1990 Composer-to-Composer Festival, Telluride, CO

Other Minds Archives Goes Live January 26, 2024

The Other Minds Archives hosts thousands of audio and video recordings, rare photographs, and ephemera documenting the history of 20th and 21st century experimental music, including interviews and musical recordings by such new music luminaries as George Antheil, Anahid Ajemian, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Laurie Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Conlon Nancarrow, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, Nicolas… Read more »

Written By

Joseph Bohigian

The Other Minds Archives hosts thousands of audio and video recordings, rare photographs, and ephemera documenting the history of 20th and 21st century experimental music, including interviews and musical recordings by such new music luminaries as George Antheil, Anahid Ajemian, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Laurie Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Conlon Nancarrow, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, Nicolas Slonimsky, Pamela Z, and Frank Zappa.

Other Minds is a leading proponent for new and experimental music in all its forms, presenting a yearly festival, radio broadcasts, and podcasts; commissioning new works; and releasing new recordings on the Other Minds Records label. Other Minds’s archives have been growing steadily since the inaugural Other Minds Festival in 1993. Along with the organization’s documented concert history, Other Minds became a steward for other media collections over the years after embarking on a long-term preservation project that began in 2000 with the acquisition of the KPFA-FM Music Department collection. Other Minds has to this day continued its efforts in the archiving and preservation of audiovisual material in its collections, placing emphasis on public access by making material available through the OM Archives website and other institutional portals.

To coincide with the launch of the new Other Minds Archives website on January 26, 2024, Other Minds’s Program Associate Joseph Bohigian sat down with Charles Amirkhanian, Executive and Artistic Director of Other Minds, and Adrienne Cardwell, Other Minds’s Archivist, to talk about the history and contents of the OM Archives.

L to R: I Wayan Sadra, Larry Polansky, Jim Tenney, Laurie Anderson, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros working on the manifesto on censorship at the Composer-to-Composer Festival in 1990 in Telluride, CO. Photo by John Fago from the OM Archives.

Joseph Bohigian: The collections of the Other Minds Archives began with a donation of 4,000 audio tapes to Other Minds from KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California in 1999. How did Other Minds come to be in possession of those tapes, and what was on them?

Charles Amirkhanian: Jim Bennett, who was the then manager of KPFA, wanted to clear out a room to use for another purpose and I had a lot of the tape recordings of music programs in that particular room. The original idea was that the programs should go to the Pacifica Library in Los Angeles, but they really didn’t have the capacity to process them at the time and Jim wanted to get them out of the building at ASAP. So he called me and said, “Would you want to have these for Other Minds for any purpose?” and my head started spinning and I thought, well, I don’t want those tapes to be put in the alley for the garbage man to pick up so I’ll think of what to do with them right away. I called my friend Scott Atthowe, he started a business years ago to help collectors who had more paintings than they had walls in their homes to store their paintings in temperature controlled buildings, and I said, “Do you have any storage space that we could have to put these in while we figure out what to do with them?” and he said he would be glad to move the tapes into a space that somebody had just vacated. So we authorized Atthowe’s services to move the tapes into the storage facility and then we realized we had a huge problem. There were no shelves in there and we needed shelves because there were so many tapes that it would fill 300 linear feet of reel to reel boxes of tapes. So, little by little, we were able to put them in a sort of order and then we started applying for funds to digitize the tapes, which comprised recordings of interviews, concerts, original works that were produced at KPFA that had never been released commercially, poetry readings, happenings. The tapes were eventually, after being digitized, donated to UC Santa Cruz and all the tapes are there in their special collections.

JB: What kind of music was KPFA programming when it started broadcasting in 1949?

CA: There was a Music Director who was a folk music person named Rolf Cahn and another person, Americo Chiarito, who were very involved in both folk music and classical music. Those were the two dominant styles that were heard on the station when it went on the air. The Music Directors following Chiarito starting around 1950-51 were Robert Erickson, who was a highly respected composer who eventually founded the Music Department at UC San Diego, and Alan Rich. The Music Directors from 1950 to the time I left in 1992 were all either composers or music critics, so there was a tendency to do a lot of music of living composers, which of course was very unusual at the time, and people in Europe, who were used to this sort of thing, started seeking out KPFA when they came to the West Coast and they would go into the station and do interviews, one of them being Pierre Boulez in 1957. Alan Rich was at a party at somebody’s house and he recognized Boulez and invited him to come to the station and called a bunch of composers to have them come sit in on the interview and the interview turned out to be very contentious because the people doing the interview were all of the Roger Sessions school of listening where you have to listen from the beginning and your memory plays a part in what you hear and if you are attentive and you can follow the development of a kernel from the beginning of the piece 30 minutes later to the end, you win. But Boulez had a different idea which is that you have these sound objects and one follows the other and you don’t really rely on memory to make sense of it in the same way, and so they had a blistering discussion and fortunately we got a copy of it before Alan Rich died, and it’s now in the Archives.

