From A Series of Sonic Blasts a Studio is Born
In 1961 Sender built a small studio in an attic space at the conservatory. It didn’t consist of much but the schools Ampex tape recorders and some contact microphones that Sender, Oliveros and the others started playing around with. In December of that same year Sender and Oliveros put together a series of concerts called Sonics.
Each of these programs began with an improvisation, followed by playing a pre-recorded piece of tape music. At this point Morton Subotnick got it in on the fun, and joined them in their free improvisation. It wasn’t long before the idea for a studio got proposed, so they started building one.
The musical equipment the SFTMC wanted to use was expensive and their funding was meager. This forced the hands of the members to get creative and build some of their own equipment. It has served them, and the others who followed in their footsteps well as this DIY spirit was part of their whole attitude when creating the center in the first place. Building their own circuits from scratch just further baked in the can do, do it yourself attitude that was essential to the Californian spirit. The idea of circuit design as score was further reified by the essential work done at SFTMC.
Pauline had won a prize in the Netherlands for her choral piece Sound Patterns, so she was next to go off to Europe. When she came back Ramon and Subotnick had done the footwork to get the SFTMC incorporated as a non-profit, and from that point it was time to get busy making music.
Ramon Sender wrote of another aspect of their motivation to create the SFTMC. “We have felt that somewhere where the composer can find brought together all the necessities of his art in an atmosphere conducive to his developing his own personal utterance free from the pull and the tug of stylistic schools and from the competitive scramble that typifies much of the musical activity of today.
“Somewhere there should be a place where the fragmented elements of our musical life could be be melted together and recast through the reestablishment of the artist’s dialogue with his community in a new and vital way. A place where new music would find dynamic and vital expression for our own era, and by its own vitality not countenancing the isolative practices of the cliques that sicken the musical life of today.”
The SFTMC was to become such a place, born out of its rough and ready, rumble tumble beginning. With little in the way of funding they used whatever they could scrape together. Pauline said, “It was considered, what you called a classical electronic music studio, because it was built out of equipment that was never intended for making music. It was equipment for testing in laboratories and like that.” For instance there were no sound mixers at the time as we know them today. Instead they used a telephone patch bay to passively mix the sounds. The term "patch", still widely used in electronic music, especially in terms of modular synthesizers, came from this early use in telephony and radio studios, where extra equipment could be kept on standby and patched in at a moments notice should one device fail. The reconnection was achieved with these patch cords and patch panels, like the jack fields of cord-type telephone switchboards.
A DIY PERFORMANCE SPACE
Over the course of its life the SFTMC had homes in a few different locations. The collective was given access to 1537 Jones Street in 1962. This was a huge mansion space that was going to be demolished in a year, but in the meantime it became the perfect spot for holding shows a normal venue wouldn’t touch, and an academic hall wouldn’t allow. Since they ran the space they could also experiment with multimedia and performance art. As experimental music made contact with the emerging psychedelic culture, and with Subotnick already having a hand in multimedia it was a natural outgrowth of their activities. Film, light shows, dance, poetry –all of these found a place at the SFTMC and often combined with new music.
Sender writes of the time, “Throughout this period we have remained independent of any university or college connection, and retained a balance in our relation to the community between our activities as a cultural agency on the one hand, and a sound recording studio on the other.”
The first year the SFTMC gave nine concerts. These included electronic pieces, and performances of new works by living composers. Lucio Berio and John Cage pieces would be rehearsed and put on their, as the teachers in the schools had no interest in this music, yet. Some of the pieces were radical for the time, such as a Robert Davis piece that had four naked people sitting on toilet seats.
This kind of venue, and the concerts put on by the ONCE Group in Michigan (to be discussed later in this chapter) became a template for the many iterations of the DIY music scenes that would emerge over the next several decades. Unutilized space was recreated in service to the arts.
Next the SFTMC moved to 321 Divisadero Street. The building there provided ample space for both the studio and the performance aspect, including two auditoriums. It was big enough to sublease rooms for other community groups, such as the Anna Halprin’s Dancers Workshop and KPFA, one of the flagship stations of the independent Pacifica radio network.
