Houston brims with sound. And while its sonic landscape has changed in a multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle ways since composer Pauline Oliveros’ Houston childhood, many of its denizens — rasping cicadas, screeching grackles, chirping frogs — continue to sing in Houston’s subtropical air.
These decidedly Texan sounds are where Oliveros’ creative journey begins, and the city they inhabit will become the backdrop for a series of events honoring her legacy this week. The kickoff event is at Discovery Green on Saturday, May 25 — Houston’s newly-christened Pauline Oliveros Day — and is staged by a diverse sampling of Oliveros’ colleagues, collaborators, and family from Houston and elsewhere.
Born in Houston in 1932, Oliveros’ early life overflowed with human and non-human music — her mother and grandmother’s piano lessons, school orchestras, the crackle of radios, the creakings of a hand-cranked Victrola. When she was nine, Oliveros took up the accordion — an ubiquitous instrument in Texas music of that era. Her mother had purchased it to increase her earning power as a music teacher, and Oliveros went on to master it. She would play it for the rest of her life.
The shimmering sound of the accordion subtly informed much of her work, from the pioneering electronic tape-delay music she created at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which she co-founded in 1962 with Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick) to her invention of the Expanded Instrument System — AI-enhanced software Oliveros used to explore new vistas in electro-acoustic improvisation.
The accordion bellows’ airy breath, so inseparable from its tone, echoes Oliveros’ greatest work, Deep Listening®. As summed up on her website, Deep Listening® is “a way of listening, in every possible way, to everything possible; to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of one’s own thoughts, as well as musical sounds.”* The accordion breathes, and attention to breath is crucial to Deep Listening®, which fuses the ears, mind and body — and indeed the universe — into a single instrument.
Oliveros began to garner worldwide recognition in the late ’60s, but her Houston connections remained strong. She was the artistic advisor of New Music America in 1986, and, with co-founder David Dove, established the Deep Listening® Institute Houston (aka the Pauline Oliveros Foundation — Houston) in 2001. In 2006, the latter organization would morph into Nameless Sound, which presents the week’s remaining Oliveros celebrations: Sounding the Cistern – for Pauline Oliveros at the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern on May 26, and a free performance of Oliveros’ “Sound Piece” at Lawndale Arts Annex on Monday, May 27.
On May 25, Discovery Green will host a tribute to Oliveros as the first installment of Houston Arts Pioneers, a series honoring groundbreaking local artists. The evening will feature interactive performances of Oliveros’ compositions and sonic meditations curated by certified Deep Listening® practitioner Lisa Harris of Studio Enertia, and will close with Oliveros’ “Dream Mediation.” Performers will include Heloise Gold, Tom Bickley, Emily Sloan, Ronnie Yates, David Dove, Will Van Horn, John Pluecker, Jason Jackson, Ruth Langston, Rebecca Novak, Sonia Flores, Jawwaad Taylor, Ivette Roman-Roberto, and Justin Jones. The performances promise to be eclectic and unexpected, to say the least — “The Witness” will take place inside Margo Sawyer’s landmark art installation Synchronicity of Color (Blue).
Oliveros passed on November 24, 2016, but her soul inhabits her collaborators to a degree that’s unusual in contemporary music. Through their efforts, Pauline’s spirit will surely be felt this weekend.