The next stop on this tour of the do it yourself landscape is from a state in the middle of America’s north coast, Michigan. When Robert Ashley collided with Gordon Mumma at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan, alongside other figures in the arts and music scene there, it set into motion a series of cascades that resulted in the establishment of the fiercely independent Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music, the ONCE Festival and the Sonic Arts Union whose echoes still reverberate down the corridors of musical history. Many of the people who became involved in this Midwest scene made important contributions to the development of electronic and experimental music. They blended-in a fierce Midwest ethos of self-determination into what would become the backbone of a growing DIY movement.
Robert Ashley: Composer and Speech Analyst
Robert Ashley was born in 1930 and at eighteen was enrolled at University of Michigan and graduated four years later with a degree in music theory. He studied for a time at the Manhattan School of Music before signing on as a musician with the US Army. While in New York he lodged at a place called the International House, which was just across from Julliard’s old location at 122nd street and Claremont Ave. Living in the room across from him was a person whom he went on to have a lasting connection with: George Manupelli, a painter and later a filmmaker who started the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1963. Throughout the ’50s and ‘60s Robert and George collaborated together on over half a dozen films.
Through their friendship George had another heavy influence on Robert: marriage and the military. George had gotten drafted in 1953, and was sent to New Jersey and Maryland for service. Yet he kept coming back to New York to visit Ashley on days off. George had a girlfriend named Betty Johnson who lived in Boston and Betty had a roommate, Mary Tsaltas, whom she introduced to Robert. Robert and Mary had an instant and magnetic attraction to each other, and after being in each-other’s company for only thirty hours, they decided to get hitched. Of course they wanted their friends to be there on the occasion, too, so George and Betty went ahead and got married as well.
“They thought I should come along, so I went grudgingly” Manupelli said. In a joint ceremony held on April 11, 1954 the two couples made it official.
Manupelli got assigned to Puerto Rico by the Army, and after Robert finished his Master’s degree later that year, he signed up for the service as a musician, hoping to follow his friend. Instead he got assigned to Killeen, Texas. He played a little bit of everything while in the lone star state: drums in the marching band; piano, bassoon and clarinet for the concert band. While he was in Texas he made another friend with composer Richard Waters, whose works were later played as part of the ONCE Festival.
Meanwhile Robert and Mary had a son together, and Manupelli had decided to get his doctorate at Columbia. Ashley wanted to get in on the PhD game too. He applied to the University of Michigan back in his home town of Ann Arbor where he tried to get in to the composition program. “Three times I brought in a piece and three times they said, ‘It’s not playable’.”
So Robert did what many creative individuals do when faced with an obstacle: he sidestepped the challenge. The diversion would have a curious effect on his later compositions and how they incorporated distinctive speech patterns, and ways of talking, singing, enunciating, uttering. It was at this time he started getting interested in electronic music, and his investigations led him to the Speech Research Laboratories. The research and work he engaged in there gave him a unique compositional skill set that was not unlike Stockhausen’s studies with Werner Meyer-Eppler in the realm of phonetics and speech synthesis. The institute itself was funded by Bell Laboratories, one of many of their tentacles that reached out into the diverse byways and corners of American academia.
Ashley’s new boss was Gordon Peterson who had joined the University of Michigan in the Department of Speech as an assistant professor in 1953. His main interests were in acoustics and phonetics. With funding secured from Bell he created the Speech Research Laboratories where he was active in building the electronic equipment for speech analysis, creating an anechoic chamber to make recordings in, and the study of basic phonetic patterns of speech and speech synthesis.
Ashley liked to hang around the department, where he investigated the electronics in the lab and their work in general. Peterson took him on as a “special student”. While Ashley continued to petition the composition department, headed by composer Ross Lee Finney, he took classes in such subjects as logic, linguistics, and the anthropology of speech habits. He also worked with a doctoral student for three entire years looking into the causes behind stuttering. He assisted with the ground-breaking experiments that showed a micro-second delay between the impulse to say something and the sound corrective feedback. When this colleague whom Ashley was working with accepted a job offer from the University of Pittsburgh he faced another turning point. He could either continue to work on the project as his own thesis which his cohort had offered him or he could return to the call of his vocation as composer. Finishing the project would have been an easy way to get set up with a teaching position, but he made a more difficult decision, and chose a harder road.
He went to Peterson and told him “Three years ago you were very generous with me but I promised myself I would be a composer.”