JB: When did you start working at KPFA as Music Director?

CA: I started in 1969. I had been working at a record store in San Francisco called the Sea of Records and a couple of customers who would come in and ask me for advice on what was new were Robert Hughes, the composer who founded the Cabrillo Festival, and John Rockwell, who later went on to be a New York Times music critic. They both advised me that this job was open and I should go apply for it, which I did. They offered me the job, but said I’d have to do it on a temporary basis for 6 months, and I said no, I can’t do that. I would lose my job at the record store. If you if you want me, tell me so and I’ll take the job, but I want a month off because my wife Carol [Law] and I had just gotten married and we hadn’t had a honeymoon, so we’re going down to Mexico City to see somebody we haven’t met before. So we went down to Mexico in our Volkswagen Bug that broke down three times and met Conlon Nancarrow, who was living in more or less glorious isolation in a nice district of Mexico City called San Ángel. He was the composer who had done player piano roll music where you could take a blank player piano roll and punch holes in it and get the piano to do anything that a human couldn’t do. I’d heard this music at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco as an accompaniment to a Merce Cunningham dance. I got his phone number and called this man and he said he would maybe see us if we got to Mexico City, but he wasn’t sure. So we go down there and went to this house and we rang the doorbell and nothing happened for about 3 minutes. We didn’t realize we were ringing the bell of a walled in house and there was a driveway about 200 yards long and Conlon had to come from his house and walk slowly down this gravel path to let us in. We just loved talking with this man and listening to his music and I decided that one of my first programs on KPFA when I got back was going to be about him. So I asked him if I could interview him and he said, “absolutely not.” So this is the beginning of my radio career. I’m turned down before I even start.

Conlon Nancarrow seated at his piano roll punching machine in 1969. Photo by Charles Amirkhanian from the OM Archives.

JB: Your documentation of that trip is available on the Archives, but do you have any place to start for someone interested in Nancarrow?

CA: The Speaking of Music event that he did at the Exploratorium in San Francisco is there and that would be one good place to start if you’re interested in hearing more about him.

JB: Another person who’s featured in the Archives is the violinist Anahid Ajemian, and the January 26th launch coincides with the 100th anniversary of her birth. Who was she and what is her significance to 20th century music?

CA: She was the only classical instrumentalist who would play John Cage and Alan Hovhaness in 1944, 45, 46. She and her sister Maro Ajemian had graduated from the Institute of Musical Art, which later became Juilliard, and they were well-versed in Schumann and Beethoven and all the classics, but they had a particular interest in the personalities that they were meeting in New York, composers like Cage and Hovhaness and later Lou Harrison who were not supported by the establishment. They were doing things that were kind of outside the bounds of the mainstream movements of the time in modern music. The fact that they gave the first Town Hall performances of Alan Hovhaness and John Cage were significant because that legitimized those two composers for the general public, and suddenly when her sister Maro started playing the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano by John Cage, the reviews were very, very positive, if you can imagine, for an instrument that sounded very peculiar because there were erasers and screws and other objects placed directly on the strings and it made the piano sound like a Gamelan or a percussion orchestra rather than a classical instrument. That was one thing. The other thing is that Anahid married George Avakian, who was a jazz producer at Columbia Records, and he was one of the first people to really give serious attention to jazz album production. George insisted on treating them the way the classical composers were treated, so you would have Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in a collection that would be bound with a spine and there would be program notes on the inside cover of the album describing or praising the content of the music, and that was a big deal at the time. Later, in the 50s, they did a series of public concerts called Music for Moderns where they would invite Henry Cowell and Mahalia Jackson to be on the same program. I mean, this was just not done. To this day, I think of them as kind of precursors of Other Minds because we do the same thing.

Anahid and Maro Ajemian rehearsing at home ca. 1950s. Courtesy of Anahid Ajemian from the OM Archives.

JB: How has Other Minds acquired new collections for the Archives since that initial donation from KPFA?

Adrienne Cardwell: I would say it always seems to come by way of Charles. Someone says that they have something that may be of interest and it turns out that it usually is of interest for us to retain or it resonates with other material. Relâche for example, we were solicited by their co-founder Joseph Franklin.

CA: Relâche is a new music group in Philadelphia and they had a lot of recordings of their concerts, but no place to put them. Some libraries are just reluctant to take on material that’s just audio, but we’re happy to do it if it fits with our mission.

JB: Why is it important to preserve these materials?

CA: It’s so important to hear people speaking about their own music in their own voice. It’s not the same as reading about it in a book or not having the information either in a book or on audio. Once it’s lost, it’s lost. These are not records from a record company that made 5,000 of them. These are primary research documents. There is no other copy. Once they’re gone, they’ll never resurface. It’s better to err on the side of preserving things than just letting them go.

