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.

In 1957, the year Pauline graduated, three of her compositions were to be performed. They sounded so far-out that when Pauline heard them emanating from the practice hall, she wondered who the composer was. At the same time, Edith was playing with a quartet at the Edgewood Club (a nightspot she called the "Edgewood Den of Iniquity") where her job was to keep the crowd entertained. "We just love to play anything and can put our hearts into 'San Antonio Rose' with as much enthusiasm as if we were doing a knocked-out jazz arrangement," she wrote.

In 1958 Pauline noticed something that would forever change the shape of her work. She put a microphone in her window and hit record. When she played the tape back, she was surprised to discover how many sounds were on it that she didn't remember hearing. The experience planted the seed of what Pauline later called Deep Listening.

"From that moment, I determined that I must expand my awareness of the entire sound field," she later wrote. "I gave myself the seeming impossible task of listening to everything, all the time."

Dudda, Pauline's grandmother, taught piano into her eighties.
Dudda, Pauline's grandmother, taught piano into her eighties.
Girl power, circa 1960: Edith helped Pauline's growing reputation by telling a Houston paper her daughter made Stravinsky "look like a tea-sipper."
Girl power, circa 1960: Edith helped Pauline's growing reputation by telling a Houston paper her daughter made Stravinsky "look like a tea-sipper."

The following year, her career took off. She composed the music for a critically acclaimed production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which traveled from San Francisco to New York. "There are many pitfalls ahead and I am trying to realize it but for now I am going to enjoy the fruit and rotten apples be damned," Pauline wrote. She hoped until the last minute that her mother might be able to get away long enough to see the production.

"My heart is full and I think I shall burst if I don't see you soon," Pauline wrote. "Had vision of you at the airport or waiting outside in the cold." She learned later that Edith had been forced to cancel her flight when Dudda's health had taken a turn for the worse.

In 1961 Pauline and several other composers (among them Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley) started the pioneering San Francisco Tape Music Center, which became a center of artistic activity in the city, eventually sharing a building with the Pacifica radio station, a dance troupe and artists who rented space. Pauline's work began to show a theatrical flair — in "Pieces of Eight," for example, the conductor gave a downbeat and left the podium, spending the rest of the performance noisily dismantling a crate behind the musicians. At the end of the piece, a giant bust of Beethoven with flashing red eyes emerged from the crate and was carried around the audience.

Pauline's work was regularly praised by San Francisco's critics, who singled her out as the best of the experimental composers. "I feel now a pretty crucial time in my life," she confided in Edith. "As an artist I've been acknowledged publicly as one from which to expect a great dealŠ.Anyway, I feel a moral responsibility to be true to myself which is the most difficult task of all! In this society it's very hard on one to be superior and know it (and very lonely)."

In 1962 she was invited to Holland to participate in the Gaudeamus Competition for young composers. Before she went, she taught at a summer music festival in New Hampshire. The audience and students were not familiar with experimental music, and Pauline grew discouraged when one of her pieces got a lukewarm response.

"It's good to have your composition programmed, even though you might feel that it's reception was not all you hoped for," Edith wrote reassuringly. "Composers throughout the ages have endured this experience, and the music will survive."

Holland proved more rewarding. To Pauline's delight, her piece was performed by a chorus decked out in tuxedos and formal gowns. It won first prize. "The San Francisco group has been heard of everywhere in Europe," she wrote Edith, "but our music is just now being heard."

When a Houston paper published an article on Pauline's award, Edith was quoted saying that her daughter's music would "make Stravinsky look like a tea-sipper!" The paper played it up; underneath Pauline's picture, the caption read, "Pauline Oliveros: Stravinsky's a tea-sipper." Edith sent the clipping to Pauline with a sheepish letter claiming she had been misquoted. "Would like to apologize to Stravinsky and to you," she wrote. "After all, what I really said was, 'she'd make Stravinsky look like a buttercup!'"

Edith may have been bursting with pride, but that had nothing to do with whether or not she understood "new moosic," as Pauline jokingly called it.

"The music has no message to me at all," Edith insists. "I wouldn't be interested in it at all if she wasn't my daughter. I don't like it — some of it. It's just noise. I have CDs of hers sitting in there that have never been opened and most likely never will be."

Edith remembers when Pauline sent her a reel-to-reel tape of one of her performances. "I was overjoyed to get this tape from my daughter," she says. "There were tears running down my cheeks listening to it. And I was playing it backward."

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