As San Francisco blossomed into a gay mecca in the ’70s, it did so atop a wave of free expression and creativity that first appeared 20 years before via the San Francisco Renaissance poets (made famous by beatniks like Allen Ginsberg) and the next few generations who followed in their footsteps. Musically speaking, it was a time when recent memory was still rich with fresh ideas: minimalism from Terry Riley, tape manipulation from Steve Reich and fully synthesized electronic compositions from Morton Subotnick.
The city’s higher education system also acted as a place for fostering new connections in the arts. At City College of San Francisco, this manifested in Professor Gerald Mueller’s Electronic Music Laboratory, an offshoot of the music department that strove to teach students the rudiments of synthesis and the history of experimental electronic music.
Mueller spent much of the 1960s moving through the city’s thriving arts and music scene. He got his start teaching at San Francisco State University, showing students how to make Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes on the school’s front lawn. Excited by the promise of 20th century composition, he attended concerts at the San Francisco Tape Music Center and spent time at Different Fur Trading Company, both centers for electronic music.
One of his first experiments was for poet and filmmaker James Broughton, creating collage-like tape loop soundtracks for Broughton’s avant-garde shorts This Is It and Dreamwood. The latter was comprised entirely of material pulled from “Silver Apples of the Moon,” Morton Subotnick’s spacey 1967 piece for synthesizer. “It was a new sound, but here’s the thing: it was a musical sound,” Mueller remembers. “I think [that piece] influenced me more than anything else in the last half of the 20th century.”
“I was learning about these functions the week before I would have to tell people about it! But I got pretty good.”
Fast forward a few years: It’s 1972, and Mueller’s teaching music at City College of San Francisco. He says the genesis of the Electronic Music Laboratory came easily enough, “We had a very forward-looking dean at the time,” he says. “I met him, and he said, ‘Would you like to start an electronic music class?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ This is the spring of ‘72. So they ordered a synthesizer and meanwhile, that summer, I went to Different Fur Trading Company – they were teaching people how to use a Moog synthesizer, so this guy would get up and demonstrate, ‘You plug this into that and you plug this into that.’ And I couldn’t understand any of it. I was learning about these functions the week before I would have to tell people about it! But I got pretty good.” The program’s early founding date made it one of the first of its kind in the United States.
In the early days, the lab was held in the basement of Mueller’s apartment, with work centered around the school’s lone Electronic Music Studios VCS 3, an analog synthesizer that Mueller refers to as the “Putney,” after the location in London in which it was designed. “At the time, you could only get the Buchla, which was expensive, or you could get the Moog, which was expensive. But then these guys in London developed this neat little box, and it was a synthesizer that had a matrix board instead of patch cords.” It was a crude piece of gear that sounded good, but was completely unpredictable. “It didn’t have a keyboard, it didn’t have a sequencer. People didn’t like it because you couldn’t duplicate [sounds]. You could put the knobs in the same place and set the pins in the same place [on the matrix board], but the sound wouldn’t be the same.”
One of the students who would have been frustrated with that synthesizer was Patrick Cowley. The hi-NRG dance music pioneer was one of Mueller’s first students in the lab. Much later, Cowley would take the skills learned at City College and apply them to disco, turning out a string of storming, synthesized dancefloor anthems like “Menergy” and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Do You Wanna Funk” before dying of AIDS in 1982.
Earlier this year, San Francisco archival label Dark Entries brought Cowley back into the spotlight by releasing School Daze, a compilation of his lost porn soundtrack work, much of which was repurposed from music he’d made while still in Mueller’s program. It paints a picture of Cowley before commercial success, with a number of moody experiments that sound a little like a Subotnick composition – albeit with more structure and rhythm.
“Patrick didn’t think of the synthesizer in the way that normal people do... He just kind of remembered what happened when you plugged things in.”
Mueller remembers Cowley as being a different kind of student. “He didn’t think of the synthesizer in the way that normal people do. Like, ‘You’ve got this low frequency oscillator here and it’s modifying or modulating whatever the filter’s doing.’ Instead he just kind of remembered what happened when you plugged things in. He was interesting in that way, he had a damned good ear.” One of his most vivid memories of Cowley is coming into the Lab one day and hearing a pitch-perfect electronic cover of “Whiter Shade of Pale” coming from Cowley’s synthesizer.
Listening to Cowley’s School Daze, and in some respects his larger discography, one thing that stands out is his melodic sensibility. Even the most dissonant elements of the new LP, like the crushing percussive passages of “Pagan Rhythms” or the distorted arpeggio-led churn of “Seven Sacred Pools,” are still accessibly musical though they remain experimental.
Though it’d be hard to say that outlook directly reflected the ethos of the Lab, it’s an attitude shared by Mueller. In describing his curricula, he reveals his own musical opinions, espousing a love for Baroque compositions and music from the turn of the 20th century, Stravinsky in particular. “The point about Stravinsky is that it was dissonant as all hell, but it was a musical dissonance that made sense.” He uses twelve-tone serialism as an example of what he considers to be unmusical dissonance. “It’s possible to make a good twelve-tone piece, but it’s very difficult. You’ve got this row, and you have these instructions, and you can play the row frontwards, and then you can flip it upside down and play it backwards, and then you can play it backwards and upside down. There’s all these things you can do, but it’s not very musical. Anybody can compose these things, and though it sounds like music, it’s not going to be great music.”
Over time, Mueller has moved away from electronic music. Nowadays he’s retired and spends his time teaching courses in music composition. A part of the reason for the distance comes down to what he sees as a lack of creativity. “It’s hard to do a good electronic synthesized piece. One reason I got out of it was because everyone was doing the same thing. Especially when samplers came out. I remember thinking they were great. I’d go out with my tape deck and record air compressors in an ice cream store or whatever. But then people started buying [sample CDs], they didn’t want to sample anything. I just got tired of that, I gave up on it.”
The Electronic Music Lab, however, still continues, now headed by Brian Fergus, a professor who began teaching in the program in the late ’80s. Under his guidance, the Lab has moved into the digital era, augmenting lectures on analog synthesis with more contemporary material that covers subjects like computer music and DAW software. In many ways, City College of San Francisco’s Electronic Music Lab is one of the few remaining ties that modern San Francisco has to the city that it once was. Similarly, though Mueller’s probably too humble to admit it, it also represents an important point of exchange between the free-spirited ethos of the city’s experimental music community and the dance music that it would later inform. Mueller’s teachings distilled and passed on that essence to a younger generation of artists – one of whom, Cowley, would go on to use that knowledge to augment disco and help to create the blueprint for electronic dance music as we know it today.