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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

Young's most conspicuous early disciple was Terry Riley (b. 1935), the composer through whom minimalism first impinged on the consciousness of “mainstream” performers and critics and found a wide audience. A fellow graduate student at Berkeley, Riley also chafed against the forced regimen of serial composition then administered at the school. Unlike Young, he managed to complete an M.A. in 1961, but only by writing a twelve-tone composition, immediately disavowed, to satisfy the degree requirement. (Coincidentally or not, it was another string trio.)

What really interested Riley at the time was the composing he was doing to accompany a local modern dance ensemble. Like many others, he experimented with tape loops. He also made use of a device called an echoplex (developed by Ramon Sender, a San Francisco sound engineer) that was similar to the feedback generator Vladimir Ussachevsky had played with a decade earlier in New York (see chapter 4). It fed the signal emitted by a tape recorder's playback head back into the recording head, thus producing a sort of ever-accumulating canon.

A Contradiction in Terms?

fig. 8-2 Terry Riley, Munich, 1992.

Shortly after receiving his Berkeley degree, Riley took some of the tape loop pieces he had composed for the dance group and, subjecting their already repetitive sounds to echoplex treatment, came up with a relatively lengthy composition based almost entirely on reiterations of sometimes recognizable, more often unrecognizable fragments of previously used material. He called it Mescalin Mix after the name of a psychedelic drug produced from cactus plants, a forerunner of LSD, that was popular among the San Francisco Beat poets and their successors, the hippies. By drawing this association, Riley made explicit the connection between the new avant-garde and the same counterculture out of which progressive rock was about to emerge.

Replacing Young's “sustenance” with “looping” as the carrier of minimalism's infinite expanse proved a decisive move, especially when Riley followed up with a piece that transferred the looping technique to the domain of “live” music, music performed by humans in real time. This was not the first instance of live music imitating electronic; the recent “sonorist” compositions of the Eastern European avant-garde—Ligeti's Atmosphères, Penderecki's Threnody—had that distinction. But by combining the looping principle with Young's “algorithmic” method, Riley set the stage for the next, and possibly the last, true “revolution” in the history with which this book is concerned. From it emerged what Riley himself called “music that could be avant-garde and get an audience too.”12 From the traditional modernist perspective, the idea of a “popular avant-garde” was simply a contradiction in terms. But then, so was the idea of “traditional modernism.” Both apparent oxymorons were products of the changes the sixties had wrought in patterns of musical consumption, something never foreseen by the modernists of the earlier twentieth century or their theoretical spokespersons. The work that provided the decisive practical refutation of earlier modernist (or historicist) theory was a composition, written in the spring of 1964, to which Riley gave the frankly provocative title In C.

Ex. 8-3 is the complete “full” score of In C. One is not likely to guess by looking at it that the composition of which it is the notation lasts anywhere between half an hour and three full hours, to cite the range of its documented performances. It is best known from a Columbia recording issued in 1968, which preserves a studio performance by the composer with members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in the State University of New York at Buffalo. That performance lasts exactly forty-four minutes.

Each of the fifty-three numbered “modules,” which can be played by “any number of any kind of instruments” (including vocalizing singers) either at the notated pitch or at any octave transposition (and using either the notated time values or any arithmetic augmentation or diminution thereof), is to be “looped”—that is, repeated ad libitum before moving on to the next. The piece is over when all performers (in practice usually somewhere between a dozen and thirty) have reached the last module. Dynamics and articulations are ad libitum as well, and players are free to omit modules unsuitable to their playing technique, and to pause between or even within modules.

Percussion may be added, too, so long as it keeps strict time. The only constraints are for the sake of homogeneity of result: players are discouraged from using instruments that uniquely represent a given range or octave transposition, or from running too far ahead of the rest of the ensemble (or staying too far behind), and all players should be regulated by the same eighth-note pulse (given out audibly by a timekeeper who plays the top octave of Cs on a piano or a high tuned percussion instrument like a xylophone or glockenspiel).

A Contradiction in Terms?

ex. 8-3 Terry Riley, In C, full score

Thus the players, while given far more freedom of spontaneous choice than in conventional notated music, remain disciplined participants in a collective undertaking comparable to the Indonesian gamelan, to whose music Riley was attracted. In C is in no sense an “aleatoric” composition or a free-for-all, but rather an “algorithmic” one, controlled by a set of firm if loosely specified rules. Its unfolding is highly structured. Sustained and moving parts are balanced to produce interesting textures; and when, as Riley has said he intended, no more than four modules are in play at any given time, the music falls into clear sectional divisions marked by the introduction of new pitches and the disappearance of old ones.

