3.13 / The Sound Issue

A Thing in the Process of Becoming: The San Francisco Tape Music Center

By Liz Glass April 19, 2012
Tony Martin. Liquid Projection (excerpt), 1962. Courtesy of the Artist. ©Tony Martin

In an issue of the Tulane Drama Review from 1965, Ramon Sender, Anthony Martin, and Ken Dewey wrote about their collaborative work, City Scale (1963). Martin, who drew the score for the work, which also appears as a fold-out in the issue, remarked, “My intention was to externalize visually the world in ourselves by providing a maze of the manmade, a sequence of events in the city.”1 Conceptualized as a sort of living, moving concert, and using the expanse of San Francisco as the clef on which the severcore was composed, City Scale marked the end of the San Francisco Tape Music Center’s (SFTMC) 1962–63 season. The event orchestrated auditory and visual experiences that the viewers experienced on the go, either on foot, or in the back of a truck that was rented for the occasion. Moving in an unclear pattern across the city, with outer points seeming to include Russian Hill and a hill overlooking the Mission District, the viewer-participants of City Scale encountered “musical” events alongside visual experiences. From a couple arguing loudly in a convertible and a woman singing Debussy inside an empty storefront to a synchronized ballet of car lights that cast different colors, weaving a pattern on the side of a hill, the components of City Scale challenged the art/life separation and created an immersive experience.

Meshing visual stimuli with all manner of sound, City Scale embodies the range and ambitions of works undertaken by the San Francisco Tape Music Center between 1961 and 1966. Though its name referred to an actual place, a working studio and a concert venue at 321 Divisadero Street, the SFTMC also denoted a loose conglomeration of sound artists, composers, engineers, and performers, unified by an interest in expanding the vocabulary of musical sound. At its core were Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Tony Martin, and Bill Maginnis. Orbiting around the SFTMC during its five-year run were playwright Ken Dewey, dancer and choreographer Ann Halprin, musician Terry Riley, composer La Monte Young, and a host of other composers, technical innovators, and artists.

The SFTMC crystallized from early collaborations between its members at the beginning of what has become San Francisco’s defining decade. Although it is hard to see beyond the hazy images of hippies and Beat poets that jump to mind when one imagines San Francisco in the 1960s, the SFTMC emerged not from the growing counterculture but from within the structure of the academic institution. Studying in Mills College’s graduate composition program (Subotnick), UC Berkeley (Terence Riley and La Monte Young), and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (Oliveros, Sender, and Riley, along with Loren Rush), this group of young composers came to experimental sound through formal studies in music. The academic education that they received was supplemented by their exposure to pioneers like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna, and Pierre Schaeffer, whose works they heard on the airwaves of Berkeley’s own KPFA.2 Prodded by these various influences onto a path towards indeterminacy and innovation, the group that would form the SFTMC began their improvisations in the attic of the Conservatory and the studios of KPFA.

As Ramon Sender explained in an interview for Cincinnati public radio in 1964, the members of the SFTMC used a broad definition for what music was and could be. “ The definition of music that I think we can accept would be organized sound,” he explained. “The minute that sound is put into some sort of organization by a human being, you have a musical experience.”3 Avoiding the term noise in relationship to the sounds that they manufactured and employed, these artists assumed the position that any sound—realized or possible—had the potential for being a musical one. Separating themselves from practitioners of both musique concrète and purely electronic music, the members of SFTMC used both acoustic and electronically created sounds. This expansive view of the musical experience meant that everything was both inspiration and material: using the mechanical pops and pings of electronic

music, traditional musical sounds generated by instruments and the human voice, and borrowed or found sounds, these artists created compositions that pushed the boundaries of contemporary music.

