Author: Robert Carl

Jonathan Kramer’s Gift

It’s often surprising the way things turn around if enough time passes. Jonathan Kramer was my first composition teacher: I was an undergraduate history major at Yale, increasingly possessed by music and the need to write it, yet seeing no way I could move beyond the scribbles of a dilettante. On a whim (more like a desperate lunge) I made contact with Jonathan and was allowed into his composition class, which then led to lessons. I graduated still a history major, but also a composer…for the rest of my life. Jonathan saved my life.

He and I stayed in touch over the years, as he undertook a life that led him to Cincinnati and then eventually culminated in a position at Columbia. Jonathan had established a reputation as both theorist and composer by this point, and his book The Time of Music (published in 1988) marked him as one of the most original musical thinkers of his generation. (Though currently out of print, it remains enormously influential.)

The next major project on Jonathan’s desk was a book on musical postmodernism. His own music was always an original synthesis—I was struck that works of his I heard in college seemed to be a wonderful blend of minimalist repetition and restriction with modernist structures. So it’s not too surprising that the eclecticism and incongruities of postmodernism, as it arose in the 1970s and ’80s, would appeal to him, and increasingly he identified his own music as postmodernist in style. Moreover, his restless intellectual curiosity led him to want to discover the underpinning principles of postmodern practice from a broader perspective, something that satisfied the theorist and aesthetician in him (while further fertilizing his own art).

I met Jonathan periodically in New York once he was settled there, and knew about the book. It sounded like an enormous endeavor (and enormously ambitious; it was difficult to see how anyone could undertake such a vast challenge, a trip through a hall of mirrors). And then, suddenly, one day in 2004 I heard in an email from a friend that Jonathan had died. To say it was a shock is an understatement, because he was only 62. In fact, only about three months before, we had shared a program as part of Andrea Clearfield’s loft concerts in Philadelphia, sitting together on a sofa and listening to our respective pieces. I was to hear afterwards that his end came unexpectedly from a disease that had laid latent throughout his life. (The New York Times reported it as leukemia.)

And so suddenly the youngest of my major teachers was gone, the one I always expected would last the longest. I thought passingly of his postmodernism book, but I assumed it was lost forever.

And then around 2009 my friend Kyle Gann told me that he had a copy of a draft of the book, titled from the very beginning as Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening. Jonathan’s widow, Deborah Bradley-Kramer, and Jann Pasler (a musicologist colleague and friend of Jonathan’s at UC San Diego) had been trying to find a publisher, at that point to no avail. They’d contacted Kyle as a potential editor, but his commitments were too great at that point to agree. He gave me the text (in old-fashioned hardcopy), and I began to read. It was such a pleasure to hear Jonathan’s voice again in my head—erudite, funny, both a scholarly nerd and a total outsider. And I came to think that maybe there was yet a way to have his text see the light of day. It was just too good.

And so I began a quest to find a home for the book. I made contact with Deborah, and she gave permission for me to try to find a publisher. (She and Jann had tried several, but been rebuffed by the usual juried evaluation process at academic presses; the reviews claimed that aspects of the book were too quirky, or “postmodernism” as a topic was already passé.) I noted that a small press, Continuum, had not only published a freewheeling set of essays by a former composition student of mine, but had also put out the popular 33 1/3 series of books on important albums. I wrote to them and there was immediate interest.

The process of ultimate approval took longer than expected (as it always does). Continuum was bought by Bloomsbury, and the project moved into their queue. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support of a young Continuum editor who then transferred to Bloomsbury, Ally Grossan, it eventually received the green light.

Then began the process of editing. In one sense, it was easier than I might have thought. The version of the book I had been given by Gann was essentially complete except for one chapter, which Jonathan had noted needed more work. But once Deborah and I began to dig through his files (many of them in barely accessible earlier versions of Word!), we found that in fact he had basically completed the chapter, plus we found two additional chapters—analyses of Mahler and Nielsen that served as concrete examples of the analytic principles outlined in the book.

Due to the passage of time since the book’s drafting, context needed to be given. Part of this came from an introduction I wrote (which recaps much of what you’ve already read here), plus there is a preface by Jann that describes the intellectual evolution of the project that she observed closely through years of discussion with Jonathan, and a series of essays contributed by his former students, colleagues, and collaborators, covering his thought, music, personality, and legacy (Deborah, Duncan Neilson, John Halle, Martin Bresnick, Brad Garton, and John Luther Adams).

I won’t go into brutal detail about the minutiae of editing. Suffice it to say that it’s far more complex an endeavor than one can ever imagine when one starts.

Postmodern Music

But then it does all get done. And what of the book itself? As most by now will likely agree, “postmodernism” as a musical style is pretty much over. The eclectic, juxtapositional experiments from the 1980s on had the capacity to shock and reorient us to a renewed appreciation of past repertoire, as well as all sorts of traditions outside of Western concert music. But now we seem to be exploring new frontiers, there’s a renewed appreciation of modernism, and things that once were eclectic now have become synthetic. So why reconsider postmodernism? Let’s listen to Jonathan’s own voice, from the book’s Foreword, explaining his strategy and perspective; in it we hear across almost two decades what’s still so important about his thought:

What does it mean to posit that “postmodern music” is not a category? We hear about postmodern music all the time, and you will indeed encounter this term in this book. When I write “postmodern music,” what I really mean is “music exhibiting a substantial number of attributes that readily stimulate a postmodern disposition in composers and/or listeners.” It is pointless to label works simply as postmodern or not postmodern. When we try to do this, we quickly get caught up in a jumble of contradictions, because postmodernism is not one thing. When someone asks me if the piece we just heard is postmodern, I do not like to say yes or no. Most recent pieces, and several older pieces, are postmodern in some ways and not in other ways….

Since I take postmodernism as an attitude, I prefer not to think of it as a historical period. When I write about postmodern aspects of certain pieces of Beethoven, Mahler, Ives, Nielsen, and others, I truly mean that they are compositions that have certain characteristics that listeners of today can understand from the standpoint of a postmodern attitude. I do not mean that these works of the past are precursors of postmodernism. They are as much postmodern as are many works written considerably more recently…

Postmodernism is not a monolithic aesthetic with a consistent agenda. Different composers, different critics, and different apologists use and see postmodernism differently. Hence its categories and subcategories are impossible to delineate rigorously. There are always exceptions. If my prose seems sometimes contradictory as a result of the fuzziness of categories, I accept that as the inevitable result of trying to study an aesthetic one of whose tenets is the embracing of contradiction. From savoring all sides of a contradiction, we can become more accepting, less rigid, and more enriched. Resolving aesthetic conflicts, by contrast, can be stultifying and can discourage further creative thought.

(Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury Academic © 2016 [Purchase])

And as I say in my own introduction, postmodernism is a way of experiencing the world. And as a consequence, we begin to experience all art differently. This aspect of the book, certainly the most original, also I feel remains one of the most resonant and enduring in contemporary culture. As we have moved into an age of mass communication and social media, it seems that every act, statement, and product now is subject to an inexhaustible stream of commentary and criticism from anyone who wishes to offer it. More and more, nothing is considered autonomously, but rather in an infinite web of interrelated opinion and judgment. We all experience interconnection and multiplicity continually now, as agents in a stream of infinite experience. Kramer did not live to see this online explosion, but somehow his take on the postmodern seems uncannily adaptable to this development.

And so the second half of the book’s title, Postmodern Listening, is the critical factor. Jonathan shows how our contemporary experience colors and reshapes our audition of everything, from Beethoven to new pieces he never could have encountered. And so the book is not only still relevant; I think it’s prescient.

Finally, one last personal note. In case you didn’t already notice, this is a story of gifts. Jonathan gave me a chance to make music my life. When I discovered this book languishing in limbo, I thought how I might feel in a similar situation (if one can feel anything postmortem). And though I didn’t need to do this for any career reason, it seemed important, even somehow necessary to pay back—to give a gift in return for the one Jonathan gave me at the start of my career. And I say that not to call the spotlight on myself (no matter how proud I may be of the accomplishment, there are many people involved in the process of this “rescue”), but above all to encourage others to think of ways we can increase the health of our culture and community, to give when it’s up to us to do so.

Music After Life: Guiding Lights


Image by Xander, via Flickr

As I approach the end of this series on death and the fate of our music, I want to emphasize a few points that I firmly believe. I think they need to be stated upfront, and will resonate after whatever conclusions I reach. They need to put any wild suggestions I make in perspective:

  • None of us can ever control the fate of our works in the future beyond us.
  • It is highly likely that no matter how our music fares, we will have no idea of the result.
  • To devote one’s energies to achieving “immortality” is a fool’s game, and will probably distract from the very survival of the art that one desires. It makes the most sense to devote ourselves to the art for its own sake, and to stand clear of considerations that will distract us from the selflessness of this commitment.

Okay, I’ve said the noble thing, and it’s something I definitely believe. And having so spoken, there remains that nagging desire to make something that will resonate, a ripple in the pond of time that any of us have initiated. To ignore this is, I think, also dishonest. But how can this need be reconciled with the sentiments above? I’ll go out on a limb and make a few suggestions on the topic of “survivability.”

One instructive route is to see what composers in the late stages of their lives have concentrated upon. Their responses to a sense of time running out are, of course, as varied as the individuals involved. For Beethoven, it’s a combination of grand, cosmic ambition (think of the Ninth Symphony) and gnarly individualism, a complete rupturing of given forms (think of the late string quartets, especially Op. 131). For Verdi, there’s a similar dichotomy, with increased spirituality (the Requiem) and a sudden turn to greater complexity and naturalism (in Falstaff and Otello, a response to the challenge of two other masters across centuries, Shakespeare and his contemporary Wagner).

Looking into the previous century, Stravinsky around 1950 felt his neoclassical period was playing itself out and searched for a re-engagement with modernism. The intersection of his highly personal practice with serialism led to music of tensile strength and economy, and certainly some of the most engaging serial works ever written. Cage we’ve already considered, but in terms of his late work, the emergence of the “number” pieces is a sort of return to origins—the time brackets that structure the works evoke a use of time similar to his early “square root” form. At the same time, the music’s expansive quality of pitches floating in space suggests that Feldman was as influential upon him as vice versa.

And then Feldman. He also moved into a farther realm, attacking the problem of scale in an unprecedented manner. Following his basic tastes and impulses, he explored a new dimension to music, one that obviously excited his sense of adventure, and in turn created pieces that were more like installations than traditional concert works. In so doing, he redefined the listening experience for those who go to the concert hall.

Finally, I have to mention Elliott Carter. His passing is so recent (2012) that it’s really too early to make any projection of his ultimate stature. His incredible longevity made for an additional storyline to his career that was irresistible and led to a flowering of performances that accelerated in his last years. But even now it seems that in his last couple of decades, he found a way to combine his inventions of rhythm and harmony, resulting in a spectacular complexity, with an ethos of greater clarity and economy. In a strange way, his was the inverse of Stravinsky’s late-life course: moving from modernism to a greater classicism, yet not denying his core values and voice.

If there’s any lesson to take from these case studies, I think it’s that these composers all had the courage to do two things that are deeply related and at the same time seemingly contradictory. They decided to follow the natural course of their creative obsessions to new heights and depths, and they were willing to take risks. That might mean continuing along a path that seemed pre-ordained, but at a level of intensity that might seem exaggerated or inappropriate. And it could also mean throwing caution to the winds and trying something new, out of character, no matter what others might think. In this sense, such choices represent the embrace of a great freedom. What the hell; time is short, so forget what others will think.

This is one side of the survivability equation, the caution-to-the-wind embrace of a personal vision, fearless of the consequences, no matter how impractical. The other side thinks outside of the individual and looks at the times. What are the dominant trends and issues of an era, and how do we respond to them?

For the record, I’ve recently completed a longer manuscript on this topic (with the daunting title of Survivable Music: The Emerging Common Practice). In a nutshell, I perceive a series of cultural/musical concerns to which composers should confront and conceive a response, whether s/he embraces them or not. They include:

  • The role of noise and natural sound outside of the pitched spectrum.
  • The emergence of a harmonic practice based on overtone relations and manifested in new temperaments.
  • The increasing influence of technology, on not just musical production, but musical conception itself.
  • The emergence of an ethos of “openness” and multiplicity in the formal design of pieces.
  • The increasing emphasis on collaboration, both in the making of music itself and in its blending with other disciplines and media.
  • The blending of styles and practices from different cultures, periods, and practices.

And this is just a beginning. I don’t want to suggest that we as composers must try to find ways to meet the demands of every item on such a checklist. That puts the cart before the horse. Rather, I think such thinking leads us to consider a field of action outside of ourselves, which I believe is healthy. We don’t have to throw our individual passions, our sense of self to the wind; we should rather see ourselves as more connected to our world, in greater dialogue with the currents we swim in.

I’d like to argue that we can take a stance that, while it guarantees nothing, at least gives us a sense that what we do is not a solipsistic waste. That is to meet a need, to be of some use. Need to whom or what? What kind of use? Ah, that is the question, and we each must formulate our own answers. For some it may be a connection to issues of the world beyond music (the rate of climate change is, I think, an excellent example). For others, it may be a sense of mission to shape and transform the very medium of music itself. But no matter the approach, I’d argue that we should try to address some sort of ethical imperative in our art that reaches beyond our own immediate interests. This doesn’t mean becoming deadly serious. Just the opposite—without a sense of play, the music is DOA. To be clear, I mean the playfulness of the act of creation, the sense of play involved in realizing a performance, the delight of personal reception and interpretation on the part of the listener.