KPFA has been a prime disseminator of experimental and culture since it first went on the air in 1949. It reached a peak of new music experimentalism under the guidance of Charles Amirkhanian, who was the music director of KPFA from 1969 to 1992. KPFA was also the second home for Don Joyce of Negativland and his effervescent collage show Over the Edge, founded in 1981, which was another touchstone of experimental west coast culture.
Side Bands and Butterflies
In her work at the SFTMC studios Oliveros took a different tack than the time consuming and laborious tape editing process Morton Subotnick had used on his piece for the King Lear production, and standard in musique concrete. She thought the cut and splice method was all-together too intensive so she started learning how to use the tape decks as a delay system. This would be the precursor to the Enhanced Interactive System (EIS) that she used in consort with her live music playing in various versions throughout her career. She also liked to record very long sections onto tape and then play them together in continuity.
Another way she learned to manipulate her sound was by varying the record and playback speeds of the tape. She also experimented with difference tones and in doing so invented a new way of making electronic music. To create difference tones she used equipment with rich Lafayette tube oscillators, and set them above the range of hearing, around 40,000 hertz. This effect was exemplified in her 1965 piece created at the SFTMC, Bye Bye Butterfly.
Speaking of this in a 2016 lecture she said, “Then there would be differences between the two or three oscillators that I would use. If you know what a tube oscillator looks like, it has a big dial in the center of the face and it has the possibility of setting ranges so you can go above the range of hearing or in a certain range that is in hearing and below the range of hearing. The only way you could change the pitch of the sound was me to turn this dial, so that was not necessarily a good way to make some music. By setting these oscillators at above the range of hearing... I learned this from my accordion teacher. He taught me to listen to difference tones. Difference tones are the difference between two or more frequencies because they produce the difference between them below, and also above. At 40,000, in that range, you hear the low difference tones. When I first heard the difference tone sounding, and it corroborated my way, then I added the tape delay system that was used in ‘Bye Bye Butterfly.’ The way I was playing the oscillators was by just barely turning the dials. I had reduced that aspect of oscillator playing to being able to sense where you wanted to be in an improvisational way, and by listening to what was coming out. I was listening intently, and performing, to get the sounds that I got. I was very interested in layering sounds, and in taking the same tone and then microscopically varying [it] so that you got side bands, they were called. This was a simple setup, actually, but it could produce very complex results.”
Radio operators had already figured out how to use side bands for communication. Pauline figured out how to use the same principle for modulation of audio waves. The seed that had come from listening to her grandfather’s crystal set and her father’s shortwave radio had morphed into the transformational oscillations of Bye Bye Butterfly.
Don Buchla and the SFTMC: Birth of a Synth
As the SFTMC got up and running it drew in many creative minds who wanted to work with tape. One of those minds was Don Buchla, a California native and inventor of the Buchla Modular Electronic Music System.
Buchla had been born in Southgate, California in 1937. His mother was a teacher and his father was a test pilot. As a kid he took naturally to working with electronics and made a hobby out of building crystal radio sets, tinkering with ham radio gear, and welding his own electro-acoustic instruments together out of scrap steel and various components. When he went to college at the University of California in Berkeley and got a degree in Physics and the pursued a Ph.D. While working in that direction he got some practice in building klystrons at the Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory.
Klystron’s were the first really powerful tool for making radio waves in the microwave spectrum. It was first built in 1937 by Russell and Sigurd Varian. It was made from a specialized linear beam vacuum tube that was used as an amplifier to boost the radio signals from the UHF range up to the microwave range. The low powered version of these instruments were used as oscillators for microwave relay communications links, and the high powered klystrons were used as output tubes for television transmitters and radar. They were also used to generate the strong burst of power needed for modern particle accelators, and it was for this last use that Buchla built these instruments. His technical skill enabled him to work on some NASA projects, as he worked towards his doctorate.
But he never got that Ph.D. The establishment at Berkeley wasn’t changing fast enough for Buchla, who got turned on and tuned in to the spiritual frequency of the sixties, and so, dropped out.
Yet school had provided him with some very important turn ons. In addition to the klystrons and other emerging high-tech he also got exposed to musique concrète. It appealed to the same part of his creative mind that liked to make electro-acoustic instruments, and he wanted to mix his own musique concrète. His tape machine was limited in functionality, but soon, word got to him of the SFTMC where he could use their more versatile three-track tape recorder.
