Archives & History


CCM's archives include an extensive collection of recordings made at Mills and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. These rare recordings of influential works and interviews from an earlier era of electronic music represent a valuable piece of musical history. We are currently transferring many of these recordings to digital formats to improve their longevity and usability. The archives also contain a large collection of technical journals, periodicals, and books.

"Thirty Years of Non-Stop Flight: A Brief History of the Center for Contemporary Music"

—David W. Bernstein

For more than three decades, the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM) has played a leading role in the development of new music. CCM's prehistory dates back to the early 1960s, a time when composers in the United States increasingly recognized the enormous potential of electronic music. In the 1950s, this new and exciting musical resource had captured the imagination of composers active in Milan, Paris, and Cologne. During the following decade, these developments began to reverberate across America. Composers at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio in New York, at the electronic music studio at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, along with members of the composer's collective called the Once Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan were busy exploring the expressive possibilities inherent in electronic media. As composer Ramon Sender noted, just as it was once the case "that every composer must confront Arnold Schoenberg's Method of Composing with Twelve Tones and come to some sort of working agreement with it; today the composer cannot afford to ignore the experience of working with tape" (Ramon Sender, "The San Francisco Tape Music Center: A Report," unpublished manuscript, 1964, p. 5).

The San Francisco Tape Music Center was founded in 1961 by Morton Subotnick, a former member of the Mills College Music Department, and Ramon Sender, who received his MA in composition from Mills in 1965. Although the original impetus behind its formation was to meet the needs of a small group of composers—including Sender, Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Anthony Martin—who needed access to equipment and a venue to present concerts of experimental music, the Tape Music Center quickly developed a unique philosophy and aesthetic mission.

The 1960s saw the emergence of a counterculture movement in the United States. Artistic communities throughout the country were not unaffected by this development. The counterculture was particularly strong in San Francisco. It is thus not surprising that the founders of the Tape Music Center defined themselves in terms of a new musical subculture, an alternative to the artistic paralysis characteristic of musical institutions across the country.

There is a growing awareness on the part of young composers all over the country that they are not going to find the answers they are looking for in analysis and composition seminars of the academies. Some retreat from the "avant-garde" music environment, live marginally on the fringe of the community, or attempt to work isolated from musicians and concert groups. They have insulated themselves by this isolation from the sickness of culture, but too often also from their own creative potential. Others have banded together and have produced concerts of their works outside of the usual organizations (ibid., pp. 3-4).

Public access was at the core of the Tape Music Center's artistic mandate. Its organizers saw the center as a community-sponsored composer's guild, which would offer the young composer a place to work, to perform, to come into contact with others in his field, all away from an institutional environment. Each composer would through his contact with the center, be encouraged to fulfill his own musical needs and develop his own personal language. He would have the advantage and support of all the facilities of the center, for rehearsals and performances of his music, for contact with other musicians and composers, for work in the electronic music studios. He would be encouraged to involve himself in the musical life of the community-at-large. The community in turn would be offered the services of the center as a music-producing agency for films, for plays, for churches, and schools. Such a program, carried through in detail, could produce a revolution. It would, I believe, in five years time, create a new cultural environment in at least our local area. Working closely with musicians organization and cultural and civic groups, it could break up some of the stagnant areas of our own local cultural environment, such as the traditional repertory of symphony and opera, the pork-barrel city band, the entrenched conservatism of some of the chamber-music organizations (ibid.).

Throughout its five-year existence (1961-66) the San Francisco Tape Music Center presented dozens of unique concerts of contemporary music; it also supported the development of new technologies, including Don Buchla's modular synthesizer—the "Buchla Box." There was an emphasis on breaking down disciplinary boundaries, especially between audio and visual media. Ramon Sender's Desert Ambulance—for accordion, tape, slides, and film—and Morton Subotnick's Mandolin—for viola, tape, slides, and view-graph projection—are examples of this pioneering work in "mixed media."

During his association with Mills College in the late 1930s and early 1940s, John Cage approached Aurelia Reinhardt, the college president at that time, for funds to establish a center for experimental music at Mills. Although Reinhardt was excited by Cage's plan, funding was not available. It was not until more than twenty-five years later, through a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, that Cage's dream became a reality.

The grant stipulated that a center "for the composition, study, and performance of contemporary music" be established at Mills. This allowed the San Francisco Tape Music Center to move to Mills in the summer of 1966. Pauline Oliveros became the first director of the Mills Tape Music Center (later re-named the Center for Contemporary Music). Anthony Martin was the visual director, and William Maginnis, the studio technician.

