Electronic and Experimental Music History, Instruments, Technique, Performers, Recordings _1985 Thomas B. Holmes Charles Scribner's Sons 998w

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The San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) is important not only because of the composers who worked there but because its history is emblematic of the dilemmas faced by devotees of electronic music in the early 1960s. The artistic climate in San Francisco in 1961 was ringing with new ideas. A number of adventurous composers, including Ramon Sender, Terry Riley, and Pauline Oliveros, had created an improvised electronic-music "studio" in the attic of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It was here that the group began to produce a series of concerts called "Sonics."

Morton Subotnick, who was also dabbling in the medium while teaching at Mills College, got together with this group. They pooled their equipment and moved to another location to officially inaugurate the SFTMC in 1962. The center continued to grow until 1963, when it moved to bigger quarters and struck up a relationship with radio station KPFA of the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation. Tony Martin joined the group as their visual artist in charge of light projections for the performances, and William Maginnis joined as both technician and composer.

Maginnis defined the center as a "nonprofit cultural and educational corporation, the aim of which was to present concerts and offer a place to learn about work within the tape music medium." The center itself had very little equipment aside from tape recorders and some novel approaches to making electronic music, including Oliveros' unique tape-loop and -delay systems. The composers were also very interested in creating music that could be presented live, which led them to the use of light projections to accompany tape pieces and theatrics with live musicians and interactive tape systems. Riley split from the group to pursue his own brand of minimalist performance music utilizing electric organs and tape systems.

The collective was highly successful and influential, and undertook regional and national tours during the mid-1960s. During 1966 and 1967 two important developments took shape. First, the engineer Donald Buchla collaborated with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender to develop the first Buchla analog synthesizer (more on this in the next chapter). Next the SFTMC decided to accept a $15,000 grant to move to Mills college and become part of the Mills Center for Contemporary Music. The studio facilities were improved, but the organizational problems of being part of a large institution soon took their toll on the original core members of the SFTMC.

By 1967, all of the SFTMC people had departed, and by the time Robert Ashley joined Mills in 1969 as the new director of the center, the electronic-music studios were gone and there was no equipment left. Ashley's revival of the studios took the form of a public-access music and media facility that was highly innovative but always dependent on the financial generosity of both the university and the granting foundation.

photo caption: A state-of-the-art electronic music studio, circa 1965, was often a collection of miscellaneous components creatively linked together by ingenious technicians. This view of the San Francisco Tape Music Center shows the racks of tape recorders and various tone generators. All of this could be patched into the central control console. (Photo by Bill Maginnis, studio technician.)


During the formative years of the SFTMC in 1961 and 1962, composer Morton Subotnick joined forces with other Bay Area electronic luminaries, including Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, and Terry Riley, to pool their tape-composition equipment and establish a cooperative studio. According to William Maginnis, who served as a composer and engineer in the studio from 1964 to 1967, the equipment they had was barely more than six audio oscillators and some tape recorders -- certainly not enough to produce sophisticated electronic music. The need for more capable equipment led to an association with engineer Donald Buchla around 1965.

Buchla was working along lines similar to those of Moog in developing a voltage-controlled synthesizer. He worked closely with Subotnick and Sender to design a system that would truly meet the demands of a composer, and the result was the Buchla Modular Electronic Music System. Maginnis remembers that although the official date of introduction for the system was 1966, the first prototype components arrived at the studio as individual modules "one by one as they were developed." Maginnis was one of the first people to produce a piece on the system. Called Flight, it was realized on the first night that the initial components arrived in 1965.

In its use of VCOs, amplifiers, and filters, the solid-state Buchla was very similar in capability to the Moog. It differed primarily in two respects. First, it was the first synthesizer to feature a sequencer for programming and repeating a series of control voltages. This innovative approach offered composers an easy way preset auditory chain reactions and introduced an element of automatic control that has since become a common option in most synthesizers. Second, instead of a keyboard, the early Buchlas employed sixteen touch-sensitive plates. These plates could each trigger sounds that had been manually programmed, using patch cords and the control panel, or they could be set to emulate an actual keyboard using the chromatic scale.

Since the traditional Buchla does not employ a keyboard (although some later models do), it has always been attractive to composers who are trying to avoid keyboard-oriented approaches to electronic music. Subotnick has become the foremost virtuoso of the device and, through his pioneering work, has demonstrated the magnificent power of the Buchla....

= 145 = ...Similar experiments [to Once] soon began in California, where Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Terry Riley, Phil Windsor, Ellis Gans, and Dave Talbot collaborated to produce a series of concerts called "Sonics," beginning in 1961. These were held in a small electronic music studio in the attic above the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and attracted people like Morton Subotnick and Luciano Berio, who later helped the group create the SFTMC.