Death of a brilliant American composer, aged 84

Death of a brilliant American composer, aged 84


norman lebrecht

November 26, 2016

The death has been announced of Pauline Oliveros, a composer of striking originality and a profound philosopher of modern music.

An activist at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, she she coined the term ‘Deep Listening’ and founded the Deep Listening Institute. Aside from electronic music, she was an accordion enthusiast.


From an interview with Bruce Duffie:

BD:    So what are the issues that are currently at hand?

PO:    It’s the great dispersion that I predicted in my book Software for People, which was that the two factors were the great increase in populationthere more people than there ever have been beforeand the acceleration of new technology.  You really don’t know what’s coming next, exactly.  Everyone is always trying to predict and control the future, but I don’t think it’s possible at this time because there are just too many X factors.

BD:    So you and your foundation and your music are building the future brick by brick?

PO:    Yeah, I would say something like that; or we might take some leaps!  But the idea is that we need a context for new work, because it has to do with the quality of life.  It has to do with problem solving, understanding the creative nature of the human being, and working with it and accepting it;  finding ways to do that.  Not just repeating things that have been done before, but to bring some kind of balance in place for the unknown.

BD:    Is it at all disappointing that the public isn’t craving the unknown in music?

PO:    The public is, but they don’t necessarily know it!  [Laughs]


  • John Borstlap says:

    From this video it does not seem to me very clear how this brick can contribute to the future of music. If one long-held note, and the following re-invention of the fifth, and then the courageously filling-out of a simple chord, is indicating something like ‘understanding the creative nature of the human being, and working with it and accepting it’, then the future of music appears to be very primitive, or: simply returning to its earliest beginnings, as if there has been no musical culture at all. How could that be constructive, creative, inventive? Those primitive sounds have been done before numerous times and, let us say, not by the greatest minds of humanity.

  • Una says:

    Very good interview done many years ago with Bruce Duffie (but not typed up by me this time!) Worth a read.

  • Scott Fields says:

    A living composer who was completely unaware of Oliveros must live in some sort of reactionary bubble.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It may be that what enthusiasts of sonic art call ‘reactionary’, is actually the reality of music practice.

      Accusations of ‘conservatism’ and ‘reactionary attitude’ that are aimed regularly at the central performance culture from the little corner of sonic buzz, mostly serve as an excuse for the corner’s lack of musical artistry. People operating in musical practice, with the accent on musical, are allowed, without excuse, to be happily unaware of the noises coming from people who prefer playing with sounds to practicing music.

      Interestingly, often sonic artists attack music making as being ‘dead’, and the central performance culture as ‘merely repeating old stuff’ to comatose audiences, but this can be explained by the lack of musical understanding of sonicists themselves, which – of course – is directly related to their choice of profession.

      This may be helpful to explain the phenomenon:

    • John says:

      Yes, Scott, Mr. Borstlap’s protestations notwithstanding, the fact is that he said he was unaware of a recognized major figure in music. With a career spanning several decades, it is remarkable to not have noticed or heard of Pauline Oliveros.

      • John Borstlap says:

        With all due respect, what the lady did has nothing to do with music, so I don’t see why I should have noticed her. And then, I found becoming aware of European sonic artists already depressing enough, so why extend misery by researching the American variety? There is nothing against sonic art as such but please, claiming it is part of MUSICAL culture is crazy and will, of course, invite criticism and objections.

        • Trevillyan says:

          Relax everybody, Bortslap is well-known on this site for continuously ventilating his boring opinions against anything remotely creative or interesting. He is a self-professed ‘composer’ himself, of trite ditties of no great merit or originality, who will be instantly forgotten along with his music once he steps off this mortal coil. Lebrecht titled his tribute to Pauline Oliveros “Death of a brilliant composer”, because she was. We can all rest assured that there will be no such encomium on Slipped Disc for the likes of Borstlap.

          • John Borstlap says:

            There are always people who long for a world wherein 2 + 2 = 5, and resort to ad hominum attacks when pointed-out that it does not work.

  • daveferre says:

    I fixed pancakes for Pauline Oliveros and her associate, Robert Mann (really). The year was 1995 at the Cloud Mountain Buddhist Retreat Center in Washington State. It was a retreat for those who just wanted to listen, a group of about 15 persons, and everything was done in total silence. The pancakes came after the retreat was over. She was a delight in every way and was the real thing.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      … and when the crispy sound of baking pancakes came over us, and the smell of butter and syrup filled the room, we were sure something very special was to happen – a real epiphany!

      [Sorry, I could not resist :-)]

      • John Borstlap says:

        Since John Cage showed that you could call everything ‘music’, such epiphanies suddenly got fashionable with lots of people who, up till then, had suffered under the impression that the sound of pancakes baking was nothing more than that. Now they could claim some cultural value for their culinary pastimes, and go into the streets to vote for their fake.

  • William Safford says:

    This article from NPR gives a bit of insight into her musical ethos:

    I have spoken with several composers, who are saddened at the loss of their beloved colleague.

    I met her once. We had a pleasant conversation.

  • John Borstlap says:

    This obituary in The New Yorker confirms everything said about mrs O’s work being not music but sonic art and not even that: the ‘music’ was a by-product of healing of the soul: