Lend us your ears for the debut episode of Black Mountain College Radio, our new podcast dedicated to all things Black Mountain College and Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center! In this podcast, hear:

  • An interview with Julie J. Thomson, curator of the exhibition Begin to See: The Photographers of Black Mountain College, held January 20 – May 20, 2017 at 69 Broadway.
  • A centennial birthday message for composer Lou Harrison, who taught at BMC in 1951 and 1952
  • Various works by Lou Harrison

Can’t listen? Read a transcript of the podcast below.

Check out our Soundcloud page to stay up-to-date on new episodes!

Jonathan Williams, “Lou Harrison,” Music Hut, BMC, 1951 Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center collection

Episode 1 Transcript

by Carmelo Pampillonio

Interview with Julie J. Thomson

CP: Hi Julie, thank you for joining us for our first episode.

JT: I’m delighted to be part of this, thank you.

CP: Absolutely. Could you start by speaking a little about your background, and why you chose to curate a primarily photography-based exhibition?

JT: I’m an independent scholar and curator, and I do various projects in various ways. I’ve curated some exhibitions in the past, and I’ve also come to working on Black Mountain College through a specific artist, and that’s the artist Ray Johnson, who was a student at the school for three years. But I think with working on anything about Black Mountain College whole worlds open up to you, and that was the case with this exhibition, “Begin to See: The Photographers of Black Mountain College.”

And through the Black Mountain College Conference that happens every year, previously I’ve presented various papers and essays on Ray Johnson and I started to get interested in photography, in part because Ray kind of worked in photography at Black Mountain College, and I was wondering about that.

But I just really wanted to find out more, and so first this started with a presentation about Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Arthur Siegal teaching during the 1951 summer session, and I just realized that there was so much material that I proposed an exhibition to the BMCM+AC. And I think because I knew people from presenting at the conference for so many years, they were really receptive to the idea, and two years after it was proposed the exhibit happened.

CP: Awesome. So, I was wondering if you could speak about the genesis and evolution of the photography program at Black Mountain College? I know that at the time Josef Albers said that photography “is still a child among the crafts,” which makes BMC seem even more progressive for having a photography program.

JT: Completely. I think photography is still very much during this time, and we’re talking 1930s and 1940s, finding its place in the arts and also in art education programs throughout the United States. And so, Albers is really a key player in this, and I think I knew he had made photo collages when I started this research and working on this exhibit, but I didn’t know much more. I knew about that because of a great presentation by Michael Beggs who also has an essay in the catalogue. So I knew Josef Albers was engaged with photography, but in research and reading more this fuller picture emerges, where he talks about photographs in his classes; he kind of lets them in as one of the arts for his students to engage and discuss. And he has a bunch of interested students, students like John Stix and Claude Stoller who come to Black Mountain College with photographic experience, and also darkroom equipment. And he actually starts a photo study group with some students in the late 1930s. In the 1940s he starts inviting various visiting photographers, and by the summer of 1944 for the summer art institute he’s able to invite Josef Breitenbach and that really kicks off the program. But in the summer before that he gives this lecture—his only known lecture of or writing about photography—and I think this is interesting because photography was something he explored a lot, and advised students, and kind of taught them, although he taught them informally, but he also made photography a part of the curriculum.

CP: Josef Albers famously said that he wished “to open eyes” at Black Mountain College, and he was interested in cultivating a visual and aesthetic sensibility among his students. Could you speak about how the ways in which his interest in painting transferred over to photography?

JT: I think that is a topic that there’s probably going to be a lot more to write about, but I do think he was very attentive to or interested in the ways in which the camera transformed what you saw. So like his matiere studies that kind of take materials that he did and students did and make them look different kind of by their position of being next to each other.

There’s a photograph that Michael Beggs reproduced in the catalogue of mud, but when Albers photographs mud through the camera, it takes on this new form. It looks like bronze, and you’re just really attentive to the texture. And so I think there’s an interest in formal qualities of things, the flattening effect of the camera and the way that the camera allows Albers to see things differently. And I think with some of his paintings that he made kind of inspired by architectural form from his trips to Mexico, which he and Anni made six trips to Mexico while they were at BMC, some of his seeing those sites through the camera I think leads to some of his ability to see the geometry that then allows him to abstract that through his paintings. But then again, I think this is an area where more research is being done, and we’ll learn more in the upcoming exhibitions, too.

