ARTISTIC LINEAGES AS A WEST COAST EXPERIMENTAL CIRCUIT
While Laurie Spiegel was wrestling with GROOVE and VAMPIRE at Bell Labs interest in the musical use of the new microcomputers was beginning to emerge in the homebrew, hacking and DIY scene on the west coast. The solar center around which the action orbited was the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM) in Oakland, California.
The west coast had already been a vanguard location for experimentation in music. There was something of a loose tradition forming around creating new musical instruments there, as exemplified in the work of Harry Partch. Partch had been one of the first western composers to systematically work out microtonal scales. Writing compositions in these scales required new custom built instruments. His unique instruments and unique music embody the west coast spirit. But it wasn’t just Partch who was experimenting with new musical instruments out on the pacific edge it had been John Cage and Henry Cowell as well.
Cowell had been a key explorer of atonality, polytonality, polyrhythms, and non-Western modes in the first half of the twentieth century. When he wasn’t composing Cowell put time into writing a book titled New Musical Resources, which he penned from 1919 to 1930. Its main focus was on the rhythmic and harmonic concepts he had used in his compositions, along with some speculative music theory. This book had a lasting impact on the American avant-garde. It also got him into the game of helping to design new musical instruments.
After his book was published he commissioned Léon Theremin to create the Rhythmicon, also known as the Polyrhythmophone. It was a transposable keyboard instrument that could play notes in periodic rhythms proportional to the overtone series of a chosen fundamental pitch. It was the world’s first electronic rhythm machine. Cowell had proposed to Theremin that it could be built around a system of photoreceptors. It was able to play up to sixteen different rhythm patterns at the same time. Syncopation of these rhythms was optional. Cowell wrote a number of works for the instrument but it remained forgotten until Joe Meek decided to dust one off in the 1960’s and use it in his baroque pop music productions.
Cowell’s influence spread not only from his compositions and writing, but from his work as a musical teacher; one of his students was Bebe Barron. She went on to help design, with her then husband Louis Barron, the innovative circuits and cybernetic organisms heard on the soundtrack to the Forbidden Planet.
The Forbidden Planet soundtrack from 1956 is hailed as the first entirely electronic score for a film. The producers had originally wanted Harry Partch to score the film, but he was cast aside when they heard what the Barron’s were capable of. Bebe and Louis had been brought in to make some of the sound effects. When the producers heard the amazing sounds the New York created by the couple they were hired to compose the entire hour and ten minutes of the rest of the film. MGM wanted them to move to Hollywood to be close to the film studio as the picture was made, but the couple already had all the equipment they needed back home where they were equipped to do electronic and tape work.
Even though the Barron’s weren’t Californians, through their connections in Hollywood and their innovative score they brought experimental electronic music to the movie going masses. In the liner notes to the soundtrack the composers explained their approach, which was in part influenced by their reading of Norbert Wiener and his ideas about cybernetic systems. Louis went so far as to follow the equations presented in Wiener’s book and was able to build electronic circuits which he manipulated to generate sounds. From this and other seeds the Barron’s helped spread the idea that a circuit diagram itself can be considered a score, and this idea of the circuit as score in turn took deep root at the SFTMC and later CCM, where it continued to spread and migrate from.
The Barrons: “We design and construct electronic circuits which function electronically in a manner remarkably similar to the way that lower life-forms function psychologically. [. . .]. In scoring Forbidden Planet – as in all of our work – we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leit motifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a ‘voice’. [. . .]. We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like.”
The circuits they built for their composition used vacuum tubes and carried that warm rich sound known and loved by musicians. According to how they designed the circuit it would have various characteristics in terms of timbre, pitch, and rhythm. They were especially fond of ring modulation circuits and also of applying further amplification of the signals to the circuits. Sometimes the amplification was so strong the circuit overloaded and burned out. They captured all of these sounds on tape and used the resulting library of sound to build up their compositions, using long phrases and tape delayed rhythms to create a unique sonic world unlike the other work being done with electronics and tape elsewhere in the world.
Another sonic lineage can be traced as the pathway of a circuit from Henry Cowell to John Cage to David Tudor. Of his many interests Cowell had written a piano piece called Aeolian Harp in 1923. It featured extended techniques that involved the player plucking and brushing the piano strings. These were a direct precursor to John Cage’s prepared piano pieces.
David Tudor had started playing Cage’s music in 1951, giving the premiere of Music of Changes, Concert For Piano and Orchestra and 4' 33". In part through Cage he later took up composition himself. He had worked with Cage on many of his indeterminate electronic pieces and had started to learn how to build his own electrical instruments. These musical circuits and instruments that he built came to be considered as compositions in and of themselves with the circuit design as a type of graphic score. David Tudor would go on to have many ties with the CCM, giving performances, and teaching there, as detailed below.
The Barron’s and the Tudor’s shared a similar philosophy when it came to their circuits. David Tudor had said, “I don’t like to tell the machines what to do. It’s when they do something that I don’t know about, and I can help it along, then all of a sudden I know the piece is mine.”
