Remembering Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

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“Anything we do has got latency. We are made out of latency. We even have latency between our ears.”

That’s one of the many stick-with-you wisdoms of Pauline Oliveros, who spoke to the Houston Press in a memorable 2011 interview. Though the dialogue came from a context of sound and listening, the statement also pertains to her “sonic meditations,” a developed practice that can be applied outside the scope of music and into everyday life, whether that’s walking down the street or noticing the din of electronic sound waves.

Oliveros, the Houston-born composer, musician, black-belt in karate, open lesbian and crucial figure who was at the forefront of the development of postwar electronic music, died on November 24 at the age of 84.

During her time in Houston, Oliveros, born on May 30, 1932, learned the accordion at a young age and attended the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston before moving to California. There she became an original member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a tape-music-centric resource and concert outlet that would relocate to Mills College. Oliveros became the center’s first director at the Mills institution, which is now called the Center for Contemporary Music.

After an extended stint as a faculty music professor at the University of California, San Diego, Oliveros moved to upstate New York. In 1988, Oliveros, Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis descended 14 feet underground into an abandoned cistern and made a recording. “Deep Listening,” a music performance, sound listening and overall life philosophy that shifts one’s brain and ears toward the sounds that exist in the deep background for many, was born.

“Pauline Oliveros was coming of age in the ’50s and ’60s around the time that John Cage was doing similar experiments with sound and thinking that music wasn’t just a Brahms symphony or a Beethoven sonata or something we went to listen to in the concert hall,” said pianist Sarah Cahill in a February 2004 segment about Oliveros on KQED's


“It’s what’s all around us all of the time.”

Deep Listening institutes (née Pauline Oliveros Foundation), as a workshop, lecture and education vehicle, were formed in Kingston, New York, the Bay Area, and Houston. In 2006, Oliveros transitioned Deep Listening Houston (now Nameless Sound) to David Dove.

“It is with great sadness that we mourn the loss of our mentor, teacher and friend Pauline Oliveros, who passed away in her sleep on Thanksgiving morning. Composer, performer, philosopher, writer, humanitarian, boundary-breaker, leader, Deep Listener and native Houstonian, Pauline profoundly affected the lives of countless people across the globe,” wrote Nameless Sound in a prepared statement. (Nameless Sound didn’t respond to the Press’s interview request.)

“Founded in 2001 as a branch of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation (later the Deep Listening Institute), Nameless Sound was nurtured directly by Pauline's leadership, her teachings and through the examples demonstrated by the life that she led. We are her children, and our organization would never have existed without her.”

Later in life, Oliveros became a distinguished research professor of music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York; received a John Cage Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts as well as a Resounding Vision Award from Nameless Sound; and continued developing her deep-listening practice.

“Sounds carry intelligence. If you are too narrow in your awareness of sounds, you are likely to be disconnected from your environment,” said Oliveros in a 2015 TedX Talk in Indianapolis. “Ears do not listen to sounds; the brain does. Listening is a lifetime practice that depends on accumulated experiences with sound; it can be focused to detail or open to the entire field of sound.”

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