The Discovery of California

The year was 1978, and while some guys on Sunset were concocting the prototype of the paper you now hold, I was 2,500 miles away, holding down the classical-music gig at New York magazine and convinced that life held no fairer prize. Came a bloke named Dick Houdek with an invitation, plus plane ticket, to a place called the California Institute of the Arts, which was about to stage its first Contemporary Music Festival. The students at CalArts, Dick told me as a kind of lure, had recently staged a rally at the school, boycotting a baroque-music concert with signs reading, WE WANT NEW MUSIC. This, I decided, I gotta see.

CalArts in 1978, like CalArts today, was indeed that kind of place. That “new-music festival” was crammed with composers from the school, such as the electronic pioneers Morton Subotnick and Mel Powell (who had once, at 17, been Benny Goodman’s piano man), and other Californians, including a lively contingent from the University of California at San Diego. Over four days, practically around the clock, I heard the requisite quotient of modern-day masterpieces: works by the late Earle Brown, who had terrorized New York audiences a few years back; Stockhausen’s Mantra, in an amazingly assured student performance.

But the bulk of the festival was given over to truly new music and to musical sounds mostly unfamiliar — electronic sounds, percussion ensembles carrying on in the John Cage/Lou Harrison tradition, familiar instruments used in unfamiliar ways — by composers many of whose names were also mostly unfamiliar: Roger Reynolds, Virko Baley, Wilbur Ogdon, Harold Budd. Most of it, furthermore, was good; some of it was extraordinary; some was worthless, as runs the average in life itself. The feeling emerged, however, that I had ventured upon a musical world inadequately recognized or credited outside the walls of CalArts. I was obsessed in two opposite directions: to get back to New York and tell everybody about what I’d been hearing, and to stay on and continue to wallow in it.

New York had just cloned itself with a West Coast counterpart called New West, and we cooked up a deal wherein, for a year, I’d become the world’s first bicoastal classical-music critic, covering the scene on both coasts on alternate fortnights and finding someone in California to anoint for the job after I left. (I interviewed Mark Swed, and can’t remember now why I didn’t hire him.) After that year, of course, I’d return to my senses and to the real world.

During that year I lived pretty well, on the company’s due bills at the Beverly Wilshire and the St. Francis, and continued my astonished discovery of California’s music. I was naturally curious as to why a composer with the chops to make it in the real world — Subotnick, for example — would prefer a life on this side of the mountains. “That’s easy,” said Subotnick in 1978. “Nobody reads the West Coast critics. Everybody knows they’re hostile to all new music, so it doesn’t matter what they write.” “West Coast critics” meant, above all, the acid-penned Martin Bernheimer of the L.A. Times, who after 13 years had still not forgiven Los Angeles for failing to have metamorphosed into Vienna under his stern guidance, and who had suffered the worst fate to befall anyone in this line of work — predictability.

At San Diego I heard half-hour pieces for nothing but cymbals, and pieces for “extended voices” that required singers to build on techniques best known from the “throat singing” of Tibetan monks. The great old composer Robert Erickson, one of the most influential teachers I’ve ever known, played me tapes of natural sounds — waves, Sierra brooklets — that he had retuned through recycled coffee cans; you couldn’t get more Californian than that. At Stanford’s computer-music labs in 1979, I sat in on the day-by-day creation of a mixed-media piece that involved drummers, a belly dancer, digitally processed howling (by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir) and much else culled from a brave new electronic world that I will never understand but always marvel at. The composer, Janis Mattox, accessed a large roomful of equipment through a bank of keyboards and drew her sounds out of loudspeakers the approximate height of elephants. Nowadays you do it with laptops.

My time was up. During that year I had produced three public-radio series (including one on why West Coast composers were different from anyone else). I had been invited to teach criticism at CalArts and USC. I had been pulled unconscious from a burning car and, out of a need to show off my tan on my trips to New York, been operated on for skin cancer. I had, in other words, become a Californian, and in record time. It would have been foolish to go back. I’m still here.