We continue Robert Erickson's reminiscences of the music scene in the Bay Area with remarks on the Conservatory, the Tape Music Center, and on the University of California at Berkeley where he taught from 1955 to 1957.
At U.C. I taught beginning harmony and an enormous music appreciation class of 400 students. I felt as a campaigning politician must feel addressing multitudes. Everything had to be stripped down to its simplest form. I wondered whether the tags and slogans I had left were worth the effort. There is nothing simple about music, and it might be better if everyone started from that point.
I was also in charge of the weekly Noon Concerts presented in Dwinelle Hall while I was at U.C., an offshoot of the know-how I had acquired at KPFA.
The music department there was strange, not entirely to my taste. I knew the composers, Imbrie, Shifrin, Bill Denny, and got along well with them. But the faculty was polarized between composers and musicologists. While Albert Elkus had been chairman and Roger Sessions on the faculty the worst effects of division had been avoided. Now friction was growing. By head count there were more musicologists than composers, and the musicologists held higher academic rank, so inexorably the outcome of faculty voting tilted the department away from policies which might have made U.C. a school for composers toward a school for professional literary musicologists.
It was and is one of the finest American schools for that kind of musicological scholarship. I taught there for two years until 1957, but I was happy to leave, and they apparently were happy to see me go. Seymour Shifrin left a few years later. Andrew Imbrie and Bill Denny stayed on.
Albert Elkus headed up the San Francisco Conservatory when I first taught there, to eke out a retirement stipend from U.C. while sending a son through college. he had been director of the Conservatory in its early days, before he taught at U.C., and now the conservatory was growing again. He raised funds for the purchase of the building on Ortega Street where the Conservatory is now located, and took steps to ready the school for a college level program leading to a Bachelor of Music degree. In any history of musical life in San Francisco his name will appear again and again, as a musician, teacher, leader and creator of institutions.
Once the Conservatory was installed in its new building Elkus turned over the directorship to Robin Laufer, a European who came from the UNESCO establishment in Paris. Robin was born in Poland, studied conducting at the Vienna Conservatory, and obtained his doctorate at a German university just as the Nazis began their purges. He fought in the French army, was captured by the Germans, escaped from a prison camp in eastern Poland to Russia, and returned to France, where he became part of an underground that smuggled downed airmen back to England across the pyrenees. The war years had aged him too quickly, but he was still a proud, adventurous man, with a lively air about him. He was a natty dresser, in the European manner of the time, fitted suits, colorful vest, heavily starched French cuffs and conservative tie. He looked a diplomat, and there were times when he used a diplomatic manner.
But when we discussed salary he was all hard trader, difficult, tricky and hard to pin down. I grew to love those salary sessions, and for several years Loren Rush and I exchange strategies for dealing with Robin. I had discovered that when discussion came to an impasse Robin had a habit of silence, waiting for me to break it, and I noticed that I did indeed have a tendency to modify my demands a little to resolve the tension. I reasoned that the silences must have been important to Robin, so at the next go-round I turned the tables, silently counting the long seconds and waiting for him to break. He did, and my discovery earned me some hundreds of dollars of salary increases. Loren found out that Robin prided himself on his ability at mental arithmetic, and that he often used his superior skill to outwit his opponent. Loren's method was to prepare in advance such a bewildering array of alternatives--mixtures of private lessons, classes and course meetings, all at different pay rates--that he sometimes gained an advantage.
Robin loved the give and take of bargaining, but it was also a matter of necessity, for the school ran on a very thin budget, as conservatories usually do. The small classes and highly selected students that often made teaching a deep pleasure were an economic nightmare to an administrator. We worked out an arrangement where I taught many classes, 15 or 16 hours a week, and received a salary that was almost enough to live on. Luckily, Lenore was teaching too, at Dominican College in San Rafael and Oakland's College of Arts and Crafts.
