Composer Spotlight: Pauline Oliveros – Dissolving Boundaries

Pauline Oliveros’s life as a composer, performer and humanitarian was about opening her own and others’ sensibilities to the universe and facets of sounds. As we prepare to perform her Environmental Dialogue on Saturday, Oct 23, 2021 as part of New Canons, President and CEO Melissa Ngan sat down with IONE, Pauline’s partner and collaborator of 32 years, to learn more about Pauline’s fifty-year career of boundary-dissolving music making, and her pioneering use of technology in telematic performances. 

Melissa Ngan (MN): I’m so excited to be speaking with you today! New Canons not only explores the kind of communal music-making and improvisation that was so core to Pauline’s work – it also is a project that engages telematic performance as well, which I know both of you were at the forefront of pioneering. I’m curious what you think Pauline would have thought about this moment, when so many of us were doing performances on various network platforms for the first time because we had no other choice during the pandemic, and what she might hope we would gain from the experience? 

IONE (IO): I want to first point you to an event last April, when the International Contemporary Ensemble, Claire Chase, Raquel Acevedo Klein, and I presented the World Wide Tuning Meditation. This particular version of the Tuning Meditation was exactly what we had envisioned. Pauline had always talked about doing the World Wide Tuning Meditation at a much bigger scale than had been done previously. We had done a version with several countries at Lincoln Center out of Doors, but the Zoom participation was quite extraordinary. And I realized, with a great sense of wonder, that this was it. In all, The World Wide Tuning Meditation reached over 4,600 participants from all seven continents and over 30 countries. She would have loved it – it was wonderful.  

MN: That’s beautiful. And I hear that she also did some performances on Second Life! 

iO: I’ll say! Yes, and there are still performances of her pieces on Second Life. One of the videos featured in the recent BOMB: Retrospective is of a telematic performance with the avatar orchestra metaverse that she was conducting from Venice.  

iO: It’s happening all across the country in a couple of different places – we were participating from Venice, and her avatar was also performing in it. It’s quite a beautiful video, and gives a lot of insight into Pauline’s telematic performances. 

MN: How did Pauline get interested in telematic performance as a medium?  

iO: Pauline is always ahead of her time! She was among the first the first people to have e-mail. Right here in this house, we did one of the very first telematic performances utilizing sound via telephone wires across country – that was really nice. She’s always seeking to explore and make things even better through the years, so she viewed technology as a friend and as a source of ever-expanding newness. It’s always with her.  

MN: As we think about technology, a lot of people think about the idea that technology is not a place where you can connect with others emotionally. People think of connecting over the internet or over the phone as being less personal than being in person. What was Pauline’s view on that?  

iO: She’d probably say that was silly! And then she might laugh. You might say that some people feel limited in terms of technology. But that limitation is being lifted constantly by artists – Pauline has pioneered that. And people’s minds have, because of the pandemic, expanded in very wonderful ways to incorporate and include technology – and realize that there is feeling in technology.  

MN: And I know that you took Deep Listening practice and certification online as well several years ago also, right? 

Yes – it happened right here in this room! Pauline was sitting right across from me, and we have our computers in here. So, we began adding some online teaching, in addition to other kinds of retreats.  

MN: So, in a way, this was in addition – not a replacement.  That’s a really great takeaway for all of us now as we’re trying to think about how we leverage the things that were positive about being able to connect to one another digitally during a time when we would otherwise be isolated, and then considering how do we balance that with in person. I’m curious, what was your experience of that in making those shifts to online programming at that time?  

iO: Well, you know, there was no pandemic when we started. When it turned out that people really needed and wanted to do that, it was quite interesting and really quite wonderful. It just shows the visionary element of colleagues understanding of how a retreat could happen in different forms. It’s also about incorporating the technology itself and not doing it “in spite of” or “despite” anything – but rather, doing it with what you have available, It was all very familiar to me – it wasn’t shocking. I also do personal therapy work, and I was already doing teaching online. So it just kind of reinforced it.  

Actually many, many more people began to come to the retreats that we were offering and the teachings – they were so very hungry for that kind of communication and communion. So that was really a bonus, I think.  

MN: That makes perfect sense. And I think that what you just said is so important because I think many arts organizations look at digital programming as having the potential to peel off some of their in-person audiences, but it actually seems to be different people that tune in that way – so your reach actually expands. 

iO: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think it’s both now.  

MN: Thinking back to my first Deep Listening retreat, one of the things that was life changing for me was the opportunity to connect to my own creativity and thoughts in a way that I didn’t recognize that I needed to. I think that what came through for me was that so many people don’t think that they’re creative, or they don’t think that they have time in their day for creative space, or don’t believe it has value. For people who would say that, what would your response be?  

iO: Well, I think everyone is creative! But I think that, for me, our creativity is what brings us closer to what I might call the divine. And when people do not begin to value their own creativity, they begin to lose faith and lose hope and wonder if that’s all there is to life.  

So then, we start to see is all kinds of extreme beliefs – we see a lot of fear, we see dread, we see addiction. These things are an attempt to find some meaning in life. These are often the result of a large swath of humanity, particularly certain Western cultures, that are really taught to devalue creativity and to suppress that concept that they are creative.  

Check out this BOMB: Retrospective feature, which includes IONE’s intuited conversation with Pauline and a curated playlist expressive of her legacy. 

Pauline’s life and work will be celebrated through a fundraiser on December 11, 2021, streaming live from Roulette, in support of Deep Listening: The Story of Pauline Oliveros, a new film by Capone Productions. Click here for more details, and view the trailer below. 


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