Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Interview with Ramon Sender

Photo: Isaac Hernandez

Ramon Sender was born in Madrid, Spain, on October 29, 1934. Ramon's mother, Amparo Barayón, was born in Zamora, near Portugal, and was working to the phone company in Madrid when she met Ramon J. Sender, Ramon's father, a very well-known Spanish journalist and writer. Amparo, a concert pianist, also performed occasionally at El Ateneo, an artists' club. Amparo and Ramon met each other during a period when the phone company went out on strike, and Ramon was at the strike meeting, covering as a journalist. They started to live together and soon their first Ramon was born. Less than two years later Amparo gave birth to Andrea, their second child. It was during the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and the family had to split because Ramon J. Sender was being persecuted by the right wing militia. He told Amparo to go to Zamora, her hometown as a safer place to stay with the two children, but Zamora was already in the hands of the fascists. Ramon J. Sender was in Madrid at that point, and the plans were for Amparo and the kids to escape via Portugal to France, so Amparo tried to apply for an exit visa and a passport, but it was denied. In August 1936, Amparo's brother Antonio was sent to prison and killed, so Amparo went to confront the military government about that, and was also put in jail. She was in prison from September to mid-October 1936, when she was "released" to an assassination squad and shot that night in the cemetery. Ramon Sender was two-years old and Andrea was a nursing baby when their mother was killed.

As soon as Ramon J. Sender had news about his wife's death, he managed to bring young Ramon and Andrea to France, where they lived for some time until March 1939, when the father took his two children to New York, USA, by sea. Ramon Sender was four years-old and Andrea was two. In the USA, Ramon J. Sender decided to go to Mexico, and the two kids were fostered by an american woman named Julia Davis, who became Ramon's and Andrea's second mother. Except for a couple of years that Ramon, Andrea, Julia, and Julia's husband lived in Clarksburg, West Virginia, the family basically lived in the New York State, where Ramon was encouraged by Julia to play the piano. Ramon also became interested on playing the accordion, partly because of a fat kid he knew at school who was very popular playing the instrument. So Ramon asked Julia and when he was 10-years old he got an accordion, as a birthday/Christmas gift.

One of Ramon Sender's main piano teachers during his youth was the concert pianist George Copeland, with whom Ramon studied until 1952. In this period Ramon also studied harmony with Elliot Carter for two years, before he decided (at George's suggestion) to go to Italy to study at Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, in Rome. After some time in Italy, Ramon decided to come back to the USA and attended the Brandeis University in Boston, MA, where he studied with Irving Fine and Harold Shapero. In 1954, aged 19, Ramon Sender married his first wife Sibyl. When Sibyl knew she was pregnant they decided to come back to New York, to live there. In NYC, Ramon Sender had several jobs, and worked hard to make a living with his wife and newborn daughter, but things weren't exactly what he and Sibyl expected, and they separated (not for the first time, neither for the last).

In 1956 Ramon Sender was told about an electronic music concert at Martha Graham Foundation, in NYC, attended and it was his first contact with the composition "Gesang Der Jünglinge," by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The concert also included a lecture by Louis and Bebe Barron (the couple had recently worked on the first all-electronic soundtrack for a full-length movie, "Forbidden Planet"). Ramon was caught by electronic and tape music, and it was the beginning of a new musical horizon for him. In the winter of 1957 he attended Henry Cowell's composition classes at Columbia General Studies, and in the next year he went to San Francisco, CA, for the first time, driving from coast to coast thru the USA. One of the first things that Ramon Sender did in San Francisco was to go to City Lights - the bookstore -, where he met Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure. He also became friends with Alan Rich (who was the musical director of KFPA radio), and composer Loren Rush, who indicated Robert Erickson as the best composition teacher in the San Francisco area.

