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Source Music of the Avant-garde, 1966–1973

Read the Introduction

Larry Austin on Source: music of the avant garde

Excerpts from an interview conducted by Douglas Kahn, August 23-24, 2007, Denton, Texas

Source grew out of musical experiments taking place in Davis, California, in and around the University of California, as early as 1963. In the summer of 1963, six of my Davis colleagues and I began experimenting almost daily with free group improvisation in a thrown-together kind of instrumentation. We called ourselves the New Music Ensemble. I played trumpet, and my colleague in the music department Richard Swift played keyboard. Our percussionist was Stanley Lunetta, with trombonist Dary John Mizelle, bass clarinetist Wayne Johnson, soprano Billie Alexander, and saxophonist Art Woodbury, most of whom eventually formed the editorial board of Source. So the seeds were sown years before we came up with the actual initiative to create a magazine in 1966.

There were antecedents in the late 1950s when I was a graduate student, studying with Darius Milhaud at Mills College and working on a Ph.D. in musicology at the University of California, Berkeley. The word source itself came from my understanding of primary and secondary sources in research. I had also established liaisons with several musicians in the Bay Area interested in free group improvisation, mainly rooted in jazz, but reaching out to contemporary classical music. In 1958, I was appointed to the music faculty of the University of California, Davis.

It was free group improvisation and the New Music Ensemble in particular that led to the idea that we should produce a catalog of new music schemata collected from other composers. In 1964-65 I went to Rome on a Creative Arts Institute grant from the University of California and a sabbatical to compose music, perform, and improvise. I participated in several new music concerts in Europe, and a piece was commissioned and performed at the Venice Biennale, among other activities. In my absence from Davis, the New Music Ensemble was continuing and they sent me tapes of their sessions and concerts.

I played the tapes for Franco Evangelisti, the Italian composer, who was simply astounded: "What processes are you using, what score?" Nothing, I would reply; it's all the group dynamic, interacting with one another. That was common to jazz, of course, usually based on some tune or chord changes, but not with contemporary classical music so much. We were our own model, as it were. Franco heard these tapes and said, "I want to form such a group here in Rome!" So, we organized a group of composer-performers made up mostly of composer-keyboardists. The variety of instruments wasn't nearly as great as in the New Music Ensemble. We did a concert that year on the Nuova Consonanza Series in Rome. The group was named Il Gruppo Improvisazione di Nuova Consonanza and continued after I left. The idea also spawned other groups like the Musica Elettronica Viva with Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew's group AMM.

When I came back to Davis, I was full of all these new ideas and rejoined the New Music Ensemble. The idea for Source came up in the graduate composition seminar with my students Stanley Lunetta and Dary John Mizelle (the entire class). I had brought back scores from the likes of Frederic Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew, Allan Bryant, Jon Phetteplace, and others. We were excited about the scores and processes, and agreed that we ought to get these scores circulated. They were not well known-or known at all-in either the United States or Europe. Then we started thinking about a catalog and forming a publishing company that would publish contemporary classical works out of the mainstream. In the spring of 1966, the catalog for our publishing company didn't exist yet, but we had a name: Composer/Performer Edition. At some point we decided that we ought to put in full scores, not just excerpts. And so it began to be more than a catalog; it began to be a collection of scores. "Oh, why not put some articles in? We could also interview composers about their work and maybe even have photographs in this catalog." Well, this was a full-fledged journal that we were talking about, though we hated to call it a Journal. There was and is no good name for it, so it became simply Source: music of the avant garde.

We discovered that a catalog wasn't going to work, that we needed to expand it, so we sent out a call for pieces. Our call was totally ad hoc. We were already linked to and interested in the activities of other relatively young composers and performers throughout the United States: in New York, of course; and the experimentation going on in Urbana, Illinois, and Ann Arbor, Michigan; the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Mills College, and all the activity in the Bay Area. The composers whom we already knew, we certainly put out a call to them. We sent an invitation along with our first brochure about the upcoming Source magazine and invited them to submit works. I think we sent out 5,000 of these fliers to any community that we could think of in the United States. We used a shotgun method, knowing we were bound to hit something out there and, apparently, we did. Of course, there were some organizations that we could tap, the American Composers Alliance and the American Music Center, and so forth. But there wasn't really a larger community or network at that time. In fact, if anything, Source established its own network.