At the same time, I do believe that mere diversion isn’t enough (though it can be part of our tool kit). Mass culture has that market cornered. We shouldn’t try to compete with the song blaring from every device or the most recent phenomenon at the multiplex. Nor can we expect a symphony or chamber work to have the same mass effect that they would have had a couple of centuries earlier. (Opera/music theater is another matter, for a different series.) For the vast majority of people, a great song now can satisfy that humanistic urge, become a kind of anthem that encapsulates human passion and yearning.

I’m not arguing that music emerging from classical practice is doomed to hermetic seclusion. It doesn’t mean we must be mandarins and further distance ourselves from the world. Rather, I’d suggest we capitalize on the strengths of our medium: its abstraction; its ability to create vistas that expand a sense of time rather than trying to match decreasing attention spans; its connection over centuries to spiritual practice. Through a combination of these elements with an awareness of what we value and want to preserve and enhance for a meaningful life, we may make art that people will want to experience and revisit. In short, in its compressed and idealized form, we can present a metaphor for what is a perfected culture, a worthwhile existence.

Have I given a recipe for how we can beat the odds and send our work into a continued existence? Of course not. Have I gone out on a limb where anyone who wants can take a pot shot at my idealism? Sure. Do these posts provide a few suggestions for how to approach the issue, to have some sense of communion with the future, no matter how things shake out? Maybe, just maybe.

I’d like to leave with one final example of older–much older–music that meets a contemporary need. It lived in hibernation for a very long time, yet now feels current and necessary. Even a few decades back, few would have thought that one of the very first “non-anonymous” composers of Western music would be the 12th-century abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Yet a combination of forces has brought her into public view: the emergence of more creative and open musicology, the rise of a new spiritual practice that is less denominational, and the feminist revolution. Suddenly her music, after so long residing in a state of suspended animation, has flowered into our world and provides a model of beauty and transcendence that is useful. We never know when what we do may find a future purpose, be a time capsule that when opened is a light to the world. So we can dream…and then get back to work.

Music After Life: Twists of Fate


I was recently reading a feature on Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was speaking about his show (now on Broadway) Hamilton (New York Times T Magazine, July 19, 2015). The refrain throughout the show underlines the big questions that confront his characters: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” We would like to see ourselves as above such considerations, since there is ultimately so little we can do to affect the final judgment. We want to be immersed in the immediate flow of our art, with recognition a happy byproduct if it occurs. But Lin-Miranda reports that most of the emails he gets about his show come dated from the middle of the night, that “3 AM dark night of the soul.” This suggests that we all, no matter where we stand in the pecking order, are not fully immune to the concerns of legacy. Whether we have children or not, our music can serve as a virtual progeny, a sort of memetic offspring we put into the world. It’s hard to dismiss this.

Linda and Michael Hutcheon’s new book Four Last Songs (University of Chicago Press) treats the final creative years of Richard Strauss, Verdi, Messiaen, and Britten. The only chapter I’ve read so far is on Britten, but it’s extremely revealing and moving. The composer always saw himself as perpetually youthful, as a “brilliant boy,” and when in his early 60s he was suddenly confronted with cardiac problems, physical frailty, and the prospect of premature death, it was devastating—not only for the obvious reason, but because it also meant the death of his self-image. (This is a bloggish paraphrase from memory, so any distortions of the Hutcheon’s argument are my own.) As we age, we face that same fracturing of self-image and confront the eventual loss of a role in our own story. We’ve been its author up to a certain point, but with perspective and honesty, we start to realize that we don’t fully control the narrative and that it is falling into other hands, which may or my not even choose to continue it.

Moving from the case of my late mentors to a broader view, I’ve been thinking about whom from the recent past is doing well posthumously. (And I’m going to make one artificial distinction here–namely I’ll talk about only American composers, both because of the focus of NewMusicBox, but also because so many different historical-cultural issues come into play as soon as one brings European music into the mix.)

At this point, looking back on the American 20th-century new music revolution, a big winner appears to be John Cage and his school. For those much younger, it may be hard to appreciate how threatening to and reviled by both traditional and modernist composers Cage was. So much of what he advocated seemed nihilistic or anarchistic (and in fact the latter was quite true, reflecting his deepest-held political views). I remember that the kindest view of someone not an acolyte tended to be, “he’s a great philosopher, but not a composer.” Of course, time has countered that judgment: it’s now clear that Cage was a scrupulous and rigorous craftsman, even in the most seemingly indeterminate pieces. The works up to 1950, with their gamuts, “square-root form,” and modal melodies look ever more prescient of minimalist and formalist practice. The respect for sound in its own right is the source-concept of sound art. The acceptance of openness (i.e. chance operations, indeterminacy, graphic notation, varying successive realizations of works, etc.) now seems ever more natural in our world which is increasingly “multiple.” In short, it’s music that speaks directly to many contemporary tendencies.

It also speaks across many disciplines and media, to other artists and not just musicians. As such, it gains entry into the art museum, not just the concert hall, and this is a point to which I’ll return soon.

"Morton Feldman 1976" by Rob Bogaerts Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl.

Morton Feldman 1976” by Rob Bogaerts Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl.

Of Cage’s circle, Morton Feldman seems to be the composer who is faring the best. He is more of a concert composer than Cage; his work is quite traditionally restricted to acoustic instrumentations and genres (even though he refused to title his pieces according to traditional genres, such as concerto or piano quintet, no matter how much so they were). Again, when I was a young composer, many dismissed his technique (soft, slow, spare) as easy to master and imitate, and a cop-out. But it became clear over his career that he had a mysterious talent. As the pieces grew ever more expansive, the degree of complexity and extravagant detail in them became more evident. I’ve come to feel that Feldman was to Cage somewhat as Berg was to Schoenberg—the composer who took a technical and conceptual armature from his mentor and combined it with an ear that was able to render even the most dissonant harmonic materials sensuous. The great surprise is that his music is some of the most beautiful of the second half of the 20th century.

What all this is moving towards is that earlier remark about the museum. It seems to me that the more composers seem to intersect with at least some of the broader narratives of modern/contemporary art, the broader the context within which their work can be appreciated—and by extension the broader the audience. I think we’re starting to see that certain “maverick” composers, who seemed doomed to oblivion by the impracticality of the choices they made for the presentation of their work, are in fact gaining interest and advocacy precisely for that visionary, “impossible” quality. The Whitney Museum, for example, just completed a festival of all of Conlon Nancarrow’s music, performed on player piano. Last month the German ensemble musikFabrik performed Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury on a set of new instruments exactly reproduced from the originals. It’s not just recordings that are preserving this work; it’s actual public performance in “authentic practice.”

I’m not claiming that these are the only American composers who have beaten the odds in the long game (or will). But their reputations seem to be actually growing with time, even though conventional wisdom earlier on would have predicted just the opposite. They present one possible answer to the question of how music becomes “survivable.” In my final post next week, I’ll explore a few others.

Music After Life: Posthumous Lessons

I left off last week with the image of four teachers—Jonathan Kramer, George Rochberg, Ralph Shapey, and Iannis Xenakis—now all gone. By now it’s more than a decade since they have passed, so there is some time to assess where their art stands in their wake, even though it’s still very early in the eternity game.

Xenakis, Shapey, Kramer and Rochberg

Clockwise from top left: Xenakis, Shapey, Kramer and Rochberg

Of these four, Xenakis’s (who died in 2001) popularity seems to be in the best shape. [Disclosure: I was not a private student, but took his weekly course in Paris over 1980-81, along with about a half-dozen others in a classroom at the Sorbonne, so the impact was close and sustained.] Inevitably, the juggernaut of European cultural momentum was already in motion on his behalf, but there is more. The music’s visionary intersection of architecture and science reaches out to potential listeners who may not usually be interested in “new classical music.” Its fearsome, near-impossible technical demands actually serve as a challenge for a certain sort of “thinking virtuoso” and suddenly don’t look so hard once they’ve been mastered and get out into the air. (Just look at how Rebonds seems to have become a student percussion recital favorite.) The often savage sound and rhythmic drive can feel like punk or industrial rock. And the scores, often generated in stages from abstract, geometrical drawings to final manuscript, appeal to visual artists. (A show at the Drawing Center in New York a couple of years back drove this home.)

Rochberg (who died in 2005) is an interesting case. On the one hand his music is the true opening salvo in the American “postmodern revolution” which started in the late 1960s, but he also never liked the term or the identification. He was far too passionate and straightforward in his usage of older styles and materials to embrace the irony that was a hallmark of the aesthetic. Even today, many of the shifts and references in his work can be unsettling in how obviously they deny any sense of what we call “originality.” But that very discomfiture also drives interest. Though scattered, I continue to see recordings and performances, suggesting at least a continuing simmer of interest, enough to preface a boil at some point.

Kramer was known even more as a theorist than composer, though I always felt the power of his ideas led his music into very original byways. For those who don’t know his book The Time of Music, I can only say, “Find it.” Inexplicably out of print but at least in many libraries, it’s a visionary exploration of a vast array of approaches to the articulation of music in the temporal medium. It’s the first text that shows the water we fish swim in. I’m editing a posthumous text of his—he died in 2004—Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening, that once again dares to explore an intimidatingly wide range of aesthetics and approaches to musical thought in the wake of modernism’s fading prominence as a flagship practice. But at this point, there’s not much buzz about his work as a composer, though perhaps renewed interest in the books will in turn lead to similar exploration of his music, to which I think his thought is symbiotically tied.

I guess it’s Shapey (who died in 2004) that has me the most concerned. When I studied with him in the late ’70s/early ’80s, he was on a roll. An unbuttoned, profane man who never self-censored, he’d just ended a boycott of the performance of his own music (out of disgust with the field), and soon thereafter won a MacArthur, was performed worldwide, and even had the dubious distinction of being denied the Pulitzer by the general committee after the musical one had recommended him. Having spent decades in Chicago after a sort of “exile” from his beloved New York, he was in his own way a quintessential “maverick.” The music was unashamedly romantic and transcendental, and took cues from composers such as Ruggles, Schoenberg, and Varèse (maybe most of all).

And yet now I see very few performances and similarly few recordings. Of brilliant younger performers taking up his cause, the only one I’m aware of is Miranda Cuckson. Maybe more disturbing is the fact that almost no younger composers I encounter know of him, and certainly don’t know the work. I knew of Ralph’s passionate desire to make art that had a timeless quality and of his longing to enter the repertoire. So that deep yearning and total commitment seems even more painful, at least at this moment, in the face of what feels like a new exile, this time from a continued life for his music. At this moment he stands as an example of how quickly winds of taste and fashion can shift, and often mysteriously. (I suppose that one small side effect of these posts might be to have some of you take another look at Ralph’s work.)

But that isn’t the primary or ultimate topic here. From both my personal standpoint, and the slightly enlarged framework of the composers I knew as teachers, I’ve started to limn the issues involved in music’s continuance after its initial appearance. I think there are three big questions here (yes, among a million others):

  • Who seems to be doing well, in the musical afterlife?
  • What are the reasons for this (at least momentary) survival?
  • What lessons can we glean from this—not only for our own music’s possible durability, but also for an approach to the issue that keeps us sane?

I’m going to try to give some answers in the remaining two weeks, risky as it is.

Throughout my childhood and college I trained as a historian, something a bit out of the ordinary for a composer. And that encourages me to take the long view. Of course, all of this is quite fragile in the face of the inscrutable and mutable factors of “aesthetic evolution.” (I often tell my students, “You know the nature films with the lion and the bunny. You are the bunny.” And I swear I didn’t know that song from Urinetown when I first said it.)

Music After Life: Searching for Survival

passing years

This series of posts will deal with something we all think about, but that I think we’re also very wary of voicing aloud: the fate of our work after we’ve left the stage. This need not be a morose conversation. I want to be as positive as possible—indeed, maybe to even leave a few hints that may be helpful to all of us for making our music “survivable.” And I’ll be looking forward to comments and anecdotes from everyone out there, though I would suggest that you hold off on any quick judgment until all four of these posts have been published. It’s going to be a journey for me as well; even I don’t exactly know how it will turn out and what conclusions we will land on. (I suspect there will be some surprises along the way.) But do chime in. I’m working it out myself.

Where is this coming from? Of course, like any rumination on big ideas, it has personal roots and (unlike some) I’ll fess up. I’ve turned 60, and that’s a really good landmark to force some critical self-evaluation. I won’t go into too much personal detail because frankly it will be boring to most of you, especially if you’re a few decades younger. Suffice it to say that at a certain age, even for those in good health, one starts to look at a balance sheet. It’s impossible at this point to fool yourself that you have more time than less in relation to your lifespan. There are 20, maybe 30 years left, and how many of them are really productive? Considering the course of aging, for a composer, what’s the equation? For many of us, it takes quite a while to figure things out, to understand aesthetically and conceptually what really matters, and technically to amass the skillset necessary to bring that vision into play. But just when the stage is set for a comprehensive statement—BANG! Decline sets in. (Or at least the potential for it. Those of us who are Boomers have watched our parents’ lives with a deep scrutiny for what clues they give to the oncoming course of our own.) It seems totally unfair, but then that is life. Add to that the emergence of successive generations, each naturally eager to assert its primacy and relevance, and the constant round of self-promotional announcements we all broadcast of commissions/performances/prizes/appointments via every possible media platform. If one looks at it all too closely in relation to one’s own position in this aesthetic universe, it’s very easy to see the gates of madness not far down the road.

And sorry, just to push the envelope a little further: if you listen to a lot of music as I do (both professionally and for the sheer pleasure of it), you can’t help but notice that the overwhelming majority of pieces, no matter how momentarily stimulating or exciting, stand a miserable chance of long-term survival. Thousands and thousands of pieces are composed every day, each one beloved by her/his creator, yet all but a statistical sliver are doomed at birth to oblivion. It does give one pause.

