Circuits in the Grid: The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in Harlem in the ’50s, ’60s & ’70s
After last March’s POP/IASPM-US joint conference, Sounds of the City, a collaborative project was hatched to feature the work presented at that conference in both print and online versions. This collaboration pulls in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler), the EMP Museum (Eric Weisbard, also on the IASPM-US executive committee), and IASPM-US (Anthony Kwame Harrison, also on the JPMS editorial collective, and Justin D Burton). A print version of JPMS appearing in Fall 2012 (24:3) features eight essays from the conference, and we’ve selected several more to publish on the IASPM-US website this fall. So enjoy the reverberations of a spectacular March weekend in New York, and don’t forget about the 2013 conferences for IASPM-US and EMP’s POP.
Uptown in Manhattan, on a desolate diagonal offshoot of 125th Street in Harlem, between a freestanding McDonald’s that glows grotesquely at night and an idyllic Hudson River expanse that for decades was famously—scandalously—polluted is a building where the mid-century music of machines began to play. It was borne at first as a milk plant, a hub for processing and pasteurization built in grand fashion for Sheffield Farms in 1909. Horses used to haul shipments of dairy goodness in and out on wagons—hooves hoofing, glass clanking. Milky white terra cotta tiles lined the façade, which remains in place today.
Then it was repurposed as a home for chemical engineering, a site of rumored atomic research for the Manhattan Project and, more verifiably, a storied heat-transfer lab where testing related to nuclear power started in the early Eisenhower years. Water transmuted into super-heated steam hissed in the basement, cooled back down by a natural underground spring that rushes loudly beneath the building still.
Then, in 1959, with the delivery of a looming technological contraption to an empty room on the third floor, the site at 632 West 125th Street became home to the monumental music-research nexus known as the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. That contraption was the RCA Mark II Electronic Music Synthesizer, which came in boxes on trucks from New Jersey. It weighed two tons, enlisted things like variable-frequency oscillators and “white noise” thyratron generators, and stood, when assembled, about seven feet tall. Width-wise, it stretched across the whole of a large room. Its value at the time was around $250,000 (or, roughly, $2 million today).
The commercial engineers who conceived it for RCA made it to play music like this:
But the composers who commanded it at Columbia-Princeton had something slightly different in mind, more like this:
The first bit was from a RCA demo record issued in 1955. The second bit was from a 1961 piece called “Composition for Synthesizer” by Milton Babbitt, a composer at Princeton who conspired with Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening to make the Columbia-Princeton center real. Ussachevsky and Luening had already established an electronic-music center at Columbia a few years before, for which they had staged some high-profile public events and worked on tape-music for a New York theater production of King Lear by Orson Welles. Of their abstracted sounds, sourced from processed recordings of things including a gong, a kettledrum, and the noise of a jet plane, Welles said, “This is the greatest thing to have happened in the theatre since the invention of incandescent lights.”
But it took some institutional collusion to secure the monolithic RCA synthesizer and to scale the whole project up to make Columbia-Princeton one of the biggest early electronic-music centers in the world. Other such centers existed around the globe, most notably in Paris, Cologne, and Milan, but Columbia-Princeton exhibited a special sort of American character suited to post-war American ideals. As Luening later told Robert Moog, who spent time at the center as a young man, “Most of the European studios were associated with radio stations [by which he meant nationalized radio stations funded by means other than the marketplace], but we felt that wouldn’t work here because the forces pushing out work toward commercial exploitation would be too intense. We felt that the correct place was a university, where you have poets, literary and theatre people, and acousticians on whom you can try out all this stuff and get reactions.”
To make such a scenario possible, they applied for funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic group endowed by the American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. The foundation supported scene-surveying travels to Europe for Ussachevsky and Luening and, ultimately, by way of a five-year $175,000 grant, the acquisition of the synthesizer that would serve as a centerpiece for the entire enterprise.
In actuality, the RCA synthesizer was but a small part of the operational whole of Columbia-Princeton. For all its impressive mechanical advancements, it was highly complicated to use. Babbitt, who worked with it more than anyone else there, said, “When everything is going right, when I know exactly what I want and the equipment is working properly, and if I’m lucky, I can get one minute of music out of six or seven hours with the machine. Most times it takes much longer.”
The way it worked was the composer would punch in holes on a paper scroll, by way of something like typing, and then the paper would feed through the machine. Through the holes in the paper, metal brushes would connect with a metal plate and trigger sounds then processed by all the rest.
Most of the others who worked there spent time in adjoining tape studios outfitted with various kinds of gear acquired and developed for custom use.
It was in these rooms that most of the work most associated with Columbia-Princeton took place, with a notably eclectic cast of composers and engineers there to help them. Among them in the early years were the three founders—Ussachevsky, Luening, and Babbitt—and others in a core group that included female electronic-music pioneers Alice Shields and Pril Smiley, as well as a markedly international mix including Bulent Arel and Ilhan Mimaroglu from Turkey, Halim El-Dabh from Egypt, and Mario Davidovsky from Argentina.
