Book Review: The San Francisco Tape Music Center


    For the past couple of months, I’ve been doing reviews of books I think would be a great help to the persons who want to try to orient themselves somehow – books that help to describe and provide a guide to the communities they’ve decided to be a part of. My hope is that they’re a combination of inspiration and wonder.
    One of the problems with that approach is that reading about these people and their ideas doesn’t always give you a sense of who the protagonists are/were as people. Histories sometimes reduce persons to collections of canonical works, and institutions as collections of social capital rather than places where people work, play, and enjoy a tipple now and then. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that historically "important" people were – as you are, right now – just flying by the seat of their pants, and unaware in the moment of their day-to-day existence what might come of what they did or how they might come to be seen.
    This month’s book for your shelf is a gentle corrective to that tendency to see “history” as something written only in capital letters - in addition to being a really great read. The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde is a detailed oral history and portrait of a group of creative artists (William Macinnis, Tony Martin, Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, and Morton Subotnick) who came together to create what critic Richard Henderson aptly called “a cultural particle accelerator” in the Bay Area of the 1960s.
    David Bernstein (the book’s editor) has brought together original documents from the Tape Music Center, essays by the founders and critics, and lots of oral history in the form of interviews with the original founders and associates (including Don Buchla, Stewart Brand, Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster, Anna Halprin, and Michael Callahan) to create a picture not only of the center and its work and attitudes toward the creation of new art in the turbulent period of the the 1960s, but of the persons themselves. It’s not only a great introduction to artists you may think you know and a period of cultural history with which you may think you’re familiar (What does Terry Riley’s piece “In C” have to do with Miles Davis’ “So What”, and how does Chet Baker figure into all that? I hate to spoil the surprise, so read it….), but also a look at the ideas and cultural context we take for granted nowadays. As Fred Turner says, “Reading it is like visiting a foreign country and realizing you were born there.”
    The interviews are, for me, the beating heart of the book, and provide one of the things that oral history does so well when done properly - capture the essence of the person in addition to their ideas. We’ve lost Don Buchla, William Macinnis, and Pauline Oliveros in the last few months, but they are very much present between the covers of this book - telling us stories about themselves and their work and “how things looked at the time” with patience, gossipy asides, and good humor. It is hard to read the interviews here and not smile as you hear their voices again (For me, this was especially true for the Don Buchla interview. Long questions, pithy answers....). Combine your reading with a little quality listening time to Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center, 1964, and it’s almost like being there.