Thus introduction of F at the fourteenth module (seemingly a segment from the Indonesian pelog scale) marks an important sectional divide. (Modules 11 to 13 can also be construed as typical gamelan figures in pelog tuning.) Confinement to the scale segment E-B (with F) from module 22 to 28 marks another. Modules 29–30 might seem to mark a return to the opening “title” tonality, but any impression that In C is actually — that is, functionally — in C in ordinary tonal terms is contradicted by the end. The note C is avoided from module 45 on, and the last five modules introduce the note B♭. The most one could say is that the piece passes through a modular tonal scheme in accordance with its overall modular construction.

The extraordinary reception Riley's piece enjoyed on its premiere performances, at the San Francisco Tape Music Center on 4 and 6 November 1964, surprised everyone. Alfred Frankenstein (1906–81), the venerable (and unusually tolerant) critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, then in his thirtieth and last year on the paper, was bowled over. “At times,” he wrote, “you feel you have never done anything all your life long but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or ever will be, but it is altogether absorbing, exciting, and moving, too.”13 He was the first of many to compare its slowed-down time scale, its gradual evolutionary unfolding, and its “climaxes of great sonority [that] appear and are dissolved in the endlessness” to the sublime effect of a Bruckner symphony.

But just as obviously, In C was a model of a very different kind of social behavior from that of a symphony orchestra. Riley is on record as rejecting the “symphony” model:

I distrust the organization of the orchestra, which is like the army. You've got this general sitting in his chair, then the lieutenants, and so on down to the privates in the back rows. There's a lot of that kind of politics in the orchestra, which I find pretty disagreeable as a way to make music together. Not all orchestras are guilty of this kind of hierarchy, but it exists to a degree in most. So it just didn't seem like a very healthy climate.14

Instead, In C represented a model of cooperative behavior of a kind that was at the heart of the sixties counterculture, with its hippie communes and ashrams, and the explicit parallel between the symphony orchestra, emblem that it was of the musical establishment, and the worst aspects of military life was a pointed reminder of what the counterculture was countering at the time of America's most unpopular military engagement. Also evident at a glance, and equally crucial to its immediate appeal, was In C′s relative ease of performance. It does not require highly trained professional musicians, although nothing precludes their participation. It lends itself equally well to all kinds of nonstandard ensembles, and it encourages mixtures of players from different walks of musical life. It received many performances by rock bands and early-music groups, and among the instruments in its first performance were jazz saxophones, rock guitars, and recorders.

The piece could be seen, from all of these perspectives, as proposing a more democratic, less hierarchical organization of society that might have appeared utopian in “real life,” but that could be actualized directly in music. It offered a working experience of countercultural paradise, or (as it was described in Glamour magazine) “the global village's first ritual symphonic piece.”15 Yet even the amount of specification that the notation of the piece and its loose performance algorithm retained eventually came to seem politically undesirable to the composer, who virtually abandoned notation for the next twenty years, devoting himself to solo and group improvisation with the algorithms and modules propounded through direct interaction—a virtual reversion (or, as some preferred to see it, a regression) to an oral culture. Riley became known for all-night improvisation concerts for small, devoted countercultural audiences. His main communication with the outer world was in the form of recordings that preserved “multitrack” improvisations, put together by a process of “overdubbing” one improvised part on others that had already been recorded. Riley's best-known multitrack improvisations were issued on another Columbia LP disk in 1969.

The force behind Riley's perhaps unexpected access to a major commercial “classical” label was David Behrman (b. 1937), a Harvard-trained composer and sound engineer who had been converted to experimental music, and who worked from 1965 to 1970 as a producer for Columbia Masterworks. There he was given the go-ahead by the label's president Goddard Lieberson (1911–77), an Eastman-trained composer, to sample the counterculture, whose work was after all cheap to produce on records, in an effort “to capture the imagination of the young audience.”16 Side I of Riley's new disk contained a nineteen-minute, largely pentatonic, ostinato-based improvisation called A Rainbow in Curved Air, in which the multiply recorded composer played electric organ, amplified harpsichord, “rocksichord” (electronic keyboard), dumbec (a small Persian drum), and tambourine. The other side had twenty-two minutes of less structured improvisations on soprano saxophone (an instrument Riley briefly took up following La Monte Young's example) and electric organ, called Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band. The liner note consisted entirely of a utopian environmental fantasy, recalling the turbulent war-protest conditions that provided the counterculture with its impetus:

