Book report: 'The San Francisco Tape Music Center', ed. David W. Bernstein

posted: 02 June, 2010
The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde is a stunning work that achieves the history it intended to write while also providing stimulating inspiration about sound and approaches to creating it.  Editor David W. Bernstein presents a series of articles that detail the history, occasionally repeating information but allowing a pluralistic set of viewpoints to emerge instead of a monohistory.  The second half of the book is comprised of interviews, first with the primary actors of the Center (Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Bill Maginnis, Morton Subotnick and Tony Martin) and then with other figures who were also involved (Terry Riley, Ann Halprin, Don Buchla, Stewart Brand, Stuart Dempster).
(l-r: Ramon Sender, Michael Callahan, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros (seated))

I think I found this particularly inspiring because I read this at a time when I've felt rather oversaturated with experimental music, and a bit unsure about how to continue my own experimentation in the field.  I'm about to embark on a stint with Lied Music/Vernon and Burns for the first time in ages, which makes me think a lot about the aesthetics of tape (which I haven't worked with since I left the UK -- I don't even own a working reel-to-reel at the moment).
Reading about how these artists were just so excited to create -- not just sound, but performance, visual art, light shows -- makes me think about how different things were back then. (Well, of course).  I'm always nervous about my tendency to fetishise early electronic music, and the SFTMC from this 'golden' period.  It wasn't easy to make, the equipment has a certain aesthetic to it, and these people really worked in a cultural vacuum -- and those are all aspects that somehow change the way I perceive these recordings, especially when compared to contemporary work which may have its own merits that I don't always acknowledge.

But my own marginal involvement in the world of sound and music has always been very rooted in community, or 'scene' as some would say, and this book conveys the social aspect of this in a way that few other histories do.  I really felt like there was a community of wide-eyed artists, as the interviews gave a background that wouldn't necessarily come from a straight history. 
There are a lot of big names who were working on the West Coast at the time, and personal favourites as well.  Ramon Sender really emerges as an unsung figure in this whole story, with his amazing Desert Ambulance cited as a key work along with Riley's In C and Oliveros' Pieces of Eight -- though the Center was very much a group effort.  And the subtitle of the book doesn't overstate the impact of the SFTMC on 1960s counterculture.  Though these artists seem to have little resemblance to the crazed hippies of the Bay Area scene (which exploded to national prominence a few years later), their innovations were profoundly influential on the emerging psychedelic rock scene.  The Center moved to Mills College in 1966, effectively ending it (at least as far as this book's scope), but there was a brief period near its end (with the Trips festival) where the avant-gade overlapped with the emerging psychedelic rock scene.  And this is before the poison of commercialism had seeped into anything - before Bill Graham and the Fillmore and all of that - but only just before.
(Ramon Sender at the Trips festival, January 1966)

The interviews are all really fun to read, and sometimes surprising.  Terry Riley is really down to earth and cool; Ann Halprin is someone who's work I was not familiar with but I will now investigate; Pauline Oliveros is as warm and inspiring in print as I found her to be in person.  The sense of magic and wonderment that these artists found while working in the Center is something that I have felt at points in my life, but to be honest, not for a long time.

Reading about how these people were trying to experiment with theatrical and performative actions (in the early 60s) really gives perspective to the last 50 years of experimental music.  The idea that live sound should be an experiential happening is often forgotten, I think, as increases in technology have made live experimental sound far less interesting to audiences.  Back in 1963, as now,  it would be amazing to see someone plugging in wires on some giant analogue synth and manipulating giant tape loops constructed around wine bottles.  That was happening then, and that would be 1,000,000 more interesting than most of what I see today -- yet these artists still did more.  They pushed themselves to properly use the space of the stage and the talents of their performing community, involving filmmakers, dancers, visual artists, and classically trained musicians too.  These days, such multidisciplinary work is less frequent (at least in the world I've been immersed in), as many are content to stare at a laptop or turn knobs on homemade electronics.  The fingerprints of Cage and Tudor were all over the SFTMC (as they even staged a series of 'Tudorfests' in 1964) and it shows in some of the approaches to performance, which share some affinities with Fluxus.  I think this needs to come back (and it has, to some extent, but not enough).

Near the end of the book is a chronology, which situates the happenings of the SFTMC in the continuum of other music and arts history, and the occasional intrusion of the 'real world' (such as the JFK assassination).  It's a simple idea, but the basic act of ordering these events really puts things in context, and I found that it enhanced my appreciation of their work.

There's a DVD included of a 2004 reunion performance, playing a lot of the pieces described in the book, though I haven't watched it yet.  I think I'm solid on the history now and curious to revisit some of these pieces, but I'll mostly re-read some of the interviews and try to imagine what it must have been like to transform a sleepy city into a hotbed of the avant-garde.