Don Buchla was another west coast instrument builder who also had a huge influence on the shape of electronic music to come. His modular synthesizer system changed the way people approached and thought about making music. His designs shared an absence with Tudor’s: the absence of a keyboard with which to play the boxes and synths. Using an organ type keyboard to control something that wasn’t an organ and didn’t make piano sounds didn’t make sense in Buchla’s way of thinking.
“A keyboard is dictatorial.” He later said when explaining his choice to leave it behind. “When you’ve got a black-and-white keyboard there, it’s hard to play anything but keyboard music. And when there’s not a black-and-white keyboard, you get into the knobs and the wires and the interconnections and timbres, you get involved in many other aspects of the music, and it’s a far more experimental way. It’s appealing to fewer people, but it’s more exciting.”
As electronic music continued to evolve these ideas bounced and played off each other and off other ideas. Even as these musical practices and equipment evolved the idea of circuit design as a score in itself remained a fundamental idea within the discipline and continued to mutate as musician-builders started getting their fingertips burned on soldering irons as they homebrewed their own.
THREE MINDS BEHIND THE SFTMC: SUBOTNICK, SENDER AND OLIVEROS
Today we take for granted that tape is something sounds and video can be recorded onto and manipulated. In the fifties and early sixties when this and the other organizations explored here had just gotten started a magnetic tape recorder was something that was more at home in the suitcase of a spy than a tool used by a musician. The San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) was founded, like its compatriots in the Radiophonic Workshop and the GRM, to explore the creative possibilities of working with magnetic tape. It was also created as a resource for musicians who wanted to work with these tools who otherwise wouldn’t have had the access to a studio.
Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros started the space as a “non-profit cultural and educational corporation.” It brought the growing do it yourself or DIY ethos into an area of music production that had been dominated by the studios of large radio and television station such as the BBC, NHK, and WDR. The creative spores released by these institutions and others like Bell Labs found fertile soil in California where the attitude of the pioneer still held sway. The center grew out of Subotnik, Sender and Oliveros’s deep love and involvement in avant-garde composition. Yet on the west coast, there was as yet, no specific place dedicated to the production of electronic sounds using reel-to-reels, tape loops, and an arsenal of six oscillators. So they built a space of their own that was to become a hive of musical, artistic and intellectual activity.
Before diving in to their work at the tape center, a look at how the three composers who formed it ended up in San Francisco, how they started working with tape in the first place is warranted.
Morton Subotnick was the only California native of the three who started SFTMC, having been born in LA in 1933. He had gone away to Denver for college in but came back to his home state afterwards and was at Mills College in Oakland as a student during the late ‘50s. The liberal arts college had been and remains a hotbed for experimental music, John Cage having taught classes there and gave percussion concerts there in the 40’s, and Subotnick became part of that tradition. Subotnick had been a clarinetist since he was a kid and loved to write and play music. But it was in 1959 that he first had a go at making electronic music.
While at Mills he had played in the San Francisco Symphony, and composed material for TV (KQED), dance and theater pieces. Herbert Blau, director of the Actors Workshop ringed him up one day and commissioned him to write some music for a radical stage production of King Lear. Subotnick remembers the strange vision the director was going to use in the production, "It was going to take place in a kind of primordial humanity and the sets and the costumes were made from seashells."
So instead of using traditional instruments for traditional incidental music Subotnick got the idea to make a piece using tape. The actor Michael O’Sullivan had been cast for the lead role and Subotnick wanted to use his voice as the basis for the piece. “So I recorded Michael - Herb directed him - the way he was going to do the storm scene, a year in advance. I recorded it and made all the music from his voice. I cut and pasted and upside down and backwards, fast and slow. It took me almost a year."
With the actor’s voice now discombobulated in a slew of different ways he felt like he had something, and even more than the finished music it came with an insight that the tape recorder could be used as a broad canvas for painting with sound. “I realised something that I had not thought of before then, which is that I really didn't like being on the stage. And I thought, well, this technology could create a new paradigm, a new environment for composing. It would be like painting. You would be composing music as a studio art. I made the decision at that point that this new technology was going to allow for everything to be different. A new kind of composer."
Around the same time a photocopy of some lectures by Marshall McCluhan that were to become the book Undertsanding Media were being passed around in Subotnick’s circle. The book itself had not yet been published, but the ideas inside were blowing peoples minds. He was also seeing ads in the papers for the new transistors that had just started to be mass produced, and the electronic based credits cards that made a step towards making society cashless. McLuhan’s ideas mashed with the transformations he was seeing in the world around him.
With a musique concrete piece under his belt he had the idea of really moving into composing on his own, and away from playing the clarinet. He said of this moment in time, “Well I can’t give up the clarinet and writing for instruments. I don’t know anything about technology, so I have to see if I have the aptitude before I say to the San Francisco Symphony, ‘Goodbye, I don’t want to see you anymore.’ I’m going to put the clarinet away. I’m not writing any more music.”