He walked out of the department without looking back. Yet the practical hands on experience with electronics and the deepened knowledge of the components of speech stayed with him forever. What he had learned about stuttering and the volition to speak would become important aspects of one of his landmark works, Automatic Writing.
In the meantime, as if by some cosmic chance operation, George Manupelli had come to Michigan in 1957 where he had landed a teaching position at the Central Michigan University two hours north of Ann Arbor in Mount Pleasant. All the players to create the ONCE Festival were being arranged on the board of life though they did not know what was to come. Five years later George would be installed on the faculty of UM. The close proximity between Ashley and George allowed them to continue their friendship and start collaborating.
George had dialed in his focus by this point from painting to film. Establishing roots in Ann Arbor gave him the solidity he needed to start the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1963, which he continued to be the acting producer of its first seventeen years. At the time of this writing the film festival is still a going concern.
And in those hallowed halls of higher education in Michigan some other matters relating to film, light, moving images and music were also beginning to stir.
Gordon Mumma: Horn Master and Maestro of Homebrewed Electronics
Mumma was five years younger than Ashley, born in Farmingham, Massachusetts, and his family moved a few times before landing in Michigan. He was just as devoted to music though his education had taken an even less conventional route than Ashley’s. His first big musical turn on was a family trip to the Ice Capades where he was more interested in the live orchestra than what was happening on stage.
He started playing the horn in the junior high school orchestra, and his aptitude got him a spot with the high school orchestra. It soon became an activity not just to focus on, but part of his life blood, and a guide toward his future destiny. He also started taking piano lessons at age twelve. And while the horn was an instrument he could totally fuse with, he became an accomplished pianist, even if not one who was at the level of a professional soloist. It was another skill in his toolbox that he could apply to playing and composing the new music of his time.
In high school his musical activities expanded to encompass playing with a number of amateur and semi-professional orchestras around southeast Michigan. The family was now based in Ferndale and it was a ripe period for him. Rehearsing from the revered cannon of western classical music several nights a week became more important to him than his classes. He was rubbing elbows with musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and studying under its regular horn player, Kenneth Schultz.
He got to go to the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan four summers in a row. His experiences there sealed the deal for his life path, as he started also composing. In 1951 he took first prize for a two-movement string quartet at Michigan High School. The competition was judged by Ross Lee Finney whom he and Ashley would continue to rub shoulders and bang heads with.
In a way similar to fellow Midwesterner Bob Heil, whose work is explored later in this chapter, Mumma’s intelligence and self-propelled activities made school seem superfluous. Where Heil ended up muddling his way through, Mumma got expelled. He was in orchestra rehearsal, but instead of playing along with yet another boring Haydn tune, he had slipped into playing a Stan Kenton jazz arrangement.
The out of touch teach struck the wrong chord with Mumma when she called it “that nigger music.” Incensed and enraged by her words and reaction, Mumma had his own outburst, and walked out of the school, tearing a door off the hinges on his way out, promising never to return. Jazz has a liberating effect that way.
The incident was salvaged by his principal who could see Mumma’s inherent talent. Without even a high school diploma, the principal was able to help get him into the University of Michigan music department underneath Finney in 1952.
In the spring of 1952 Mumma met the saxophonist Sigurd Rascher while he was playing with William Revelli’s University of Michigan Concert Band. Rascher turned him on to the music of David Tudor. Mumma was so impressed by Rascher and his description of the pianist that in February of 1953 he made a long trip by bus and train to Des Moines, Iowa to see Rascher play. Rascher introduced Mumma to Tudor. It was the beginning of a long friendship and the seed from which a number of collaborations between the two artists grew. The next month in March, he went along with other composition students to the Festival of Contemporary Arts at the University of Illinois. It was there he saw Tudor play a recital featuring the work of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Pierre Boulez among others. It was also the occasion for his first meeting with John Cage. These were some of the vital connections that would go on to reverberate throughout Mumma’s life.
Meanwhile Finney was an abrasive individual who continued to attack abrasive and dissonant music. He didn’t hold back on criticisms of student work to save their delicate egos. Mumma and Finney soon got into a tug of war with each. This time it wasn’t over jazz music, but a decadent piece of serialism. When Mumma brought a twelve-tone canonic trio to Finney’s office the autocratic composer crumpled up the young man’s score and through it out of his eighth floor window. At that point Gordon quit the music department and transferred to literature, but didn’t stick around long enough to pass go and collect a degree.