Each editorial board member kicked in $200 to afford the flier, and then the subscription money that followed went toward paying for the first issue to be published. The editorial board members were all performing members of the New Music Ensemble, as it had developed. John and Stan were both graduate students working on their Masters degrees in composition. Wayne Johnson was neither a student nor faculty at the University. Art Woodbury was on the faculty of the Department of Music, a lecturer and saxophonist there. The one exception was the sixth member, Paul Robert, a nonmusician and a family friend of my wife and mine. He was a master craftsman on the physical plant staff at the university. He came to all our concerts and knew about our outrageous behavior and so forth. He became the business manager of Source, as well as serving on the editorial board. His participation on the editorial board was in terms of the logistics of producing the magazine. He was very good at it and handled all our office work, with his address at 330 University Avenue in Davis becoming the address for Source.

We had a very kind printer, Doug Galbreath, who, even when owed quite a few thousand dollars, would wait until we got more subscriptions based on that first issue, more subscriptions which gave us more money toward paying off the first issue and getting started on the second issue. It was quite a gamble. We hoped that libraries would subscribe, and many did. We purposely kept the prices low, so that it wouldn't be beyond students' means to subscribe. Composers, performers and teachers of composition subscribed, as well as enthusiasts of avant-garde music, but we didn't target Source to any particular group of potential subscribers. There were a lot of anonymous people scattered about North America and Europe who also subscribed. They seemed simply to come to us, so we were encouraged by the third issue to increase the printing from a thousand to two thousand.

There were advertisements but they weren't a source of great income. We would trade with other publishers and advertise ourselves as Composer/Performer Edition, listing the pieces that were done extra Source. We were a full-fledged commercial enterprise because we didn't want to be linked to institutions where we might be required to follow their policies and aesthetics. Columbia Records subsidized the two LPs that appeared in Issue 4, through an arrangement with David Behrman, an AR person there. He convinced the powers-that-were-including his enlightened boss, John McClure, head of Columbia Masterworks at the time-to subsidize the recording and the production. Having sound as well as scores and articles was a real breakthrough for us. Columbia hadn't done a 10-inch LP in years, but produced it to fit the format of our magazine, the 10¾˝ × 13½˝, landscape.

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In terms of the subtitle, we were exploiting the original military usage of the term avant-garde, as being out there in the front of the other troops and getting killed first. Yet, the distinction between the avant-garde and experimental is mainly in the usage. We could have used "Music of the Experimentalists," but that's not very sexy, is it? Also, "new music" is so diluted in its meaning that it just means music by living people. We felt that it would attract attention: "We are not academic, we are music of the avant-garde."

"Primacy of idea" became a term we used and an editorial stance with all the Source issues. We wanted to publish new original work, and primacy of idea-who did it first-was important to us. That didn't mean that everything published in Source was the first time it had ever been done, but perhaps the style of the way it was presented suggested that notion. Also, it was in the air, with the development of electronic instruments and using the computer to make music, plus improvisation with these same instruments and so forth. It implied experimentation and research. We had a dedication to anarchy and the whole notion of being free. In fact, that term was used a great deal. You had to be a free spirit, as it were, in order to be experimental and appreciate the value of the things you discover through these experiments.

It was in the air. The "Summer of Love" in San Francisco was in 1967, the summer of Source, while we were doing our second issue. We couldn't help but be a part of that feeling. I don't think we were intent on consciously exploiting these phenomena though; it seemed quite natural to us. We went to the Fillmore and the lightshows and so forth. In fact, the very first score published in Source 1, my piece The Maze, was highly influenced by the lightshows of Tony Martin at the Fillmore. I didn't go to a lot of the concerts, but they were likewise very influential on my fellow composers. For the first performance of The Maze (for dancer, electronic music, three percussionists, projections and machines), R.G. Davis of San Francisco was the dancer. He had founded and directed the San Francisco Mime Troupe and was very much a part of the counterculture. During the first performance he took out a concealed can of black spray paint and sprayed a white acoustical baffle on stage with "GET OUT OF VIETNAM!"