For the members of the SFTMC, music was constantly “a thing in the process of becoming”: ever shifting and growing through the incorporation of improvisation, technologically advancing through the advent of inventions like the Buchla Box, and fluidly structured through the simultaneous use of recorded sound and live performers.4 Though the chosen label, tape music, implies a kind of static existence, the production of live performances was always at the core of the SFTMC’s efforts. Beginning with a series called Sonics arranged by Oliveros and Sender while they were studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and ending with the SFTMC’s participation in the Trips Festival of 1966, the Tape Music Center was both a laboratory for innovation and an active group of performers and organizers.5 The members of the SFTMC used tape as a device in creating their compositions, but they did not wish to retreat from the live performance. In fact, while many other art forms and movements were actively denouncing the concept of theatricality, the SFTMC embraced it. Beginning from a mixture of live and pre-recorded sound, the performances of the SFTMC came to incorporate visual scores by Tony Martin, performances by collaborating musicians and dancers, and even events as wildly experimental as City Scale.

Ramon Sender’s 1964 composition, Desert Ambulance, illustrates the elasticity of the tape music approach. The piece was made of various components: a two-channel recorded collage of borrowed sound and music; live performance on voice and accordion by Pauline Oliveros; and an expansive light score designed by Tony Martin.6 The performance of Desert Ambulance maintains an open and spontaneous quality. Oliveros performs via simultaneous instructions that are channeled from Sender directly through her headphones, and Martin’s liquid light projections continually transform the space into something of a cosmic landscape. Long pauses and irregular timing keep the piece feeling loose, while the unmelodious sounds create a fragmented, non-narrative progression. In Desert Ambulance, like many of the works made by SFTMC members, the use of electronics was part of an additive strategy rather than a reductive one. Electronic sound did not come to replace the performers but rather to supplement and expand the possibilities of musical performance.

Ramon Sender described the energy surrounding musical experimentation and the SFTMC as “centrifugal,” abundant, and fast-moving, but it eventually spun off center. In 1966, the original SFTMC disbanded. In an interview, Sender describes buying fifty tabs of LSD and driving out to the desert for some time away, finally retreating to a commune in Sonoma County. Morton Subotnick moved to New York, where he began teaching at NYU. The studio and much of the equipment shifted to Mills College, where Pauline Oliveros and Tony Martin continued it as the Mills Tape Music Center (now the Center for Contemporary Music), which was also to be open for public use as a site of experimentation.

During its time, the SFTMC acted as an incubator for new ideas, musical styles, technical tools, and the visionary misfits who made them. In five short years, the SFMTC produced dozens of concerts and provided space and support for the creation of a wide catalogue of experimental works. It also established itself (and its city) as a destination for those who wanted to make, see, or experience what was innovative, daring, and new. It came at the beginning of the era of the alternative space in San Francisco, when organizations were bubbling up on the fringes of art culture, providing a dense network of support for the emerging forms of performance, media, and sound. The experimental music culture that the creation of the SFTMC helped to usher within the city remains active—though always a bit underground—and is visible through yearly events, like the San Francisco Tape Music Festival (produced by sfSound) and the Other Minds Festival, as well as through the practices of subsequent generations of artists who continue to manipulate the language of sound towards creating new aural experiences.

Tony Martin. Desert Ambulance Projection, 1963. Courtesy of the Artist. ©Tony Martin


1. Tony Martin, quoted in “City Scale,” Tulane Drama Review 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965): 186a.

2. Pauline Oliveros, “Memoir of a Community Enterprise,” in The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde, ed. David W. Bernstein, 80–94 (Berkeley: UC Press, 2010).

3. Myron Barnett, “Interview with Ramon Sender, Tony Martin, Morton Subotnick,” College Conservatory in Cincinnati, WGUC-FM, Cincinnati, July 13, 1964.  Accessed in the Center for Contemporary Music Archive at Mills College.

4. Ibid.

5. The Trips Festival was initiated by Ken Kesey and his troupe of Merry Pranksters, who advocated the use of LSD. The festival was advertised as the first gathering of its kind and included performances by the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Allen Ginsberg, and the Hell’s Angels, along with members of the SFTMC.

6. This interpretation is based on a video of the work, available on the DVD accompanying Bernstein’s book, and online at http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520256170

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