Ione, in the absence of her creative and life partner Pauline Oliveros, is the driving force behind the upcoming premiere of Nubian Word for Flowers: A Phantom Opera, which is a joint production between EiO, International Contemporary Ensemble and Minstry of Maåt. In this interview with EiO co-founder Jason Cady, Ione talks about some of the journeys and questions that led her to shape the story and ideas behind Nubian Word for Flowers. Tickets to the Nov. 3o premiere at Roulette are available at

JASON CADY: Could you first tell us about your background as a writer?

IONE: I was a freelance writer, based in Europe—in France and Spain—but always returning to the U.S. In the ‘80s, I was in New York City and was a frequent contributor to the Village Voice.

I was part of the early women’s movement. I wrote for the early Ms. Magazine, and other magazines. Some of the articles related to my family research, which began with the discovery of my great grandmother’s diary from 1868. She was a feminist and an abolitionist, and a wonderful writer. So when I found her, I plunged into becoming a historian myself to find out who she was.

That book, Pride of Family: Four generations of American Women of Color was first published by Summit Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster in ’91. It was a New York Times notable book and on the New York Public Library’s list of 25 books to remember. That book had many different generations and now is an eBook with Random House. It was republished as a classic in about 2006.

CADY: Sounds like a fascinating book.

IONE: I also got very involved with Njinga Mbande, of the country that’s now Angola, when I saw an engraving of her. It shows her sitting on the back of one of her servants, conducting this interview with a Portuguese governor in the fifteen hundreds. He had tossed a pillow for her to sit on. And she said, “No.” She motioned to one of her servants to bend over, and conducted the rest of the interview that way. She was a diplomat and warrior, who ruled as a king for 40 years. I did a ton of research on her. I found the primary Njinga scholars, and by that time, I was working with Pauline Oliveros. She and I had met in ’85.

We began to work on Njinga The Queen King, which was kind of an opera. We called it a play with music and pageantry. It opened at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in ’93. That went on for about eight years of performances throughout the country.

CADY: And what was the premise for The Nubian Word for Flowers?

IONE: It was inspired by the Nubian people, and by Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. I have written many articles on Egypt and traveled there as a travel writer, but also as just as regular person.

I have written about an island over there that’s called Kitchener Island. So when Pauline and I were performing in a city called Kitchener, in Ontario, Canada—I wondered what that was. What it was about, and whether it was the same Kitchener of Kitchener Island, this island of flowers of the Nile.

Turned out that it was the same Kitchener. I began to research him. He had a reputation as a fierce general as well as a botanist who created beautiful flowers on the island. The city is called Kitchener because Lord Kitchener had met an untimely end in World War I. Canada was very much involved in that war. And as a tribute they changed the name of the town from Berlin to Kitchener.

My story in the opera begins as Lord Kitchener is on a secret mission to Russia when his boat encounters a German mine. At the same time, there’s a great energy that is coming from beyond time, and sending a Nubian boatman into the same storm that Kitchener is encountering. Both the Nubian boatman and Kitchener find themselves arriving on an island of flowers in the Nile.

It’s a version of the island that Kitchener knew. And the Nubian Boatman is a much more serious figure. We don’t exactly know who he is at that juncture, but he has been forced to come there by the same storm. They encounter an island that is alive.

It’s a question of moving through memory, flowers, of personages who have been in his life, as well as those in the Nubian Boatman’s life, moving back and forth in time, up to the diaspora of the Nubian people, which is also a part of what we’re bringing attention to with the story. So the island forces a kind of memory. And without these memories, it seems difficult for anyone to leave the island.

CADY: When I read the libretto it struck me that it was more focused on sounds and images than the words that are sung or spoken.

IONE: I think that’s why Pauline and I loved to work together, and the way we worked is that I’m hearing and seeing things. Like with Njinga, I was hearing her war cry. I was hearing the voices of the ancestors speaking. I knew Pauline could do that. That’s the way Pauline and I worked. She was relying on my input in terms of the sounds as well. The sounds are important. It’s a sonic journey. The flowers are alive. There’s sound coming from every element on the island, including these phantom figures who are able to appear at different times.

CADY: Where did the sound of the flowers come from?

