AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Gordon Mumma – Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in New American Music [University of Illinois Press, 2016]

MummaF15Quite often, technological revolutions engender revolutions in aesthetics. Such was the case in the 1960s, when the widespread adoption of transistors facilitated the creation and diffusion of smaller, more affordable and more versatile electronic devices for recording, amplifying and modifying sound. One of those who saw and exploited the new technology’s potential applications to music was Gordon Mumma, a new collection of whose writings from 1960-2013 provides a contemporary history of a particularly fertile and disruptive time in the advanced arts.


The 1960s revolution in electronic technologies gave rise to a new way of conceiving of the arts and their relations not only to the technologies, but to creators and audiences as well. As art critic Jack Burnham observed in an important article in 1968, much of the period’s avant-garde art appeared to embody an aesthetic based on the emulation or representation of systems. Or their embodiment: It was during this same period Mumma that described his exploratory work with real-time sound processing as “cybersonics.” A variety of a systems approach to sound, cybersonics applied cybernetics, a concept introduced by mathematician Norbert Wiener in the 1940s, to music. Based on probability theory, cybernetics looked at closed systems and the changes within them produced by feedback mechanisms; hence, as Mumma succinctly defined it in his note to the release Electronic Music for Theater and Public Activity, cybersonics “is a situation in which the electronic processing of sound activities is determined (or influenced) by the interactions of the sounds with themselves.”

As the book documents in detail, Mumma’s interest in sonic feedback systems led him to develop his own innovative performance practices and sound manipulating devices. These technologies of practice and equipment informed a series of works that he created for himself on French horn, with and without other voices, and electronics. Two of these—Horn (1965) and Hornpipe (1967)—were characteristic pieces that he performed widely and recorded. Both took acoustic sounds and fed them into what Mumma called “cybersonic consoles”—analogue signal processing devices that he designed and built—which then modified the input through ring modulation or feedback loops, and sent the results out to stereo speakers. Although off-the-shelf digital devices have largely supplanted the kinds of hand-built, analogue systems that Mumma devised for these and other early pieces, the general pattern the two works set and the possibilities they opened up continue to be influential in contemporary electroacoustic music.


Horn was written during a period when Mumma was living and working in Ann Arbor, often on the periphery of the University of Michigan, which he withdrew from in 1954 after having studied there for two years. While in Ann Arbor he helped organize the ONCE Festivals of new music, six of which were held between 1960 and 1965. His account of how it all happened is a highlight of the book and offers insights into the organizational mechanics of staging a regularly occurring, interdisciplinary event outside of a major institution.

ONCE began as a way to stage performances of works by Ann Arbor’s more experimental composers. Although their initial focus was on music, the programs became increasingly varied, including not only electroacoustic music experiments but also film, dance, lectures, theater, and fluxus-like performance pieces. Despite, or because of, the exploratory and provocative nature of the programs, the festivals attracted growing audiences; the inevitable controversy surrounding the nature and quality of the performances certainly helped to generate interest.

The relationship of the festival to the University of Michigan’s School of Music was predictably contentious. ONCE was conceived at least in part as a counterbalance to what many felt was UMI’s general neglect of modern and new music. Although the faculty seem largely to have been unsupportive, some of the performers were students at UMI’s music school. This seems only to have increased tensions, since the students’ participation had what Mumma describes as an alienating effect vis-à-vis their regular studies and the faculty.

In addition to succeeding as a means for under-exposed music and performance art to reach an audience, ONCE showed how necessarily DIY operations could, through commitment and substantive offerings, establish themselves as effective rivals to more established and better-funded institutions. In this respect, ONCE has continuing relevance as a potential template for contemporary new and experimental music festivals and curatorial endeavors. Despite consistently operating at a loss, over the course of its lifetime ONCE grew in scope and reach and consequently moved into ever bigger, if still unconventional, performance spaces. By the time of the final festival, 1965’s ONCE AGAIN, ONCE had expanded from its origin as a more-or-less one-off platform for a small group of artists’ self-presented works to a counter-institution of its own, eventually offering a series of year-round performances of new music and providing the impetus behind the formation of a touring new music ensemble.


The group effort that was the ONCE Festivals illustrate an important side of Mumma’s engagement with music—the collaborative side. Consequently, much of the book is given over to his contemporary accounts, reminiscences and portraits of the various artists and groups he worked and toured with over the years. Mumma’s long account of his time with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, aptly titled “From Where the Circus Went,” is a detailed narrative of the years he spent touring with the Cunningham group as the third of three musical collaborators–John Cage and David Tudor were the other two—providing discrete compositions or elastic soundscapes for the dancers. Mumma gives a good sense of the daily realities of transporting, setting up and working with sometimes balky technologies whose output could puzzle and at times annoy audiences, not to mention the dancers themselves. The music the Cunningham group used could be wildly controversial; a work like Canfield (1969), its score by Pauline Oliveros, could win a prestigious award in one country while provoking riots in another. Mumma relates all of it in a detail-attentive, dispassionate voice.

Cage was, of course, the most famous—or notorious, depending on whose judgment was concerned—of the Cunningham group’s sound collaborators. Mumma, who knew Cage for decades and last saw him only three months before Cage’s death, devotes a set of three pieces to a consideration of Cage as a performer, particularly of electronic music. While lacking the intimacy of, say, Carolyn Brown’s portrait of Cage in her Chance and Circumstance, Mumma’s anecdotes and impressions provide a discerning picture of a side of Cage that has often been eclipsed by his reputation as a composer and disseminator of ideas.

Mumma tells a revealing story about Cage’s performance on Mumma’s Swarmer, a duet for concertina and saw presented at a concert hastily arranged at Cornell University during a 1968 tour by the Cunningham group. The work consisted in an unnotated, orally-transmitted set of instructions for playing one- or two-pitched, semi-improvised events. Mumma was to play saw and Cage the concertina; not knowing the instrument, Cage had to learn it during the one and only rehearsal the day of the concert. Despite some mistakes during rehearsal, Cage gave a flawless and sophisticated performance that Mumma offers as evidence that despite Cage’s frequent claims to the contrary, he did have an ear for pitch and harmony as well as a high level of confidence and comfort as a performer generally.


The electroacoustic works Mumma developed and performed embodied an aesthetic based on a systems concept. But the system was never more than an outgrowth of a sensibility. And that sensibility is one open to the vicissitudes and contingencies of the performing situation as they influence the performance, sometimes pulling it in unpredictable directions. Pieces like Horn or Swarmer, with their semi-improvised features and embrace of in-the-moment risk, were premised on such openness. As composer Roger Reynolds noted of him, Mumma possessed an “extraordinarily responsive pragmatism” that, through close observation, could take the measure of the external and accidental factors at play in a performance—what might be called the facticity of the situation—and turn them from more or less obstinate roadblocks into the occasion for free action.

Mumma’s pragmatism may be the proof of the robustness of his systems aesthetic.  For it may be that it’s at the limits of the system—that boundary territory where it breaks down and becomes permeable to external pressures and the influences of something other—that, through assimilation and conversion, the system evolves and moves forward. Which is one way to describe the feedback loop of an open system, which the performance situation of a piece like Horn or Swarmer would inevitably seem to be. As Mumma himself puts it, “systems can provide a flexible sort of discipline.”  Mumma’s book bears articulate witness to how this flexible discipline played itself out in concrete situations over the decades.

Daniel Barbiero