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.

By 1960 Pauline had a change of heart toward her stepfather. "An ice age has melted into a warm sea," she wrote Edith, enclosing another letter she had written the year before but never mailed:

"In the past few months a whole lot of things, ideas and memories, have begun to make sense to me in a new way. I have wanted to write and tell all!

"Often when you were afraid for me and saw me led in a detrimental direction you would tell me that such and such a person had a hold on meŠ.I've come to realize how true this isŠ.I have blindly followed some of them into blind alleys, admiring and wanting to identify with what I thought was courage, independence, liberty, etc.Š Dale [the Robin's real name] is one of them."

Divine mother: In the '70s Pauline (right) guided Edith (left) into more uncharted territory: Buddhism.
Divine mother: In the '70s Pauline (right) guided Edith (left) into more uncharted territory: Buddhism.

As Pauline's own career gathered momentum, she could no longer jump when Dale needed her to help him out of his "ridiculous jams." Pauline told Edith that when Dale sensed Pauline was becoming less easy to manipulate, he broke off their relationship. "The last time I saw him he said to me 'shall we call the whole thing off.' I think it meant let's stop being friends before you get to know me."

With the Robin gone, Pauline realized he'd poisoned her against her stepfather. "The one thing above all I want to clarify now is my feelings toward Pat," Pauline wrote. "I believe with all my heart that he is a good man. This was my own intuition when you first went with him."

Pauline wrote Pat, and it didn't take him long to respond. "Dear Pauline, Yo te quiero mucho ....There are so many things I want to tell you. Only thing is my thoughts are in Spanish ....I thought you would never write me a letter and give me a chance to tell you how much I admire you."

Pat's admiration didn't change the fact that he didn't particularly "dig" her music. Edith, too, was still grappling with it. "Please try to send me more tapes and scores, anything at all," she wrote. "I want to be able to play them over and over ... .It is still like a foreign language to me, but bugs me because I want to 'speak' and 'converse.' Help!"

But again Edith's desire to understand conflicted with her reflexive urge to back off.

"A long time ago, I said, 'I don't understand your music,' " Edith recalls. "She looked at me and said, 'I don't understand what it is you don't understand.'

"And I realized I should never say that to her again. I don't want to make waves."

Yet despite herself, Edith had epiphanies. In 1960, when Richard Nixon told the Houston Press Club that "diversity is the essence of freedom," Edith wrote to Pauline:

"Since my mind turns away from events of world importance — the Cuban situation, the shelling of Formosa, the snubbing of the president, the collapse of the summit meeting, the impatience of integration and the high cost of lamb — I can only think of this profound and basic truth in connection with, and as applied to the work that I do, namely, the rather pathetic act of attempting to teach a straggling handful of children to play the piano.

"...And then it seemed to me, there was even a link between this and your music, which is so completely different in quality. For when I heard the 'sounds' it was as though all that I had ever done or played or been taught, had been through a refining and distilling process and (for me, at least) it is all there in your music! ... so that the message of your music must be — Freedom!"

Even when she took refuge in humor, Edith betrayed an instinctive understanding of what Pauline was getting at. When an extra "sewage charge" suddenly appeared on the family's water bill, for example, Edith suggested, "How about a new composition inspired by our reactions to sewage charges? Sort of an authentic folk-song deal? We could set up tape recorders in public restrooms, outhouses, private residences all over the country and have a complete record of authentic sounds, and think of what a live performance would be like!"

As Pauline continued to explore new territory, she abandoned musical notation entirely. Her scores became written instructions for groups of participants. Her "Sonic Meditations," initially developed with a group of women musicians, were widely used. At the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, Pauline led her "Tuning Meditation" for the crowd. She instructed everyone to first sing a tone that they heard in their imagination, then listen for someone else's tone and tune to its pitch as exactly as possible. The effect was oceanic, with waves of sound rolling toward the stage.

In 1977 Pauline won a major prize in Bonn, Germany, for a composition called "Bonn Feier." Initially designed for a college campus (the piece ended with a bonfire, so Pauline simply changed the name for the competition), "Bonn Feier" was a large-scale performance piece that involved creating slightly unusual experiences all over the city, the idea being to cast doubt on the difference between the "real" and the staged. With Pauline's instructions, the mayor of Bonn's assistant arranged for, among other things, African drummers to appear at random times, fake mustaches to be handed out to lady shoppers, and schoolchildren to paint mandalas on manhole covers. The piece took place, unannounced, throughout the entire city for a week. Edith accompanied Pauline to Germany and kept a detailed diary of the trip, describing the performance, Pauline's many press interviews and even the meals they ate.

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