- The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde
This book tells the story of the influential group of creative artists—Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, William Maginnis, and Tony Martin—who connected music to technology during a legendary era in California's cultural history. An integral part of the robust San Francisco scene, the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) developed new art forms through collaborations with Terry Riley, Steve Reich, David Tudor, Ken Dewey, Lee Breuer, the San Francisco Actors' Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Ann Halprin Dancers' Workshop, Canyon Cinema, and others. Told through vivid personal accounts, interviews, and retrospective essays by leading scholars and artists, this work, capturing the heady experimental milieu of the 1960s, is the first comprehensive history of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Editor David W. Bernstein gathered the materials, undertook the interviews, and placed the disparate contributions into context.
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To read this book is not to drink from, but to plunge into, the wellspring of the American experimentalist tradition. The amount of technical description, detailed in interviews with tech gurus Don Buchla, Michael Callahan, and William Maginnis; historical context, to be found in carefully placed interludes by cultural experts; aesthetic reflection, both thoroughly and personally unfolded in conversational interviews regarding [End Page 104] artistic practice and encapsulated as offered impressions of "the scene"; visual documentation, including full-page psychedelic posters and concert programs, color photo stills from Tony Martin's performances, captioned studio photos and diagrams, and even a pull-out poster reproduction of the map/score that guided an event/happening/piece that traveled through the entire city of San Francisco, City Scale (1963)—all this is sufficient to induce exactly what such a historical artistic collection should: a profound appreciation, and a desire, abetted by intimate technological and aesthetic familiarities, to explore the kind of personal creative engagement that the former demands. This is deeply inspiring, lovingly presented non-fiction.
Well away from the heavy nostalgic wax that threatens to suffocate any attempt tomeaningfully recollect the past, the interviews and essays here bid a considered, tender, and variegated reflection. In addition to his capacity as principal interviewer, Mr. Bernstein provides a suitable frame at the outset with his summary essay, "Emerging Art Forms and the American Counterculture, 1961–1966," and a handful of illuminating mini-essays, set within the primary source documents and interviews. This work of his betrays a justly guarded wish to situate the reader with broad reference to contemporary cultural developments (concern with tape music alone, in the case of this particularly interdisciplinary episode in its history, would simply miss the point). Lee Breuer, founding member of Mabou Mines Theatre Company, provides a shard of experimental theater; Robert R. Riley, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's new media curator, recounts the evolution of projected image light shows in San Francisco; and independent film historian Scott MacDonald relates Canyon Cinema and the independent film scene of the 1960s to the Italian Renaissance. Mr. Bernstein himself sounds off on rock music, and dance historian and critic Janice Ross captures the dance scene, and—not to leave the technologists hungry—Mr. Subotnick, Mr. Sender, and Mills College Contemporary Music Center Co-director Maggie Payne expose the fascinating specifics of "The Genesis of the Buchla 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System." Fred Frith wins the "awkward-and-therefore-necessary" scholarly topic award for his forthright discussion of the relationship between "non-idiomatic" improvisation and jazz at the time.
The two included primary source documents turn on the lava lamp by radiating the tepid glow of an expected utopian idealism. In a report on the SFTMC's activities and in an...