The cover of Issue 4 is a photograph of an earlier issue of Source being burned in a pile of leaves. It came out in the autumn of 1968, so there's a thematic reference, but it was really a symbolic declaration. We burned Issues 1, 2, and 3 in this pile to demonstrate that we were uninterested in developing a model for Source or building up a series of "masterpieces" influenced by one another, and certainly not by Source. It was a way to proclaim our independence of the past and our embrace of new thinking about music. It was an important cover to us.

The format originally accommodated the dimensions of scores, especially as explored by Cage's innovations in graphic notation. His practice was to create new notations for each new piece, for that matter. When he was asked, "What is art?" he would respond that "Art is self-alteration." So with each new piece, unless it was part of a series of pieces like the Variations, he would invent new notation and new ways to express the concept and realization of the piece. He felt that such considerations were part and parcel of the creative processes involved in both performance and the appreciation of his compositions. We followed that model.

The textual scores in Source were complementary to the new graphic scores. For instance, we felt Giuseppe Chiari's piece-which was really a poem-was an instance of that. He describes in his very lyric instructions for the piece how you respond to the situation: "Make a sound." And that's not a rhetorical statement, that's a statement to make music. For some that would be preposterous. "Of course we make sounds. And how is this music?" Well, we loved the irony of describing what it is you're not supposed to describe. That was very close to our background as improvisers and making music on the spot in the New Music Ensemble. We loved to see it in scores.

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People often traveled from the Bay Area to Davis for events. Several of them are chronicled in Source. For instance, the First Festival of Live-Electronic Music was a multiday festival that took place in 1967 on alternate nights at the University of California at Davis and at Mills College in Oakland. It was fun to take a field trip from Davis down to Mills and go to their concerts. In turn, the students and avant-garde music lovers would come up to Davis. We also had our guest Regents Professors and artists-in-residence; most notably, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Tudor, and John Cage. There were a good many concerts, lectures, and festivals that attracted much attention and good audiences.

Stockhausen was in residence during the fall and spring semesters of 1966-67, right at the cusp of Source. In fact, the transcribed conversation between Robert Ashley (who was also in the Bay Area at the time), Stockhausen, and me was one of the last things that we decided to include in our very first issue. I did most of the questioning, but also some of the commenting. You would think that Ashley and Stockhausen would have been adversaries in their approach to making music, but it turned out that they had a lot in common in the way they worked.

Then, during spring semester of 1967, David Tudor was in residence. I think originally my colleagues came up with David and Karlheinz as guests the same year, because David had a longstanding reputation from the 1950s of playing Stockhausen's Klavierstücke and Kontakte on tours. But then David stopped playing piano. He didn't want to be handled that way. But David did consent to play Kontakte with Stan Lunetta, and he did that in Berkeley at Hertz Hall. It was an interesting concert. That was the only time, as I recall, that he consented to do one of these "old" pieces during his stay at Davis. But the Kontarsky brothers came to Davis and did the whole Klavierstücken cycle.

We really were excited about what David Tudor was doing in live electronics; in fact, Karlheinz seemed upset that David might be influencing his students. Then John came during fall 1969 for his residency. All were a tremendous influence and a big draw. When John Cage was in residence we were in the midst of developing the double issue 7-8 of Source, so we invited John to be the guest editor, our first guest editor. I remember what John said about Source: "It's beautiful."