Out of this came his 1961 piece Sound Blocks, which was his way of testing the waters as a composer before leaving the symphony. Working with the artist who did the visuals for King Lear he created a multimedia piece that involved something akin to the liquid projections of the sixties, four tracks of tape and two stereo tapes, and poet Michael McClure reading from his Flowers of Politics. The audience ate up the forty-minute piece that presaged the psychedelia that had started to emerge in that decade.
Realizing he had an aptitude for this new kind of music and media Subotnick eventually made the decision to become a new kind of composer.
Another new kind of composer had also been studying at Mills College. Ramon had been born in Madrid, but left with his parents for the United States during the Spanish Civil War. In New York he counted Henry Cowell among a string of composition teachers that also included Elliot Carter and George Copeland. While hanging around with the crew who surrounded Carter and Milton Babbit he got to attend a concert demonstration that was to have a profound effect on the later course of his music. The demonstration in question was of the music of Bebe and Louis Barron. Louis showed off some of the circuits and networks he had built. While Sender had enjoyed the strange sounds he heard, he also recalls that he felt the Barrons had received “a lot of very intolerant, kind of down-there-noses looks from the New York composers, who considered his approach very lowbrow.” The next segment of the entertainment that evening proceeded to open up a door to musical vistas in Sender’s mind. They played Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge.
Having heard what the Barron’s had done with electronics, and what Stockhausen had done with electronics, voice and tape, Sender realized the many possibilities tape could give the composer, though it would take a little while for the experience to gestate inside and for him to get his hands on a tape recorder as these were not in great supply at the time. When he finally did start using tape it gave him a new freedom.
Before Sender discovered the power of tape he felt he had been overtrained in music, taught so much it, and studied with so many teachers, that it resulted in a paralysis of analysis. “There came a point where I was so self-conscious about composition I was all tied up in knots. The tape recorder was a great ‘freeing’ device. It gave me, I felt, the same freedom a painter has to put a stroke on a canvas and stand back and [look at] it.”
In 1959 Ramon Sender went to the San Francisco Conservatory to study with Robert Erickson. It was there he met Pauline Oliveros who was also there for Erickson’s composition class. Pauline and Ramon both became interested in improvisation under Erickson’s influence. The school had a home-style Ampex tape recorder that could do two-track playback and one record. Ramon quickly realized how he could manipulate the recorder in various ways and decided to use it to create his piece Four Sanskrit Hymns as his work for the class. Working on the piece, learning how to do sound-on-sound tape dubbing, and using multiple tape players at once to construct compositions got Sender hooked on the phonics of tape, but he needed a dedicated space to work with the tapes in. He needed a studio.
So he set about building a room in the Conservatories attic. One of his friends was guy named David Talbot who was a technician at KPFA and he built him a small board to run his sound through. Another friend sold him his first personal tape recorder, an Ampex 601-2.
A tapehead was born and journey begun.
The third member of the original SFTMC trio was Pauline Oliveros. A native of Houston, Texas she was already playing music in kindergarten, the beginning of a lifelong fascination with sound and listening. She listened to everything, all the time. When she was nine she started to play the accordion which was to be her instrument of choice.
Pauline was also a deep listener. To her the entire world of sound was rich with latent musicality. Reflecting on listening as a kid she said, “I used to enjoy my grandfather tuning his crystal radio. I liked the sounds of tuning the radio much more than the program. My father had a shortwave radio, which also I enjoyed the sounds of the shortwave tuning as well. Those were sounds that I liked.”
As she continued to excel at music in school, and with the encouragement of her pianist mother, she added violin, piano, tuba and French horn to her multi-instrumentalist stockpile. At age sixteen, feeling the call of her vocation, she resolved to become a composer, and in time went to college in California. There she supported herself in part by giving accordion lessons. It was at San Francisco State College where she met Ramon Sender, Terry Riley and Loren Rush.
With Terry and Loren she formed one of the very first free improvisation groups. Terry had been commissioned to make a piece of music for a film score, but he hadn’t written anything, so he recruited Pauline and Loren he took them over to the studios at KPFA to use their trusty Ampex tape recorder. With no score and just the instruments they sat down to improvise and catch the results on tape. Terry was on piano, Pauline on French horn, and Loren on koto and percussion. They improvised several five minute takes. They had a lot of fun playing unscored music together, and Terry had something tangible to give to the film makers as a result. When they listened to the playback together they all realized they wanted to continue playing improvised music together.
In the same time period Pauline had started taking classes with Robert Erickson at the San Francisco Conservatory. Pauline’s mother had also gifted her with her very first tape recorder. She met Ramon Sender in Erickson’s class and when Terry and Loren went to Europe, Pauline started improvising with Ramon. These elements of improvisation and creative use of tape remained mainstays throughout her long career as a composer and musician, with the accordion was never far away. Soon electronics were also added to her expanded pallet of sound.
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.