By Mark McNeill
San Francisco Tape Music Center: Sowing the Sonic Future
Morton Subotnick revisits the wild, early days of the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
As the California Festival celebrates the sounds of now, we are also reflecting back to explore the crucial figures and historical moments that exemplify the innovative spirit of the Golden State.
The San Francisco Tape Music Center was an influential hub for experimental music and culture that had an oversized impact on the burgeoning fields of electronic music and interdisciplinary arts happenings. The collective, founded by Morton Subotnick and Ramón Sender in 1962, grew to include visionary composer Pauline Oliveros, filmmaker Tony Martin, and electronics technician William Maginnis, hosted the first public performance of Terry Riley’s seminal In C, premiered Steve Reich’s legendary early tape compositions, and developed the world’s first analog synthesizer in the form of the Buchla 100 series Modular Electronic Music System.
In this audio piece, Morton Subotnick revisits the early days of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, sharing candid stories about the freewheeling, first phase of this influential hub for experimental music. Subotnick retraces the center’s origin story, recalling the 1961 Sonics performance series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that led to the founding of SFTMC at 1537 Jones Street in San Francisco, where collaborations with entities such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Anna Halprin and the Dancer's Workshop Company pushed at the edges of multimedia performance before igniting into mythical status. After a productive stint on Divisadero Street, the center moved to Mills College in 1966 where it eventually morphed into the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM), an entity that still exists today. Through Subnotnick’s anecdotes, we get a firsthand glimpse of a sonic movement in its infancy, one that has gone on to reshape the way music is made and consumed. This is a portrait of a wild moment in time, where adventurous young minds oscillated between dreams and reality to manifest an infinite echo.
Pauline Oliveros on the Buchla-100 at SFTMC, circa 1966. Photo: David Bernstein, Source: Mills College CCM
Anna Halprin and John Graham in Halprin's "The Five Legged Stool" circa 1962. Photo: Warner Jepson, Source: Anna Halprin Papers
Don Buchla and the Buchla-100
Article header image: SFTMC members in 1963, from left to right: Tony Martin, William Maginnis, Ramón Sender, Morton Subotnick (seated), and Pauline Oliveros.
Mark “Frosty” McNeill is a DJ, radio host, sonic curator, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, record producer, university professor, and creative community builder based in Los Angeles. He’s the founder of dublab.com, a pioneering web radio station that has been exploring wide-spectrum music since 1999 and currently serves as Creative Producer for the LA Phil.