Ramon Sender, Michael Callahan, Pauline Oliveros, and
Morton Subotnick at the SFTMC.
In 1958, he came back to the East Coast and joined the Bruderhof, a Christian community located near New York. Sender stayed there for almost an year and a half, but decided to go back to the West Coast.  Back in San Francisco he signed for a full course of study at the San Francisco Conservatory, studying harmony with Sol Joseph and ear training, improvisation, and composition with Robert Erickson. Sender studied at the Conservatory from 1959 to 1962, and there (at Erickson classes), he met Pauline Oliveros and re-met Loren Rush. On his second year at the Conservatory, Sender became interested in adding pre-recorded tapes to his compositions, and used Robert Erickson's classroom as his recording studio. During the next Summer he decided to build an electronic music studio in the attic of the San Francisco Conservatory and using a hammer and a cold chisel he built a partition to enclose the space. By October 1961 the electronic music studio was ready, with equipment collected, built, and bought by Ramon Sender. The grand opening concert for the studio was called Sonics, and a series of six Sonics concerts happened from December 1961 to June 1962, with compositions from composers such as Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley, Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, and James Tenney, among many others. Ramon Sender had his compositions "Transversals" (1961), "Kronos" (1962), "Parade" (1962), and "Tropical Fish Opera" (1962) premiered at the Sonics series. The last of the Sonics happened on June 11, 1962 and soon after that Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick established the San Francisco Tape Music Center, joining their equipment and moving to an old Victorian house at 1537 Jones Street, in Russian Hill, San Francisco, where they stayed for some months before moving to 321 Divisadero Street (not before a fire incident at Jones Street). The last performance at Jones Street was "City Scale," a happening written and directed by Ramon Sender, Anthony Martin, and Ken Dewey, in which a big part of San Francisco was used as the stage.

Most of the San Francisco Tape Music Center concerts and recordings happened at 1537 Jones Street and at 321 Divisadero Street, and its history is told on a book originally published in 2008, "The San Francisco Tape Music Center - 1960s Counterculture And The Avant-Garde", written by David W. Bernstein. Ramon also has his own version of the period, a reality fiction novel called "Naked Close-Up", published in 2012 by Intelligent Arts. Some of Ramon's compositions from that time include "Triad" (1962), "Balances" (1964), and also his most well-known piece, "Desert Ambulance" (1964). In late 1964 Don Buchla designed and delivered the prototype of his Electronic Music Box Series 100 - or simply 'Buchla Box' -, requested by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick for the SFTMC. The Center was also the stage for the premiere of Terry Riley's "In C" on November 1964. The members of the SFTMC also changed things in multimedia arts, including dance, poetry, films, and light projections on their performances, and the Center was also one of the first intersections between the Avant-Garde arts and the pop-rock-hippie-psychedelic culture that was emerging in San Francisco at the time. Ramon Sender, Stewart Brand, Ken Kesey, and Bill Graham formed the production team responsible for the famous Trips Festival on January 21-23, 1966 at Longshoremen's Hall. A mark and a watershed on the history of the San Francisco scene, the festival included bands such as The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company (before Janis Joplin joined the band), and The Loading Zone, along with poet and writer Allen Ginsberg, Don Buchla's sound and light console, Anthony Martin's visual projections, Stewart Brand's "America Needs Indians" performance, and the Merry Pranksters.

After the Trips Festival, Ramon Sender decided to retreat in the desert for a while. At that point, the San Francisco Tape Music Center - later called Center For Contemporary Music - was about to move to the Mills College (one of the conditions for a Rockefeller Foundation grant was to associate the SFTMC with an Institution or University). Morton Subotnick had already accepted an invitation to go to New York, so the new configuration of the Center was Pauline Oliveros as the director, William Maginnis as the technical director, and Anthony Martin as the visual director. Ramon, who had met the journalist and ex-Limeliters bass player Lou Gottlieb earlier, decided to join Lou to found a community called Morning Star Ranch.

During his life and career after the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Ramon Sender lived in some communities, most of them near San Francisco. Ramon has lots of stories about before and after the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and you can find some of them in a long interview that Ramon gave to Tessa Updike and MaryClare Brzytwa on April 2014, as part of the San Francisco Conservatory's Oral History Project. On October 1 and 2, 2004 Ramon Sender, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Tony Martin, and Bill Maginnis reunited to an event at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, to celebrate the San Francisco Tape Music Center. The event was filmed and it is part of David W. Bernstein's book on SFTMC, that I've mentioned before.

