Remembering Early American Electronic Music

Source Records 1–6, 1968–1971 (Pogus Productions)
David W. Bernstein (ed.): The San Francisco Tape Music Center (University of California Press)

Two of the most innovative American periodicals of the later 1960s were Aspen (1965–1971) and Source (1966–1974). Departing emphatically from the norm not only in content but also in design, both publications presented new writing and art in extremely creative packaging. Aspen came in boxes and envelopes with loose materials including not only printed paper but sometimes plastic discs and even films; Source, spiral-bound, eight inches high and 14 wide, sometimes contained die-cut pages and paper envelopes with ten-inch long-playing phonograph records. (Remember those antiques?) Both Aspen and Source had influence far beyond their initial modest circulation and, when they died, both magazines were missed.

Both publishers made the decision, radical at the time, to use a variety of typefaces and page designs within a single issue, in contrast to the rigorous design uniformity (then as now) of a conventional magazine. The only initially literary magazine known to me from that time to initiate such an extreme departure in format was Tom Bridwell’s mid-70s publication Soma-Hoama, whose fourth issue I recall as a wooden box. Its fifth issue, which I still treasure, came in a metal paint can some seven inches high and six inches in diameter. All these magazines from a third of a century ago would seem innovative today. (I gather, but have never seen, that the initial issues of Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, a decade ago, also made it a point to smash through traditional design barriers.) Given the variety of formats, neither Aspen nor Source could be reprinted page for page.

Despite the obvious similarities between the two magazines, I doubt that any readers of one of them were aware of the existence of the other, since Aspen favored visual artists, while Source was published by and for emerging composers (led by Larry Austin and Stanley Lunetta, the former then a professor at the University of California at Davis). It’s likely that subscribers to strictly literary magazines didn’t know of either of them. Today, a Google search of “Larry Austin Source” + “Aspen” finds no webpage mentioning them both.

While Aspen is memorialized now in files available gratis on the website ubuweb.com, selections from Source’s records appear now as three Pogus CDs, which I value initially for the original recordings, now lovingly remastered, of such speech-based classics as Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room and Arrigo Lora-Totino’s English Phonemes. The new discs also contain Robert Ashley’s The Wolfman, David Behrman’s Wave Train, Larry Austin’s Accidents, and Allan Bryant’s Pitch Out; Arthur Woodbury’s Velox, Mark Riener’s Phlegethon, Austin’s Caritas; and Stanley Lunetta’s Moosack Machine; Lowell Cross’s Video II (B)/©/(L), Alvin Curran’s Magic Carpet, and Annea Lockwood’s Tiger Balm. All of these epitomize early electronic music, and nearly all have been unavailable until now.

What I miss in this Source package is more sense of the original magazine, which had to be seen to be believed (or better yet, laid out across one’s lap). The booklet accompanying the Pogus release announces “a Source book” to come from the University of California Press in 2009, but the UC Press just told me that it won’t appear until 2010. (Never, may this veteran author remind you, announce a book until it physically appears.). How these disparate materials can be reprinted without compromising the design of the original magazine is beyond my imagination. Meanwhile, Source’s contents could have been represented on a richly illustrative DVD. Fortunately, I still own and treasure most of the original issues.

Another recent tombstone in the history of ancient electronic music is the eponymous anthology The San Francisco Tape Music Center (University of California), edited by David W. Bernstein and subtitled “1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde.” The strongest, most surprising chapter in the book comes not from a composer but from the sometime painter Tony Martin, who became a light artist, indeed a major light artist, while working with the composers. This alone makes this book valuable.

Since earlier literature about the S.F. Center is scanty, Bernstein necessarily resorts mostly to interviews with the major participants: the musicians Ramon Sender, William Maginnis, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Stuart Dempster, Terry Riley; Tony Martin (in addition to his narrative); the legendary arts engineer Michael Callahan; the choreographer Ann(a) Halprin; the synthesizer manufacturer Donald Buchla; and the Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand.

My problem in reading published interviews is that I tend to skim them, looking for nuggets, as interviewees rarely develop arguments and themes. (Thus are they appropriate for writer/speakers more comfortable moving from A to A1 and A2, rather than getting from A to B.) A recurring fault is the weak interviewer’s failure to ask the next question suggested by the previous answer. Having done one interview book forty years ago, I haven’t done another since.

In a back envelope of SFTMC is a DVD of the various participants’ performances made not when they were kids back in the 1960s but, alas, in a 2004 festival at RPI! Stronger are the more contemporaneous color photographs of Tony Martin’s kinetic art, especially by my high school classmate Susan Elting (aka “Ting”).

This SFTMC book also comes with not one but two prefaces, further illustrating a critical point I’ve made before—that any book prefaced by someone other than its author (or editor, in this case) probably needed that push to get into print and is thus probably not worth reading. (With two prefaces, doubly so, alas.) That’s why I routinely refuse to write prefaces—not even for money can I be persuaded to jeopardize a book’s integrity.

Insufficient though both this book and DVD are, under-edited though the former is, together they nonetheless remind us that the 1960s were indeed a special time, not just for social change but for the arts and magazines. They really were.

Contributor

Richard Kostelanetz

RICHARD KOSTELANETZ recently completed a second book of essays on innovative music.

ADVERTISEMENTS