Davidovsky, who moved to the U.S. from Buenos Aires and found his way to Columbia-Princeton at the recommendation of Aaron Copland, told me, “Columbia was open to everybody. It was very non-ideological, and it welcomed all kinds of people with all kinds of musical ideas. That was very American.”
That, in fact, was a stated purpose for the center from early on. In a “Progress Report” issued by the center in 1963 is this quote: “The laissez-faire attitude of the studio is deliberately contrary to the European practice of imposing doctrines upon composers affiliated with a studio and justifying this practice with elaborate ‘rationalization.’”
Alice Shields, who started work there in the early ’60s, said, “The history of the center was so international, which was totally due to Vladimir. He didn’t have money to support composers, but he told them if they could somehow get themselves to New York, we would schedule them for time in the studios. So all these international types would just show up.” She herself hailed from New York but attributes her early interest in tape music to growing up with a father who was head of the foreign-language publishing department at Henry Holt and Company. She said: “He started the use of tapes in language studies. When I grew up, he had a huge Ampex tape recorder, just like I later saw at Columbia, and when I would come home from school he would be editing Russian or Chinese and I would hear dlakdjfadfj asjlsdkf—tape running backwards while he editing. So that made it seem like ‘Well, of course people do stuff with tape!’ It seemed natural to me.”
A bit of music by of music by Alice Shields, from her 1968 piece “Study for Voice and Tape”:
Experimentation with sound at the center carried over into experimentation with how to present new music of the sort in public settings. By the time of an early coming-out concert for the center spread over two nights in 1961, Columbia’s McMillin Theatre (now called Miller Theatre) was outfitted with 19 speakers controlled by a flexible mixer custom-built by Mauzey. The program notes took care to mention that, with the exception of one piece to be broadcast from the stage, “all the other compositions make use of speakers encircling the audience.”
Before the program began, Columbia provost Jacques Barzun took the stage and, in his opening remarks, said “Most of you no doubt are convinced and converted, but there may be some of you who have come in trepidation and a mood of resistance. This is the Age of Anxiety, and you may wonder—is it music?”
A rapturous review in the New York Times called it “hi-fi with a vengeance” and relished the whole program’s newness. “Strictly speaking,” wrote Harold C Schonberg, “when confronted with so new and unprecedented a medium, the listener should have about the same opinion of it as he has about Einstein’s Unified Field Theory—great respect mingled with total incomprehension.” The critic from the Herald Tribune was less enthused, describing some of the sounds as “reminiscent of a dentist’s drill or a banging radiator. Most of the pieces sustained attention, for they were mercifully brief. Yes, they were interesting. So what?”
The Columbia-Princeton center went on to court such flustered and fluctuating opinions during its prime, the end of which is marked by most in 1976, when vandals broke into the building and wrecked much of the original equipment put together in the space, including parts of the Mark II. By then it had served as a something of a home for a long list of notable composers, including Edgard Varese, William/Wendy Carlos, Charles Wuorinen, and Ingram Marshall, as well as illustrious visitors like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio.
The part of the building where it all happened is still in use, rebranded most recently in 1996 as the Columbia University Computer Music Center. The RCA synthesizer still stands there, inoperable and effectively untouched for more than a decade, after a failed photo-op resulted in clouds of smoke.
Other vintage gear sits around and gathers dust. But many of the questions proffered by it all remain. Going back to that first big coming-out concert for the center, Jacques Barzun, in his introductory remarks, equated the evening then to come to the notorious 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps and all the jeers and confusion that greeted it. “Nowadays,” Barzun noted, “the young take Sacre Du Printemps as if it were a lullaby, and indeed they hear it at the circus where the elephants dance to it. So our associations, our assumptions, our expectations rule not only our judgments but our sensations, and they change with time so that electronic music may yet be the heavenly music of the future.”
That, again, was in 1961, and this many years later, we are still in many ways working out if what he said is true.
Andy Battaglia writes about arts and culture and food, among other things, from a home base in New York. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Wire, The National, SPIN, New York, Artforum, Bookforum, Resident Advisor, Slate, eMusic, Washington Post, Salon, McSweeney’s, Pitchfork, and The Onion A.V. Club, for which he worked as an editor from 2001 to 2010. He also worked on three anthology books, including Inventory: …Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists, The Pitchfork 500, and Tenacity of the Cockroach: Conversations with Entertainment’s Most Enduring Outsiders. Since its inaugural edition in 2010, he has also worked as a co-organizer and co-curator for Unsound Festival New York, an electronic/experimental music festival that features concerts, panel discussions, and presentations all over the city.