His visit to the SFTMC was one of those historical moments that give birth to a whole new strand in the web of his destiny. Morton Subotnick was in the studio, and Subotnick mistook Buchla for someone he had been in contact with to design a ring modulator. It wasn’t Buchla but Buchla had the electronic chops to make it happen, and it wouldn’t be that hard for him. Even more it was just the kind of thing that got Buchla energized and excited. Buchla and Subutonic talked about what could be done.
Ramon Sender was also there and Subotnick and Sender started telling Buchla how they wanted to get away from the laborious processes involved with making electronic and electro-acoustic on tape and work with something more immediate. They wanted a tool that had the power of an analog computer but was also small enough for them to work with directly, something that could produce the results equivalent to that in a studio space but in a smaller set up.
Stemming from this meeting Subotnick and Sender commissioned Buchla to build an “electronic studio in a box.” Lucky for them they had just gotten a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the SFTMC’s 1964-65 season and they used five hundred dollars of that money to pay Buchla for his work.
Don had already worked with analog computers so he chose to use transistors and voltage-control for his nascent box. Voltage control was especially useful as it allowed the user to play discrete notes through the oscillators. So far in the electronic music that had been made with knob controlled test equipment, a composer would have to shift manually up or down through the frequencies to reach a desired note.
This innovation made many of the tape processes redundant (though they still have their own use and charm). The electronic composer would now be free from the task of splicing tapes of frequencies recorded off oscillators and other test equipment. This is also where the sequencer enters electronic music history. He had the idea to put sixteen preset voltages into his device, the musicians could switch between. In doing so he created the sequencer.
Buchla delivered on his commission in 1965. Besides the sequencer his box had ring modulators, oscillators and other features. It turned out to be a far out hit when it was played at the psychedelic festivals being put on by members of the counter-culture in San Francisco.
Schools of Synthesis
As Buchla worked in California, Robert Moog was on the east coast working on his own name sake synthesizer. Independently of each other they both created voltage controlled synthesizers. This simultaneous creation of the Moog on the one hand and the Buchla Box on the other also set into place what is now seen as two different schools of synthesis, west coast and east coast. Both styles have the patch at their heart, the way the cables are connected between inputs and outputs of the synth to create their characteristic sounds.
Moog’s east coast style was exemplified by subtractive synthesis, achieved through voltage controlled low pass filtering (VCF). These VCF’s have typically employed a transistor ladder circuit that give the Moog its punchy and sharp sound that has become its sonic signature. The oscillators can produce pulse, square and sawtooth waveforms from multiple outputs. These are then put through the filters which subtract some of the harmonic elements of the sound before being swept with resonance to create changes in timbre. The signal is then routed to the voltage controlled amplifier (VCA) before going into the speakers or headphones of the musician. Further envelopes can also be placed on the sound, shaping the wave through attack, decay, sustain and release. With a patch in place it was able to be played by a traditional keyboard, giving its otherwise alien appearance and sound a certain familiarity, making the Moog palatable to musicians across the land.
The west coast style differs by employing a form of additive synthesis to simple waveforms. Instead of removing harmonics they are added to the signal. Buchla wanted his synthesizer to mimic acoustically generated sounds through the manipulation of recorded audio. One of the tools he used to change the sound in the west coast systems was the waveshaper where the input and output of a signal are mapped and then have a mathematical shaping function applied to the sound in either a fixed or variable form. Another element that gives the west coast approach its unique sound is the use of low pass gates (LPG). These act as a combination of a VCF and VCA. The LPG works in the subsonic range and sounds are only heard when control voltage (CV) is employed.
Buchla’s creation was also unique for its use of vactrols, or a light emitting diodes and photo-resistors. When voltage passes through the LED it emits light into the photoresistor. When voltage is applied to the photoresistor it develops a current proportional to the voltage applied to the LED, making the photoresistor, in effect, a voltage-controlled resistor. A vactrol can be used to adjust any parameter that would normally be used by a potentiometer or variable resistor. It was another way of doing things that typified the west coast style. Buchla used the LPG and the vactrol to create naturalistic percussive sounds modeled on bongos, marimbas and other instruments.
