Pauline Oliveros (w/Alison Knowles)
New York City, USA: Aenjai Graphics, 1974
 pp., 10.5 x 14.5 cm., loose leaves
Edition size unknown
When Terry Riley's classic minimalist composition In C was performed for the first time in 1964, the composer and accordion player Pauline Oliveros was the only woman in the ensemble, performing alongside Riley, Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Stuart Dempster, Morton Subotnick and Warner Jepson. The performance is regularly referred to as "seminal".
Six years later, Oliveros contributed an article to the New York Times titled And Don't Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers, where she writes:
"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."1
Three years later after that she found herself having to make her point more clearly. For an article titled Divisions Underground2 for the Numus West journal3, Oliveros asked the question as a headline: "Why Haven't Women Composed Great Music?". A second headline counters: "Why Do Men Continue To Ask Stupid Questions?"
The article can be seen as a precursor to the Postcard Theater pieces she would produce a year later, both in its use of epithets and imagery. Accompanying the article is a photograph of a bust of Beethoven in a beret, his lipstick smeared. Following this is a list of over a hundred terms one might use to describe a woman: hooker, lady, queen, lesbian, girl, mother, daughter, bitch, harlot, nanny, gal, old maid, bridesmaid, matron, granny, old hen, etc.
Beethoven Was A Lesbian was the first work Oliveros produced in the Postcard Theatre series. It features a black & white image of Oliveros sitting in a garden, reading. The book is the 1945 novel by Charles Williams It’s All Hallows’ Eve in which two deceased women roam around London. There's a scowl on Oliveros' face and to her right, another bust of Ludwig van Beethoven, this one seemingly made of papier-mâché. The card is captioned with the title.
An additional five cards were made in collaboration with Fluxus artist Alison Knowles4. The artists both appear in the work, as do Knowles' twin daughters, alongside captions which make use of gendered and racist denigrating terms.
Brahms Was a Two-Penny Harlot features Knowles at the beach and Oliveros with a toy dagger, both as children. Mozart was a Black Irish Washerwoman features Oliveros at the Zoo, atop an elephant.5 An image of Jessie Higgins with a flower is used for the Bach Was a Mother card. Chopin is domesticated with dishpan hands, with an image of Hannah and Jessie Higgins playing in Roaring Brook.5
By reframing famous male composers as marginalized figures (women, mothers, lesbians, Black, Irish) Oliveros and Knowles use a reimagined history to address unpleasant realities.
Postcard Theater was reissued as a zine by Editions Acquaviva, Berlin, Germany, 2013 (see following post).
"My first postcard theatre in the 70s was a comment on the outsider status of women in the music world. Branding Beethoven as a lesbian was a way of turning the tables on the music establishment. I sent the card out to friends and to Alison Knowles. I invited her to join me in making a series of postcards that attribute epithets usually aimed at women to other composers of the traditional canon (...) this was a time about raising consciousness about women in music."
- Pauline Oliveros
1. Decades later ex-Pixies player Kim Deal was asked when promoting her new band The Breeders (with Tanya Donnelly from Throwing Muses and Josephine Wiggs from Perfect Disaster) why there was a lack of female performers in indie rock. She replied "Women don't need to play in a band to get laid."
2. Both And Don't Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers and Divisions Underground can be found reprinted in the excellent Oliveros anthology Software For People: Collected Writings 1963 - 80.
3. Canadian readers will find much to enjoy in this text, in which Oliveros writes about celebrating Juneteenth in Banff on the way to a teaching gig in Toronto (or "stick standing in the mud" or "the meeting place in Huron"). She describes walking in the Yonge Street mall as akin to John Cage's Theater Piece.
4. Knowles, too, was aware of the lack of representation of women in the arts and shortly after this collaboration produced Womens Work with Annea Lockwood, and included Oliveros alongside Nye Ffarrabas, Simone Forti, Christina Kubisch, Ann Noël, Takako Saito, Carolee Schneemann, Mieko Shiomi, and many others. Primary Information reissued it two years ago in an edition of 1500 copies, and it is already sold out.
5. The image would later be used as the cover graphic for Oliveros' 1984 LP The Wanderer.
6. Hannah and Jessie Higgins are the daughters of Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins, who ran the Something Else Press together. Hannah Higgins is the author of Fluxus Experience, published in 2002 by the University of California Press and The Grid Book, which was published by MIT Press in 2009.