Mumma was done following standard trajectories. To make some money he got a series of jobs, first as a record store clerk and then as a hospital orderly. Yet it was another job he got that had a key influence on his music and career as a composer. It was a keystone in his artistic development. He got hired on as a technical assistant at a seismology lab and started spending his free time building electronic music equipment. Working with technical equipment gave him the additional know how he needed to become an electronic music composer at a time when off the shelf electronic musical instruments were not available with ease. He also learned all about seismographs. In a similar way to how Ashley was influenced by his work in the Speech Research Laboratory, and would later use ideas about compulsive speech and his personal experience with mild Tourette syndrome to create Automatic Writing, so too would Mumma leverage his growing knowledge about earth tectonics and seismographs to create a series of works: the Mograph series of piano and electronic pieces he later composed.
Mumma was at home in the lab, as he had been drawn to tinkering at an early age. Before he hit his teenage years he had deconstructed his father’s record player so it could play both backwards and forwards and he’d be able to control the speed. The ability to vary playback speed was also one of the things that impressed him about using tape. “I found that I could change their speed and I learned about tape editing. I started out with a pair of scissors and Scotch tape,” he said. Soon he became infatuated with the possibilities. His friends in the literature department got him on board to compose for the one act plays they were writing. The school theater had a reel-to-reel to use and instead of having live music some of these plays used pre-recorded soundtracks he came up with.
Milton Cohen's Space Theater and the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music
Even though Mumma wasn’t enrolled in college anymore, he was still hanging around, a fixture in a soon to be blossoming scene. He even attended lectures by Finney, as these were open to anyone who was interested, no term paper required. He also liked to hang out at the College of Architecture and Design. It was there he met Milton Cohen for the first time, shortly after Cohen had arrived in Ann Arbor in 1957.
Milton Cohen was an assistant art professor and painter who had become fascinated with the possibilities for using electric light as a medium. He was working on a long term project called he called Space Theatre that involved the projection of moving images on a number of large intersecting fabric screens.
First built in his loft studio, it eventually became a portable geodesic dome built and designed with the help of architects Joseph Wehrer and Harold Borkin. They also built the gear for projection and lighting on the cheap. Cohen’s idea for Space Theatre was to, “explore the mobile relationships of projected light and color in space and their dramatic integration with music.” Cohen wanted to create a cyclic and serial multimedia experience that did away with linear three-act dramatic forms.
It was while in Cohen’s studio that Mumma was introduced to Robert Ashley. Cohen needed innovative musicians to work with and the two were recruited, having hit it off together when they met. They started making music together for the weekly Space Theatre performances.
The university didn’t have an electronic music studio, but Mumma and Ashley were both highly motivated to work in the medium. Just as Subotnick, Sender and Oliveros had done with the SFTMC, they decided to create their own studio. In 1958 the pair started the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music. The studio was not in just one location but was split between the available spaces at Mumma’s place, Ashley’s home, and at Cohen’s loft space.
The Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music was a real do it yourself affair. The late fifties were a perfect time to build things from scratch. At the time, electronic hobbyists were building everything, from speakers, to microphones, to transceivers. Supplies were readily available for amateur radio operators, radio and TV repairmen, and from the junk bins found in surplus military stores and second hand shops. Information was also flowing from books and the many magazines aimed at hobbyists and tinkerers. Mumma got good at making his own equipment and put together a sine-wave oscillator from a kit. Then he built a tape recorder and a mixer. In this manner, scrounging around Ann Arbor, gathering up vacuum tubes, switches, and all the odds and ends needed to solder his own circuits, Mumma put together his own electronic music set up using anything and everything he could find, all fixed together with elbow grease and his own ingenuity.
Ashley and Mumma used these homebrewed set ups to produce the swirling, electronic, mind bending soundtrack for Cohen’s Space Theater light shows. Some of the visual elements of the Space Theater included slides and films made by George Manupelli. All of the material was presented in sixty to ninety minute long montaged and collaged, kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory performances held together around themes that included the four elements, seasons, the human body, different colors and more. A spellbound audience sat in the center of the twenty sided dome that was the canvas for Cohen’s imaginative show.
Behind the magic curtain Mumma and Ashley worked together playing the tapes they prepared. The tapes included field recordings, instruments being played and manipulated on tape, and other audio experiments. Mumma was one of the first to get into amplifying the sounds of everyday objects, including glass tubes, but also things like toy instruments, by attaching transducers to them. With recordings of these in hand, he was able to edit and modify the resulting tapes to create a Midwest take on musique concrete. The pair had also gotten hold of an old piano which they took apart to play the strings on the inside like a harp, just as Joe Meek had done on his gleefully unhinged pop records.