My contact with Ramon Sender to this interview was via email. He kindly found time to answer to an interview on some points about his life and career as a composer and founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. It's a pleasure and honor to contact and to interview such a great composer and artist, and such a gentle human being! I'm very grateful to Ramon Sender! And now, the interview! Viva Ramon Sender!

ASTRONAUTA - Ramon Sender, what are your earliest musical memories? And how and when did you realize that music was something important in you life?

RAMON SENDER - My earliest musical memories are of my mother when I was around 1 year old, who trained as a concert pianist, playing Albeniz. There was a fat boy in my first grade class who played accordion. I wanted to be just like him and play accordion too. I began piano lessons, but always asked my American mother about having an accordion. When I was ten years old, she gave me one as a combined birthday-Christmas present. I never had lessons, but learned to play tunes that I heard on the radio and also learned how to use chords correctly by practicing on it.

ASTRONAUTA - How did you become interested in electronic music and in tape manipulations?

RAMON SENDER - I attended a Composers Forum concert in New York City in 1956 and heard Stockhausen's "Gesange der Jünglinge." I immediately went out and rented a wire recorder (only kind available at that time.

ASTRONAUTA - What are your memories from the first time you met Pauline Oliveros? And how about Morton Subotnick and William Maginnis?

RAMON SENDER - Pauline occasionally dropped by Robert Erickson's composition class at the Conservatory in 1959-60 as a previous student of his from San Francisco State University. As fellow-accordionists and mutual admirers of Erickson as a teacher and composer, we became very good friends and remained so over the years. A whimsical look at those times are in my 'historical fiction' e-book "Naked Close-Up" available on line (here).

In 1961 I built a primitive electronic music studio in the Conservatory's attic and began a concert series titled "Sonics." We included a live improvisations on the concert (Erickson was a great improvisation enthusiast and passed this on to all his composition students). After the concert, Subotnick came up to the stage and asked, "Can I play too?" So we collaborated on the various other concerts we planned for that winter season. By June on the following year, we had moved into our own space outside the Conservatory.

The way Bill Maginnis describes how we met: "I walked into the Tape Center off the street because I needed to copy a tape and introduced myself to Ramon. 'Do you know anything about electronics?' he asked. 'Well, yes,' I replied. 'Do you know how to build a ring modulator?' 'Yes, I think so,' I replied. Ramon got out a bunch of keys and began taking some of them off it. 'Here's the one for the front door, here's the one to the studio,' he said. 'You are our new technician.'

We paid Bill a small salary and set him up a work bench in one corner. He was a terrific asset and kept everything running, as well as being a talented composer himself. One of his electronic pieces is amongst my favorites - "Life Time" - that he made by beating a high frequency oscillator against the frequency of the record head. The difference tones created he then manipulated a little. The piece has a strange, eerie other-world feeling that I like.

I could put a copy into my shared 'public' dropbox are and you can download it here:

Various pieces of mine are also available in the same public folder (audio only):
The Tropical Fish Opera

Desert Ambulance (without projections)

gayatri_final mix.aup

Xmas Me-Ushas.mp3

Audition sample.mp3

Worldfood XII sample.mp3

100 Favorite Classical Masterpieces-FINAL.mp3

ASTRONAUTA - How came the idea of using light projections during the electronic music concerts? And how did you meet Elias Romero and Tony Martin?

RAMON SENDER - When we did the "City Scale" piece in December 1962, one of the events was to take the audience (in a large truck) to the San Francisco Mime Troupe's abandoned church in the Mission District to see a light show by Elias Romero. This was my first experience with liquid projections and I saw right away that projections could work as a visual elements in our concerts. You don't realize how important the visual element in a normal concert until it's no longer there. I approached my abstract expressionist painter friend Tony and begged him to come on our team and compose graphics for our pieces. He was reluctant at first, but I managed to twist his arm!

ASTRONAUTA - What are your memories about your first meeting with Don Buchla? And how did the arrival of the 'Buchla Box', in 1964, change the compositional process at the San Francisco Tape Music Center?

Bill Maginnis and Ramon Sender with the
'Buchla Box'.
RAMON SENDER - We were in desperate need of a main mixing board, some pre-amps, etc, but also looking for someone who could designed our 'dream instrument' for us. Buchla came to one of our concerts - or perhaps answered an ad we ran in the newspaper.

