Monday, September 8, 2008

RAMON SENDER, Inner-Space Magellan -AG

Ramón Sender playing accordian. Lou Gottlieb sitting lower left, Bill Wheeler sitting lower right.

The best part of writing Spaced Out was getting to know some of the truly original shapers of sixties subculture. (I missed Ken Kesey but had a fruitful conversation with Tim Leary before his earthly remains got shot into space in 1996.) One name that kept popping up was Ramón Sender, experimental composer, proto-hippie and inner-space Magellan, who positioned himself on a certain vibratory wavelength, surfing the zeitgeist, a madly curious free spirit who invented sun yoga and various consciousness-twanging devices like the sunstrobe and the "thwizzler". ( "Looking back, I realize I've always been interested in 'hallucinate your own melody'," said Ramón. As a 14-yr-old in New York City, he discovered that he could tune the Magnavox radio in the living room between stations to a place where he seemed to be hearing all the stations at the same time. "It was a very rich texture out of which I could 'pull' whatever sounds I wanted. It seems that the rest of my composing career was more or less searching to re-evoke this experiences, this 'lost chord', so to speak, especially in the richly textured drone pieces "WorldFood III" and "Worldfood XII," now out via Locust Music.

"Mousehouse," Ramón's self-built house at Wheeler's Ranch, c. 1970.
Photo: Bill Wheeler

In the early sixties, Ramón helped to found the San Francisco Tape Music Center. "Working with tape recorders was a very liberating experience for a young, over-trained composer," said Ramón. "I felt it gave me the same freedom that a painter enjoys of putting a stroke of color on a canvas and then stepping back to decide whether to keep it or not. Up until then, it had been just putting black dots on music paper and then trying to convince somewhat staid instrumentalists to interpret them as sounds. Tape made for more direct feedback, and I loved it. Of course the medium has limitations, and I/we searched hard for ways to expand the palette, leading ultimately to the invention for us of the Buchla synthesizer." (Ramón was co-inventor of the synthisizer (west-coast version) along with Don Buchla and Mort Subotnick.) . The University of California just published an excellent history of this experimental outpost: "The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and The Avant-Garde." (see:

Everything changed in 1964 when Ramón had his first out-of-body, psychedelic experience:" "One day, in 1964, Steve Reich came over to my house with a paper bag full of these odd-looking little green dried-up buttons. He asked, 'Where's your Waring blender?' I said, 'Why?' We each downed the peyote and I went through a little bit of the nausea thing, but then I was having a great time noodling around at the piano, but finally he said he thought it was time for him to go home. I said, 'You're going to go home? But why? We're having a wonderful time!' He left and I lay down, and began an absolutely Jungian, back-to-the-womb recap of my life, finally through the moment of conception. It was fantastic. This whole new universe opened up."

"Being of the Sun" by Ramón Sender and Alicia Bay Laurel

Ramón and Stewart Brand (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue) organized the Trips Festival at the Longshoreman’s Auditorium in January 1966. Somehting like an expanded version of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, the three-day event included performances by avant-garde artists as well as newly emerging SF bands like the Grateful Dead. Ramón became the first to ever play a synthesizer with a rock band--Big Brother and the Holding Company--at this seminal pyschedelic moment.

A few weeks after the Trips Festival, Ramón went out and bought fifty tabs of LSD and drove into the Mojave Desert to cool out and think about things. "We all scattered in different directions," he said. "The energy was centrifugal." He found an isolated little cave and camped out for two weeks. Then he visited a psychedelic church in Socorro, New Mexico, where an old couple gave him psilocybin mushrooms. He also went to visit Drop City, one of the first hippie communes, with its multi-colored domes made from recycled automobile metal. When he came home to San Francisco, he was a changed man. "After the desert time, I just couldn't live in the city any longer. I had to be out in nature. It wasn't so much a drop out of the mainstream as a drop back into The Tao."

Along with Lou Gottlieb (former Limliter), he helped found Morning Star commune in Sonoma County and brought his open-minded spirit and infectious curiosity into that pioneering communal scene, teaching other communards how to play open-tuned instruments -- guitars, autoharps, bells, flutes, gongs -- forming great pentatonic drone circles of musicians and non-musicians alike. "At Morning Star I found myself in an ideal position for a composer: a group of people who were spontaneously retribalizing with the help of mind-merging chemistry and needed the chants and rituals that usually are created by living together for thousands of years." He began to compose chants that could be learned in a few minutes around a campfire, using open-tuned instruments that anyone could play and sound good. "Sonic harmony. I'd tune the instruments to the sound of the wind in the redwoods, which oddly enough was in G - like good old country music! Needless to say I spent a lot of time tuning (smile.)"

