Ted Gordon: Diffracting the San Francisco Tape Music Center

Contemplating his recent work on experimental practice at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Ted Gordon (Columbia University) gestures towards the wider research possibilities of a “diffractive” approach that dwells in, and even expands, the spaces where the reconciliation of music, science, and technology fails.

Ted’s website can be found here.

Diffracting the San Francisco Tape Music Center

I’ve recently defended a dissertation about experimental practice at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC), a short-lived community of musicians, technicians, performers, and others that flourished during the tantalizingly brief window between 1962 and 1966. Founded by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick in 1962, it drew in a widening community of musicians, composers, and engineers, with Pauline Oliveros playing a crucial managerial and artistic role, Anthony Martin providing visual accompaniment to most performances, and engineers Michael Callahan, Bill Maginnis, and Don Buchla bringing mid-century conceptual and material developments in post-war technoscience to bear on the practice of music.

It is this nexus—between music, technology, and science—that drove much of my research, if only because it was unclear how each thing related to the other. Technology was at the core of the Tape Music Center—a center for playing (music) with magnetic tape—and yet the artistic practices that emerged out of this center, through its technology, diverged in significant ways. Though these practices may have begun from scientific understandings of sound and music in order to fulfill the modernist imperative of making music anew, they ended up in places far from the certainty of scientific knowledge, and far from the legibility of composed music.

In fact, I argue, these differences in practice, approach, opinion, and visions of a technological future of music led to the SFTMC’s dissolution in 1966, a mere four years after it was founded. (Though the Center moved to Mills College and eventually became the Center for Contemporary Music, none of its original members remained after 1967.) Compounding this sense of constitutive difference, the technologies at the SFTMC were also in a constant state of flux: new (broken) machines were always showing up, new (old) parts were scavenged from railroad and communications surplus, and new (scientific) instruments were brought down by Don Buchla from the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, where he had worked on projects in biometric telemetry (transmitting physiological signals in test animals) for NASA. All of these materials became repurposed for making music, creating the possibility for fundamentally different experimental systems of instruments.

I heard, or perhaps thought I detected, scientific discourses at play in much of the work at the SFTMC—particularly acoustics, systems theory, cybernetics, and information theory. Music became sound, which further became signal, which could then be stored, retrieved, modulated, communicated, and fed back through magnetic tape. Pauline Oliveros was experimenting with feedback systems as early as 1958; Morton Subotnick remembers having the idea for a “composer’s black box,” a metaphor borrowed from cybernetics, in 1962; Ramon Sender became convinced that every human being had their own unique “personal utterance” that could be discovered through new technologies, which would lead to fundamental social changes in society. Indeed, a profound sense of futurity pervaded the work at the SFTMC, complementing many large-scale, top-down technological fantasies that characterize so much mid-century science. In this sense, the SFTMC participated in what Ronald Kline has called the “cybernetics moment,” when new concepts of information, signal, and feedback became embraced by non-specialist publics, and also what Paul Edwards has called the “closed world”—a world in which every contingency (in this case, contingencies of human creativity) could be accounted for, measured, and controlled through new technological instrumentation.

Yet this is not to say that these musicians simply reflected existing trends in mid-century technoscience. Their experimental practices, instead, challenged and changed these trends, fantasizing about musical and creative futures far beyond the limits of extant cultural formations. Despite the fact that none had any expert scientific training or knowledge (beyond Donald Buchla), many eagerly embraced technoscientific metaphors, and excitedly experimented with the technological materials at hand. Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender learned about biological metaphors for music from their mentor, Robert Erickson; Morton Subotnick read the US Navy manuals on electricity and electronics; and even Michael Callahan and Bill Maginnis, the SFTMC’s two engineers, were entirely self-taught. This created a “laboratory environment” that was largely “kludged” together from surplus parts that were no longer useful for the military, the railroad, or the telephone companies, leading to makeshift instruments, instrumental systems, and experimental protocols that were temporary and idiosyncratic, in the end producing differing possibilities for what music could mean in a technological future.

