Gordon Mumma: Electronic Music Innovator

The American composer, artist, and instrument innovator reflects on a five-decade journey of experimentation in electronic music
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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).

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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.

Your early background was as a classically trained French horn player who was also interested in jazz. How did you end up becoming interested in electronic music?

I began singing, later playing horn and piano. My musical interests included everything available, particularly live performances of both “classical” music and jazz. The live performance aspect was the major stimulus of my developing as a composer and performer.

In my early years, radio broadcasts were mostly live performances; also disc recordings. But it was the living experience of performing, sometimes solo, but more important performing in ensembles, the ensemble-thrill of interacting with others.

My first connection with electronics was almost the same time as my acoustical instrument activities. Just after World War II, electronic developments were again underway, notably the evolution of transistor technology and magnetic-tape recording. In 1949 at the Interlochen summer music program, I worked with electronic audio-measuring equipment; the acoustician-teacher was Roderick Dean Gordon. Building things to make sound extended from my making a wooden cigar box banjo to soldering transistor oscillator circuits; things that resonate. My first audio recording machine was a magnetic wire recorder, then onto the more flexible magnetic tape recorders. It was what I found available.

Mumma (on reed-horn) and violinist Leroy Jenkins performing “Communication in a Noisy Environment,” 1970.You almost exclusively used electronics you built yourself, which was a necessity when you began working in the 1950s, but you did so even after your colleagues such as Bob Moog and Don Buchla were producing commercially-available electronic instruments. Do you believe interesting and groundbreaking work can be made using mass-market hardware and off-the-shelf software?

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When Moog, Buchla, and others were active with their 1960s inventions, it was still the transition time from vacuum tube to transistor technology. Transistors made possible smaller-scale physical apparatus and could be powered by batteries if necessary. Because many of the early synthesizers were premised on the classic 12-note keyboard format—no matter how much the sonorities might be altered electronically—they were functioning somewhat as “substitutes” for conventional acoustical instruments. That was commercially positive for Moog’s business because it attracted the attention of existing acoustical performers, particularly in the realms of innovative jazz and pop music, such as Sun Ra or Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co., etc.

It’s possible that innovative music can be made with commercially produced equipment, and history shows that some was, but when the primary reason for making music is to fill the easy realms of commerce-products, real musical innovation becomes limited. Exceptions are interesting, such as composers [Louis and] Bebe Barron, who set standards for electronic tape music in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. The early success of such as [Wendy] Carlos’s Switched on Bach, a clever achievement, really involved only “technical innovation.” Carlos substituted a “new instrument”—electronics by Moog—rather than ensembles of kotos (e.g. the 1969 LP release A New Sound from the Japanese Bach Scene) or guitars for J.S. Bach’s music, originally written for harpsichord or organ. It achieved a useful breakdown of limited definitions of “classical” from “pop” or “vernacular” music.

One of your earliest published pieces of writing was a guide for composers to build their own electronic music studios during a time that it was prohibitively expensive and difficult to do for most artists. How has the recent development of increased access to lower-cost electronics shaped and affected current music?

That article was not initially a “guide for composers,” but was intended as a “nourishment for audio engineers.” It was requested by Robert Moog for a 1964 Audio Engineering Society journal. That was the “technical aspect” of the article, but it also contributed to blurring the arbitrary definitions that separated composers/performers from electrical engineers. The engineer Bill Ribbens worked with me on new circuit designs in the early 1960s. In 1965, the two of us established a small company we named Cybersonics, for building custom circuits. That was an interaction between a composer and an engineer, a process which later flourished with Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) after 1967 in New York City.

Over the last half century since that article’s publication, and many pirated copies, it has been one of the more nourishing sources of wonderful collaborations like the Composers Inside Electronics, Circuit Benders, and other related activities.

The lowering cost of electronics over the years has made electronic-instrument building much more democratically accessible. This has extended to the easy access of evolving computer technology, such that most of these so-called “hightech toys” are soon accessible “folk instruments.”

You have spoken and written at length about your understanding of electronic music as being part of a folkloric tradition–including in your 1975 essay “Witchcraft, Cybersonics, and Folkloric Virtuosity,” which is reprinted in your book. Could you encapsulate how you see these technologies and musics as folkloric practices?

The musics—plural intentional—of the world evolve mostly with the creative activities of the performing musicians—the “folks”—rather than the industrial toy manufacturers. For example, the clarinetist who uses a shoelace for the ligature, the fiddler who designs a special bridge or mute, the drummers who build unique sticks, the double-reed players who carve their own reeds, etc.

A performer-worn electronic sensor system for Mumma’s 1975 work Ambivex.Throughout your career you have supported, work with, and spread the word about artists from historically under-represented groups, in particular women, African American, and Latin American composer-performers. Do you think the field of electronic music has become more welcoming and diverse?

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My interests have always been inclusive and creatively diverse. During the times when I was teaching in academia, I presented the diversity of my past and present historical perspectives, even though it often broke the institutional rules, such as the “conservatory” type definitions of music.