And then all wars ended/Arms of every kind were outlawed and the masses gladly contributed them to giant foundries in which they were melted down and the metal poured back into the earth/The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow & green/All boundaries were dissolved/The slaughter of animals was forbidden/The whole of lower Manhattan became a meadow in which unfortunates from the Bowery were allowed to live out their fantasies in the sunshine and were cured/People swam in the sparkling rivers under blue skies streaked only with incense pouring from the new factories/The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light/World health was restored/An abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways/National flags were sewn together into brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform harmless theatrical games/The concept of work was forgotten17

The fundamental question these pieces raised could be paraphrased: Could an avant-garde of harmonious simplicity really be an avant-garde? There is no doubt that if avant-garde means marginalization, then Riley was avant-garde. His music was never to be found in establishment venues, whether concert halls or commercial radio. If avant-garde means technical innovation, then Riley was avant-garde. His music, especially the improvisation disks, made use of cutting-edge technology. Even In C was structured in a way that could not be entirely accounted for by citing precedents, whether “classical,” “pop” or “world-music.”

But if avant-garde means alienation, then Riley was anything but avant-garde (except in relation to the academic establishment from which he was a renegade, and which his music accordingly enraged). In sharp contrast to Young's, Riley's music bent over backward—too far, some thought—to be inclusive and audience-friendly, and cast an implicit negative judgment on elite art. Its most obviously “retrograde” tendency was its reembracement of consonance. But such a move was retrograde only from the historicist perspective, which required that all art build directly on the achievements of the immediate past, and toward a goal that those earlier achievements implied. That was never the aim of the avant-garde.

The very fact that Riley's music located the site of innovation elsewhere than in the domain of “pitch organization” implied a rejection of yesterday's modernism, as did all truly avant-garde art. It was precisely the same gesture, in relation to academic serialism, as the one that postwar serialists had made in relation to neoclassicism. It expressly denied the main premise of its elite academic predecessor, as peremptorily summed up by Milton Babbitt when he observed that, since pitch is the most precisely quantifiable of all musical parameters, it was therefore inconceivable that “under any reasonable application of the world ‘important,’ it could be suggested that pitch is not the most important of the musical dimensions, since its susceptibility to musical structuring includes and exceeds that of any other dimension.”18 Riley's music suggested, on the contrary, that there are other measures of musical importance besides the abstract structuring of pitch, and other available sites of significant innovation.

Of course it is also true that Riley's music of the 1960s bore conspicuous traits in common with the most crassly commercial musics of the 1970s. One was “disco,” a style developed in “discothèques,” nightclubs where people danced to recorded music, and where pop music was “remixed” by disc jockeys into all-night marathons of relentlessly repetitive, electronically realized “sequences” of commonplace riffs. Another was “New Age” music, a commercial offshoot of the counterculture, which consisted of sweet and soothingly repetitive “mood music” for piano or electric keyboards (or harp or acoustic guitar), meant to accompany the meditative practices of tired businesspeople, many of them former hippies, in search of surcease from the stresses of success. Like any other once-new music, Riley's was often assimilated in the minds of its critics to the routine practices it had helped set in motion, and it suffered in retrospect the negative judgments the routines inspired.

But Riley himself had no part of those routines, or at least no part of their commercial success. More than any other “minimalist,” Riley lived the actual life of the counterculture. Just when he could have capitalized on the success of his Columbia albums he “dropped out” into a virtually nomadic existence, gave up formal composition and public exposure, and disappeared from sight until he was rediscovered as a “classic” in the 1980s. So if avant-garde implies the disinterested service of art in implied protest against its commercial exploitation, then once again the composer qualifies, even if his works are finally judged not to.


(12) Quoted in Potter, Four Musical Minimalists, p. 148.

(13) Alfred Frankenstein, “Music Like None Other On Earth,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 November 1964; quoted in Schwarz, Minimalists, p. 43.

(14) Terry Riley, quoted in Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith, New Voices: American Composers Talk about Their Music (Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 1995), p. 234.

(15) Quoted in Samuel Lipman, “From Avant-Garde to Pop,” Commentary LXVIII, no. 1 (July 1979): 59.

(16) Quoted in Potter, Four Musical Minimalists, p. 133.

(17) Liner note to Columbia Records MS 7315 (1969).

(18) Milton Babbitt, “Contemporary Music Composition and Contemporary Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History,” in Perspectives in Musicology, eds. Barry S. Brook, Edward O. Downes, and Sherman van Solkema (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 165.

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. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008005.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008005.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008005.xml