Curated by Chris Brown
Just as the struggle for the Western U.S. in the late 19th century revolved around the construction of the railroad, the struggle for global domination was waged around the development of the new electronic communication technologies during the late 1970s and 1980s in Silicon Valley. It was a free-wheeling time for start-ups run out of garages by a bunch of do-it-yourself geeks and venture capitalists. Hanging around its edges and feeding off the surplus of its aircraft and electronics industries, a gaggle of music experimenters were dreaming of a future where technology might enable new kinds of musical freedom – freedom from orchestras and scores, freedom from scales and temperament, freedom from the academy, freedom from the music business, and, most of all, freedom for noise. Free improvisation was the lingua franca where jazz musicians, junk percussionists, instrument inventors, and computer hackers could come together to play.
It was within this rag-tag musical stew that six idealist musicians, seduced into computer programming, connected their primitive 8-bit microcomputers into a network in search of complexly beautiful, automated behaviors. They were inspired by the home-brew orchestra of Harry Partch, the indeterminacy of John Cage, the electronic noise of David Tudor, with side helpings of the mysterioso of Captain Beefheart and the sonic ritual of Sun Ra. Living within a hippie backwash nirvana philosophy but confronted by the reality of wars launched from their own backyards into El Salvador and Nicaragua, their music was a quixotic swords-into-plowshares fantasy morphing uncontrollably into shouts of joy and rage. Lest there be any doubt that this was still the Wild, Wild West, in 1978 one politician climbed through a window into San Francisco's City Hall carrying a loaded handgun, shot its mayor and recently elected gay supervisor pointblank, and was later acquitted of first-degree murder for both crimes based on the 'Twinkie' junk-food diminished capacity defense. The AIDS epidemic emerged to cut a swath through the arts community, fueling both its paranoia and intensity. The Disney cult lured ever in the background, an implacable siren of pop. Still, the beauty of chaos remained a passionate quest that promised an escape from too much control, and not enough nature. Can musical life arise from industrial waste? Does harmony exist within the interactive chatter of cane reeds, bronze rods, computer algorithms, and resonating streams of electrons?
This podcast presents one insider participant's movie of this once-upon-a-time musical scene. Excerpts from public performances, home and garage recording sessions, and parking lot sound installations are mingled like so many strands of pasta, sprinkled with bits cheese from a Sergio Leone soundtrack to provide epic flavor. Moments of coincidence among impossible sonic bedfellows created the sauce. The recipe for this California home-grown dish can be found here.