For more on Deep Listening see her recent Ted Talk “The Difference Between Hearing and Listening.”) Listening, for Oliveros, is a foundation for collaborative work that can cultivate an appreciation of human diversity. Pauline Oliveros believed that music was a humanitarian project to which she dedicated her life’s work.
Chair, Music Department