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Sacramento’s Source of the Avant-Garde

From 1967 to 1973, Sacramento was home to the world’s most respected journal of avant-garde music and art, called Source Magazine. The late 1960s were a period of dramatic social change in the worlds of art and music. During this era, groups of like-minded artists gathered in a few cities that became epicenters of creativity. San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” in Haight-Ashbury was one such epicenter, as was Paris during the uprisings of May 1968, or the East Village in Manhattan via Andy Warhol’s “Factory” scene. Sacramento’s epicenter of cutting-edge music was located in the basement of a Victorian home in Midtown’s Poverty Ridge neighborhood, where Source was produced.

The house belonged to jazz musician Stan Lunetta, a Sacramento native who was inspired by his junior-high-school music teacher to pursue a career in music education. Lunetta worked his way through school playing in Sacramento’s jazz clubs, but found primary and secondary music education less stimulating than he envisioned. Enrolling in the graduate music program at UC Davis, his musical career took even more unusual turns. When he enrolled in the graduate music program at UC Davis, his musical career began to take some unusual turns.

Formed in 1963, the New Music Ensemble, who performed at beatnik hangouts like the Belmonte Gallery and the Iron Sandal, or in conjunction with the Sacramento Symphony and California Musical Theatre, consisted entirely of UC Davis Music Department faculty and graduate students. Most of the players, including founding member Lunetta, also played as musicians in Sacramento’s jazz clubs. Their club experience and extensive collaborative jams allowed them to improvise so smoothly that it sounded like a pre-arranged performance.

In the mid-1950s, UC Davis transitioned from an agricultural training institute to a full university, and wasted no time in establishing its arts and music programs, taking pains and spending money to attract well-respected talent to shake off their “aggie” reputation. In 1966-67, the university attracted the acclaimed German electronic music composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as its composer in residence. He was followed by equally legendary composer John Cage in 1968-69. Cage’s style was even more avant-garde than Stockhausen’s, including pieces like “4’33”,” consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, with two pauses at specific points.

When Lunetta and the NME performed for Stockhausen, he originally refused to believe their performances were improvised, despite his own reputation as a musical pioneer. He selected which musician would play what instrument, then changed their order at the last minute, like a card player switching decks on their opponent to look for signs of cheating. The New Music Ensemble were such skilled and versatile musicians musical card sharps that each changed lineup still sounded smooth and professional. According to Lunetta, Stockhausen refused to believe that they were not somehow fooling him.

By this time, the sheer level of energy and experimentation around the UC Davis campus had grown to the level that Lunetta, fellow NME member Larry Austin and their group of musicians decided it was time to share their musical experiments with the world by publishing their musical scores and compositions, as many of their contemporaries did. According to Lunetta, the project quickly grew beyond just publishing musical scores:

“The reason we ended up publishing it was that we knew a lot of people who were gifted composers and we went ‘Let’s publish all these people’s music along with ours!’ And we started to make up a catalog, and the catalog got more and more … why don’t we just publish a magazine? And so we did, and it was called SOURCE: MUSIC OF THE AVANT-GARDE. The first issue, we printed 1000 and it sold out. 2nd issue we printed 2000 and another 1000 of the first issue.”

Despite publishing only 11 issues between 1967 and 1973, Source was one of the most influential music magazines of its era. Each issue of Source was unique, experimenting not just with music but with graphic design, page layout and printing techniques. Contributors included local Sacramento musicians alongside artists from around the world. Pages contained special folds and cutouts to accommodate special arrangements and designs.

The magazine predated “multimedia” technologies by decades, and used innovative elements to transmit ideas beyond the limits of the printed page. Several issues included 10-inch extended-play records bound into the magazine. One musical score was included in the magazine as a 35mm Kodak slide, intended to be projected onto a wall for performance. Source’s refusal to follow musical or graphic convention occasionally infuriated librarians. The Boston Library staff wrote to the editors regarding Issue 6, July 1969, an issue that was numbered starting with page 1173, containing a score created by firing a submachine gun into sheets of musical notation paper, stating, “The first 1172 pages are missing, and page 1173 has got holes in it!”

The first electronic music synthesizers were introduced during this era, and Source included many stories about the potential of electronic music, along with circuit diagrams and circuit board patterns so readers could create their own experimental digital devices. Publishing circuit diagrams let experimenters build their own, adding their own custom features and improving the designs.

Lunetta’s interest in electronic music was expressed in many of these circuit diagrams. He designed and built many of his own electronic instruments, in an era before they were commercially available or mass-produced. At the dawn of the era of integrated circuits, Lunetta and his cohorts sought ways to turn these devices to musical ends that their designers never intended, including devices that played themselves or reacted to their environment without deliberate human intervention.

Other pieces published in SOURCE were more conceptual, like a score that included strips of fake fur pasted onto the page, intended to be “played” by running the reader’s fingers over the fur, or a John Cage score printed on transparent plastic sheets, intended to be overlaid on other pages.

One simple score consisted of a Möbius strip, a loop of paper with a half-twist to create a single continuous surface, intended to be cut out and pasted together for a score of infinite length. Other pieces were experimental to the point of danger. Issue 6, the edition with the machinegunned pages, featured a score whose instructions consisted simply of “An antipersonnel bomb, cluster type, is detonated in the audience.” Slightly less hazardous was a performance based on pouring hydrogen peroxide into the listener’s ear and asking them to visualize napalm sizzling flesh while the peroxide bubbled in their ear. Issue 10, June 1971, included an environmental music score involving a series of ice cream trucks driving away from a central point, with pre-positioned participants on nearby hilltops ready to set off flashbang grenades when they heard the tinkling tunes of the approaching trucks. While such scores might not be intended to be taken literally, their purpose was to challenge the reader’s concept of what a musical performance could be.

Source was not strictly limited to music. Other experimental artists published work in Source, including environmental artist Christo’s early work “Valley Curtain,” groundbreaking Korean video artist Nam June Paik, and performance-art groups such as Fluxus. The magazine also served as a means to promote experimental music concerts and festivals, like FFLEM, the First Festival of Live Electonic Music, performed at UC Davis and Mills College in 1967; and the International Carnival of Experimental Sound in London, an event featuring artists like Dick Huygens, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman, and Lunetta’s performance art combo, AMRA/ARMA.
After 11 issues, Lunetta and his cohorts planned a 12th issue of Source, but the baroque complexity of the magazine and its lack of commercial appeal meant revenues from the magazine did not cover their expenses. The 12th issue was never printed.

Professor Lunetta retired from UC Davis and musical performance in 2008 after decades of teaching music at UC Davis, performances with the California Musical Theatre, Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, Sacramento Symphony and private musical instruction. He still lives in the same house in Poverty Ridge, with an amazing collection of traditional musical instruments, homemade electronic musical devices of all sorts, and many of the original documents and files used to create Source Magazine.

Copies of the magazine are exceptionally rare, but can be found in special collections like the Sacramento Public Library’s Sacramento Room special collections center. In 2011, University of California Press produced an anthology collecting some of the articles from Source. The 10-inch extended-play records contain tracks by Robert Ashley, Larry Austin, Stan Lunetta, Anna Lockwood and other experimental artists, and some tracks can be heard via www.ubu.com/sound/source.html . Like so many of Sacramento’s other respected artists, musicians and writers, the role of Source Magazine is little-known in the city where its creators lived and the flagship of 1960s avant-garde music was published.

(Note: Quotes in this article were taken from an interview with Stan Lunetta by the author, conducted in February 2013.)

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