AC: I think another important part of that is having cultural reference points to various eras. You can compare the development of not just music but art and literature to what was going on in the world at that time. I find that really interesting in a lot of the tapes and especially KPFA programs, where you get a sense of what’s going on in the world from a more countercultural perspective than you would on a lot of the commercial stations.

CA: The fact that KPFA was doing this from 1949 to 59, before any of the other Pacifica stations went on the air and did the same thing, KPFK in Los Angeles went on the air in 1959 and WBAI in New York in 1960. These were stations that also started doing programs on contemporary music, which was definitely non-commercial and never would be aired on commercial stations, so for the vast majority of the public, it didn’t exist. What happens between 1949 and 59 is that there becomes a base of people who have a certain knowledge of an art form that nobody else had in other parts of the country. Therefore ensembles that played this kind of music felt supported. There was a scene developing here that is exemplified by the San Francisco Tape Music Center and various other organizations that sprang up. Something called the Composers’ Forum. The fact that there have been a lot of important developments in music that emanated from San Francisco is not an accident, it’s partly a function of the existence of a radio station which broadcast these developments. The fact that the beat poets were in San Francisco and the jazz scene here was very vigorous. The fact that the orchestras and chamber music organizations were recognizing the importance of playing contemporary music is I think partly a function of KPFA’s existence. I think it’s also important to remember that the entire minimalist music movement was launched here on the West Coast. Terry Riley and La Monte Young were students at the UC Berkeley Department of Music. Steve Reich was studying with Luciano Berio at Mills and Terry’s 1964 performance of In C at the Dancers Workshop/SF Tape Music Center, favorably reviewed by nationally prominent music critic Alfred Frankenstein, sparked public awareness that something was afoot here. This change of focus, from slow-developing thematic evolution then in vogue to microscopic concentration on a few individual notes in repeated phrases, launched a long-lasting stylistic revolution that has proven to have longer staying power than impressionism, neoclassicism, or serialism. I just know that it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Of course, composers mostly had to move to New York to market their careers, but the lack of an overbearing traditional approach here gave people a freedom to invent. That was a prerequisite, and that freedom is reflected in some of the eccentric program content you’ll find in the OM Archives.

JB: Are there any collections or topics on the Archive that will likely be unfamiliar to people but interesting to check out.

CA: There’s a lot of information about sound poetry, which is a genre that’s a crossover between music and literature. There are practitioners who are musicians and went into speech and speakers who were poets and went into the musical aspect of delivering the poetry. That was a genre that was not taken seriously in the music world for a long time, so it developed on its own and it dates to the Dada and Surrealist and Futurist poets of the early part of the twentieth century. Then there’s the radio events. These were events that we started in 1969 where I would invite an artist to use as much airtime as they wanted, but they had to do something that involved the listener going away from their radio at home and doing something else. In other words, a kind of happening that involved activity. They’re pretty amusing and they’re worth investigating. Then there are individual artists like Ivan Wyschnegradsky or George Antheil or Annea Lockwood. These are people who are not household names, perhaps, but there is a lot of concentrated activity around their music that happened as a result of either my interest or the interest of somebody who was working at KPFA or at Other Minds.

Portrait of George Antheil. Courtesy of Böski Antheil from the OM Archives.

AC: Some of the material came from artists who now have a bigger name, but back then maybe they sent a reel to KPFA for broadcast, something new that they had just made that wasn’t commercially released. It’s like a never-ending history lesson. Some of my personal favorites are the photographs that we have, a lot of which come from Charles’s documentation over the years of traveling and interviewing and meeting with all these other artists.

JB: What will visitors to the new website be able to do in terms of searching and creating their own collections of materials.

AC: If you register as a user, you can have what’s called a “light box” where you can save things and organize them for future reference. You can create your own private collections and share them with other users, which could be useful for people in educational settings. There are advanced search options that will help tailor things toward what you’re looking for.

JB: In addition to all this historical material, will documentation of Other Minds’s activities over the past 31 years also be available on the new website?

AC: We have everything that has been documented through audio and video, as well as photographs and all the programs. We have a vast collection of the iconic OM festival photographs taken by John Fago.

CA: John Fago is photographer who uses a Leica, a very quiet rangefinder camera. John lives with composers when they’re in residence at events and he becomes part of the furniture, so you forget that he’s there taking photographs of you interacting with other people. His photographs are very striking in that they’re black and white and he likes to take pictures in which there are at least 5 hands showing, like people gesturing, so you can tell a Fago photograph. Usually somebody is doing this and they’re not looking at the camera and they’re not posing. They’re doing something where they’re caught in the action. He has been present when we’ve had some of the most amazing composers in the world here. Those photographs alone are a unique addition to the OM Archives website.

—January 17, 2024

L to R: Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Jon Jang, Julia Wolfe, and Trimpin at Other Minds Festival 1 in 1993. Photo by John Fago from the OM Archives.