A series of playful postcards makes for a serious rethinking of women’s place in history
Here’s composeress Pauline Oliveros sitting in her garden reading a book. It’s All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams, a 1945 novel in which two women roam an unfamiliar London. They’re dead, they just don’t know it. Oliveros is frowning and so, half-hidden in the dense foliage, is Ludwig van Beethoven. You need to look closely to see him, but he’s there (or rather a papier-mâché bust of him is), brooding away in the bush, the epitome of the struggling hero of a composer, the kind of rugged action hero who can thunder out symphonies, concertos, sonatas even if he can’t hear a single note of them. What a guy!
Beethoven, composers and composeresses, hearing and listening: these themes were constants in the diverse range of work by Pauline Oliveros, who died on 24 November 2016, at her home in Kingston, New York. She was 84, and, through the development of her Deep Listening practice, she had changed the world of experimental and Improv music.
To be clear, Oliveros never had any animus against Beethoven, the man or the music. She wasn’t Beethoven bashing. The academic Martha Mockus, in her indispensable book Sounding Out, quotes a 1977 interview Oliveros did for the New Performance journal, in which she had told the art historian Moira Roth about how deeply she had analysed Beethoven’s compositional form as a student. She’d studied his music, played his music, loved his music. “I remember the first time that I ever talked with John Cage,” she tells Roth. “I talked to him a long time about how much I liked Beethoven.” It was, however, Beethoven the symbol that Oliveros reacted against – and she did it with wit and a precise aim.
So, what did Beethoven symbolise exactly? Tragic genius, certainly, and a kind of gendered genius that reinforced the canon of male composers, the idea that to make art (of all types) was to struggle at the cliff face of endeavour. It was common for a swathe of time, when talking about the absence of women in the top ranks of visual art or music, to say that they weren’t capable of such virtuosity. Where is the female Michelangelo? Where is the female Beethoven? Oliveros said, succinctly, that these were the wrong questions to ask. Ask rather about the social, cultural, economic and political conditions in which art is created and then think about the reasons.
Which brings us to Beethoven Was A Lesbian, one in a series of five acts in a postcard theatre that the Fluxus-influenced artist Alison Knowles and Oliveros produced in the early 1970s. Beethoven was not the only representative of the heroic male composers who was gleefully feminised by the duo, who layered on the weaponised vocabulary of gendered (and racist) denigration. Mozart was turned into a “black Irish Washerwoman”; Chopin was domesticated with “dishpan hands”; Bach was a mother; and Brahms was a “two-penny harlot”. This last postcard is a kick in the camera-eye to demure femininity. Its split image depicts, first, a young Oliveros playing out a game; she has a toy dagger at her belt; and secondly, a holiday snap of Knowles as a toddler; she is scowling furiously.
Beethoven wasn’t a lesbian, of course, but he could have been in an alternative history, in a parallel universe. It was the unwritten history of women’s endeavours, this non-history that Oliveros and Knowles were exposing: by writing fake history you say something about reality. Both artists, in separate ways, were attuned to the lack of female representation in the arts, and these cards were a way of feminising, of queering, compositional space and compositional possibility. They were deeply aspirational cards. For Knowles, the postcards were a link to Womens [sic] Work, a text-score collaboration that she made with the composer Annea Lockwood, a few years later. For Oliveros, this listening – perhaps a kind of under-listening – was codified into her far-reaching practice of Deep Listening.
Oliveros will be remembered for many things: her music; her deeply humane listening practice; her gifts for friendship, for educating and communicating. But let her also be remembered as a writer, a polemicist, who continually brought to the fore the way that women were not represented in the arts. Her 1970 article in the New York Times – “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers” – is still germane. She wrote:
“Why have there been no ‘great’ women composers? The question is often asked. The answer is no mystery. In the past, talent, education, ability, interests, motivation were irrelevant because being female was a unique qualification for domestic work and for continual obedience to and dependence upon men. This is no less true today.”
The article spoke out against the cutie-fication that the appending of ‘lady’ made, when used as a qualifier to any other professional noun. That she describes herself as a “composeress” is a joke, but her humour still stabs – for that Beethoven question never goes away completely. In 1973, Oliveros wrote an article entitled “Divisions Underground” for Numus West. It started as a riposte to another article, this one for High Fidelity/ Musical America (1973), which had asked: “Why Haven’t Women Become Great Composers?” A photo of a bust of Ludwig, lipsticked and with a jaunty beret on his head, accompanied it. Oliveros took the “Why Haven’t…” headline and added her own subheading: “Why do men continue to ask stupid questions?”
Personally, I have a “Where’s the female Beethoven?” tally. It comes up regularly all over the place. The last one I found was about a year ago in Radio Times. The tediousness of it. But Oliveros figured that you had to ask the right questions and she did – over and over and over. Crucially, she listened, just as she asks us to listen. What a legacy she leaves us.