Score-ing Equality: a focus on Pauline Oliveros’ “To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation”
by Chiara C. Siravo
On the occasion of the exhibition Beethoven Was a Lesbian, on show until 27 August 2023, the following is a text written by Chiara C. Siravo, Curatorial and Editorial Office, dedicated to the piece To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation that composer Pauline Oliveros wrote in 1970, after reading the 1967 feminist political treatise S.C.U.M. Manifesto by U.S. writer, actress and activist Valerie Solanas.
Pauline Oliveros’ 1970 composition To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation is a work that, through its title, acknowledges the cost of creative self-expression on the part of women, and which produces creative equality through the dynamic it establishes amongst those who play the song—it is both compassionate and active, laying the groundwork for a world that curtails dominance.
Oliveros dedicates the song to two women we would normally not think of together: Valerie Solanas, author of S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1968) and infamous for her attempted shooting of Andy Warhol, and the Hollywood icon, Marilyn Monroe. And yet, in different ways, they were both emblematic of the time, each one associated with powerful male figures: Warhol and the Kennedy’s. What they share above all else, is having been entirely misunderstood and oversimplified, mostly by men. Oliveros also knew what it meant to be misunderstood.
In describing how the piece came about the composer explains: «Shortly after it was published, in 1968 the S.C.U.M. Manifesto fell into my hands. Intrigued by the egalitarian feminist principles set forth in the manifesto, I wanted to incorporate them in the structure of a new piece that I was composing […] Marilyn Monroe had taken her own life. Valerie Solanas had attempted to take the life of Andy Warhol. Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality: Monroe needed to be recognized for her talent as an actress. Solanas wished to be supported for her own creative work.»
In the score, performers are instructed to choose five pitches each and to play prolonged, both modulated and unmodulated, tones. Half-way through, they are invited to imitate each-other’s pitches and tones. The whole composition follows cues for individual pitches provided by alternating lights—red, yellow, blue, and strobe. Improvisation flows, mediated by strict guidelines designed to distribute power rather than concentrate it, expressing, in Oliveros’ words «At the deep structure what the S.C.U.M. Manifesto meant […]. It was really out of that understanding of both community and the individual—which was in her manifesto—that became the principle, or the philosophy, of the music that I began to write.»
To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation is a composition designed to stop domination in its tracks: «If any player starts to dominate the musical texture, the community that is created by the piece absorbs the outstanding sounds back into the collective». Written just before Oliveros began to develop her Sonic Meditations (1974) in dialogue with the Women’s Ensemble she established in San Diego, it forecast the composer’s approach to collectivity and improvisation. The piece’s emphasis on listening and sounding, sounding and then listening, helps us to comprehend Oliveros’ overall oeuvre as a score for a more equal world.