I taught classes in beginning and advanced sight-singing and dictation, score reading, music history, composition, and advanced music theory. For a while I experimented with an improvisation course for performers, and year by year I wrote my own materials for the sight-singing courses. Students at the Conservatory were some of the best I have ever taught. The advanced theory course had students who were marvelously well trained in traditional theory; some of them too well, for Sol Joseph's harmony classes went no farther than Brahms, and sometimes it was difficult to move their ears into the twentieth century. Often half the class had perfect pitch, and while most were instrumentalists, they showed real interest in contemporary music and the theoretical approaches to it.
the composition class was always small, three or four persons, but Charles Shere, Phil Winsor, Warner Jepson and Ramon Sender made it a lively undertaking. Ramon turned up in the late fifties determined to get a solid musical education. He was no beginner, he had studied music for several years, been in and out of several schools, had written some serial music, and was searching for a new beginning. His presence, and the addition of Loren Rush to the faculty, made it easier to bear the low pay, long hours and poor library facilities. By 1959 the Conservatory was beginning to feel like a place where composers could be comfortable.
In 1960 Robin agreed to back a modest week long series of open rehearsals where young composers could hear their music performed, together with a few evening concerts. Pauline Oliveros' Quintet received its first performance, along with works by Kenneth Gaburo, Richard Swift and others. Tom Nee came from Minnesota to conduct an evening chamber orchestra work by Richard Hoffman, and Ives' Set of Pieces -- the set that includes In the Inn. Gerhard Samuel conducted a performance of Ben Weber's composition for violin and chamber ensemble with Anahid Ajemian, and the Parrenin Quartet performed Donald Martino's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, and quartets by Boulez and Schuller, Leonard Stein joined the cellist of the quartet in a performance of Elliott Carter's Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord.
In 1961 the Conservatory presented another Composers' Workshop, this time with more rehearsal and better performances. There was something new about the programs too--tape and electronic music, and what has come to be known as theater piece.
Marvin Tartak played Morton Subotnick's Three Preludes for piano, the third of which included taped sounds, mostly of electric piano. Milton Babbitt's Composition for Synthesizer was presented,
and Ramon Sender's Four Sanscrit (sic.) Hymns, for four sopranos, instrumental ensemble and two tape recorders, was conducted by Gerhard Samuel. Long passages of the instrumental sections had a polymetric complexity I have seldom heard before or since. The performing tapes had been constructed laboriously over a six-week period of night work with almost no equipment, a two-channel home style Ampex tape recorder, a ten-dollar mixer, and a set of band-pass filters borrowed from Dr. Peter Ostwald of U.C.'s Medical School.
Terry Riley completed the concert with a performance of Richard Maxfield's Piano Concert, described in the next day's San Francisco Chronicle by Alfred Frankenstein:
"During the course of this work, Terry Riley, dressed in a tuxedo and wearing a stocking cap and dark glasses, poured marbles into the piano, set its strings vibrating with a child's gyroscope, and dropped all manner of objects onto some sheets of foil over the strings.
During part of this, an assistant lay on the floor under the piano pummeling it with a timpani stick, while a half-mashed lady assistant sat near the instrument and handed Riley his equipment with jerky motions. All we needed was the fur-lined teacup and the piece of porcelain plumbing signed "A. Mutt" and we'd have been right back in the Twenties, when such things were the rage." (S.F. Chronicle, June 15, 1961)
Frankenstein spotted the Dada aspects of the performance. He had no way of knowing then that a new genre was being born, but in the autumn and winter of 1961 Ramon Sender, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick put on many concerts at the Conservatory; these concerts mapped the directions of the new ideas and explored their limits. They always included elements of tape and electronic music, improvised performance, and theater. Some pieces failed; a few were brilliantly successful.
