Friday, July 13, 2007

Renewing the Radical Moment

In a previous posting, I attempted a rough definition of musical minimalism* with the aim of recovering the term's utility for a broader swathe of musical activity. This definition can be more or less correctly be construed as opposing those who'd like to restrict minimalism to the activities of a very small group of musicians living long ago in that island kingdom known as lower Manhattan.

Without distancing myself from that definition, I'd now like to put it into an even broader music-historical context by attempting to recall the repertoire out of which this music came before the minimal(+/-ist/ism) label was applied.

I am very fond of this anecdote in La Monte Young's Lecture 1960:
I used to talk about the new eating. One time Terry Riley said, "Yeah, even the cooks'll get rebellious. We'll walk into a hamburger stand and order something to eat. In a few minutes, the cook'll give us some salt. Just salt. Then one of us will say, 'What? Is this all?' And the cook'll answer, 'whatsamatter, don't cha like static eating?"
Okay, in 1960, the term minimal (and all its cognates) was not yet in play, in fact, it doesn't enter musical vocabulary for about a decade, quite likely via the visual arts. (In fact, if, in 1960, someone were to start talking about minimalism in music, they might well be talking about Webern, Hauer, or Satie, composers who were unable to use their techniques to create works of traditionally "significant" durations or durations filled with traditional significance.) But over in Berkeley, Young and Riley were playing with the "new eating" and "static eating" as analogies to their musical work, a new music or a static music that is not yet a minimal music. What was that music? Who was making it? What were their shared concerns?

The backgrounds of composers in this Bay area scene -- given that we're talking about white American men (and a very few women) -- are musically if not exactly culturally diverse. While studying in conventionally classical curriculae (Young's principal teachers in LA were students of Stravinsky and Schoenberg), both Riley and Young had extensive jazz backgrounds, and so did Steve Reich, Loren Rush, and others. This diversity lead, on the one hand, to a lack of investment in continuity with the European classical tradition, and on the other hand, to an openness to other traditions -- whether it would be Riley or Young studying North Indian music, Reich studying Balinese, Ghanaian, or Jewish sacred music, or Douglas Leedy's engagements with early music or South Indian music.

It's not clear that (a broadly construed) concert music is or is going to be the center of their musical concerns. Theatre is one central concern. Young and Riley both had early pieces with theatrical elements, both composed for dance (the extraordinary Anna Halperin) , Young would have early contact to the Fluxus folk, a people not shy of theatre, and Young's own ensemble would eventually carry the name the Theatre of Eternal Music (Richard Kostelanetz's 1968 book, The Theatre of Mixed Means, with a chapter on Young, remains the best contemporary report on the New York developments of this activity). This interest in musical theatre was shared by a number of Bay Area composers: important theatre pieces were composed by Douglas Leedy (Decay), Robert Moran (39 Minutes for 39 Autos), and Ramon Sender (Desert Ambulance). Pauline Oliveros -- not yet the composer of sonic meditations -- was perhaps the best of the Bay Area theatre piece makers, and a number of her pieces must be revived. ** The theatrical activity extended well beyond the bay area. A parallel impulse was at work in the ONCE Festival and Group in Michigan, independently recognizing the theatrical implications of the new music (Robert Ashley's interjection into Roger Reynold's interview with John Cage -- appended to the Peter's catalog of Cage's scores -- is a key moment in this development) and elsewhere, for example in works by Daniel Lentz or Barney Childs. Of course, acting as background radiation to all of this is Cage's collaboration with Cunningham, including the famous Black Mountain happening, which generally require the various artistic disciplines to maintain their own identities, but used music's temporal strengths to organize a common frame. And this application of musical time to non-musical disciplines had a feedback effect, reinvigorating the potential of musical time through the time frames of the theatre, and, ultimately, of real life (recalling, cannily enough, a Borges story, but I digress).