Did the Buchla Box change the compositional process at our center? For Subotnick almost immediately. For Pauline more gradually, but more once the Center moved to Mills College and she took over as director. I was in the process of leaving the city when the Buchla first arrived, but then during the winter of 1967-68 I needed a job and Don allowed me to stuff circuit boards for him and live in his manufacturing warehouse. In the warehouse he had a complete Buchla studio set up and I spent happy hours there.

ASTRONAUTA - It seems that San Francisco was the first place in the world to really blur the boundaries between the academic electronic music and the psychedelic-pop-rock electrified music, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center was the main responsible for that. And, in my opinion, the Trips Festival was something like the turning point, meaning the end of an era and, at the same time, the beginning of another era for the San Francisco Tape Music Center as a group, for you as an artist, and also for the emerging rock scene, bands like Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, that became very very famous from that point on. My question is, how do you see the Trips Festival now that almost fifty years had passed since that weekend in January 1966? What were the most difficult things to make the festival happen, and what were the most rewarding things? Would you do something different if you had the chance to remake the Trips Festival?

Ramon Sender playing the 'Buchla Box'
at the Trips Festival, 1966
Photo: Susan Hillyard.
RAMON SENDER - In 1965 I was getting a little burned out with our concert format at the Center. I wanted to do something I was calling "Sunday Morning Church" but it was going to offer all the ancient mystery religions such as Mithraism. I spoke about it to my friend Tony who said that there was a photographer, Stewart Brand, doing multimedia slide shows titled "America Needs Indians." So I spoke to Stewart and we traded some ideas during a weekend at the Eselen Institute in Big Sur. A few months later he phoned me to say that Ken Kesey was in the city and doing the Acid Test with the Grateful Dead. I attended their performance at The Fillmore, and a week or so later Stewart called and said that "Kesey wants to do a whole weekend of concerts he is calling 'The Trips Festival'." It would bring together the most interesting performing groups in the area. So we worked on the idea as more or less 'co-producers.' As the energies become stronger, we hired Bill Graham who had just produced a successful benefit for the Mime Troupe, as our 'put-it-all-together' person. He did a great job.

What would I do different if we did it again? My dream had been to run Big Brother's sound through the Buchla's ring modulator and then very very gradually increase the modulation so that people would not be directly aware of what was happening. But I got all wound up in the practical details and, although we did have the Buchla on the center platform, all we did was play along with various bands.

ASTRONAUTA - And, one last question, what are your plans (and visions) for the future, as an artist and as an human being?

RAMON SENDER - My future plan as an artist/human being is first of all, to continue chanting the Gayatri prayer to the sun every morning. It is the oldest prayer known to us, and in Sanskrit it transliterates as:

"Om, Bhur, Bhuvaha,
Svar, Tat Savitur Varenyam, Bhargo Deevasya
Dheemahee, Dyo Yo Naha Prachodayat,
Om Tat Sat."

Or if you prefer it in English, here is my personal translation:

"Aum, oh earth, oh air, oh golden light,
Oh, that brilliance most adored!
We drink the splendor of that One who
inspires our heartbeats to quicken with love."

I then say "May all beings be peace, healthy, and happy forever," and ask for special blessings for my wife, my children, Grandchildren, friends, pets, etc.

Is to concentrate on discovering the project outlined here:

and more recently in a small booklet that I am still polishing, but online here:

I intend to have the final version to hand out at my eightieth birthday.
And as a one-page summary here:
(also see attached copy)

Also interviews here:

And my three videos demonstrating various exercises here:
Purring to Nirvana:

And Purring to Nirvana II:

And Resonating to Nirvana demo here:

And a companion article:

Touching Nirvana:

And an older technical explanation behind purring here:

Best Wishes,

ASTRONAUTA - Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you, sir!
All the best!
Astronauta Pinguim

Ramon Sender's website:

Ramon Sender with Riqui, 2014. Photo: Tessa Updike.
"A Death in Zamora", by Ramon Sender.
Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender.
Ramon Sender, photo by Cathy Akers.

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