For one of these concerts the performers mobilized most of the rooms in the Conservatory. Pauline, Ramon, Morton, and two marvelous dancers, John Graham and Lynn Palmer, moved from room to room. Taped sound came from many directions. Sometimes simultaneous musics from distant rooms would combine. In this kind of situation the audience had to be on the move, as at a fair or carnival. But the performers were moving about too, and the boundary between audience and performers became an imaginary "I dare you" line that one felt urged to cross. At one point I became involved in a slow parade: John Graham, with the other dancer on his shoulders, swaying and bending, led a procession down a long, narrow hallway, accompanied by the ocean sounds of an old-fashioned Maytag washing machine filled with pebbles, its extension cord trailing behind, a moment--a long one, going on five or ten minutes--of fully functioning total theater.
During the summer and fall of 1961 Ramon built an electronic studio in the Conservatory attic. Robin committed some Conservatory money, manufacturers of electronic equipment donated oscillators and other items, and the rest was salvaged from army surplus warehouses. Morton Subotnick had been working in his backyard studio during this same period, and in 1962 Morton and Ramon combined resources to start the San Francisco Tape Music Center, in an empty Jones Street house. Concerts there continued in directions taken at the Conservatory: dance, theater, and improvisation at the foreground. In 1963 they moved the Center to Divisadero Street.
Sometime in 1964 Ramon wrote a revealing report about the Center's activities and future plans, and suggesting ways in which it might be integrated into the community:
"When the San Francisco Tape Music Center was founded in 1961, neither of the two composers who founded it had thought much beyond their own immediate needs for a studio for the production of sounds by electronic means and for a concert hall in which to present programs of an experimental nature, the sort that might no readily fit into the concerts of already existing musical organizations. Looking back over the past three years, it now seems possible to see the emergence of a specific direction that has come out of the experiences of these years rather than out of any predetermined concept of where the Center was ultimately heading.
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. Behind this balance has been the feeling that it should be possible for the composer to live from his work; that the solution to the composer's place in our society does not lie in having to choose between writing within the accepted 'avant-garde' traditions for performances aimed at some sort of musical in-group, or 'going commercial'."
Morton and Ramon both felt a strong pull toward what Morton called "making it as a secular composer." Ramon's desire was more toward integrating the composer into a community in new and more meaningful ways. The question was how to accomplish these desires. Ramon's report continued:
"I would like to see the Center become a community-sponsored composers guild, which would offer the young composer a place to work, to perform, to come into contact with others in his field, all away from an institutional environment. Each composer would through his contact with the Center, be encouraged to fulfill his own musical needs and develop his own personal language. he would have the advantage and support of all the facilities of the Center, for rehearsals and performances of his music, for contact with other composers and musicians, for work in the electronic music studios.
He would be encouraged to involve himself in the musical life of the community-at-large. The community in turn would be offered the services of the Center as a music-producing agency for films, for plays, for churches and schools. Such a program, carried through in detail, could produce a revolution. It would, I believe, in five years time, create a new cultural environment in at least our local area."
Ramon's plan was realistic, but it would need time, more than five years. Morton composed music for Actor's Workshop and television documentaries, and Ramon tried to interest radio and television stations and advertising agencies in what the Tape Center could offer. It is a pity that no foundation provided long term funding, because Ramon was right about creating a new cultural environment, and in fact the Tape Center did create a revolutionary new cultural environment in San Francisco. What failed was the idea of a guild of independent composers. Many people were becoming aware that the San Francisco Tape Music Center was
"the focal point in the city for experimental events in the arts, with the primary emphasis on music, film and dance. This coming together of artists has been an important part of the experience here. Out of this coming together there have been made many important discoveries in performance procedures. A concert at the Center often contains a multiplicity of elements, both visual and aural, and can be guaranteed to be a very different experience from a concert in the usual sense of the word."
The modern theater piece was born in San Francisco at the Tape Center well before the East knew it. The concept of a total theater of mixed media had been thoroughly developed by 1964. Ramon described two pieces in his report:
"One of the most exciting aspects of the work at the Center has been the combining of visual effects with both live performance and tape. A work such as Morton Subotnick's Mandolin: A Theatre Piece combines live viola, recorded voice and piano, recorded electronic and concrete sounds, slide projections and View-graph projections into a total experience of overwhelming beauty.