So pull back for a moment, beyond what might seem like the self-pityingly personal. There’s another “motivator” here to my examination of the life of the work after the creator dies: just as I have lost my parents in the last five years, so too have I lost all my primary teachers. These aren’t everyone I studied with, but four stand out as the most consistently important: Jonathan Kramer, who had the insight to treat me seriously at the very beginning when I probably shouldn’t have deserved it; George Rochberg, who gave me a “moral education” in all things aesthetic; Ralph Shapey, who probably was the only one to teach me some real concrete technique; and Iannis Xenakis, who blew my mind with his thinking and reconception of musical form.

I’m in a permanent relationship with a visual artist, and she is often amused by the way we composers obsess over lineage. But there is a very intimate and special relationship that exists between the teacher and student of composition, one that has been in place for about a millennium now—a kind of apprenticeship where two people, alone together in a room, share secrets of the craft, discuss the nature and worth of the work, and come to some conclusions about how to proceed. It’s astonishingly simple and has been effective over the centuries for transmitting the knowledge that leads to art of some sophistication. (It is not essential for great art to blossom out of a supportive teacher’s influence—think of counterexamples that come from conflict: of Beethoven with Haydn, Berlioz with Reicha, Ives with Parker, Cage with Schoenberg, even La Monte Young with Seymour Shifrin.) Indeed, now and then the art comes precisely because of the opposition of student to teacher. But something happens in that room, things get pushed, unlocked…

So that intimacy of the teaching relationship gives me an extra impetus to examine the posterity issue. I’m going to leave it there for the moment. Next week my ghost-mentors get some postmortem evaluation (sympathetic and certainly not definitive); maybe that can become a key to start to unlock the issue of how each of us does (or does not) survive the test of time.

Robert Carl

Robert Carl heads the composition program at the Hartt School, University of Hartford. You can check out his music (scores, soundfiles, CDs, and video) on his website. He’s also the author of Terry Riley’s In C (Oxford University Press).

Eight Waves a Composer Will Ride in This Century

A keynote address delivered by Robert Carl at the third annual Westfield Festival of New Music, presented by the Westfield State University Department of Music on March 3, 2013.

Robert Carl

Robert Carl

I’ve taken a cue from the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, whose Norton Lectures at Harvard (incomplete due to his untimely death) are called Six Memos For the Next Millennium. (It’s a great little book, which although oriented towards literature, will give insight to an artist in any discipline. His essay on “Lightness” is an antidote to all the critical theory—of every stripe—you’ve ever read.) I am strangely optimistic right now, at least for art, despite the enormous challenges we face as a species. Part of the reason is that I feel the forces that I’ll enumerate are in fact moving us towards a sort of new “common practice,” one that is far more diverse and comprehensive than what we call 18th-century Classicism, to be sure, but which is real and perceptible nonetheless. These trends, which I’ll call waves, come partly out of music and art, but they are derived at least as much from the tidal forces that are reshaping human culture worldwide. And I think it’s our responsibility as composers, or let’s go one step further, as creative musicians, to acknowledge them and respond.

Incidentally, before I go further, I think I should say why I think I have any right to make such grand pronouncements. Part of it is just that I’ve been asked to do so—many thanks! Certainly anyone has the right to speak out, and I hope a chorus of voices will emerge addressing these issues. If anything privileges me to speak out, I’d say it comes from the following: my intensive, insatiable listening and study of other people’s music over a few decades now; my initial training as a historian (not of music, by the way), which gave me both the tools and a taste for seeing large-scale cultural forces at work over similarly large time-spans; and my own work as a critic and writer on new music. But most of all, it comes from my teaching. My students have been my best teachers for many years now. They are the window into the future, and their courage and idealism make me want to try to help in some small way to identify the challenges they will be—in fact already are—dealing with. And all the time they are showing me what the issues are, they are helping me to understand.

So my time is short, let’s begin. The first wave driving us is perhaps the most obvious—Technology. My old friend Kyle Gann once made a brilliant observation, that we may not have a common language anymore, but we do have common software. Ever notice how now everyone you see (especially on a college campus) is tied to a device and bent towards it in an attitude to submissive prayer? I’m joking a little, but not much. In every aspect of our daily lives, the predictions of the digerati have come true. We have routine visual conversations across continents via Skype. We can ascertain the answer to almost any question that pops in our head with a quick “wikigoogle.” We composers make our scores on laptops, and listen to mockups of pieces long before they ever emerge from acoustic instruments. (I will say that one of my most notable experiences of change in teaching is the format of the private lesson. For decades a student brought in music on paper, and then we flailed through it at the piano. Now they plug into a little sound system in the office and let it rip. My job has become much more like that of a critic as a result—good for me, since I’m a lousy pianist but a good critic!). The whole act of performance has been enlarged exponentially by the emergence of synthesizers, processors, and now into entirely software-based systems that incorporate all previous advances. And even beyond that, technology is becoming a partner with us, with programs that allow for the computer to contribute material in response to our input, both in terms of compositional structures and real-time, interactive signal processing. In short, technology is becoming the fundamental tool by which we will be able to respond to the other forces I’ll present below.

The second wave is Globalism. We see it in the way we travel now. We hop on jets on the shortest notice, we travel to remote places that even our parents (or maybe your grandparents!) would have considered unbelievably exotic. What once was the province of the titled and moneyed is now much more in reach of the average professional woman or man. We similarly communicate with one another across cultures. As just one example, since it’s admissions season at Hartt, I have been interviewing some international students by Skype. I had a charming conversation with a young woman in Beijing, where we had to sometimes shout due to the barrage of firecrackers outside on Chinese New Year! I am truly touched by my foreign students, who have mastered English as the new Latin, and do not in any way see it as a sign of bowing to linguistic imperialism. It’s just the most practical way by which they can move through the whole world and interact with their peers, no matter what their origins. I find it a very beautiful, unselfconscious manifestation of a new global youth culture, something dreamed of in the ‘60s, but now far more realistic and less posturingly revolutionary.

In musical terms, it seems that we are becoming increasingly familiar with and unintimidated by different musical styles and traditions. Within our very American context, this has meant for a long time the willingness to mix “vernacular” and “learned” forms, not just in the postmodern sense, but in such flowerings as the Great American Songbook of the years up to World War II, a burst of art song that rivals that of any Western culture. In this sense, American culture I think has been in the vanguard and points a way for the world at large. This very attitude of cultural openness and omnivorousness has moved onto a new scale. As a personal example, I was just in Kansas City last weekend for the premiere of the first piece I’ve written for zheng, the Chinese zither. And even more striking was the fact that one of the composers with whom I shared the program was a young African-American man, who said that his piece (a quite sensitively written work that was closer to traditional Chinese practice than any of the rest of our pieces) was inspired by the sayings of the late comedian Bernie Mack. And all this seemed in no way unusual or surprising to him. It’s a new world, I promise you.

