Friday, May 6, 2016

The Return to Tonality in Classical Music (Part One) - La Monte Young and Terry Riley

The Return to Tonality (Part One)

By Don Robertson

from the online book:

“Music Through the Centuries”
By Don Robertson
Published on
Revised and Expanded–  2016
Copyright 2005, 2016

From across the sea came the inspiration that reawakened tonality in contemporary classical music

     Episodes 1 and 2 of my "Notes with Don Robertson" WebTV series explain how there was an onslaught of discordant classical music that occurred during the twentieth century. A return to concordant music in our classical music halls began slowly during the 1960s. The profound effect that the classical music of North India had upon the classical music of the Western world, especially in America during the 1960s, cannot be overestimated in this return to tonality.
     In 1967 and 1968, I was studying contemporary, discordant classical music privately with American composer Morton Feldman, an associate of John Cage. At the same time, I was also studying North Indian classical music with the great maestro from India, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. I was faced with two contrasting styles, one sublimely spiritual, ancient and transcendent, the other cold, frightening, and modern. It didn't take me long to realize the dichotomy between these two completely opposite styles: discordant/stressful as opposed to concordant/spiritual. 
                     Morton Feldman  
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

     At that time, I discovered the ultimate discord that I have named the duochord. This discovery is fully covered in my book "The Scale" as well as in this article on my website.  
     After I made this discovery, I permanently left the world of "contemporary" discordant "classical" music with its stressful, negative harmonies. I realized that my discovery was an important one: a shift back to music's true roots in harmonic tonality in 1967 was obviously the next big step in the evolution of classical music, the last big change in style having taken place at the beginning of the 20th century when Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg introduced his extremely discordant classical music. I also realized that I was probably not the only composer who had realized that a huge change in classical music would now be taking place. And I wasn't.
A page from La Monte Young's "Trio for Strings" of 1958

     In 1967, a friend gave me the score to La Monte Young’s 1958 composition "Trio For Strings." I recall that it had a transparent cover with a translucent photo of La Monte in a thick fur coat. This music is now considered the benchmark piece representing the minimalist music movement, and an historic moment in the development of classical music. It incorporated long silences and extended sounds without melodic or rhythmic development. Inspired by looking at a score of Young's trio and by the music of my teacher Morton Feldman and his friend, composer Christian Wolfe, I began ardently pursuing my own brand of minimalism (although that term would be unfamiliar to me for at least fifteen more years). 
     I owned a record containing a piece of music for violin and piano composed by Christian Wolfe. This music consisted of incredibly long silences and very isolated notes. When I slowed that LP down to half speed, 16 RPM, and listened to that, I discovered the kind of empty, stripped-down music that I wanted to compose myself, based on my discovery of the duochord. Soon after, I wrote a musical composition that I called "MU for Horn and Piano." In 1967, it was performed in the concert hall at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City where I was studying. A friend and fellow student performed the horn part on his clarinet. 
     Very few notes are played by the clarinet/horn and by the piano during the performance, and there is a lot of silence. During the Juilliard performance, some of the students in the audience broke out in spontaneous laughter during the first really long period of silence. After about ten seconds, I noticed, people didn't know how to respond. "Is the piece over?" "Should I clap," they wondered... hence the outburst of laughter. It was wonderful. The audience had been taken completely off guard, not knowing if the piece had ended or not, and was confronted with nothing on which to place their attention. 
     What fascinated me about the music was that because of the abundance of space and the sparsity of notes, you could focus on the sounds themselves. The clarinet player told me afterwords that my MU piece had changed his whole appreciation for music, allowing him to understand the actual notes that he was playing, as opposed to simply playing music from a score in a mechanical fashion as so often was the case in so many performances at Juilliard. I was very surprised by that response... but I understood it.
    My Juilliard composition teacher, who was very conservative, was dismayed by my MU composition. He told me that it was way too long (nine minutes), and complained about its unique form and the emptiness of the music. However, I was told by a fellow student that after the concert, he took the score to his advanced composition class to show to the students there. 
MU for Horn and Piano, by Don Robertson

