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Gordon Mumma: Electronic Music Innovator

July 14, 2016

Gordon Mumma may be the most important innovator of electronic music you’ve never heard of. With any luck, that is changing with the recent publication of his book Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music (University of Illinois Press). Part memoir of a remarkable life at the center of 20th and 21st century American experimental music, and part a collection of Mumma’s thoughtful, provocative, and influential essays, the book introduces this pioneer to a new generation of sonic explorers.

Mumma editing a live performance recording at the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1965.
While his formative musical experiences were in acoustic chamber music as a classically trained French horn player with an abiding interest in jazz, Mumma first delved into electronic music while studying at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was there in 1958 that he teamed up with composer/performer Robert Ashley (himself an important pioneer of electronic music, new media art, and experimental opera) to create the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor. The studio was completely independent, using shared equipment and employing a similar do-it-yourself philosophy as the contemporaneous San Francisco Tape Music Center on the West Coast, created by Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, and others (a group which, among other accomplishments, commissioned a new electronic musical instrument by a then little-known engineer named Donald Buchla).

Mumma’s early work in Ann Arbor inspired him to write a 1964 how-to article for the AES journal that encouraged composers to build their own DIY electronic music studios. This essay is among those reprinted in Cybersonic Arts.

With Ashley and others, Mumma created the influential Ann Arbor-based avant-garde arts festival known as ONCE; performers at the annual ONCE festivals read like a Who’s Who of the American avant-garde: John Cage, David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, Eric Dolphy, and Morton Feldman, among others.

After leaving Ann Arbor, Mumma became involved with two groundbreaking live-electronic music groups—the Sonic Arts Union (with Ashley, Alvin Lucier, and David Behrman), and the seminal Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with whom he toured, performed, and built many of the custom electronic instruments for from 1965 to 1976.

His mindblowing 1960s and ’70s works, most of which used custom-built electronics, include Hornpipe (1967) for French horn and live electronics, and Telepos (1972) which used telemetry data from moving bodies to affect the electronic sounds produced by his custom instruments. An overview of this period of his work is available on the Tzadik compact disc release Live Electronic Music.

Mumma taught for two decades at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. and the University of California at Santa Cruz, before retiring and moving to Victoria, British Columbia, with his wife, musicologist Michelle Fillion, who masterfully edited this new and indispensible collection of Mumma’s writings. I spoke with Mumma about his early work, evolution of synthesis, and the future of musical exploration.

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