I’ve spoken about the cross-cultural, which leads to the next wave, which is Cross-Disciplinary Creativity. By this I mean the willingness of artists to enter into fields of activity previously considered outside of their expertise. Exposure to more and more of the world fosters this, and technology helps to make connections that earlier were impossible. In the visual arts, it’s unlikely now to find a young artist who doesn’t engage with a host of different creative media—painters make videos, installations, and do performance art. Sculptors make sound art. Conceptual artists do all of the above. And increasingly composers are following suit. To take an example I know well, the program Max/MSP now includes a suite of objects under the name Jitter that makes it possible to apply compositional thinking to visual elements in real time. (It’s no wonder this program, while originally designed for MIDI music composition, has become enormously popular and influential with installation artists and people working in performing arts other than music). And then of course, there’s the incredible impact of media composition—film, video, and, most cutting-edge, gaming. These suggest a dimension of composing where accommodation with the demands of different media will reshape our very thinking about compositional process and product.

I made a passing reference above to sound art. And this leads to our fourth wave, Sonic Essentialism. John Cage predicted back in the 1930s that music would eventually be conceived as “organized sound,” and this makes him the fountainhead of this art form. We now have both visual artists and musicians who make sound art. The flavors they coax from the field are different, but the product from each is similar enough that it feels increasingly like a new and different animal than either music or the fine arts. One of the finest examples of this, I think, is the collaboration of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who at their best pool their resources as artist and composer to make a compelling hybrid.

And even within “pure music” itself, we are seeing the very idea of sound drifting from a divide between pitch and noise, towards a fluid continuum. In European classical practice, we have spectralism from France (represented by composers such as Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail), which sees the timbral microstructure of sounds as the basis for the macrostructure of pieces. And from Germany we have a practice represented by Helmut Lachenmann, which sees all possible sounds from instruments, beyond pitch, as material for rigorously structured composition. This is music as sound art. In all cases we go back to sound itself, whether from nature, from culture at large, or from musical sources, and look at it from a fresh perspective. (And, by the way, in composers such as Cowell, Ives, and Cage, we have had a very American precedent of the same thing which happened much earlier.)

We’ve been speaking about crossing boundaries here, between disciplines, cultures, styles, and concepts of music itself. But of course one of the greatest boundaries of all is from one human to another. And this leads naturally to our fifth wave, Collaboration. I see with increasing frequency composers taking collective action. It may mean creating cooperative music ensembles, pooling the resources of composers and performers. It may mean creating group pieces—I see more and more one-hour works, each made of sixty one-minute pieces by sixty different composers. It can mean moving a step further to work on a regular basis with other artists in other disciplines, to create consistent cross-platform work from multimedia collectives.
And of course, it can mean improvisation. We Americans have led the world in this, in particular with the impact of jazz as our great gift to global culture. But the world is rapidly catching up, and we in turn are becoming aware of other great improvisatory traditions that are returning here to fertilize our soil. It used to be that classical composers were scared of improvisation (even though we always read of Mozart and Beethoven dazzling audiences with their off-the-cuff cadenzas). It somehow was “cheating,” abdicating our responsibility for determining every aspect of a work. This was partly a byproduct of the mid-20th-century specialization that had ever-fewer composers as competent performers. As we’ve returned to our performative roots (just as visual artists have learned to draw again after a generation of discouragement from teachers and critics), it’s become natural to bring choice and spontaneity back into the process. Of course, Cage and his school never lost this insight, and it’s one reason he remains so influential. Now any composer should be open to asking her/his performers—in clear and imaginative ways—to create material on the spot. The composer here remains a leader, but the first among equals, rather than a despot.

In a sense this isn’t just improvisation anymore. I think perhaps the more comprehensive term is Openness. This applies to the moment-to-moment materials of music, but also to form, flow, and the very character of pieces. And thus this is yet another wave that emerges from the undertow of every trend we’ve discussed so far. Openness refuses to accept a single version of anything, it stays alert and alive to the continual effect of change. It includes the aleatory, indeterminate, and improvisatory. It allows routes that are both linear and non-linear. And, as we will now see, it provides the basis for our major remaining insights.
We’re almost done, and as we move to the final big picture, I’d like to integrate these elements I’ve discussed so far into two final trends that apply most comprehensively to our 21st-century mandate as composers. As you may have noticed, all these trends I’ve been enumerating blend and blur into one another. They’re points on a spectrum of influence rather than separate entities. The taxonomy is useful, but it’s ultimately illusory. Now these final thoughts show how they are coming together.

The seventh wave is Multiplicity. If you think about it, every element I’ve presented so far is full of multiplicity. Technology is expanding and diversifying every nanosecond. Globalism means that we discover new cultures and art forms each time we surf the web. Cross-disciplinarianism, of course, is a recombinant thing, almost infinite in its permutations. Sonic essentialism, while it seems to plumb into the micro-structures of sound, in fact opens up infinite possibilities too, rather like the exponential options that come from genetic sequencing. And then collaboration is as diverse as the number of humans on the planet who choose to work with one another.

So everything now is multiple. And yet, at the outset I made a reference to an emerging “common practice.” It seems like I cut the legs off my own argument with what I’ve just presented. How can a belief in commonality still stand in the face of multiplicity?
I think the answer lies in the very multiplicity of Multiplicity itself. Our choices have become vast, but our awareness, thanks to information technology, has done a remarkable job of keeping up. We just know more music than any generation in human history. We know music of other cultures, other traditions/styles, other epochs. Who would have thought even thirty years ago that we would now recognize the first great Western composer as Hildegard von Bingen? And in order to make anything, we will have to synthesize. Earlier choices were largely binary (jazz or classical? Pop or concert music? Roots or contemporary? Minimalist or modernist?) But now it takes an enormous effort just to shield ourselves from so much out there, so great an effort that I think it’s better instead just to let it wash over us and see what sticks. We still have to pick and choose, but I believe the eclecticism of such choosing that’s forced on every artist will in turn lead to more and more overlap. This won’t be a “common practice,” but it will be more “commonality of practice.” There are so many different practices that it’s harder for any one to rule out others. This fragmentation makes it easier for different things to recombine and blend, so we maybe should call this “granular multiplicity.” And I see young musicians everywhere, of varying backgrounds and interests, increasingly at ease with one another, trying out each other’s techniques, languages, and premises. They just don’t see the same divides that their elders did, just as they seem happily unfazed by differences of race, ethnicity, and sexuality.

