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THINKING SOUND MUSIC: The Life and Work of Robert Erickson. Charles Shere. With a Foreword by John Rockwell. Copyright 1995 by Fallen Leaf Press. P.O. Box 10034. Berkeley CA 94709. 1417w

Many particularly gifted students in their middle to late twenties were attracted to Erickson during this period. Texas- born Pauline Oliveros had graduated from San Francisco State University in 1957 and immediately began working with group improvisation. Spanish-born, New York-reared Ramon Sender was a Conservatory student from 1959 to 1962. Californians Loren Rush and Terry Riley had studied with Erickson at San Francisco State before going on to graduate school at UC Berkeley; Rush joined the music department at KPFA from 1957 to 1960 and then moved to the Conservatory faculty, where he was to develop a significant performing ensemble in the later 1960s.

All these musicians, first as students and then as young professionals, shared a common interest in hands-on collaborative performance. Until their generation, composition had generally been an individual, studio-cloistered affair, whether the composer was loyal to the radical Viennese twelve- tone school gathered around Schoenberg or to the neoclassical style dominated by Nadia Boulanger, who had taught three generations of composers (among them Aaron Copland and Philip Glass) at Fountainbleau outside of Paris. With this new generation, the creation of music turned toward the group- performance orientation that had already been pioneered in San Francisco and Oakland in the 1930s by John Cage and Lou Harrison.

While the younger generation of composers was turning its attention from private scholarship to collective innovation and performance, in the world at large new tools and techniques were being found and developed. The electronics industry had produced the transistor and the tape recorder. Easier travel, together with more widespread recording and broadcast, had opened up the world's ethnic musics. And a new cult of political, sensual, and spiritual liberation was soon to break down a generations' accumulation of constraints. San Francisco, with its tradition of individualism, regionalism, insouciance, and enterprise, would inescapably be a center of whatever new cultural forms might emerge from this ferment.

At the Conservatory, this innovative musical activity first attracted public attention in 1960, when a week of open rehearsals and evening concerts offered premieres of Oliveros's "Variations for Sextet" and music by Kenneth Gaburo, Richard Swift, and others.

The Minnesota-California connection already established by Erickson, Will Ogdon, and Glenn Glasow had been reinforced the previous year when Gerhard Samuel, Mitropoulos' assistant in Minneapolis from 1949 to 1959, was appointed music director of the Oakland Symphony. Samuel led Ben Weber's "Composition for Violin and Chamber Orchestra"; and another Minnesota conductor, Tom Nee, conducted Krenek's "Marginal Sounds", Charles Ives "Set of Pieces" (which had been published in San Francisco thirty years before, by Henry Cowell's New Music Quarterly), and a chamber-orchestra work by Richard Hoffmann, who later served a year as composer-instructor at UC Berkeley. (Hoffman was born in Vienna in 1925, emigrated to New Zealand with his parents in 1935, and studied in Los Angeles with Schoenberg in the late 1940s.)

The Parrenin Quartet participated in Donald Martino's "Quintet for Clarinet and Strings"; Elliott Carter's "Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord"; and quartets by Pierre Boulez and Gunther Schuller.

These performances were successful enough to prompt a second "Composers Workshop" the following year. This time the new music resources were fully evident, with music for tape and electronic instruments and, as a climax, one of the first San Francisco performances of what later came to be called a "theater piece". Los Angeles-born Morton Subotnick, then a graduate student at Mills College in Oakland, presented his Three Preludes for piano, whose third movement included taped sounds. Milton Babbitt's Composition for Synthesizer was heard. Gerhard Samuel returned to lead Ramon Sender's "Four Sanskrit Hymns" for four sopranos, instrumental ensemble, and two tape recorders.

Terry Riley ended the concert by performing Richard Maxfield's Piano concerto. Critic Alfred Frankenstein, always receptive to new developments, described the performance in the next day's paper: "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-masked 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" [sic] and we'd have been right back in the Twenties, when such things were the rage." [San Francisco Chronicle, June 15, 1961]

Richard Maxfield had just come from New York, where he had taken over John Cage's classes at the New School for Social Research for two years. He was an American pioneer in "musique concrete," the postwar French music composed of natural and altered sounds collaged on tape, and he was already famous among the underground for such pieces as "Cough Music" and "Fermentation Music", tape pieces manipulating natural sounds with great imagination.

These pieces, like La Monte Young's "Poem" first heard a year earlier at UC Berkeley, inescapably recalled Dada experiments in both collage and theater, especially to such critics as Frankenstein, who was equally versed in the history of the visual arts and music.

Frankenstein's intuitions were right to juxtapose Meret Oppenheim's 1936 "Object", the famed fur-lined teacup that triumphed in the London Surrealist Exhibition, and Marcel Duchamp's very different 1971 "Fountain", the Dada "readymade" rejected by the Society of Independent Artists' New York exhibition of that year as plagiarism. The young composers in San Francisco were neither simply neo-surrealist nor dedicated to neo-Dada. To the historic resonance of Dada, born in protest of what seemed the bourgeois idiocy of World War I and the sociopolitical events that led to it, and the poetic revelations of the subconscious of surrealism, they were adding a new cultural resonance.

Partly through the example of John Cage, partly through their own awareness, young Bay Area composers were finding ways of expressing values growing out of an appreciation (though perhaps not fully formed) of Asian philosophical principles--an acceptance of external events, even a collaboration with them, as well as an expression of internally developed material. Cage had already proclaimed that a good piece of modern music won't be hurt by the imposition of random sounds from outside the concert hall, any more than the composition of a good modern painting is injured by a chance shadow falling across its surface. The "meaning" of music--the possible concepts its sounds and procedures could relate to, whether "seriously" or humorously, "accidentally" or premeditatedly--was being extended beyond the traditional musical processes and material as conventionally conceived.

Pleased of course with the success of their work to date, Riley, Oliveros, Sender, and Subotnick returned to the conservatory to give a number of concerts in the fall and winter of 1961. Erickson participated in a piece featuring dancers John Graham and Lynn Palmer, who paraded through the Conservatory halls accompanied by a Maytag washing machine on a long extension cord, its interior, awash with pebbles, adding a soft seawash of sound to the taped music playing back from near and distant rooms.

Already, though, further research into the new technology of magnetic tape, stimulated by Richard Maxfield's early work, was preparing these young composers for a new direction. During the summer break, Sender had built a modest electronic studio in the Conservatory attic, with a small grant from the school, oscillators and other equipment donated by manufacturers, and a considerable amount of army-surplus material. At about the same time, Subotnick had been putting together a backyard studio of his own.

In 1962, he and Sender joined forces to start the San Francisco Tape Music Center in an empty Victorian house downtown. The following year they moved once again, to a third-floor loft at 321 Divisadero Street, where Anna Halprin's San Francisco Dancers Workshop had its studio and KPFA ran a concert hall on the second floor. Until 1966, when the Tape Center moved to Mills College, this was the site of a number of epochal concerts of new music.

Live and prerecorded electronic music, theater-pieces, and new pieces for more or less traditional instruments and ensembles, by composers from the Bay Area and elsewhere throughout the world, attracted overflow audiences to the 250-seat hall; many concerts were recorded or broadcast live.


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