La Monte Young
La Monte Young photo on the "Trio" score cover

     But back to La Monte Young. I have never met him personally, but it appears to me that he must be my music-exploration elder brother. 
    La Monte was born seven years before me in a two-room cabin in Bern, Idaho in 1935. He began his music study at age 7 when his father, a sheep herder, bought him a saxophone. The family moved to Los Angeles where La Monte enrolled in high school. It was there that he discovered jazz, performing it on his saxophone, and it was there that he fell in love with the music of the great master of jazz music, Charlie Parker.
     In Los Angeles he began studying with Leonard Stein, Arnold Schönberg’s main American disciple who later became the director of the Arnold Schönberg Institute at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and curator of Schönberg’s extensive archive. I too studied with Stein, but it was almost ten years later. In 1957 La Monte was accepted at UCLA. While he was there, the Institute of Ethnomusicology, a division in the university for world music studies, was created, and Young was fortunately able to attend. Like La Monte, I will also benefit by classes at the Institute of Ethnomusicology, but that was later, in 1966.
    Like myself, La Monte's turning point in his musical life was when he bought a recording of the music of the great Indian maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Like me, a few years later, he played it so much that he practically wore the record out. His disgruntled mother even wrote “opium music” on the album cover! Meanwhile La Monte studied Gregorian chant and medieval music at UCLA and began to draw connections between that music and the music of India, just as I will also do later, beginning with my Gregorian chant studies in 1971. 
     When he graduated from UCLA in 1958,Young was obsessed with the music of Anton Webern, medieval music, and with non-Western music, just as I would be in 1966. La Monte Young, whom I have never met, and whose music I never heard, was foreshadowing my own musical course in so many ways, but I never know anything of his history until I first wrote this article in 2005.
      After graduation Young composed his "Trio For Strings" that I mentioned above. A performance of this work attracted composer Terry Riley, and they soon became lasting friends.
     In 1985, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called La Monte Young the most influential U.S. composer of the last quarter century, and he is always credited with the birth of the so-called minimalism movement, an unfortunate categorization that limits the scope of the new music trends that began mid-century, and that almost completely underestimates the influence of the great tradition of Indian music that I like to call "The Hero From Across the Sea." The influence of North Indian classical music was responsible for the return to tonality by progressive composers and musicians of the time.
     In 1959, Young traveled to Darmstadt, Germany that at that time was the world-renowned center for “Contemporary" discordant music. There he was introduced to the music and philosophy of composer John Cage by Karlheinz Stockhausen, the musical leader of the avant-garde in Europe. Young liked Cage's idea that any sound can be considered music, not just musical notes. 
     Back at Berkeley, La Monte began organizing noon concerts, and with the help of Terry Riley, he shocked the teachers and students at the university. His composition "Vision" of 1959 was performed in the dark and created a panic in the audience, unfamiliar with its strange sounds. "Poem for Tables, Chairs, Benches, Etc." of 1960 involved the sounds of furniture being dragged across the floor. I had no idea La Monte had created a piece of music like this when I performed "Music for Drawers" (being pushing in and pulled out of a cabinet) in my New York City front room seven years later.
    In 1960, afraid he would take over the music department with his, and fellow-student Terry Riley’s, shenanigans, the University gave him a travel fellowship. La Monte then went to New York City. By this time, he was writing little pieces that were simply a sentence or two scribbled on a piece of paper that stated such instructions as “Draw a straight line and follow it,” or "play an open fifth" with instructions to play it for a long time.
    Soon La Monte Young drew the attention of Yoko Ono. In her large loft on Chambers Street, he began organizing a group of like-minded composers, painters, and writers. Thus “Performance Art” was born. Around 1961, Young became dissatisfied with Ono and performance art and he drifted away from the scene. Inspired by the "My Favorite Things" and other new albums by John Coltrane (as I will also be that same year - watching him play live in New York City), he decided to pick up the saxophone again. Coltrane, influenced by Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar, was now playing florid solos over sustained chords.
     La Monte married Marian Zazeela in 1963 and soon they organized an ensemble to back up La Monte's saxophone solos with a fabric of sustained chords. One member of the group was John Cale who would stay with the group for two years, then leave to organize the rock group called Velvet Underground. 
     Soon Young abandoned the sax, but the group continued to perform the long sustained sounds without a melodic instrument. They also abandoned the well-tempered system of tuning that was required for traditional classical music's many key changes, and instead tuned their instruments instead with what is known as just intonation
     In 1964, Young began work on a work that he called "The Well Tuned Piano" to be performed in just intonation. This was a composition that could take up to six hours for him to play.
    During 1970, La Monte and his wife helped bring an Indian classical singer named Pandit Pran Nath to New York City from India. His arrival had been announced a year earlier by a man named Shyam Bhatnagar who sold copies of a 10-inch red-vinyl LP record of performances by Pandit Pran Nath, apparently made in someone's living room in India. Raga Bupali was featured on one side and Raga Komel Re Asawari on the other. Bhatnagar held meetings in his apartment. These were attended by many young people, including myself.
     I witnessed things getting out of hand at these meetings, however, when Bhatnagar started placing the gourd of the Indian musical drone instrument called the tamboura directly on the backs of some of the young people who attended his meetings. After long periods performing the three sustained notes of the droning tamboura in this manner, it was obvious to me that Bhatnagar was affecting the sympathetic nervous systems of these young kids in an abusive way. Some of them became so spaced out that they could barely talk or walk for a while after the experience. The famous writer Alan Watts attended one of these meetings and after about forty-five minutes of listening to this dry intellectual speak to the fawning youths in attendance, I was so turned off by the whole scene that I quietly left, never to return.
The tamboura