The final wave is one I can’t sum up yet in a single word. (If you can think of one, please let me know.) It’s the Tension between the Individual and the Collective. I know this sounds like we’re back to the Cold War, but not quite. In the 20th century, we did have a great battle between those who wanted to protect the rights of the individual and those who wanted to advance the greater wellbeing of the whole. That was a binary choice then. And the collectivist dream was hijacked and betrayed by many kinds of totalitarianism. But now we can look upon Marx, just as we look at Freud, as a historical philosopher and not a political devil. We shouldn’t pillory either of them just because of the company their legacies kept, as each had no say in the association! I think that the utopian ideal that Marx presented of the withering away of work and the pooling of resources is still a dream worth dreaming, especially for artists, because for them work really never ends because it’s play. (I like Cage’s formulation here the best, when he said—I paraphrase—“I have heard politicians talk about the goal of full employment. I for one am looking forward to the achievement of full unemployment.”) The truth is, the increasing complexity of all life structures and activities means that it’s very hard for anyone to “go it alone.” One colleague, the composer/shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, told me recently he felt that as a teacher he had to take the attitude of a “curator of knowledge,” knowing when to call in varied expertise at the right moment from the correct sources. And a very bright student of mine, Brian Cook, recently wrote in an artist statement, “in a world where everything is connected, everyone is looking for some sort of deeper meaning, and interactiveness is of growing importance. I aim to create sound, and invite others to create sound, in an attempt to connect humans with one another, and create deeper connections with the natural world, despite the stigma that technology often does just the opposite.” On a world scale, such collaborations will go global: We are going to be faced with an unprecedented challenge of climate change; it is a challenge that will force changes in society and behavior as well as solutions based on collective action—on a level which has probably never happened before in human history.

There’s no doubt that this need to collaborate in increasingly fundamental ways runs counter to the myth of the heroic artist-individual, the romantic ideal we’ve grown up with as composers. I admit it scares me some, for I love the idea and the reality of the single visionary artwork. But neither do I for a moment discount the capacity of individual genius still to assert itself. I think it will have to emerge in new contexts we really haven’t even imagined yet. The internet is a potential model here, but even it is still in its infancy, despite its intimidating sophistication. Upcoming generations will have to meet the challenge of creating excellent, beautiful, exciting new things, but they’ll have to do it by balancing increasing group-consciousness with the special, quirky character that can only come from individual humans. And all this will have to come from the ground up, it can’t be mandated by some sort of aesthetic fiat from on high. I want to remind everyone that my title spoke of waves we all must ride. That doesn’t mean we need to always submit to every trend, and certainly not in every piece! But I do think we need to stay acutely aware of these waves and to deal with them seriously if we are to engage in a meaningful, productive dialogue with our culture and if we want to actually contribute something to it.

And so to those who follow me, having laid out the challenge as I see it, I can only wish a fervent, genuine, and heartfelt—as John Cage said to me the only time I met him—good luck!

Terry Riley’s In C


Reprinted from Terry Riley’s In C by Robert Carl.
Copyright © by Robert Carl and published by Oxford University Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

  • READ an interview with author Robert Carl.


    Introduction (Chapter One, pp. 1-12)




    So here it is.

    Only one page of score. No specified instrumentation, no parts. Fifty three motives, mostly minuscule. No counterpoint. No evident form. Spare instructions, with many aspects left deliberately vague. No tempo mark. And a title that’s laconic in the extreme: In C.

    This would not seem a likely candidate for a study in a series that seeks to record the process of creation and premiere of the great masterworks in the Western canon. Indeed, when confronted with Terry Riley’s 1964 work, it’s not unreasonable to ask, “Is this a joke?” The work seems to stand the whole idea of musical “progress” on its head. At precisely the same moment of its composition, Elliott Carter was working on his Concerto for Piano, a work Stravinsky was to hail as a masterpiece.1 Luciano Berio had almost completed Laborinthus II and would soon start the Sinfonia. Karlheinz Stockhausen had just finished Momente. All these works fairly scream their authority, their mastery of overwhelming complexity, mirroring a complex age. They bespeak the composer as an expert in sound, a highly trained professional who is able to harness chaos and force it into a rigorous architecture. Surely, these are the true masterpieces. Riley’s little scrap of score can’t pretend to compete with these modernist monuments, can it?

    Yet In C continues to receive numerous performances every year, by professionals, students, and amateurs. It has had repeated recordings since its 1968 LP premiere, and most are still in print. It welcomes performers from a vast range of practices and traditions, from classical to rock to jazz to non-Western. Recordings range from the Chinese Film Orchestra of Shanghai—on traditional Chinese instruments—to the Hungarian “European Music Project” group, joined by two electronica DJs manipulating The Pulse.2 It rouses audiences to states of ecstasy and near hysteria, all the while projecting an inner serenity that suggests Cage’s definition of music’s purpose—”to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”3 In short, it’s not going away.

    But then, neither is disco. Popularity and longevity bespeak something that satisfies the human spirit, but they do not guarantee the greatest depth or the quality that we associate with concert music. The modernist works mentioned above are towering accomplishments, unprecedented feats of human imagination and intellect. In C certainly challenges these standards; it is like the scruffy longhair shuffling his feet at the doors of the exclusive club, politely asking admittance, but not changing his appearance to suit the dress code. Can we really make an argument that it deserves a place in the canon, both on historical/cultural grounds and on the basis of the music itself?

    This study will maintain that it does. It will examine In C in the context of the work’s era; its grounding aesthetic practices and assumptions; its process of composition, presentation, recording, and dissemination. It will explore how the emerging performance practice of the piece has influenced our very ideas of what constitutes art music in the twenty-first century, and it will examine its significance through discussion with performers, composers, theorists, and critics.

    Thus, this book has a double purpose. Not only must it tell the story of the genesis of a landmark work in the repertoire, it must also show why that work should be included in the repertoire. While I can only hope this justification will become evident as we explore in depth the history, theory, and aesthetics of In C, it is worthwhile to outline a series of major issues the reader can keep in mind as she or he reaches an ultimate judgment.

    Above all, In C is the founding work of the musical movement called minimalism. It is hard to realize today how marginal and belittled were the efforts of pioneering American composers in this camp. In the early 1960s La Monte Young and Terry Riley had thrown in their lot with this aesthetic (even though it didn’t even have its name yet; music would have to catch up with painting, which had already discovered and applied the term). Both were recent graduates of the American academic system, but hardly the sort of product that won establishment accolades. Young was the older and more theoretically inclined of the two, and his practice included both highly conceptual works in the orbit of Fluxus art, and extremely slow-changing drone pieces (the latter taking their point of departure from serialism but creating a time span that was glacial in comparison to the nervously morphing shapes of most post-Webernian work of the period). Riley, despite studies including a master’s degree from University of California at Berkeley, remained more of a jazzer in his outlook, playing saxophone and keyboards, and improvising as part of his practical, professional life.

    As a background to Riley’s radical achievement, it’s important to realize that “new music” at that time was assumed to share at least some of these four characteristics.

    1. It involved research. This could have to do with new sounds and extended instrumental techniques, as in the work of Penderecki and Crumb. Or it could mean new ways of organizing pitch and rhythm, represented most strikingly by “total” (or “integral”) serialism. While Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono had all created landmark works in this medium, Europeans seemed to have felt that serialism as a specific technique had exhausted itself quickly. Americans, on the other hand, thanks in part to the support for advanced new music in the university, retained more faith in the system, as embodied above all in the work, career, and intellectual influence of Milton Babbitt.