IONE: Well, I can’t tell you. That’s a secret. [laughs] They’re coming from various sources, and of course there’s a whole range of Pauline’s electronics that she designated that create a tapestry of sound that moves in different ways throughout the story.

We’re collaborating with Egyptian musicians. And we were both moved by the plight of the Nubian people being ousted from their lands by the flood of the Aswan Dam. Pauline very much wanted to bring that out to the world. You say Nubia and people don’t know what you’re talking about. This is bringing that mystery to the forefront. And we’re actually bringing in Zizo from Cairo to perform.

CADY: What do you mean by the term “phantom opera?”

IONE: Well, there are many who may or may not be alive. They’re alive to everybody who finds themselves in this place between dimensions. These are the phantoms that come alive to Lord Kitchener, and perhaps he’s a phantom himself.

But the Nubian people who are on the island we could consider phantom to the colonial element on the island. So they’re there, they’re seen, but not quite experienced as alive. The whole Nubian aspect in relation to an island that Lord Kitchener develops with these beautiful flowers is a phantom layer to him.

CADY: What can you say in opera that you wouldn’t express in your journalistic writing or other forms like novels, memoirs or poetry?

IONE: Opera is the kind of word that hangs on you and weighs you down. [laughs] I don’t even use the word “poetry” much because people expect certain things out of you that are, what I call, “old mind.” But let me just answer that by saying it has come upon me gradually.

For example, with Njinga, I wrote a piece for The Village Voice on her. I realized that the story wouldn’t come without my writing it in present tense, or in first person. But when I finished I could see it and I could hear it. There’s a lot of sonic elements in her life, like this war cry that could be heard for miles.

When I met Pauline around the same time, I was already thinking this could be on stage. This could be music theater. Very naively, I said, “Hey Pauline, do you want to do some music for this show?” And for many years later she and I both laughed about that moment. And we were immersed in that for years, in a wonderful and difficult way.

So that came upon me gradually, but it came through being with Pauline. I wanted to be able to hear the voices of the ancestors. For the audiences to hear that in their seats. Like as if it was whispering in their ears. And Pauline could make that happen.

I was very inspired when we were up there in Kitchener, and the story started coming to me. It was a poetic-type text first. When I finished it felt like an opera.

CADY: Since the word “opera” has a lot of baggage, or might be old fashioned, is there another context for theater that you think this work belongs to?

IONE: Oh, no, It’s definitely opera. I mean, in terms of singing. We’re also referencing opera. Pauline’s having a good time doing that. What other forms would you think of? What were you thinking when you asked that question?

CADY: Well, I didn’t have an answer in mind.

IONE: Okay [laughs].

CADY: I also write operas and I feel like an outsider to the world of opera. I don’t fit in. But I’m not sure where I do fit in.

IONE: Right. [laughs] Well, yeah. I guess we’re all outsiders— I mean, that’s more what I’m thinking anyway. And what Pauline would be thinking.

CADY: How many works did you two end up collaborating on?

IONE: We did the Lunar Opera together at Lincoln Center. We did A Dance Opera in Primeval Time; Io and Her and the Trouble with Him. We did a film together called Dreams of the Jungfrau. She did the music for that film. And we did Oracle Bones, Mirror Dreams, which was done in different locations throughout the world.

And we performed together. I’ve been an improvisational, spoken word, sound-text-artist, for a number of years. So we performed all over the world together, and have a couple of recordings.

CADY: Is there anything about Pauline or her work that is misunderstood or that people aren’t aware of?

IONE: She had a great sense of humor about everything she did. Humor was just stupendously important about her. She’s not one of those grumpy composers.

Some are unfamiliar with the vast scope of Pauline’s work and her writings. In particular, focus on her text scores and improvisational modalities has led to some being unaware of the many notated scores that she consistently continued to create through the years along with wonderful new text scores. Our Nubian Word for Flowers represents a musical and philosophical fusion, if you will, of her interests and talents.

In addition, those who have heard of her being the founder of “meditational music” may have expectations along those lines and can be stunned by the amazing dynamism and strength of her solo and group performances.

Pauline was and continues to be, always surprising—shaking us out of our expectations and bringing us back to listening in the moment.