Improvised pieces using live performers, tape, and light projections also have proved to be a moving experience both for the participants and the audience. Desert Ambulance, a work of my own, combines recorded instrumental sounds, live accordion, slides and film. It also showed the efficacy of combining new visual elements with more traditional concert procedures. As one of the local critics said after the performance of Mandolin and Desert Ambulance just before we took them on tour, there seems to be a new art form in the process of being born."
Pauline Oliveros played accordion in the 1964 performances of Desert Ambulance. Ramon got the recorded instrumental sounds from a Chamberlain organ, an ingenious instrument which used prerecorded instrument sounds on tape loops. Later the Center purchased one of these organs and tried to adapt it to electronic music uses, along the lines of Hugh LeCaine's multiple tape recorder, but the strips of prerecorded tape were difficult of access and the machine had a regrettable tendency toward malfunction. Sender's notation was conveyed live to the accordionist by earphones. The composer talked the performer through the composition with instructions, suggestions and spur-or-the-moment ideas for improvisation.
In 1963 KPFA established a studio at the Tape Center, so many of the Center's concerts were broadcast to a wider audience. Rent charged KPFA and the Dancers' Workshop helped to keep the Center solvent.
The biggest events of 1964, other than Desert Ambulance, were a concert of music by Terry Riley, including the first performance of In C, with an ensemble of 20 or more, and the concerts of the Tudor Festival. Almost every young composer in the Bay Area took part in the performances in one way or another, and the concerts were magnificent. Many of Cage's works were performed. I remember with special pleasure two performances of Atlas Eclipticalis with slightly different instrumentation, and Pauline Oliveros' mynah bird piece, with David Tudor and Pauline playing bandonion and accordion as they whirled up, down and around on the giant teeter-totter staging.
In 1965 I did some of the work on my Piece for Bells and Toy Pianos at the Center, and got to know its resources and its technician, Bill Maginnis. Bill was the most helpful person imaginable, and often found ingenious solutions to surmount the inadequacies of the studio's equipment. However marginal the equipment at the moment, help was on its way, for later in 1965 Don Buchla produced his first synthesizer box for the Center.
The Tape Center had helped to underwrite its development with money from a small foundation grant--money that was well spent, because soon dozens of composers wanted to work with it. Some of its characteristics were clearly related to Pauline, Ramon and Morton's conceptions of what they expected of electronic equipment, and of how it could be creatively used. Therefore, it was portable for live electronics at concerts; it had a large capacity for generating random events; it could be played, but not like a piano--its keyboards were well suited to non-pianists like Pauline, Morton and Don. And it was relatively inexpensive.
Don's musical culture came out of the San Francisco rock scene, and he always thought of his synthesizer as a kind of extended percussion instrument to incorporate into a rock band. He was the perfect designer for the Tape Center group: sensitive, open to new notions, adventurous, not especially interested in career or money. He always looked embarrassed when I told him his box would eventually make him rich. We got along rather well, well enough so that he loaned me his Indonesian gamelan, dozens of gongs in all, that he had bought for the price of the metal a few years earlier in Jakarta.
In 1966 the Tape Music Center moved to Mills College in Oakland. Pauline was its director for a year, and I did some of the work on my tape piece, Roddy, in the new studio quarters. Roddy received its first performance there, on a concert with Douglas Leedy's Usable Music for amplified mouth-organs and an electric presentation of Robert Ashley's Wolfman by Robert Moran.
By then Ramon had entered a commune and Morton and Terry had gone to New York. Loren was working with John Chowning at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Center. He had never been interested in analog electronic music, and made the leap directly into digital computation of sound. I received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966, and for part of the year Lenore and I were in Europe. In March, 1967, we moved south, where Will Ogdon and I were planning a new kind of music department at U.C. San Diego.
(Bob's new book on contemporary music is just out. If I can talk the U.C. Press out of a review copy I'll have comments on it in the next issue of EAR. And we hope to have an account of the U.C. San Diego scene soon from Bob, and further articles on the '60s new music events in forthcoming issues.) pp7-8