CALIFORNIA IS WEIRD
I have before me a newspaper clipping from a local paper (San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 1, 1975), that tells us California really is weird. It mentions kidnappings, murders, attempted murders, terrorists, and mad people out on the streets. It reminds us that San Francisco has a high rate of alcoholism and suicide, that it's the end of the line both geographically and psychologically.
What this article doesn't mention is that the circumstances causing California to be "weird" are also causing California to be one of most exciting creative environments for artists of all kinds.
It's not an organized environment. There's no coherent music scene. Visitors wouldn't notice a thing, except for a few street musicians and artists and perhaps the opera house. Composers themselves have very little idea of the scope of what's going on. They're usually surprised when I tell them I know of at least 150 composers in just the San Francisco Bay Area. Undoubtedly there are more.
Nonetheless we have a very unique environment here which has brought out both the good and the bad in us, and has given us the freedom for real creative exploration.
Historically we see that many ideas in music originated and were developed in California. Henry Cowell (b. 1897, Menlo Park) was one of the first to use tone clusters back in 1912. Bartok wrote him for permission to use the technique! Harry Partch (b. 1901, Oakland) was using microtones of 43 notes per octave before 1930 and created a whole orchestra of beautiful instruments using materials like aircraft nose-cones cut off and tuned and tree branches with gourds attached to them.
More recently we see Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young (in new York since 1960), and Morton Subotnick (left for new York in 1967) making an impact on our musical culture.
Activities at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s brought about the development of Don Buchla's synthesizer which became widely used in new electronic music studios all over the U.S.A.
Now a group of composers and researchers at Stanford are making such significant discoveries about sound (and music!) that I am reminded of the discovery of the wheel. John Grey has plotted the timbral relationship between the orchestral instruments on a 3-D matrix, clearly showing how you can take a trumpet sound, for example, and slowly change it into a flute sound or any other sound. John Chowning uses this technique in his compositions and can send a sound "traveling around the room by controlling degrees of reverberation in different speakers. In fact, the ability to vary the forms of reverberation of sounds gives us a whole new musical resource. At Stanford, John Chowning developed his F.M. sound synthesis method and work of all sorts continues related to the musical and perceptual possibilities of sound generated by the new digital electronic music equipment.I look forward to seeing the results of work on wave shaping synthesis and real time digital modification of concrete sounds.
And related to all this is the fact that Stanford owns the first large-scale digital music synthesizer, built here in San Francisco by Peter Samson at Systems Concepts.
The work going on at Stanford now will have far-reaching effects not only because of its quality, but also because Stanford is inundated with visitors from all over the world who take back with them ideas on how to better their resources for creating electronic music.
These are just a few instances of the more visible creative work that has gone on in this area. Much, much, more exists but is not so easily described in a few words. And we have yet to see what impact most of our work will have on the outside world.
A list of "weird" music developments here might include the X-perimental Chorus, the Future Primitive Arts Ensemble ("part of the intergalactic exchange program initiated 15,000 years ago by non-physical entities from the constellation Epsilon-Bootes"), "Music-While-You-Wait", and the big growth in text-sound composition. For an idea of the scope of activities here, take a look at back issues of Ear. Check your local library or write to Ear at 517 Cortland Street, San Francisco, CA 94110. Except for a few of the earliest issues, all are still available. Volume 4 no. 7 (Fall 1976) ($2) has an excellent brief report on the development of new music in the Bay Area by Charles Shere, a gold mine of information about performance groups, and an index to back issues of Ear.
What are the circumstances that have encouraged creativity in California? historically we see that California was very recently and very rapidly settled. Since 1860 the population of the state has grown by at least 40% each decade, with the exception of only three decades. People of all kinds came to California. In the 1970 census, 25% of the population was foreign born (not U.S.A.), and many more were of mixed parentage. San Francisco has the largest community of orientals outside of Asia in addition to its mix of other races and nationalities.
For the composer this means that there are numerous cultural traditions to draw on, and intermingling generates new possibilities. The public tolerates unfamiliar sounds better than in a homogeneous environment. And when audiences are less negative, composers feel freer to experiment. Of course there are many failures, but we are free to fail! This is our important advantage.
What happened at U.C. Davis in the 1960s is a good example of what can happen where there are no established traditions. Davis, originally an agricultural school, developed a dynamic music department which made itself the center of the avant-garde very quickly. Such distinguished composers as John Cage (yes, a native Californian), David Tudor, and Karlheinz Stockhausen were brought to the campus, and Source magazine was published. How did this happen? Being new, the music department was not limited to development on an existing system of values. So when money became available, they were free to explore new music and they did.
In addition to California's newness, lack of tradition, and merging of cultures, it has served as a haven for composers from other areas. Leonard Stein wrote in the Saturday Review in 1967 that:"...the Golden State continues to attract prominent musicians from all over who may find, besides health and wealth, an atmosphere of freedom for experimentation and involvement with new activities. The presence and frequent visits of internationally renowned composers have produced an acute awareness of the central movements in music today and resulted, generally, in an absence of cliquishness and chauvinism which characterize many another region". Saturday Review, Sept 23, 1967, p.43.
Stravinsky and Krenek went to Los Angeles, as did Schoenberg, who then taught many composers there, including John Cage. Darius Millhaud, Roger Sessions, and Ernest Block came to the Bay Area to teach. More recently so have Earl Brown, Luciano Berio, David Behrman, Marta Ptaszynska, and others.
Their presence has contributed enormously to musical life here. It was with Sessions' help that the Composers' Forum was established in 1945. This organization produced hundreds of concerts of new music all over the Bay Area and was a real benefit to both composer and community in its lifetime. And of course there are many composers who visit just to give a concert or two, adding to the range of musical experiences available here.
Considering the number of composers living in California, it is surprising how few publishers of new music there are here. In this respect, California is a backwater compared to England, Europe, and our eastern states. many people might assume this to be a disadvantage, but in fact it frees us to concentrate on our work as WE would like it, not as we imagine a publisher might like it. And the less "watched over" a composer feels, the more likely his/her true musical personality will emerge.
Benjamin Britten wrote of England in 1964 that pressure groups, "snobs", and critics frightened young composers into writing "pretentious nonsense or deliberate obscurity" instead of following their own talents.
These kinds of pressures have been fewer in California and most composers I've spoken to don't take them seriously. One important exception would be the subtle pressure composers at schools and universities experience to conform to the values of the school.
Not being either encouraged or discouraged to compose gives us greater freedom in what we do, how we do it, and whether we do it at all. We have to go out and make our opportunities, define our materials, build our audiences. Nothing is predetermined and this is what is so exciting. Anything is possible, anything can happen, and indeed it does! by Valerie Samson p.1,7