Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The LAMC and the DEA by Jonathan Scheuer

The League of Automatic Music Composers was a collective of experimental composer/engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area which existed from 1978 to 1983. The LAMC is great for a lot of reasons: the members pioneered using networked microcomputers to generate sound, they used noise, extended just intonation and microtonal scales, they connected computers and analog instruments in innovative ways, they focused on live performance rather than composition on tape, and they were more interested in experimentation and unpredictability than aesthetic refinement and results. Consequently, when the computers were "on," the results are
enduringly fresh and exciting. All of this was done by writing machine language code on computers whose one kilobyte of memory provided"processing power less than that of a twenty-first century coffeepot," as LAMC veterans Tim Perkis and John Bischoff put it. New World Records' The League of Automatic Music Composers CD collects ten LAMC performances from 1978 to mid-1981. All of the music on this disc is fascinating, and often beautiful.

The CD's otherwise very informative booklet doesn't discuss the LAMC's covert connection to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which is understandable, considering the controversy involved. Apparently this was an extension of an initiative which had begun a few years earlier when Morton Feldman was brought on as the DEA's unofficial composer in residence. Feldman was beginning to write his extended pieces, and the idea was that listening to these and to comparable work by Cage and others would help to train agents to withstand the tedium of protracted stakeouts. Results were mixed. Feldman pocketed the much-needed money, and a handful of performances were sponsored, apparently without the performers being aware of the funding background. (This is not surprising-- playing underpublicized gigs in rooms half full of uncomprehending squares is SOP for New Music ensembles). A minority of agents found the listening experience very useful, a majority found little or no value in it, and two agents subsequently left the DEA to pursue their own artistic goals.

The DEA's institutional goal in sponsoring the LAMC is more obscure (see Mellish's interesting, inconclusive discussion of the subject in the International Journal of Drug Policy , v16.5). Apparently it was related to efforts to resolve rivalry within the agency between teams who had come from the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics and others from the
FDA's Bureau of Drug Abuse Control. The Bureau of Narcotics and the BDAC had been merged in 1968 as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, under the authority of the Justice Department. Despite such notable successes as the 1972 French Connection bust, intra-agency rivalries persisted, and cooperation with the Customs Service's Drug Investigations unit was negligible. Some younger agents decorated their cubicles with xeroxed copies of underground cartoonist Robert Williams' "Law of the Lame," a lampoon from 1970 of former Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger and the haplessness of the Bureau's undercover force. After Richard Nixon re-reorganized the BNDD as the DEA in 1973, DEA director John R. Bartels, Jr. realized that rivalries within the agency could be normalized and managed by reframing them as generational tensions. To this end, he initiated several controversial but non-mission critical programs as an arena in which these conflicts would play out and, hopefully, resolve. The DEA's New Music initiatives of the 1970s and early 80s were thus part of the agency's ongoing internal psychodrama.

It's not clear which, if any, of the principal human members of the LAMC were aware of the League's DEA connection. As yet, no-one has come forth to explain or defend the covert sponsorship, as, for instance, Gloria Steinem has done regarding her early CIA ties. I'd say it's a safe bet that LAMC founder Jim Horton was not the DEA liaison. In any case, nobody narced on League members (there may have been a deliberate hands-off policy). And the creaky, leaky flotilla of American experimental music wended its wayward way into the Reagan era as if nothing at all had happened.


1 comment:

Eoanthropus said...

I have actually seen but not heard one of these records!I was at a Beacon Hill party in 1977 or '78 where a copy of Take a powder, any Powder had been pressed into service as a surface on which to chop up with a razor blade illegal substances (in which I was not partaking. I had assumed that the disc was a novelty item designed for that very purpose with the title being obviously hilarious to the drug-addled mind. Imagine my surprise to discover that this was a real and once playable record! The copy my host had, of course, must have been long rendered unplayable from the service into which it had been pressed and I now wonder what effect the addition of the many microscopic particles of shellac to the illicit substance might have had.