     I listened a great deal to the recording of "Raga Komel Re Asawari" on the red record that I had purchased from Bhatnagar, however. The scale of this raga was so very powerful and attractive! But I left New York to study at Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's new school in California before Pran Nath arrived in New York, and I never returned to live in the Big City again. I would attend classes given by Pran Nath briefly during the early 1980s in California, however. 
Pandit Pran Nath with La Monte, Terry Riley (tabla drums) and Marian Zazeela. "Komel Re Asawari" from the red record is heard at the beginning of the clip.

    After Pandit Pran Nath arrived in New York City, Riley and Young both became his students and they will continue to study with him as his two main students for many years. Pran Nath, known to his students as “Guruji,” died in 1996.
    As far as La Monte Young's music goes, I actually had not heard any of it until this week (April, 2016) while working on this article. I have ventured to Youtube to listen to various La Monte Young compositions and improvisations and unfortunately, I have found no music that I am attracted to. In a video excerpt from "Well Tuned Piano" I witness the famous mean-tune tuning that La Monte employed, and if this is what he considers "well tuned" then tune me out! Additionally, the reader can witness for him/herself what La Monte's group was performing in 1963 by listening to "The Fire is a Mirror" on YouTube. 
      La Monte Young was a forbearer of new musical ideas, but I personally do not hear the results of a fruitful discovery in the various selections of music that I have listened to.  

Terry Riley
Terry Riley with my friend Tracy Silverman in Carnegie Hall in 2012

     Composer and musician Terry Riley was born and raised in Colfax, California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1935. His parents gave him a violin when he was six, but he later switched to piano. Riley attended high school in Redding, California and there he became acquainted with so-called "contemporary" discordant classical music and bebop jazz. He played in the high school band and orchestra, and with a small dance band after school, practicing to become a classical pianist for years, but only in 1955, when he entered San Francisco State University, did he decide to become a composer. He enrolled at University of California at Berkeley in 1958 and met La Monte Young there.
     After Young left for New York, Riley became interested in using repetition as a musical structure. In 1960, he began experimenting with tape loops (music that was recorded on a single piece of mylar recording tape, then after the ends of the long piece of tape have been spliced together, the loop of tape is run continuously through a reel-to-reel tape recorder - I watched Bernard Xolotl do this back in 1980. His tape loop was draped across two chairs, I believe). 
     In Berkeley, Riley began listening to non-western music recordings. Soon he attended a concert by Indian classical music maestro Ravi Shankar. In 1962 and 1964 he traveled to Morocco where he became familiar with the music of that country.
     In 1964, Riley visited New York City. He spent time with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela while he was there. In November he presented a new musical composition called "In C" that will become the seed from which what later will spring what will be called "minimalism" by the Great Unwashed. The term minimalism, as always, was invented by writers trying to categorize new music trends. 
    When performing "In C," the performance space was completely darkened, and the room was filled with projected light and colored patterns. 
     Columbia Records' classical division released "In C" in 1968 on a 12-inch LP and it quickly became the anthem for a new kind of music. It wasn't accepted in the classical-music world, where King Discord ruled the roost, but it had a significant impact on counter-cultural musicians and avant-garde-leaning rock artists.
     Riley was apparently seeking a spiritual sound wherein one could loose oneself, giving in to the sounds, much like La Monte was doing, only Riley was using patterns while Young used sustained chords. "In C" consists of 53 musical 'clips' - short melodies or harmonic fragments in C major - and the performers can repeat one of these as often as they wish before moving on to the next. The piece (for any number of players or any kind of instruments) ends when the last player has finished.
"In C," by Terry Riley