CP: Ah, that’s very exciting. So about your exhibition, you divided it into multiple sections titled: “Available Light,” “Bearing Witness,” “Experimentation,” “Performing for the Camera,” and “Place.” In another interview with Aperture Magazine you spoke briefly of why you segmented the show this way, but I was curious if you could elaborate on the sections more, particularly “Experimentation” and “Performing for the Camera.” 

JT: Sure. You know there’s always various ways to organize an exhibition. It seems like things were the right way to allow us to look at the photographs themselves and not…I mean, I want people to be aware of the photographers but I also want this vibrancy of the energy of the various photographs to come through. But I think a category like “Performing for the Camera” is a quintessential category for the photographs that we know—if we know any photographs about BMC. And those are Hazel Larsen Archer’s amazing photographs of Merce Cunningham dancing. He is dancing for her and her camera. They are working together, collaborating. And they’re stunning photographs because of this co-creation, but also because they’re set up in certain circumstances where the focus is entirely on the dancer and his formal qualities as a dancer.

“Experimentation” was also important. You know, we could have said just “photo collages,” but experimentation was kind of bigger than that. And in looking at the various photographs that exist, it really became clear that different people experimented with photographs in different ways, and it was more of an individual sort of experimentation. So there is the photo collage by Josef Albers that uses this contact print glued onto a support board, and so that’s kind of this collage but it’s a little bit different because it’s working with the contact sheet. There are more people working with photograms, and we see that where you put an object onto photosensitive paper and expose it to light, in various ways. Ray Johnson does it with drawing on transparent surfaces, and Hazel Larsen Archer uses natural materials. There’s also the variation of Sue Weil making a cyanotype print, but those she first learned from a technique that her grandmother used with a glass negative and a portrait onto blueprint paper. That was a technique that Sue Weil knew about, and she introduced it to Robert Rauschenberg. And while it was a technique they experimented with after they left BMC, when Rauschenberg comes back to BMC in 1951 he really gets involved in photography. So I think that complicated history is a part of all these ideas being spread about through BMC and through people who knew each other. There’s also solarization [that] comes through. Josef Breitenbach was experimenting with all sorts of different techniques, and while there’s an early photograph by him, if he was talking to students about photography it would have been very easy for him to be referencing other things he did. He even tried to photograph smell, and make the smell come through in photographs. I mean it’s a really unique kind of individually driven approach to experimentation that was really exciting to see how many different people were experimenting with things.

CP: One last question. Many people have a sort of idealized image of what Black Mountain College was really like. With this photography exhibition, did you find yourself wanting to play into this, or to show the college as it really was, or both?

JT: Well I think…there’s a couple of things. I think one thing that in working on BMC I’ve come to realize is that it was a different college every semester—and you might even go as far as saying every month, every week, every day, and every hour. But I do think we always need to acknowledge that because sometimes people were just there for a week, just there for a few days, sometimes they were there for a whole semester, sometimes for many years. So I think there is this tendency to think of BMC kind of as a college, or a place, but it was really many colleges and many places depending on who was there at any moment. So I think I’ve learned that, and I’m so glad I have learned it in trying to take on a topic like this, just because we do know so much about BMC because of the photographs. But I wanted to go a lot deeper with “who are these people making these photographs?” “How are they seeing things in their own individual ways?” and “What are their own engagements and relationships to photography?” And I think I was just really surprised; a lot of these people had really deep relationships with photography, which was really exciting to find out in this research. So I think in putting together the exhibition I wanted to include photographs that were known, like Jonathan Williams’ wonderful photograph of Joel Oppenheimer and Francine Du Plessix Gray that’s known as “Beauty and the Beast,” where he’s grimacing at the camera. And again, that’s one of those “Performing for the Camera” iconic photographs of BMC. But I also really wanted to show some of his other photographs, and put together what his engagement with photography really was, because it had a lasting influence on his entire life, which…he did many things. But also it’s really good to understand what he did with photography, and all of these individuals did in photography, as well as many other things they did.

CP: Yeah, and you definitely did a great job of that too, and I think that’s probably a very apt way of looking at Black Mountain College, recognizing that there was a pluralism rather than a single college. 

JT: And I think that’s part of when people were invited to teach, how they taught their classes was up to them, and that’s fascinating. And it’s fascinating to also explore in the archives.

CP: Alright, well thank you Julie for taking the time for this interview! 

JT: Thanks Carmelo, bye!

Lou Harrison Centennial Segment

In this centennial segment of our first episode, we’re celebrating and reflecting upon the life and works of Lou Harrison, who would be celebrating his 100th birthday on May 14th, 2017.

