Pauline Oliveros, 1932–2016

From our vantage point as artists we are very aware of the current narratives about the push toward interdisciplinarity. From our own point of view the desire to interact with other art forms enables collaboration with those in other areas of practice; a deepening of both the understanding of and the practice of art. A desire for interdisciplinarity (or intermediality) flows toward the visual arts from the other arts as well. The current state of art begins its long gestation as far back as the early 1900’s though an important shift occurred around 1960 with the founding of Fluxus, a movement that was significantly influenced by the composer John Cage. Cage was trained in music and worked with artists and choreographers in and around the Black Mountain College milieu. He was a pivotal figure in the shift toward a softening of disciplinary boundaries between disparate art forms. Fluxus in turn, opened a door to a radical and experimental intermingling of disciplines, theories and practices that bordered on a kind of synesthesia of the arts; a space where the senses (the very means by which we experience art) were often confounded and confused.

“Hear with your ears, listen with your heart,” was a guiding principle of the composer, performer and teacher Pauline Oliveros, who died on Thanksgiving.

Oliveros, who taught at Mills College for a number of years, was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the Bay Area and a part of a community that was home to groundbreaking composers including Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. She was known for her radical embrace of new technology in the creation and practice of music composition including live performances, telematics, and happenings. Oliveros was a tireless advocate for gender equality in the arts, writing and speaking about the lack of attention given to women composers; she was an advocate for the arts to speak to larger cultural issues in general. Always politically aware and engaged, Oliveros was saddened and moved by the war in Vietnam in the early 1970’s, which led her to create a kind of music that was deeply introspective as well as to a practice that included ritualistic, inclusive community-based projects and her signature “Deep Listening” technique.

In 2001 she was an Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence here at UW Madison. During her stay, she created a course called Creative Collaborations: Intermedia with creative collaborators Ione, Joanna Haigood, and Wayne Campbell and presented a “dance opera”, Io and Her and the Trouble with Him at the Wisconsin Union Theater. It combined experimental theatre, aerial ballet, masks, video projection, a sinister thousand-eyed monster, and Oliveros’ accordion-led electronic soundscape. It was as I recall, deeply mythic.

The term “experimental” as it relates to art, has fallen out of favor. However, to experiment is to willingly court failure. An important generation of artists is leaving us; important for, among other things, its collective willingness to take such risks, to experiment, and to sacrifice what may be good for the individual for what is more likely good for the group.

Douglas Rosenberg
Chair of Art