     I have always considered "In C" to be rather boring. However, if you are interested, give a listen to what a group of musicians, mostly from Africa, have done with Riley's "In C" in this YouTube video: 

"Tate Modern and Africa Express present Terry Riley's In C Mali"

     Riley moved to New York in 1965. The following year he bought a soprano saxophone, and in 1967 he began performing his piece "Poppy No-good and the Phantom Band." I attended one of these performances and found the music unstimulating, and had no interest in perusing Riley's music further. In fact, at that time, I had become completely mesmerized by Raga Darbari Kanada, and especially the recording by the Ali Brothers of Pakistan, and nothing Riley played could compare to this exalted performance of the greatest raga in North Indian classical music. Amen.
Riley performs in the 1970s in a video that is not synced with the music.

    Riley moved back to California, where he has remained to this day. During the 1970s he, like myself, composed no music. Instead he and La Monte Young concentrated on learning North Indian classical music from Pandit Pran Nath.
     Personally, I have never been attracted to Riley's music. I don't find the same spirituality that is found in North Indian classical music in Riley's sounds. After all, Riley spent many years at the feet of Pandit Pran Nath. My friends, Bernard Falconer and Barbara Xolotl, whose painting adorns the cover of Riley's Shri Camel album, and who consider Riley to be a great musical master, completely disagree with my opinion of Riley's music. 
    One would hope Riley would have gained important spiritual knowledge through his studies with Pandit Pran Nath. North Indian classical music is one of the most positive and most important musical traditions in the entire world! Somehow, however, instead of moving forward, Riley has returned to the discords of the twentieth century classical music in the works that he has composed for various commissions. In my opinion, his Solome Dances for Peace, recorded in 1989 by the Kronos Quartet, are less about bringing us peace, and more about a kind of nervous despair, for example.
    However, Mr. Riley, according to his website, conducts seminars on North Indian classical music and I commend him for that. This is a most important musical tradition that we, who have seen this light, must now pass on to those in the younger generations who are seeking the true reality of what music can be, and yet who have no idea that such music even exists, let alone the power and greatness of music composed and performed by the great masters who have left behind their knowledge via their students and the imprint of their performances through recordings. 
     And so I pass on at this point, the links to three amazing YouTube channels, where the masterworks of great Indian vocal and instrumental music are being preserved, available for anyone to experience and learn from... a true miracle for someone like me who could find less then ten North Indian classical music recordings back in 1965, when I first discovered this great musical tradition.

North Indian Music on YouTube

Cover of Terry Riley's Shri Camel, by my friends Barbara Falconer and Bernard Xolotl

And Finally...
     Some of the followers of Pandit Pran Nath, who was teaching Indian music North of San Fransisco in Marin County back in the 1980s, looked askance at the school of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan that I was attending in nearby San Rafael. I was even told that I was studying with the "wrong teacher" by some of them during the times that I attended Pran Nath's classes. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was an incredibly great musician of the highest order... a master. We, the longtime students of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, learned a great deal from our lessons with this great musician, whom I recommend my readers to discover for themselves, if they haven't already, through the miracle of YouTube. 
     Rest in Peace Dear Teacher: 
My two teachers: Swapan Chaudhuri and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan - Raga Jhinjhoti

Next in this Series is "Return to Tonality in Classical Music (Part 2)" that has not yet been completed or released.

 2005, 2016 by Don Robertson