As mentioned before, Buchla’s instruments also incorporated a sequencer into the design. These were not featured in Moog’s instrument. What made it even more exotic is that it featured touch plates that responded to the amount of skin applied to their surface. Moog’s instrument responds as a typical keyboard, depending on how hard or soft you press the key you get changes in dynamics. By changing the sound by how much skin was applied Buchla created a way for the human to have a close and intimate connection to the instrument. The lack of keyboard also gave his line of instruments a totally new look, feel and sound. The musician thus approaching them is able to sidestep some of the typical ways of thinking about music making, ways that the keyboard reinforces. Buchla’s designs allow the musician to enter a new sound world, where intuition and experimentation are encouraged.
This was all a natural outgrowth of the west coast mindset. This idea of interfacing with the circuit would later be taken up by the low voltage and circuit bent instruments of Q.Reed Ghazal, to be explored later, some of which allowed the electricity to pass through the human body and back into the instrument.
For Morton Subotnick, Buchla’s inventions would go on to be the basis for his most touted composition, the electronic and psychedelic masterpiece Silver Apples of the Moon (1968). For this piece of music Subotnick employed a larger, expanded and more complex set up, the “Buchla 100 Series Modular Music System.” Buchla’s wizardry as instrument maker was a boon to Subotnick, whose musical imagination proved to be a boon to Buchla. Buchla’s instrument helped unleash Subotnick’s genius and expose him to a greater audience, and Subotnick’s playful and inventive music exposed the genius of the man who made the instrument, creating interest among musicians and listeners in his synthesizers.
The same year that Silver Apples of the Moon came out, introducing synth music to a larger audience, another album came out that exemplified the east coast approach to synth making: Switched On Bach by Wendy Carlos. Her choice of synth was the Moog, and her choice of what to play was from the classical repertoire, Bach. These different albums, both beautiful in different ways, set these schools of synthesis along their different routes of musical exploration. The west coast synths and emergent style charted out a new path linking them with the other west coast builders who had come before, and those were to follow.
From Tape Music Center to Center for Contemporary Music
The SFTMC eventually received a second Rockefeller Grant, this time for $200,000. The additional funds meant they would be able to do more with their studio and performance space. Yet before the Rockefeller’s would fork over money to the non-profit they wanted them “to have a responsible fiscal agent and that was Mills College, not us crazy artists,” according to Oliveros. So the SFTMC merged and became part of Mills College and Pauline became its first director. The grant had stipulated that it be a place “for the composition, study, and performance of contemporary music” and was shortly thereafter renamed the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM).
The transition from the SFTMC to CCM happened over 1966-67 years. Many exciting concerts and events were scheduled and performed. Stockhausen came to visit in January of ’67 and gave a lecture on Momente, his work for two pianos, ring modulation and shortwave radios which at that time was still a work in progress. He also gave Bay Area premiers of Zyklus, Mikrophonie No. 1, and Telemusik.
After only a year working as director of the center Pauline got a teaching gig at the University of California. Stockhausen’s technician Jaap Spek stepped into her shoes briefly, and was then followed by co-directors Anthony Gnazzo and Lowell Cross. It was in these years that David Tudor came and gave lectures at the CCM, and performances of Variations IV which featured many of the electronic music boxes Tudor had designed and built himself.
All of these influences laid a groundwork for musical experimentation and collaboration that was to follow in the next decade of the 1970s when the CCM was directed by Robert Ashley. For the next twelve years between 1969 and 1981, under his guidance the center became a remarkable nexus of creative activity in music, technology and art. Robert came to California by way of Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music which is another major circuit in the story of DIY electronic music.
RE/SOURCES: (for Part I and II)
Lousi Barron / Bebe Barron, The Forbidden Planet OST
The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network by Matthew Lasar, Temple University Press; Updated, Subsequent edition (April 14, 2000)
Klystrons, Traveling Wave Tubes, Magnetrons, Cross-Field Amplifiers, and Gyrotrons by A.S. Gilmour, Artech, 2011
The Tube Guys, Norman H. Pond, Russ Cochran, 2008
A Wild Composer: Morton Subotnick Interviewed by Robert Barry https://thequietus.com/articles/19418-morton-subotnick-interview
Ankeny, Jason. "Pauline Oliveros Biography". Archived 2014-10-26 at the Wayback Machine 98.5 Kiss FM.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.