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Dead medium: The Vortex Experimental Theater
From: carlg@pop.net (Carl Guderian)

Source(s): Folkways album "Vortex," Folkways Records FSS6301, 1959

(((Carl Guderian remarks: At a local used bookstore I found a Folkways record describing and featuring performances from the VORTEX, an experimental theater in San Francisco in 1957.)))

"VORTEX: Entertainment for the Space Age

"'Amazing!' said a member of the capacity audience. 'It's hypnotic,' said another. 'Especially magnificent was the sense of space == limitless, incomprehensively vast, and awe-inspiring in its implications,' wrote Alfred Frankenstein in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"They were talking about Vortex, a new type of theater == theater without actors, script or musicians == as presented at San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium.

"The heart of Vortex is the dome, an entire 'sky' upon which can be projected patterns, colors, moving shapes of all kinds == and the acoustical system == forty high-fidelity loudspeakers which can direct sound at the audience from any one point of the compass, or from all points at once, or can rotate around the audience in a kind of 'whirlpool' of sound. This latter effect is what gave Vortex its name. (...)

"Each composition is accompanied by visual effects projected on the dome by the elaborate planetarium lighting system and a battery of special Vortex projectors. These effects range from the small and humorous, as when a tiny planet and its moon do a 'dance' across the sky, to the grandiose spectacle of a whole sky filled with flashing patterns and colors."

(((Carl Guderian remarks: "Folkways?" Of nerdy, SF-based experimental musicians? Not exactly a vanishing culture. Hey, maybe we need an oral history. "Ya know, when Laurie Anderson first came to our little town...".

(((The album features a diagram showing a top view of the VORTEX speaker layout. At each of 12 evenly-spaced stations along the inside wall are a woofer and two tweeters. At the center are two woofers, facing at 3 and 9 o'clock. There are also two more woofers, one at 12:30 and one at 6:30. The audience sits in two semicircles, presumably facing their respective sides of the wall. The sound can be switched to any or all of the speakers or rotated through all of them in sequence.

(((According to the literature, the first performance of the Vortex was in May, 1957, sponsored by KPFA and the California Academy of Sciences. The music is your basic dry, but kinda interesting, compositions of blewps and bleeps you get when four white guys get synthesizers to play with. The musicians are:

(((Henry Jacobs == composer/engineer and organizer of the Vortex project. He had done weekly "Ethnic Music" broadcasts at KPFA for 5 years before this.

(((Gordon Longfellow == comes to us courtesy of Ampex Corporation of Redwood City, CA, and has worked with tape- recorded electronic music.

(((David Talcott == 6 years at KPFA and a huge Musique Concrete fan.

(((William Loughborough == worked with Harry Partch and helped design and build many of Partch's instruments. He invented the popular commercial drum, the Boo Bam, and other highly complex percussion instruments.

(((I guess I'm smirking a little, but this sounds like it would have been pretty cool in 1957, and these guys sound like they had a good time doing it. These musicians are probably still alive and there may even be some Dead Media readers who went to a performance, or know someone who did.

(((Performances ran at least into the fall of 1957. There's no mention of how much longer this lasted, though the record's copyright date is 1959. The literature also says they've received inquiries from as far away as Japan, about reproducing this "theater of the future." They mention Cinerama, too. So the technology died out, but not the concept.)))

Carl Guderian (carlg@pop.net)