Write Soon and Tell All

Pauline Oliveros moved to San Francisco. She played avant-garde accordion. She came out as a lesbian. She kept in touch with her mom.

"I do miss you, but I am not unhappy that you are gone."

Edith Oliveros wrote those words to her 20-year-old daughter, Pauline, in 1952. Pauline had left Houston for San Francisco, driving with a family friend nicknamed "the Robin." The Robin was a female-to-male transsexual; Pauline an aspiring composer with a head full of sounds no one then would have considered musical. Presumably, San Francisco at the dawn of the Beat era promised greener pastures for both. Presumably, most mothers would have been beside themselves.

At first, Edith was too. The night Pauline left, she lashed out at her daughter and accused the Robin of taking Pauline away. When Pauline returned that night, briefly, to make peace, Edith was crying inconsolably. Pauline, born when Edith was 17, was the person Edith loved best. And she was leaving.

Surfing safari: As a professor at the University of California, Pauline posed on an elephant for her faculty portrait.
Surfing safari: As a professor at the University of California, Pauline posed on an elephant for her faculty portrait.

But a month later, Edith wrote apologetically to her daughter. "I know that you are having an experience you will never forgetŠ.And, just as I found at your birth, a mother must endure some physical pain and mental anguish in order to have something big and worthwhile in which to exult."

Pauline's odyssey would ultimately pay off in a way Edith, a self-described "old-fashioned piano teacher," could hardly have imagined. Pauline became a world-renowned composer and perhaps the only avant-garde music maker whose chosen instrument is the accordion (equipped, naturally, with four digital delay processors). In the course of her career, she asked marathon runners with noisemakers on their belts to jog the perimeters of giant mandalas. She conducted a "Sonic Meditation" for 7,500 women at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. She bounced radio waves of her voice off the moon in an attempt to become a "vocal astronaut." She records in wells and underground cisterns, broadcasts live Internet "distance concerts" with musicians on different continents, jams with DJ Spooky and retreats annually to a remote mountaintop in New Mexico to teach "Deep Listening," her meditative approach to hearing everything, all the time.

As one of the few established female composers, Pauline made waves with a New York Times editorial, "And Don't Call Them 'Lady' Composers," in 1970. She corresponded with Jill Johnston, Judy Chicago, Kate Millet and other leading feminist writers and artists. She came out as a lesbian in 1971, beginning an article about her music with "Pauline Oliveros is a two legged human being, a female, lesbian, musician, composer among other things which contribute to her identity."

But back in 1952, Pauline was just a kid who needed to get out of town. Still, she was determined to stay connected to her mother. Their letters were written with feverish frequency, Pauline at first swiping envelopes from the gas and electric company where she worked her day job, later scribbling on the back of handouts for her women's music ensemble. Edith wrote in the wee hours of the night, folding her plain white stationery like a book. When the only blank paper she could find to write on was printed with pink flowers, she begged Pauline's forgiveness for the "trooly-drooly note cards" or the "panty-waist stationery."

They soon found that writing was more than a way to keep in touch. It offered a whole new kind of intimacy, particularly for Edith, who was less comfortable conversing face to face. "In one of my letters to you," Pauline wrote in 1952, "I said that I felt like we would grow closer in being apart, and now more than ever I feel that it is true — I actually feel like I know you much better — and the more I do the more I love you."

Their correspondence, which is now archived at the Houston Public Library, spanned three decades, and if its path were traced out it would look like one of those airline maps with Houston as the hub, emanating slender lines first to California, then New York, Toronto, New Hampshire, Holland, Germany, Paris — all the strange new places that summoned Pauline in the course of her career.

The letters unspool a colorful history of two extraordinary women; of Toni waves and tubeless tires; of the Houston music world, where boogie-woogie king Peck Kelley turned down a recording contract because he wouldn't leave his mother, and the international avant-garde music world where the players Pauline performed with experimented by using living tropical fish as the notes of their scores. Yet at their heart, the letters tell the story of a mother and a daughter whose closeness grew despite — or perhaps because of — their distance. The key was that Edith wanted to know the details of Pauline's life, even if those details would sometimes prove painful. "Write soon," Edith would admonish Pauline in closing, "and TELL ALL!!" And she meant it.

Pauline didn't leave Houston because she didn't like it. It was more that her creative impulses pulled her further afield, in search of something new — even if she wasn't quite sure what.

She had always been surrounded by classical music. She, Edith and Pauline's younger brother, Johnny, lived with Edith's mother, whom Pauline called Dudda. (At 15, Edith had secretly married Pauline's father and dropped out of high school. In 1942, the two divorced.)

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