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.

From Bonn, they traveled to Paris for a festival of electronic music, where Pauline played a deeply meditative for a radio broadcast concert. In the diary, Edith wrote a richly imaginative moment-by-moment account of what she heard.

"I begin to get a feeling of forest sounds, somehow," Edith scribbled as Pauline sat barefoot on the stage, cradling her souped-up accordion. " ...It is a prism of sound, reminding me of something gliding majestically through space... One wonders what is in her thoughts as she makes these sounds. ...Is she meditating on the sound itself? The quality, reverberation, inflection, density, the effect of the sound on others, on herself, the enduring quality of the sound ... the feeling she gets from making the sounds, the sounds she gets from what she is feeling?"

She doesn't sound befuddled, yet she insists that she just doesn't get it.

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.

"[Understand], that's the theme word of hers," Pauline says. She believes it's a confidence issue: Edith didn't finish high school, so she's convinced she doesn't understand. "The word carries so much weight for her that I would really like to decipher it... She does get it, and she claims she doesn't. But I think it's defensive.

"There's a double message that goes through the whole [correspondence]" Pauline says. "It all hangs on that word, I don't understand. It was almost like a mantra. But then, she would understand it, by action."

Edith still lives in the little house on Greenbriar that has been her home since the '50s. Because of a hip replacement, she moves slowly these days. She's the proverbial little old lady — except she wears the T-shirt, sneakers and jeans of a 12-year-old. At rest, she still has the shy, brooding look she had in childhood pictures, but she brightens dramatically when she tells stories, mimicking the foreign students who board in her house with a high-pitched, innocent voice.

Edith's stereo table is stacked with Pauline's CDs and cutting-edge music journals with articles about her. Pauline, at 67, travels all over the world to present her electronically enhanced, layered soundscapes. With her lover, a writer named Ione, she co-directs the Pauline Oliveros Foundation. They collaborated on Njinga the Queen King, a play about a 16th-century African woman who ruled her country, which was part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival in 1993. On the tenth anniversary of Pauline's Deep Listening Band last year, sound artist DJ Spooky sat in as a guest artist.

Though Pauline and Edith don't write anymore — at the end of the '70s the letters petered out, succumbing to the convenience of long-distance calls and e-mail — Edith still follows Pauline's every move.

"Somebody asked me one time — one of those 'yak yak ladies' — 'Oh, how do you stand it, being so far away from your daughter?' " Edith makes a face, and then a squawking noise, moving her hand open and shut like a beak.

"And I said, 'Well, we're closer than people who live in the same house.' "

On Edith's coffee table sits a sleek black keyboard — Web TV, installed by Pauline so that Edith could follow the Deep Listening discussion groups on the Internet. But e-mail is not the only new twist in their relationship.

All her life Edith noodled around with lyrics, and she'd invent her own funny, atonal songs for the ballet classes she accompanied. She's the one who gave Pauline the idea to write music.

But Edith never called herself a composer. During the home organ craze of the '60s, she joked to Pauline in one letter that she had "de-composed" a Hawaiian melodrama for the Hammond Organ Club. "Curse of the U.S.A." featured Good King Hell-Ray-Ser, the Moo-Moo Maidens and — as the villains — IRS agents.

Still, Edith spent the bulk of her energy taking care of others, not on creative projects. She was content to let Pauline be the innovator. When Dudda died in 1974, at the age of 93, Pauline came for the funeral, and afterward Edith wrote her a tender letter. "When I had those recurring dreams as a child, of soaring through the air like a bird, they came true for me, through you. I have always felt that way and so, each time you leave, it is like another flight, another dream coming true."

By that time Pat was already 70, and his health was far from perfect. Edith cared for him until he passed away in 1985, in the same room where Dudda died.

Now, in her "second childhood," Edith finally has time to write more than the odd limerick. Although she still teaches piano, for a time she went to work for the Houston Ballet as a telemarketer, where she befriended University of St. Thomas theater major Yasser Bagersh. Bagersh started a professional children's theater troupe called Express Theatre and decided to do a musical. He asked Edith to compose it.

At first, Edith balked. But Pauline encouraged her, and finally she agreed to try it. She wrote 26 songs and lyrics for Rumplestiltskin (which happened to be one of Pauline's favorite childhood stories) and went on to write four more musicals for Express. Rumplestiltskin opened in 1992.

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