It's interesting too that Davis, by this time, even before Stockhausen and Tudor and Cage came as guests, already had a reputation for pushing new music. The whole faculty was made up of composers and one or two performers. It was dedicated to composition and new music. So it's not surprising that they would come up with such choices for guests. Actually, I think it was the faculty pianist, Marvin Tartak, who said we ought to get John Cage to come. That impetus came mainly from my colleagues, though I may have been responsible in part for establishing an avant-garde ambience before that. John had been in Davis before, of course, on several occasions, mainly as music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

John Cage was published by Henmar Press (Peters Edition), but they readily gave permission to publish his music in Source, and John himself was so gracious about wanting his work to be shared. We were given permission to publish Cage's 4´33˝ in Issue No. 2. It was published in two forms: as a one-pager, just with the three-movement instruction "Tacet," for any instrument; and as a six-page score with six vertical lines, where time equals spatial extensity, an extremely important concept. That concept influenced notation from then on, even though there was no notation in it; the idea that this was a time-art event, even if you didn't play anything. Also in that issue, we published letters exchanged between us and the commissioner of the work, a psychiatrist from North Carolina, Irwin Kremen. I think that Cage's intent was not, with this piece, to capture all the incidental and ambient sounds that were happening during the event. To me the most important aspect is in the significance of the ritual, that it was not just the withholding of sound, it's the withholding of an expected type of performance. I asked John once what he considered his most important piece. He said without hesitation, "Oh, the silence piece." It turns out that it was, indeed, his most important work. So it was an honor to have permission to include that score in Issue No. 2.

By fall 1969, Cage was in residence at Davis as a Regents Professor; so we saw him on a daily basis. It seemed logical for us to have the preeminent avant-garde composer be our first guest editor, of not just one, but of a double issue, Issue 7/8. The interesting aspect about this was that the pieces weren't necessarily John's choices. He was very accepting of what had been sent to us; we appreciated that very much. He knew many of the composers, but they weren't necessarily those composers that would be directly influenced by his work or by his philosophy. The double issue was very expensive, but it gave us freedom to use almost a year to create. John's Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, a silk-screen reproduction on acetates of the piece, would seem to be an extraordinary expense, but we figured it out. Stan Lunetta oversaw this part of the project and worked with the silk-screen people in Sacramento. It is extraordinary, and John thought so too.

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There was much synergy between the University and Source, but becoming directly associated was anathema to us. We sought to remain staunchly independent from departments of music, foundations, establishment-oriented institutions, and so forth. We stated that in the introduction/editorial to the first issue as our dogma, where we were coming from aesthetically, intellectually, and editorially. It turns out that most of the composers that we either invited or who submitted works to us to consider for publication were not associated with academic institutions.

For instance, Jerry Hunt, the wild man from Texas, sent us several pieces after he saw the first issue. We hadn't sent him one of our fliers, but somehow he learned about Source, saw the first issue, and sent Sur (Doctor) John Dee, this marvelous piece that's in the second issue of Source. It's a theater piece with amazing hieroglyphics of notation-which, it turns out, was almost totally undecipherable, except by Jerry himself. He was the sort of person we were drawn to. I remember the editorial meeting we had where that piece was being considered. Everyone was trying to explain the piece to everyone else. We were all, I think, off base, but it was certainly provocative. He became one of our-excuse the expression-"stars"; an epitome of the nonacademic composer. Annea Lockwood was another one. She was a New Zealander who had settled in London. She sent us photos and recordings of Glass Concert; one of the photos is on the cover of Issue 5.

I'm quite proud to have participated in the editorial decisions up through Issues 7/8. I swallowed hard for some of the pieces that were included, but my colleagues would say, "No this is great, this ought to be in." The reservations we had about what was included extended, for that matter, to what was not included. There was so much good material. There are composers who have cited their inclusion in Source proudly, as being important in their career; I know Annea Lockwood does that, for instance.

The temptation to repeat a winner became a matter of editorial decision. For instance, Robert Ashley's operas are in the first issue, and then his Wolfman appears in Issue 4. "Well, there's Robert Ashley again ... shouldn't we always have new people?" We decided not to exclude John Cage, for instance. He appears several places through the issues, and there certainly wouldn't be any reason to turn him down. The same goes for Morton Feldman. So, there were those who got repeated and those who were only included a single time. There was another aspect: if you were included in Source, you were also associated with others in that same issue like John Cage, Morton Feldman, or Harry Partch. It was a mix of the veterans of the avant-garde with the rookies, and the rookies certainly fed on that.

