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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

The status of founder always commands an aura. Young's is the name that shimmers in accounts of minimalism, despite (or rather, because of) the infrequency with which his music has ever been performed. In chapter 2 we encountered him in connection with Fluxus, the loose association of artists and musicians on the fringe of the New York art scene who promoted “happenings” — acts of “performance art” or dreams of conceptual art that might or might not include music. As mentioned in that discussion, Composition 1960 #7 was the only one of Young's compositions of that period that used musical notation, the others specifying actions other than sound-producing ones, even if they did use musical equipment. The one most often cited by connoisseurs of eccentricity is his Piano Piece for David Tudor #1: “Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to.”

Young's association with Fluxus was brief and uncharacteristic. His fascination with sounds “held for a long time,” however, was of long standing and wielded a strong and highly ramified influence. His early career, albeit hopelessly encrusted by now in mythology of his own and others’ making, illustrates the division within the music world that his later career transcended. Born in rural Idaho, Young grew up listening to popular music on the radio and playing jazz saxophone. (After making his avant-garde reputation, he preferred to say that his real musical education consisted of listening to the endless hum of high-tension wires and the sublime squalling of thunderstorms.) As soon as he got to UCLA, he was put on the same Schoenbergian compositional regimen as everyone else. (The teacher who encouraged him in his earliest composing was Leonard Stein, Schoenberg's old California assistant.) On his own he discovered Webern, whose sparseness spurred him to emulation.

The product of an urge to surpass, even if only a paradoxical sort of surpassing in restriction, limitation, and reduction, Young's early efforts demonstrate yet again the strange kinship between the new minimalism and the old maximalism. During the summer of 1958, between his UCLA commencement and his enrollment in the graduate composition program at UC Berkeley, Young composed a String Trio, ostensibly modeled on Webern's op. 20. Its first 159 measures are shown in Ex. 8-1. It may well be the most notorious composition ever produced in class by a first-year graduate student.

The music in Ex. 8-1 consists of the unfolding of a single chromatic aggregate— what in Webern would be called a single twelve-tone row. The first three pitches introduced are, moreover, typically Webernian in the way the cello's D fills the pitch-class space between the viola's C and the violin's E♭, completing a symmetrically disposed unit. Among the classics of early atonality are a couple of Webern pieces in which the unfolding of a couple of chromatic aggregates furnished the entire musical content. In one of his Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, op. 11 (1914), Webern managed to pare the contents down to a single aggregate, like the one in Ex. 8-1. That might already be considered a kind of minimalism.

But Webern's pieces take seconds to perform, whereas Young's opening aggregate (about a quarter of the entire piece), in which the three instruments together produce only eleven discrete sounds (single notes or double stops), takes eleven minutes to unfold, of which the first five are occupied by the first three notes. The extreme slowness of the unfolding, also describable as the extreme length of time the process occupies, magnifies the impression of “minimal” musical content far beyond anything even remotely suggested by Webern.

Also magnified far beyond anything actually found in Schoenberg or Webern is their notorious idealism. Critics have often called attention to aspects of notation in their work (like the “hairpin” crescendos on single piano notes in Schoenberg's op. 23) that relate to the “idea” rather than the sound of the music. Young's Trio abounds in notational features unrelated to the sonic realization. The many tempo changes that take place on rests (or in the middle of sustained tones) are instances, as are the many “syncopated” entries made without any accentuation or surrounding pulse against which syncopations may be measured, or even perceived, by the ear.

Legendary BeginningsLegendary Beginnings

ex. 8-1 La Monte Young, String Trio, mm. 1–159

The willingness (or compulsion, or capacity) to take things to unaccountable extremes immediately marked Young's work as “avant-garde” in the classical meaning of the word. There is no doubt, then, about the esthetic from which minimalism emerged. It was, at first, an art of alienation and social disaffection in the late, late romantic tradition. Young's uncompromising commitment to the ideology of modernism is further reflected in his widely quoted remark: “Often I hear somebody say that the most important thing about a work of art is not that it be new but that it be good, but I am not interested in good; I am interested in new—even if this includes the possibility of its being evil.”9

The Trio has lived in legend as an emblem of that stance. Its legend has several distinct phases, beginning with the legend of its angry rejection by the composer's professors at Berkeley, continuing with the legend of high praise from Stockhausen (allegedly overheard, and later reported, by Cardew) at Darmstadt in the summer of 1959, and cemented by an almost complete absence of performances, so that its reputation is sustained almost entirely by history books and hearsay, and by Young's avowal, borne out (if only indirectly) by subsequent events, that his purpose in writing the Trio was to “influence the history of music.”10 Never published—it is on deposit along with the rest of Young's graduate-school submissions at the Berkeley music library and otherwise available only from the composer— the hour-long Trio has had only a handful of documented public airings (some of them in arrangements for other ensembles of strings). The first was a reading arranged by Seymour Shifrin (1926–79), Young's composition teacher, in an effort to persuade him that the outlandish time-scale was a miscalculation. The tiny audience consisted of the rest of the seminar. Perhaps the most recent performance, by three members of the Arditti Quartet (a well-known ensemble specializing in contemporary music) took place at a London music festival in 1989.

Much primed by the legend, the work was received this time in a manner reminiscent of the way Morton Feldman's music is now usually interpreted: as a spiritual exercise. The cello's consonant perfect fifth at the end of the row, unusual in twelve-tone music (although it returns at various transpositions in other instrumental parts when the row is subjected to standard serial permutations), was singled out as prophetic by those who interpreted the Trio in the context of the transformations “minimalist” writing had undergone in three decades of subsequent development. Edward Strickland, an early historian of minimalism, shrewdly observed that “the extended fifth,” unexpected and therefore striking in its serial context, “was soon to recur in Young's work in a totally different context—i.e., no context, as the entire content of Composition 1960 #7.”11


(9) La Monte Young, “Lecture 1960,” in Potter, Four Musical Minimalists, p. 48.

(10) Potter, Four Musical Minimalists, p. 34.

(11) Strickland, Minimalism: Origins, p. 121.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008003.xml