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.

Dudda taught piano at home, and Edith ran the nearby Greenbriar Music Studios with Patricio Gutierrez, whom she married in 1955. Eighteen years Edith's senior, Pat was a legendary Houston pianist. He, his father and his brother had all played in the Houston Symphony's first season. At 18, he had astonished symphony audiences with his performance of Mendelssohn's g-minor concerto.

Much to Edith's puzzlement, Pauline wasn't as interested in traditional harmony, melody and counterpoint as she was in the esoteric qualities of sound. Her accordion teacher, the renowned Willard Palmer, taught her to hear combination tones, very low undertones which sound faintly when two notes are played loudly. Fascinated, Pauline immediately wanted to eliminate the fundamental tones so she could hear only the undertones. More than a decade later, she figured out how to do exactly that, using signal generators in an electronic studio. "I felt like a witch capturing sounds from another realm," she later said.

She fell easily into the experimental atmosphere of San Francisco, a world Edith knew nothing about. Pauline played at the hungry i and hung out at the Purple Onion, the legendary gathering places of beat-era writers and musicians. She studied Gregorian chant, saw a Russian Orthodox choir and discovered "opera bars," where vocal students could practice their arias. In the apartment she and the Robin briefly shared, he painted the kitchen entirely black and the cabinet doors different primary colors and hung burlap curtains in the windows. (Edith once sent Pauline a valentine that had a picture of a turtlenecked beatnik lass on the front. "Valentines are ludicrous symbols of a bourgeois society!" the card's cover preached. Inside, it read, "So where the hell is mine?")

Second honeymoon: In 1955 Edith married the legendary Houston pianist Patricio Gutierrez.
Second honeymoon: In 1955 Edith married the legendary Houston pianist Patricio Gutierrez.
Einstein on the beach: Pauline discovered the beat enclave in Big Sur during her first years in San Francisco.
Einstein on the beach: Pauline discovered the beat enclave in Big Sur during her first years in San Francisco.

Salted with surprisingly raunchy humor, Edith's letters read almost as a roman a clef of Houston's music scene. She evaluated the symphony's conductors (on both artistic and social merit), sent annotated concert programs and gossiped about musicians (including the real reasons for their shotgun weddings). In 1954 she accompanied a chorale concert in Hermann Park in celebration of "M-Day," the birthday of Houston's millionth citizen. The conductor, she wrote, waved a cocktail (vermouth, benedictine and lemon over ice) instead of a baton.

Immersed as she was in new experiences, finding a letter from home in the mail always made Pauline's heart beat a little faster. Edith dished up slice after slice of everyday life, describing the feline harem maintained by "Grandpa" (the family cat), the latest car wreck of Pauline's calamity-prone brother or the household's precarious finances. Edith once complained that her total assets boiled down to "five pianos, ten dogs and $1 in pennies!" The teenage Johnnie proved to be a heartache, getting into "girl trouble, car trouble, double-trouble and just troubleŠ.I'll settle for an all-girl family."

Edith was the queen of postscripts and marginal scribbles, filling her letters with limericks and jingles, occasionally even drawing staves and writing out tunes. She often mentioned Mabel, the piano pupil who never failed to bring a bottle of bourbon or scotch to her lesson. When Mabel was in the hospital for a hysterectomy, Edith penned "Posies for a Patient" by I.M.A. Yunowhat: "So, in the bottom of my purse, / I found one lonely nickel. / Not enough for posies, then / But why not one dill pickle? / Symbolical, 'tis sent to make / you smile and leave you tickled / Remembering the times when you / And I've been slightly pickled!" Pauline, of course, was treated to a copy.

Edith clucked over Pauline's troubles more than Pauline herself did, and frequently tried to lure her back to Houston for extended visits (one of her favorite arguments was that Houston was getting so "avant-garde" Pauline wouldn't recognize it). But when she became too much of a mother hen, she would scrawl an emphatic, self-mocking "PER-CAWW!" And when she caught herself lecturing, she would refer to herself satirically as "Mother," adding lots of curlicues and scrolls to the word to make it the written equivalent of a smirky faux-British accent.

Pauline was studying composition at San Francisco State College, where she found a mentor in Robert Erickson. Erickson, who studied with Austrian-born composer Ernst Krenek, was pretty avant-garde himself, but he recognized Pauline's urge to venture even further afield, and he encouraged compositions such as "Spider Song," written with verse by seminal North Beach poet Robert Duncan, a friend of Pauline's. That led to works such as "Trio for Flute, Piano and Page Turner" (upon hearing that title, Edith joked that finally there was a part in one of Pauline's scores she could play). Years later, Erickson even hired Pauline to develop the graduate program in electronic music at the University of California at San Diego, though she herself had no advanced degrees.

On Pauline's visits home from San Francisco, she would sometimes work on her compositions, so Edith knew early on that what her daughter was doing was different. "She didn't know what I was up to, or where it was coming from," Pauline says. Although Pauline tried to explain, she adds, "Explanations don't do it. She's a musician who comes right out of the heart. And if it's not in her heart, she just has to expand until it is."

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