There were composers whose work I really wanted to include, because they had been so influential, for instance; Salvatore Martirano with his Sal-Mar Construction and his outrageous pieces like L's GA. But he had a publisher who didn't want to share his work. I don't know why we never published Morton Subotnick, perhaps because we had the same problem with his publisher. There was not much interchange between Source and the African-American composers and musicians at the time, although Alvin Lucier, in the issue he edited, was able to persuade his prolific colleague, Anthony Braxton, to let us include his innovative work. But black composers didn't associate very much with white composers at the time, especially those using technology. There was, of course, association via the commonality of jazz as a language, and Braxton, who played some of my music, was fearless in that regard.

We were very conscious of our responsibility as an all-male board to seek out the work of women. That was difficult because it was difficult to find out who they were and then to encourage them to let us publish their work. There was the Brazilian composer, Jocy de Oliveira, as well as Annea Lockwood and Pauline Oliveros, both of whom we published repeatedly. In my academic career beginning in Davis, there weren't many female students who took up composition, much less taking up electronic music, computers, and advanced musical concepts. Declaring that you're a composer as a female in the 1960s was quite a different, if not dangerous declaration. The women simply weren't there. Pauline's Some Sound Observations was extremely important and it was significant that it was published in Source; she has always been a leader and provocateur.

The issues formed themselves by the music that we solicited or that was sent to us unsolicited. In all the issues, there were central articles and/or pieces, where the other pieces and articles formed around these. For instance, the articles on groups in Issue 3 came about because we observed and wanted to chronicle that composers and performers were making avant-garde music, some with scores, some without scores, but always in dynamic interaction. The issue has several pieces by members of groups, and the core articles on the New Music Ensemble, the ONCE Group, Musica Elettronica Viva, and the Sonic Arts Group. They were the prominent avant-garde groups. Their members had careers as individual composers, of course, every one of them did.

There was only one fully thematic issue, number 6, on politics. We were at war in Vietnam and everyone had to resolve the issue for themselves; composers were no different. It came out in their music. Phil Corner sent us "Throw a bomb into the audience" as one of several pieces that held up a fist against the war and to what the government was doing. Others did the same, so the music itself chose the theme. Then we started making telephone calls, transcribing quite a number of them and printing the transcripts in Source. The question was, "Have you, or has anyone, ever used your music for political or social ends?" Terry Riley responded, for instance, "Oh, you mean that big politics up in the sky?" That was the first time we actually got in touch with composers before an issue came out, asking them their views on topics that everyone was talking about. Then some composers sent us pieces of music to illustrate their feelings.

We knew of works that had a belligerent quality about them, for instance, Dick Higgins's The Thousand Symphonies. His piece was not just metaphorical, it was violence to music by actually shooting score paper, and it certainly showed the violence that was in the air. The machine-gun lying across the bullet-riddled score paper became the cover photograph for the issue. By the way, Issue 6 is the only one where each copy is individually numbered, since each of the copies is somewhat different in the placement of the bullet holes. Every single copy is distinct in that regard.

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In 1972 I left Davis for a new position teaching and administering at the University of South Florida, Tampa, leaving Source behind. After Issues 7/8, I retired from active editorship of the magazine, and the remaining partners took it up, with Stanley Lunetta becoming in effect the driving force. It was his decision to ask Alvin Lucier and Ken Friedman to be guest editors for Issues 10 and 11, respectively.

Looking back from the perspective of more than forty years, I think Source was an excellent impetus and learning experience, a perfectly legitimate way to learn our craft. We needed models. We needed to know what the latest thing was in order to either reject it or to incorporate it into our own work. We were excited about the pieces and articles we received in the mail. It was a daily joy to see what discoveries we would experience. We wanted to make Source an artwork and I think we succeeded in that regard. At a certain point we had become influential, as it were, and our learning experience also became a teaching experience.