It is very tempting to think about the Tape Music Center as a center: a locus towards which different people gravitated, all connected by a common ethos. Indeed, the SFTMC has recently been characterized as a West-coast foil to more established histories of experimental music, which variably choose New York, England, or other European cities as their centers. Yet closely following the experimental practices of each of the SFTMC’s members reveals a “center” that did not unify despite difference, but rather generated difference, propelling the people who passed through it outward with different vectors and trajectories. As Isabelle Stengers has suggested, experimental science produces not only legible results that confirm or disprove a hypothesis, but also what she calls an “experimental achievement” that can reveal challenges and differences between localized, contingent scientific practice, and science as a universalizing, totalizing discipline that erases difference. An experimental achievement puts scientists’ initial questions at risk, indeed functioning as a threat to established institutions, social models, and ideologies of scientific inquiry. As Stengers writes, “the answers that follow from such achievements should never separate us from anything, because they always coincide with the creation of new questions, not with new authoritative answers to questions that already mattered for us.”

A major part of the SFTMC’s importance, I argue, is the fact that it did not produce legible or universal results. Instead, what remains from the SFTMC is a legacy of difference, and therefore a legacy of possibility. One of the most well-known material remains of the SFTMC, for example, is Donald Buchla’s Modular Electronic Music System, which was delivered in late 1964 or early 1965, and which found its way, in various configurations, into dozens of electronic music studios throughout the world. Yet the “Buchla Box,” as it was colloquially known, was not an instrument: it was, as its name specified, a modular instrumental system. Its technological flux mirrored the dynamic of the SFTMC, meaning that creative possibilities were not determined by the instruments at hand, because those instruments were never stable; like other creative work at the SFTMC, it did not produce any kind of tangible, legible result, such as a single score or a stereo audio recording.

Buchla at Mills, July 2016
Donald Buchla’s Modular Electronic Music System at Mills College, photo: Ted Gordon, 2016. Ted has also blogged about the “Buchla Box” here for the AMS’s Musicology Now.

The difference produced through experimentation with ideas and technologies at the SFTMC did not simply reflect or reproduce extant ideologies of experimentalism, modernism, or mid-century cybernetics and information theory. Thinking with a concept that has been developed most notably by philosopher of science Karen Barad, I argue that the SFTMC diffracted those ideologies, creating new vectors and new entanglements between people, ideas, instruments, and sound. Barad, who has written extensively on Niels Bohr and quantum physics, expands on the concept of “diffractive” methodologies developed by other feminist philosophers of science and technology, notably Donna Haraway and Trinh Minh-ha; scholars such as Iris van der Tuin have synthetically explored this concept’s complexities and applications in rethinking humanistic inquiry. In a diffraction grating, particles take on different trajectories based on the differences between themselves and the apparatus of the grating; in a similar way, the people who passed through the apparatus of the SFTMC—with its tape machines, its scavenged parts, its home-brewed kludges, and even its professionally designed instruments—all used those instruments differently, and those differences would become significantly amplified. To borrow Barad and Haraway’s construction, the SFTMC created “differences that made a difference.”

A diffraction grating is not a clear lens through which to view history. Rather than resolving a clear image, it creates blur. Following people as they traveled through the SFTMC shows how their experimental practices, even as they borrowed from seemingly universal scientific concepts and very contingent material technologies, opened up space for new kinds of inquiry with the potential to challenge widely -held notions of composition, authorship, and instrumentality. These practices also interrogated the social and political roles of auditory culture, leading to new kinds of social events, institutions, and cultural formations of electronic music. The results of their experimental practice are not singular, not centered on any one thing: instead, they show the traces of each person’s trajectory through the SFTMC, and how each of their own existing desires, ideologies, and proclivities was changed by, and through, experimentation.

I began my dissertation project seeking to resolve the blurriness between music, science, and technology. But through the process of research, involving both sifting through archives of paper and tape, and conducting ethnography with SFTMC members, I realized that this blurriness was generative—and that rather than resolving it, it might be more productive to dwell in its difference. It is what made the SFTMC such a powerful institution, with such diverging legacies and memories for those involved. A diffractive approach, indeed, seeks out difference, rather than resolution, with the hope of perhaps finding alternative pathways through history that can challenge totalizing cultural narratives that look for resolution and clarity.

From the SFTMC, those diverging pathways included robust fantasies of autopoiesis through multiple media; of new instruments that positioned humans as nodes in self-governing systems; of new conceptions of the human mind and body, extended through electronics; and of new social and political organizations for music-making in the modern technological world. Starting from other places, what new stories could a diffractive musicology tell about bodies, technology, scientific knowledge, sound—and music? As I revise this dissertation into a book, I hope to more clearly articulate those stories and their challenges, even as they swerve from established pathways and trajectories towards the unknown.

Ted Gordon is a musicologist and musician whose work lies at the nexus of experimental music studies, critical organology, and science & technology studies. He is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Columbia University, and earned a PhD from the University of Chicago in 2018.