Ramón Sender playing synthesizer at the Trips Festival, January, 1966

While at Morning Star, Ramón learned to work with his hands, building simple shelters from free and recycled materials and helping others to learn the Tao of intuitive building. "Building codes and other bureaucratic encroachments on our nest-building instincts are just another straitjacket to our basic freedoms," wrote Ramón in a recent e-mail.  "Best damn therapy that ever came along was allowing folks to build their own structures. A guy would stumble onto Wheeler's Ranch all weirded-out from street living to the point where he just wanted to be left alone. First night he'd roll up in his blanket under a small pine to wake up cold from the morning fog. So he went looking for something warmer, stumbled onto a piece of unused construction plastic, and hung it over a branch to keep off the fog drips. A few days later, he found an old window and propped it to the windward. By then he'd discovered the wood-burning stove in O.B's meadow where a pot of oatmeal occasionally sat - or where he could cook his own with grains from the free store. By then he was feeling relaxed enough to trade some conversation and accept a few tokes. By the end of the week, he had built himself a cute little hovel out of redwood deadfalls and some surplus slab, and was asking if there was anything that needed doing he could help with. I'd point him to the community garden, which always could use weeding. And so we leave our newly revived human happily ensconced, grounded to the soil, living as nature intended. Sigh…"

Later, when the bulldozers came to destroy the funky shelters at Morning Star, Ramón, along with others moved to nearby Weeler's Ranch, another open-land commune. He moved into a hand-made hut called the "Mousehouse" that someone else had already started, but he worked with what was there and built a humble addition. "At Wheeler's Ranch, we used to get the redwood 'slab'- the first cut on a log to strip the bark - very  very cheap scrap - and then used them for exterior siding of a hut. Lots of gaps, of course, that would have to be chinked with mud or whatever. But keep in mind we were in a very temperate zone - perhaps only two days of frost a year, but you did need a tight roof for the 28-or-so annual inches of rain, and a wood-burning stove (I used sawdust burners - three of them - that provided three years worth of heating out of one enormous vanload of sawdust (free except for the trucking charge). I'd dry it over the summer and then bag it up in 30-gallon bags. Only thing I missed was the visual pleasure of watching the flames (these were home-made sealed stoves made out of barrels of various sizes. I got the plans from the Pennsylvania Dept of Forestry.)"

"I helped a friend build his home from one fifty-dollar two-ton-truckload of used lumber.  We pulled the old nails, straightened them and pounded them back in. For the total cost, I would have to add a used door, some recycled windows, and a custom tarp 'roof' (probably biggest expense) so that on sunny days he'd just roll it back, standing in his loft… Dirt floors are easy to keep clean, by the way! And construction plastic makes great picture windows. Speaking of the latter, one of the most imaginative houses on the ranch was put up by a friend in a redwood grove: one large sheet of plastic (30 by 30 feet?) sandwiched between quarter-inch by four-inch redwood 'bender-board' strips 24-feet long.  We then raised it by pushing in and  up on the bender board ends, which created a 'Quonset hut' tunnel structure. Shade from the grove supplied less sunlight so it didn't become too much of a greenhouse. The ends of the structure were sealed with more plastic sheeting, and the 'floor' covered with carpet scraps. Just gorgeous, and perhaps cost all of $100."

"I spent perhaps my happiest summer at our ranch, living on $5 a week. My hens were laying, the two cows giving milk, the community garden a cornucopia of veggies, and the free store had brown rice, oats and wheat berries. All I needed to buy basically was white gas for my Coleman lantern (night reading), an occasional can of Top tobacco, coffee and cooking oil. Yeeha! When the USA shortly becomes a bankrupt third world economy, I'm ready!  And believe me, we'll all be happier and healthier for it. Of the 14 births we had in the two years I was there, I can only think of two that required a run to the local hospital. Just the daily walking required to gather supplies, chop wood, carry water, etc., kept future mom's' bodies in good shape."

"We met the revolution, and it was we! Of course the county bulldozed us out of existence in 1972, but today Sonoma County probably has the greenest local government south of Mendocino. However the developers, like sharks, are always circling..."

Ramón was one of the guiding spirits behind Spaced Out. In the process he became a friend and mentor and has been kind enough to share his experiences, ideas, inventions, memories and photographs. (By the way, his unpublished work "Home Free Home: A History of Two Open-Door California Communes" is one of the best sources for anyone doing work on 60s alternative lifestyles:"

Solar salutations to Ramón!

Clockwise from left: pattern effects created by strobe; Ramón Sender lying in field, trying out his Sunstrobe device (Wheeler's Ranch), "Antropos," painting by Ramón.

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