An additional concern was music using electronics, a medium without, even now, a fixed place in the concert hall. Broadcasts, recordings, gallery, studio and other non-conventional venues were alternative and alternatively viable environments for performance. The fixed format of music for tape would inspire both the use of live electronics and experiments designed to overcome the rigidity of tape playback (Richard Maxfield was the leading theorist and practitioner here). The studio itself -- the San Francisco Tape Music Center and the Ann Arbor ONCE studio are the models -- was at once a model for working independently of established musical institutions and an inspiring source for investigating and rethinking musical sound. Electronics facilitated Young's notion of getting inside a sound***, through amplification, extended durations, and stable control signals, but also invited a number of other interests, loosely connected to the qualities of mechnization and automation, but also to the entropical tendencies of electronics. Musical processes (looping, gating, filtering etc.) became central interests (the idea of a "systems music" came somewhat later, with systems-oriented groupings in New York (Johnson, Goode, Corner, Benary, Feldman) and England (described in Nyman's Experimental Music)) and a central compositional problem became how best to musically frame and make clear the execution of a process or principle, whether in a phase piece by Reich or in Lucier's I am sitting in a room.

May I propose the notion that the impulse underlying all of this activity was, literally, in the classical sense of a turn to roots or foundations, a radical impulse? I won't dwell on the historical coincidence of this artistic radicalism with political radicalism in similar locales (Berkeley, Ann Arbor, NYC) , nor in the recuperation of both these artistic and political impulses into the sleep of the Reagan eras in both California and the US at large, but that's definitely there, too. Instead, I'll just close with the question of renewing the radical moment in music: we have survived Reagan and will survive -- although at great cost -- Bush II, we will also survive Adams and Corigliano and Wuorinen and so on. The question is whether we will find an opening for a radical detournement for our own time.
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* Minimalism in music is the impulse to articulate or frame a musical work or performance so that the sounds themselves can be clearly perceived as distinct or composite forms and in maximum detail. To achieve this clarity, the number and variety of materials used will usually be limited, and any formal processes used will usually be efficient, evident, and carried out consequently .

This impulse may lead to, if not actively entertain, several, possibly paradoxical, effects:
  • materials or processes selected for their simplicity may reveal, through clear compositional articulation and focused listening, unexpected details, even complexity;
  • although an honest or realist approach, music so articulated may open up its own musical/acoustical illusion spaces;
  • this physical and experiential mode of production and listening may resonate with abstract or conceptual modes of understanding;
  • the materials selected may recall or be identified with known musical repertoire.
** I would be profoundly remiss if I did not note that many of these theatre pieces are profoundly funny works, not funny in the sense of one-off jokes by music majors or Kagel, but gonzo/zen/yoyodyne funny.

***In an early work of Riley's, Young, a small man, was actually required to climb into a grand piano and move about. Thus, Young's physically getting inside an instrument was instrumentalized to allow the listeners to get inside the sound.

4 comments:

sfmike said...

You're putting Adams with Corigliano and Wuorinen. Now that's just plain mean.

Daniel Wolf said...

Provocative, not mean. Adams, Corigliano, and Wuorinen are very different composers sharing only their impressive technical skills. I'm very fond of some Adams scores in particular, but in the end, within his own musical community, his work represents, like the work of C & W, an intensely conservative impulse, based upon very concrete assumptions about what music has been, is or might be.

Samuel Vriezen said...

Daniel, as you were posting this, I was attending a meeting of Wandelweiser composers in Düsseldorf, getting to know all sorts of wonderful works by Beuger, Frey, Pisaro, Werder, Houben, Sabat, Malfatti, Möller and others (an Amsterdam delegation comprising of Dante Oei, Taylan Susam and me had some works done as well). It seems to me that they are a group that represents the radical moment today, but I'm curious what you would have to say about their work?

Daniel Wolf said...

I don't know the Wandelweisers as well as I probably should, mostly pieces by Beuger which I admire; so the follow remark should be taken with some reservation.

The question has sometimes come up about the relationship between the Wandelweiser and the Material Group (myself, with Hauke Harde, Markus Trunk) and, sometimes, the Thuermchen composers as well. My impression -- and it is only that -- is that Wandelweiser composers have been interested in getting as close to a musical null point as possible, in approaching silence, whereas the Material idea was to start from null and construct something that may or may not resemble the musical. There is a lot of variation within these ideas -- I think, for example, that Hauke Harder's music is a stronger version of this than my own, which probably errs more often on the side of music that is is healthy -- and something should be said for the music-intellectual underpinnings -- why is it that neither Hauke nor I can even begin to relate to the local negative dialectic tradition (Lachenmann, Spahlinger etc) and its emphasis on struggle but find late Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty breathtakingingly useful?