Residency at a private academic institution may have first been at least a little troubling to the anti-establishment contingent of creative artists associated with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. But Mills had its own tradition of radicalism and innovation dating back to the 1930s and 40s when Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison taught and performed at the College. Moreover, while Darius Milhaud, who was on the faculty from 1941–71, wrote music in a more traditional style, he was still interested in electronic music and supported the efforts of his younger colleagues and students.

In 1966–7 composers working in the Mills Tape Music Center joined forces with the Mills Performing Group, founded in 1963 by Morton Subotnick and Luciano Berio, for an exciting year of new music concerts and other events. In January 1967, Karlheinz Stockhausen gave a lecture-presentation on his then work-in-progress, Momenti. There were Bay Area premieres of Stockhausen's Mikrophonie No. 1, Telemusik, and Zyklus, and Luciano Berio's Laborintus II. The concert series also featured first performances of Pauline Oliveros' and Anthony Martin's multi-media collaboration Hallo, Earl Kim's They are Far Out, and Wearing the Earth, and a new work by Janice Giteck, who was at that time a composition student at Mills.

Following her first year as director of the Mills Tape Music Center, Oliveros left for a teaching position at the University of California, San Diego. Martin departed for New York City to work with Subotnick at New York University. Oliveros' successor, Jaap Spek—who had worked as Stockhausen's technician--had only a brief tenure as director of the center. He was followed by co-directors Lowell Cross and Anthony Gnazzo (1967–69). During this period, pianist and composer David Tudor lectured at the Center and participated in a performance of John Cage's Variations IV in the College Art Gallery on January 16, 1968.

Robert Ashley, who directed the CCM from 1969–81, created a new genre of twentieth-century opera. Facing the financial obstacles preventing the performance of modern operatic works, he composed a series of operas intended for television, several of which have now been performed in concert versions around the world. In the best of Tape Music Center traditions, they involve a joint effort utilizing a multimedia presentation with video, electronic music, and improvisation. Ashley created a spontaneous vocal style that is somewhere between speech and song. His libretti employ complex literary structures that have multiple levels of narrative and meaning.

Just as was the case during the period of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the Ashley years were marked by an often iconoclastic irreverence for institutionalized art; for example, incoming graduate students at the CCM were warned by the Center's motto "if you're not weird, get out!" But those who did remain became part of an extraordinary collaborative environment. Ashley's organizational genius is evident in his operas as well as in the series of videos entitled Music with Roots in the Aether which document the work of an extraordinary group of American experimentalist composers including Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, and David Behrman.

During the 1970s, Ashley periodically shared the directorship of CCM with David Behrman. Behrman, a former member of the Sonic Arts Union (Behrman, Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and Alvin Lucier) specializes in live electronic music. Until the 1960s, most electronic music was designed to be played back to its audience on magnetic tape. Works by Behrman and his colleagues added a human element to electronic music. Behrman was among the first composer to write music in which music performers play conventional instruments that interact with computers in real time. This performance practice continues to thrive at Mills today.

David Rosenboom, famous for his research on "brain wave" music, was director of the CCM from 1981–1990. His works involve multimedia, theater, interactive electronics, and improvisation. During his tenure at Mills, Rosenboom collaborated with Larry Polansky and Phil Burk in the development of a computer music language, HMSL or Hierarchical Musical Specification Language, now used around the world. Rosenboom is a pianist with an uncanny technique and a master improviser. Together with the legendary composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton (who was a faculty member during that period) and percussion virtuoso William Winant, he formed the group Challenge—an ensemble that unites interactive electronics and improvisation with musical perspectives from around the world.

Mills faculty emeriti Maggi Payne and Chris Brown became co-directors of CCM through 2018. Payne is a composer, performer, interdisciplinary artist, and a recording engineer. As a composer, she specializes in music for electronic tape using a rich palette of sound ranging from synthesized to highly processed natural sound. Brown is an instrument builder, a pianist, and a composer. He has developed live electronic performance systems for interactive computer music and is a specialist in improvisational music and twentieth-century performance practice. They were joined by John Bischoff, CCM's studio coordinator, and one of the pioneers of live interactive computer music; by Leslie Stuck, CCM's technical director, an authority on Max/MSP and an accomplished composer of music for dance; and by James Fei, an analog synthesis instrumentalist and saxophonist.

Pauline Oliveros returned to Mills as the Darius Milhaud Professor of Composition in the fall of 1996, and continued her association with the CCM until her passing in 2016, while also teaching at Rensellaer Polytechnic University in Troy, New York. With her return, the history of CCM completed a thirty-year cycle; much has changed, but those working at CCM today still share the aesthetic convictions that helped shape the San Francisco Tape Music Center more than three decades ago. Above all, the CCM remains a place where composers and performers working in new music can realize their own creative potential in an atmosphere of free-thinking musical pluralism not limited by the conventions of the academic mainstream.