Alien Territory: Radical, Experimental, & Irrelevant Music in 1970s San Diego

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“A long-awaited reply to Kyle Gann’s 1997 American Music book. Finally, the West Coast gets the consideration it so richly deserves. A great read.” – Warren Burt

“Any music book that can actively turn you on to new sounds is a success, and Perrine has done just that with Alien Territory.” – Byron Coley, The Wire.

264 pages, illustrated, published by Termite House, May 2023

From trailer park punks to Pulitzer Prize winners, this is the untold story of a sleepy Navy town that became the unlikely gathering point for some of the most innovative, unclassifiable American artists of their time. The late 60s arrival of Harry Partch — hobo composer, iconoclast and inventor of instruments such as the Harmonic Canon and Quadrangularis Reversum — jump started a revolution that was as much social as it was musical, drawing on the occult, self-realization and radical political movements of 70s Southern California.

Artists as diverse as Partch, Pauline Oliveros, Kenneth Gaburo, Roger Reynolds, Diamanda Galás, Warren Burt, David Dunn, Robert Turman and Master Wilburn Burchette may have pursued different paths — Sonic Meditations, compositional linguistics, microtonal scales, invented instruments, cutting edge electronics, underwater synthesizers, Tibetan throat singing, environmental sound, pure noise — but they also sought to dismantle the systems of American life and replace them with a radically inclusive and socially responsive aesthetic that looked to the future even when it sometimes referenced a distant, idyllically imagined past. In their pursuit of “Irrelevant Music” — Kenneth Gaburo’s term for an untainted music free of constraint and compromise — these disparate artists constitute a shadow history of American experimental music far removed from the European and East Coast models of the time.

264 pages, paperback, stuffed with photos. Published by Termite House, May, 2023.

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Chapter Outline

Prologue – A Premature Arrival

Hobo composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch visits mid-60s San Diego and finds a town that’s not quite ready for him. A brief overview of San Diego’s cultural milieu before the arrival of the University of California San Diego.

Chapter One – Tabula Rasa

One of the most radical music schools in the country is established at UCSD, a bastion of the new in the alien territory of conservative San Diego. After a lifetime of wandering, Harry Partch tries to settle down but never quite feels at home.

Chapter Two – Noise Organs, Meditations & Contradictions

Faced with war, strife and cultural upheaval in the early 1970s, three disillusioned artists seek to rebuild music from the ground up: Pauline Oliveros meditates; Robert Erickson gathers sounds from the air; Kenneth Gaburo argues with everything and everybody, especially himself.

Chapter Three – Buchlas, Moogs, & the Dreamer That Remains

UCSD’s state-of-the-art electronic music studios get a workout from a generation raised on rock and roll. Harry Partch gathers a band of young dropouts at his seaside home for his final testament.

Chapter Four – The Birth of the Center for Music Experiment

Psychic transmissions, sonic meditations, mystical harmonies and compositional linguistics test the limits of music — and institutional tolerance — at UCSD’s new Center for Music Experiment. Composer and founder Roger Reynolds finds his methodical approach to experimentation at odds with the radicalism of his colleagues.  

Chapter Five Muzak in the Cheese Aisle, Crows in the Canyon

Warren Burt, David Dunn and Ron Robboy incorporate the Grand Canyon, the Pacific Ocean and a cheese aisle into their pursuit of deliberate incompetence as artistic strategy.

Chapter Six – Occult Energies in East County

In blue collar East County, Boyd Rice, Robert Turman and friends loop tape, make noise, and disrupt consensus reality. Rice’s teenage provocations soon turn dark, setting the stage for his later flirtations with fascism. Meanwhile Master Wilburn Burchette taps into psychic visions of the beyond in his whole-hearted embrace of the New Age.

Chapter Seven – Free Music & the Transformation of Diane Galás

Free improvisation, free jazz and the transformation of Diane Galás, sheltered teenage piano prodigy, into Diamanda Galás, howling banshee.

Chapter Eight – Children of Partch in the Computer Age

Respectability and the computer age loom at UCSD, while ritual ceremonies, underwater synths and infinity guitars attest to the lure of the unknown. The spirit of Harry Partch lives on through the San Diego microtonalists and their strange invented instruments. Pauline Oliveros says goodbye to an era she helped create.

Chapter Nine – Gaburo Unleashed, Partch in Berlin

Kenneth Gaburo abandons the ease of academia and the elite La Jolla coast for the streets of “violent East San Diego”, where he starts an ambitious and idealistic publishing venture. His production of a Harry Partch work in Berlin sets two approaches to experimental music on a collision course.