Pauline Oliveros was born in 1932 in Houston, Texas in what was then a rural area of the city dotted with farms, pecan orchards,
and berry patches. Its rich soundscape, saturated with choruses of natural sounds made by birds, frogs, cicadas, and other
insects, inspired the young musician’s lifetime exploration of environmental sound.
In 1952, Oliveros moved to San Francisco, where she studied composition with Robert Erickson and joined a close-knit community
of like-minded musicians, dancers, poets, actors, and visual artists. Oliveros pioneered collaborative mixed-media compositions
with electronic sounds, light projections, and theatrical elements during the 1960s. She also created tape music compositions
now considered classic works in the history of electronic music and contributed to the early development of free improvisation.
Along with composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick, Oliveros co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1961 and
became the director of the center when it moved to Mills College in Oakland in the fall of 1966. She established a progressive,
open-minded creative vision at the Mills Tape Music Center (later re-named the Center for Contemporary Music), which, after
a half century, continues today.
In 1967, Oliveros accepted a position at the University of California, San Diego and was a vital part of its new music program
for fourteen years. In 1985, she established the Pauline Oliveros Foundation (subsequently renamed the Deep Listening Institute
and now the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), a non-profit organization supporting the creation,
presentation, and dissemination of experimental music. She returned to Mills College in 1996 as the Darius Milhaud Composer
in Residence. Although in 2001 Oliveros accepted a position as Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, she continued to teach a composition seminar at Mills every year.
Oliveros was a staunch advocate for women composers both as a teacher and in her writings. Her essay “And Don’t Call Them
Lady Composers” appeared in the New York Times in 1970, long before feminist musicology gained momentum. She also made path-breaking
contributions to feminist aesthetics by advancing a non-hierarchical performance practice based on alternatives to traditional
assumptions concerning the separation of performer and audience, authorship, and talent. Oliveros developed a new form of
integrated listening in the 1970s through her work with an all-women improvisation ensemble and the research she pursued with
a team that included a dance kinesiologist, a psychologist, specialists in biofeedback, and an optical physicist. These activities
culminated with her Sonic Meditations (1974), a series of compositions consisting of verbal instructions aimed at cultivating
a form of integrated listening that applies what she described as focal and global attention to both musical and environmental
Oliveros embraced the infinite variety of sounds in our world. She viewed its sonic multiplicity as a “a grand composition”
and was committed to developing and teaching perceptual skills that made it possible for both musicians and non-musicians
to appreciate this global “sound environment.” Her inclusive approach to listening parallels the work of John Cage, whose
composition without sound 4”33” (1952) provides us with an opportunity, as Cage put it, “to listen, in an aesthetic way,
to what there is to hear.” Oliveros extended this commitment to all sound, including not only the sounds of external environments,
but also the more ephemeral sounds of our innermost thoughts. She also replaced Cage’s musical anarchism, which leaves sounds
alone “to be themselves,” with what she termed “Deep Listening,” a form of meditative art embracing interactions between sounds,
people, and the environments within which they coexist. Deep Listening for Oliveros was a foundation for collaborative work
that can cultivate an appreciation of human diversity. Pauline Oliveros believed that music was a humanitarian project to
which she dedicated her life’s work. She left the world not only with an extraordinary artistic legacy, but also with a sense
of music’s profound potential at a time in human history when it is most needed. -- Tribute written by David W. Bernstein,
Professor of Music, Mills College, 2016.