With an array of envelopes, filters, and gate control, Mumma learned how to further shape the sine waves from his oscillators and other sound sources. These experiences gave Ashley and Mumma the tools and confidence they needed to express themselves with freedom.
Now with the studio in place Mumma and Ashley composed electro-acoustic music for over one hundred Space Theater happenings between 1958 and 1964. They also found themselves at the center of a burgeoning arts scene, and with their new success and experiences, they would soon be taking things up another level by their instigation and creation of the ONCE Group and Festival. They were just getting warmed up, and wouldn’t take be talked down to by music’s old guard.
Cacciopo, Reynolds & Scavarda
The other principle composers who became part of the ONCE Group also had their roots in the collective aether of the University of Michigan.
George Cacioppo was working on his master’s in music when Mumma first met him in 1952. Mumma played horn in the overture Cacioppo wrote for his thesis. With his degree in hand George went back to his hometown of Monroe, southeast of Ann Arbor, where he taught music for four years. Later Cacioppo reconnected with Mumma at a Finney lecture when he came back to the university while working on his doctoral in 1956. Their friendship was sealed during the hours they both spent working at Gretchen Dalley’s music store. Gretchen was a cellist and her husband Orien was the conductor of the Michigan Youth Orchestra. Music and musicians were everywhere.
Cacioppo’s primary money making work was as a radio engineer and program director at WUOM the FM station ran by the university. This was a good position both for him, and eventually the ONCE festival, as Cacioppo had access to the tape recorders used to document the events, and later played them back on the air as part of the stations programming.
Gordon Mumma recalls George, “In the mid 1950s, after I had not seen him for nearly a year, he showed up at a bookstore where I worked. He was delightfully all smiles, and though he addressed me as ‘Gordon’, he asked if I would verify my name. He had returned from several months of electroshock therapy. Nevertheless he was soon back at his radio occupation and composition of new works.”
Cacioppo was a crucial part of the ONCE Group, but he wasn’t always around. He suffered from depression, the reason behind the electroshocks, and later he had Crohn’s disease. For these reasons he sometimes disappeared from the circle of his friends and his occasional composition students. Yet when he was on, he was on, and his introspective and withdrawn melancholia was complemented by an abundance of creativity and a cheerful disposition that shined out when the dark clouds blew away.
It was Cacioppo who introduced Mumma to Donald Scarvada who had been a classmate of his, both completing their masters in composition the same year. Scarvada had then gone off to Germany on a Fullbright scholarship to study with composer Phillip Jarnach. He returned a year later to do his doctoral under Finney and fell in with the other music fanatics who had started to coalesce in the area.
Roger Reynolds was another music devotee studying at UM in the late fifties. Reynolds began his musical quest when he started to learn piano as a teenager. Though encouraged by his teacher to pursue an education in music after high school, his family thought “to be a musician was a quixotic quest, and music would more appropriate as an avocation.” So Reynolds first got a degree in engineering, and he did work in the field for a brief time, going out to the west coast for a job at the Marquart Ram Jet Company. During his off hours he continued to pursue music as an avocation, so much so, that he realized it was his actual vocation.
He quit his jet job and headed back to Michigan. The only problem with pursuing his masters in music was that he had not taken any kind of music classes at all during his undergraduate work. His was another case of a ONCE Group member laying their foundations in an unorthodox manner. As fate would have it, he was able to get over that hurdle with the help of H. Wiley Hitchcock, an assistant professor who helped guide him through the maze of higher education. There was a new honors program at the School of Music and in it he would be able to take independent courses. It ended up working out better for him this way than if he’d gone through a more traditional course of music education, as this path provided one-on-one instruction with the best teachers in the school and he had their full attention. “I worked with Paul Cooper on orchestration, studied the Bheetoven quartets with Oliver Edel, took piano lessons with Robert Hord, and composition and analysis with Finney.” It was Finney’s course “Composition for Non-Composers” that proved to be the linchpin for Reynold’s. It gave him the necessary zeal to abandon his plan to be a piano teacher in favor of pursuing a career as a composer, a goal in which he has admirably succeeded.
Working together Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, George Cacioppo, Donald Scarvada and Roger Reynolds gave birth to the ONCE Festival, making Ann Arbor a hub of experiemental music when national and international composers imploded on the Midwest.
Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music, by Gordon Mumma, University of Illinois Press, 2015
Robert Ashley, by Kyle Gann, University of Illinois, 2012
Music from the Once Festival 1961-1966, New York, NY, New World Records, p2003, 1966.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.