When academic curricular committees had to review and approve of my 20th Century survey class material, I sometimes got objections to including my brief history of jazz. A committee chair argued that “Beethoven didn’t play the banjo.” When approval was needed for me to include Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 String Quartet, Johanna Beyer’s 1938 Music of the Spheres, and Pauline Oliveros’ choral 1961 Sound Patterns, the question was why I included “chick composers” in a survey of serious music—and those are three 20th-century landmark compositions.

Perhaps the historically diverse cultural activities have become more welcoming to the “field of electronic music” and make fields plural. In the last half of the 20th century, the aggressive commercial (and military) dominance of the United States has had a damping impact on musical innovation south of the equator. These include production restrictions and severe tariffs on imports. Since the aggressive spread of that commerce now includes Japan, China, India, and Europe, there is less resistance by the “underrepresented groups.”

What is improving is the distribution of participatory information via Internet communications, except of course for government’s censure or controlled access to the World Wide Web.

History is moving faster, and the under-represented are flowing to the surface. The work of creative women artists and musicians is now widely available. That diversity appears in the classic educational text books often as much as two generations later.

Your compositional output has always been split between acoustic chamber music and live electronic as well as electroacoustic works. What contributes to your decisions about which sonic resources to use in your work?

I always take advantage of nearby resources. On performance tours in the 1960s and 1970s I obtained my excellent musical saw, a bandoneon, and a violin. These were additions to my acoustical resources while I continued with the electronic components. As for the chamber music aspect, that’s always been fundamental to my composing. It may account for half of my music that involves acoustical instruments. Another aspect of my chamber music is that it extended beyond my multiple-piano compositions and involved the diverse skilled instrumentalists available at the various places where I visited or worked. So the shifts in balance between my “acoustic” and “electronic” compositions was influenced primarily by existing resources.

The appearance of so many piano solo works from the 1970s onward includes those from the 1960s into the 21st century. Some of those piano-composition “groups” were put together in the 1980s and 1990s because of requests from pianists, and partly to clean up my old archive storage. From 2000 onward, when the first of my CD recordings appeared, it was possible to issue both older and new piano recordings.

Mumma finalizing circuit assembly for his Osaka Pavilion audio processing system, in 1970.There is a huge resurgence in modular synthesizers, and a few recent modules have been explicitly inspired by you and your contemporaries’ work—the Make Noise Erbe-verb, inspired by your 1977 composition Stressed Space Palindromes, and the Telharmonic, which has a tuned noise output inspired by James Tenney’s Noise Study and a Shepard tone generator inspired by Tenney's For Ann (rising), both with DSP coded by Tom Erbe. What do you think about this renewed interest in your generations’ work?

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Well, your “huge resurgence” is like the ongoing interest in “period instruments,” some of which were and still are wonderful sounding. I’m a big period instrument fan, to the extent that I make recordings both with analog magnetic tape and with digital equipment. The sound quality differences are an important part of my musical spectra, and are related to the differences between the analog and digital realm. I’m delighted that others have recognized the special sonority/spatial characteristics of those compositions, and continue with their own explorations.

For my work the word “reverb” isn’t sufficient to include all the aspects of “musical space”—the different venue audio characteristics in which music occurs, both indoors and outdoors. My early “spatial” work included the Music from the Venezia Space Theatre [1964], but more significant later work included as you mentioned the Cybersonic Cantilevers [1973] and Stressed Space Palindromes [1976-82].

They went way beyond the recent—and clever—Erbe-verb device, in that those compositions had uniquely different spatial-manipulation processes, both acoustical and electronic. Also part of my “spatial” music is the live electronic Hornpipe (1967), which resulted in “live spatial music,” as did Cybersonic Cantilevers. Those last two works used the existing “analog” realms of real (not synthetic) sound spaces. There’s an interesting sub-history of my “spatial” work that connects with that of Luigi Nono, particularly in 1964 when he invited the ONCE Group to the 1964 Venice Biennale to perform our Space Theatre. We had extensive discussions about “sound space” then and subsequently during his developing “live sound space” work. The two of us had made a special trip to the Basilica di San Marco, where he told me of his childhood sound experiences with performances of Monteverdi’s multiple-space choral music.

What explorations would you like to see in the electronic music of the future?

I don’t worry about the future of the arts, including electronic music, except for how political powers interfere with their fears of subversions. I don’t really have hopes for the future, though I’m optimistic about an expanding cultural diversity. My term “political power” includes not only pressures from governments but also oppressive religious institutions and war-mongering cultural tribes such as petrified/ ossified conservatories. Some of the conservatories—beyond “conserving”—are actually broadening, with more windows open into the present.

I celebrate creative individuals and their nourishing interactions with others.

Music With Roots in the Aether: Opera for Television. Tape 4: Gordon Mumma. (Produced and directed by Robert Ashley. New York, New York: Lovely Music.)