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Hear This - By - April 5, 2000 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Hear This

Gordon Mumma
Renowned composer, educator, pianist, and electronic music engineer Gordon Mumma doesn't think of himself as an avant-garde artist, just a musician dedicated to going his own way. Yet his pioneering work begun in the 1950s — using machine-generated sound as a compositional device — contributed to a musicmaking revolution that, while still considered dubious in some circles, is arguably more relevant today than ever. The idea of designing a song from electronic source materials, manipulated acoustic instruments, or prerecorded tape montages (aka musique concrète) was seen as blasphemous by the cultural gatekeepers in the halls of academia, where much of that “new music” was born. The University of Michigan even went so far as to ban Mumma's infamous ONCE Festival of Contemporary Music from its performance venues, while also discouraging local press coverage. Yet in the end, the event earned international acclaim.

Since popular acceptance was never their goal, Mumma and visionary colleagues like Robert Ashley (and later, John Cage and David Tudor) took these roadblocks in stride. In fact, Mumma has stated that his five-decade commitment to composition is a largely personal exploration: “In certain ways, I'm not concerned about the audience.” It's precisely this indifference to the whims of public perception that gives Mumma's music a fully fleshed, distinctly human character all its own. “Pontpoint,” a 16-minute electronic piece that took 14 years to complete, ripples with serene and sensual sonic patterns, conjuring images of lovemaking among the post-apocalyptic ruins. Realized with great precision and sensitivity, it's an exceptional work that manages to imbue cold technology with a rare naturalness. Avant-garde or not, Mumma's soundscapes are a model for 21st-century composition.