Lou Harrison was born in 1917 in Portland, Oregon. He was a composer and a student of Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, and K. P. H. Notoprojo. He is known for assimilating aspects of non-Western music in his compositions, such as his utilization of Javanese gamelan instruments and styles.

In San Francisco in the 30s, Lou Harrison studied composition and counterpoint under composer Henry Cowell, who helped inspire him to develop percussion-oriented works using unconventional materials. Here he met and befriended John Cage, who was also a protégé of Cowell. Seeking to expand the current musical topography, Cowell developed the “string piano” technique, where the pianist would reach inside the piano to pluck, scrape, sweep, and mute the strings directly.  

Thus it was Cowell who inspired John Cage’s “prepared piano” technique, where Cage would meticulously insert nuts, bolts, plastic, pieces of rubber, and other items on top of and between the strings to achieve what he referred to as an “exploded keyboard.” These unconventional extended techniques not only expanded the percussive, timbral, and lyrical possibilities of the piano, but they placed a strong emphasis on percussion in composition.

Cowell had an interest in tapping Asian music sources for inspiration—such as the Javanese gamelan—which spread to Lou Harrison and John Cage. For Cage, this is evidenced in his “Sonatas and Interludes,” written between 1946-1948, where the sharp, shimmering, and rattling sounds of prepared piano often unabashedly resemble the varied textures of gamelan. For Harrison, this is evidenced in many works, one of which being his 1973 “Concerto for Organ and Percussion.” In this piece, you can hear him expounding upon Cowell’s interests: not only of gamelan timbres and rhythms, but of tone clusters, as Harrison actually hit the keyboard with blocks of wood so as to hurl dense throngs of inharmonic sounds into the mix.

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Harrison and Cage collaborated on a percussion piece titled “Double Music,” which premiered in San Francisco on Harrison’s 24th birthday in 1941.

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In 1942 Harrison moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where he took lessons from Arnold Schoenberg, who introduced Harrison to his own twelve-tone technique.

In 1943 Harrison moved to New York City and worked as a music critic for the Herald Tribune, and was under the tutelage of composer and critic Virgil Thomson. It was Thomson who gave Harrison a copy of Harry Partch’s book Genesis of a Music, which imbued Harrison with the desire to write music in just-intonation—a tuning technique where the frequencies of notes are mathematically related by small whole number ratios in order to achieve more consonance. Harrison also worked at editing the scores of composer Charles Ives and conducted the first performance of Ives’s “Symphony No. 3” (which won Ives the Pulitzer Prize). Ives gave half the prize money to Harrison.

During this period Harrison was supporting and championing the works of composers such as Edgard Varèse and Carl Ruggles. Harrison published a study Ruggles’ music, and the influence of Ruggles and Schoenberg shines through in works such as Harrison’s “Symphony on G” and his opera “Rapunzel.”

However, the stress of his New York lifestyle and the musical rat-race eventually became too much for Harrison, and in 1947 he suffered a nervous collapse and was admitted into a mental hospital for almost a year. This had a sort of cathartic effect on Harrison’s music, as elements of dissonance were replaced with open and melodic thematics, such as in his 1948 “Suite No. 2 for Strings.”

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It was John Cage who recommended Lou Harrison to Black Mountain College to help his friend recover from the stress of living in NYC. Harrison taught at the college in 1951 and 1952.

In 1953, a revitalized Lou Harrison returned to California, moving into a hilltop house in Aptos, where he lived for the remainder of his life. He worked as a park ranger, composing when he could, and he received commissions periodically.

Soon he became a senior scholar at the University of Hawaii in 1963, and he taught music at San Jose State College from 1967 to 1980.

He was visiting professor at Stanford University in 1974, and he held other positions at the Universities of California and Southern California. He was the Darius Milhaud Professor of Music at Mills College from 1980 to 1985, and in 1983 he went to New Zealand as a senior Fulbright Fellow.

Although he was heavily influenced by Asian music, Harrison didn’t visit the continent until 1961, with a trip to Tokyo. That same year he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that allowed him to study Korean music in in situ. He also went on to study in Taiwan. Back in the states Lou Harrison and his partner William Colvig constructed their own “American gamelan,” as they called it, out of resonating aluminum keys and tubes, oxygen tanks, brake drums, and other items not usually considered to be musical.

Lou Harrison’s incorporation of prepared and non-musical instruments, and his marrying of Western and Eastern elements, shows that he was a composer who genuinely sought to expand the musical vernacular of his time. He pushed back against aesthetic enculturation, and attempted to suggest to the listener that their musical dialect can always be expanded upon.