The San Francisco Tape Music Center

1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde
Edited by David W. Bernstein, University of California Press

Morton Subotnick’s move to New York City in 1966 coupled with Ramon Sender relocating to the Morning Star Commune in rural California marked more than a geographical shift of two of the Bay area’s most visionary electro-acoustic composers. It also reflected the end of the fabled San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) as a stand-alone entity, and its relocation to nearby Mills College.

For the previous five years, operating from funky locations with mostly invented or cadged electronic equipment, the SFTMC was an autonomous, unaffiliated centre for tape improvisation and interdisciplinary experiments. As David Bernstein demonstrates in the series of articles and interviews that make up this book, the SFTMC’s dedication to “unlimited creative possibilities with limited resources,” had a long-lasting impact far beyond its physical existence.

The Center also offered a forum for innovative visual composers such as Tony Martin, whose projections using hand-painted slides and liquids on plates were the precursors of psychedelic light shows. In an on-going series of concerts the SFTMC not only provided West Coast showcases for contemporary composers such as David Tudor and John Cage and offered a place for non-jazz-influenced improvisation, but also hosted the first performance of such future electronic and New music landmarks as Pauline Oliveros’ “Bye Bye Butterfly”, Subotnick’s “Mandolin”, Sender’s Desert Ambulance” and Terry Riley’s “In C”. To aid composers then struggling with tape-splicing, looping, mixing and signal processing, new audio configurations were also developed there. Most notable was Don Buchla’s so-called Buchla Box, a unique, portable touch-controlled voltage source that reduced the need for splicing, and allowed electronic music to be performed in real time outside of studios.

Alternating interviews with articles by many of the SFTMC’s principals, Bernstein’s narrative is somewhat choppy. Luckily a 17-page chronology at the end put the achievements in proper historical context.

Briefly, the SFTMC was organized in 1961 by young academic-affiliated composers Subotnick and Sender, when they moved their pooled primitive electronic equipment into a downtown San Francisco location to get away from the confines and snobbishness of music conservatories. At that time, says Subotnick, “there were only 10 people in the [electronic composition] field and all 10 people hated the others.” Shortly afterwards Oliveros, who was composing tape music on her own, joined them, drawn by the camaraderie and a studio that boasted “oscillators, professional tape machines, a patch bay, ring modulators, mics, an array of tape recorders and loop machines,” she recalls.

From the beginning, Sender, who stated in 1964 that “today the composer can not ignore the experience of working with tape” insisted that every concert be a collaboration with other artists in the city. Not only did that encourage multi-disciplinary activities with groups like the San Francisco Mime Troup and Ann Haperin’s dance troupe at the facility’s regular Sonics concerts, but experimenters from elsewhere were always welcome. Among the shifting cast of characters involved were poets such as Michael McClure, film makers like Stan Brackage, experimental musicians such as trombonist Stuart Dempster and composers including two on an extended visit from Sweden, plus Riley, Tudor and Steve Reich, who at that time was sharing the use of a tape recorder with Phil Lesh, another composition student who later played in the Grateful Dead.

Michael Callahan, SFTMC’s first technical director, who initially organized the studio and even provided musical assistance to Cage at one concert, was a teenager who had just graduated from high school; Martin was a painter interested in adding a visual component to New music. Buchla, with a bachelor’s degree in physics, extended Subotnick’s and Sender’s ideas for controlling amplitude and frequency while creating electronic music, by inventing the Buchla Modular Electronic Music System, the first practical, portable variant of what became the modular synthesizer.

Ironically, the SFTMC’s success was also the reason for its disappearance as an independent facility. Needing funds to expand, the Center approached the Rockefeller Foundation which first gave it a small grant. The Foundation then offered an additional $200,000, but with the understanding that the Center unite with a fiscally responsible institution. Oakland’s Mills College was chosen and the SFTMC moved there in the summer of 1966, with Oliveros as its first director and Bill Maginnis as technical director. When she left for another academic position a year later, all of the Center’s original crew had moved on. In New York Subotnick composed “Silver Apples of the Moon”, an electro-acoustic milestone that incidentally used a duplicate of the original Buchla Box. Callahan eventually took up a position at Harvard University; Martin resumed his art and academic career in New York, as did Buchla, who while refining newer versions of the Buchla Box was also involved, along with Martin, in designing light shows for the Electric Circus clubs. Already, along with other composers a dabbler in psychedelic substances – not for nothing was a Riley composition titled “Mescalin Mix” – Sender remained on the commune for years.

Sender, Oliveros, Subotnick, Martin and Maginnis reunited in October 2004 for the Wow & Flutter Festival at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy N.Y. Aided by several other musicians and technicians they performed many of their compositions. Included with this volume, a DVD of the festival program captures some of the excitement that must have been engendered when first hearing – and seeing – these pieces. Nonetheless, the mass dissemination of many of these sounds, textures and effects – starting with 1966’s Trips Festival in San Francisco that featured the audio and visual participation of Sender, Martin and Buchla – almost makes it difficult to imagine a time when this interface didn’t exist.

That’s why this volume is particularly valuable. It’s a history of a small group that at a certain time and place discovered a new way of doing things electronically, and spread the word about it – but who weren’t in love with the technology at the expense of creation. Later experimenters have sometimes been overawed at the simplicity of electronics, substituting patches and loops for musical invention. Those associated with the SFTMC didn’t do that. As Dempster tells the author in his interview: “There was this peak period ... [and] the Tape Music Center itself was … a symbol of what things could be.”

— Ken Waxman

— MusicWorks Issue #103