    2. It meant formalism. Even if one did not subscribe to serialism (as in the examples of Xenakis and Berio in Europe, and Carter in the United States), modernist composers still tended to accept that a successful piece was underpinned by premises “outside of time,” which predated the actual writing of a piece. The term “precompositional procedures” had great currency, and it meant more than just sketching. It suggested that a firm set of rules, algorithms, were developed in advance of inscribing the real-time flow of a piece. Like a blueprint, these rules would ensure consistency of materials in all parameters (pitch, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, color, form). This totalism was of course a legacy of serialism, but it could apply to materials that were in no way dodecaphonic (for example, Xenakis’s realizations of stochastic processes based on probability, or Carter’s uses of interval sets to ensure harmonic coherence4). In the end, a work was judged successful if its a priori, predetermined elements were clearly and ingeniously conceived and if their application to the moment-by-moment events of a work was consistent. It also meant that once realized in notated form, these elements were fixed.

    3. It meant experiment. This may seem redundant at first, because all the music mentioned to this point posited a scientific stance toward its material, and of course the experimental method is at the heart of all science. But the great “alternative” music of the period, that of John Cage and his followers, took the concept of experimentation in a different direction. “Experimental” composers suggested that the very idea of the experiment, if it opened up new sounds and modes of perception, was valuable in itself. 5 It needed no other justification. It was up to the audience to adjust its expectations, to appreciate the sheer novelty and uniqueness of the musical event, even if (and perhaps because) it stretched the very definition of what music could be. Thus a silent piece such as 4’33” could be music, because even if its physical enactment remained the same from performance to performance (sitting before the piano, opening and closing the lid between movements), the ambient sounds during its performance would always be fresh, unexpected, and aestheticized by the seismic shift of listening attitude on the part of the public.

    4. It accepted information density. Almost all music of this period—whether serial, formalist, or experimental—accepted that a greater degree of complexity existed in art than ever before. In terms of pitch, this meant either atonality, or at least a recycling of the total chromatic so rapid as to weaken or obliterate harmonic centers. (And if centers did occur, they usually were overlaid with so much chromatic material that their resemblance to tonal practice was vestigial.)

    Rhythm also had become stretched to where periodicity—the sense of a recurrent pulse or metric pattern—was almost nonexistent. The great composers of the “heroic” modernist generation—Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ives, Bartók—had all extended rhythmic practice to make it more fluid, multilayered, and unpredictable. But they also reaffirmed the importance of rhythm in the process. Within the postwar modernist hegemony, rhythm often became nothing more than the control of duration, and the flow of time became a matter of perceiving proportions between events that floated in a pulseless zone. Other parameters, such as color and dynamics, became ever more varied and kaleidoscopic, again suggesting an accelerating overturn.

    Many of these “modernist” stances in fact continue in minimalist practice, especially the early works of the movement. There is not a hermetic seal between the musical movements of this period, no matter how different they may appear, and a tangential purpose of this study is to reveal connections that might not seem obvious at first.6 Nevertheless, In C could not have been more different, more “transgressive” of the standards of artistic validity that modernism had erected. It was pulsed and repetitive with a vengeance. It was modal, often working with pitch sets much smaller than even the diatonic scale. Its instrumentation, even its number of players, was open. It didn’t make a fetish of the score; its very simplicity and economy seemed to mock the complexity of its contemporaries. While it involved open form and a degree of randomness in its improvisatory ethos, it simultaneously rejected Cageian indeterminacy; it was closer to jazz and rock in its sound and in its presentation of a cosmic “jam.” And perhaps most threatening to a sense of professionalism in the classical avant-garde, it welcomed performers of varying levels; one did not need to be a virtuoso to participate in a successful performance. It was simply, truly of its time.

    Thus In C stands as the Sacre of musical minimalism. The following key points are elements of its importance and originality.


    West Coast Roots

    In C represents a major shift, perhaps the definitive shift, of dominant musical culture away from the East Coast and its Europhilic aesthetic to the West Coast, and in particular to California. Of course, America’s “Left Coast” had already provided several “maverick” composers who helped define the idea of a national progressive music. Henry Cowell was a prodigious product of Bay Area bohemianism, a sort of musical “wild child” whose development would have been far different elsewhere.7 John Cage and Lou Harrison parlayed their relative isolation in California and Washington State into an asset, inventing a whole new vocabulary of writing for percussion (including the prepared piano). Harry Partch rediscovered alternate tunings with his espousal of just intonation. But these composers from just before and after World War II (except Partch, who remained defiantly outside the mainstream and was accordingly marginalized) eventually made the move to New York, where they were able to solidify and forward their career (none more so than Cage). In a sense, while they created a far greater awareness of an alternative West Coast aesthetic, their career course also seemed to reinforce how essential the Northeastern imprimatur remained for ultimate success.

    Riley, though he too spent time in New York, especially after the premiere of In C, ultimately returned to northern California, where he has remained true to an aesthetic that is far looser and more inclusive than that of East Coast modernism. In a sense, he is the first major composer to remain Californian and have a substantial international career (the next in this line, quite different and more traditional but also impossible to conceive of without Riley’s innovations, is John Adams).


    Democracy and Community

    In C proposes a delicate balance between the individual and the group, which is deeply rooted in American traditions and unprecedented in its format. It demands of its players a high degree of individual responsibility. No matter how many performers participate, they must listen carefully to one another for the performance to have any chance of success. Each musician must decide how many times to repeat, when to move to the next module, when to stop and when to return, what dynamic and registration are most fitting to the material played at every moment, when to join in unison with larger groups and when to stand outside the group. The music is the result of a group decision, but each entity retains its separate character and autonomy, a great tribute to American ideals of individualism and democracy. Indeed, one can even look at the piece as an exercise in anarchy, though of the most benign and constructive form.

    But In C is also very much a product of community. That act of listening implies that all the players devote themselves to the greater good of the piece, that they not only listen to their interaction with immediate neighbors but also hear the influence of their actions on the total work. One must listen out to the edges of the piece as one plays and adjust decision-making to the amorphous but real will of the collective. In this sense, one could say that In C is a musical ecology, where a network of relations brings forth a continually evolving aesthetic product that has its own genetic blueprint but can never be predicted exactly. This intersection of political and biological metaphor isn’t arbitrary: in America, the relationship between the natural and the manmade world has always been an immediate, palpable issue.


    Non-Western Foundation

    In C represents the first major work to accept into its very fabric non-Western musical traditions. I realize this claim may raise objections. What about Colin McPhee’s Tabu-Tabuhan, which evoked the sound of Balinese gamelan in 1936? Or Milhaud’s La Création du Monde, one of a series of jazz-inspired works in the 1920s? Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was influenced by Chinese music, but transcends chinoiserie. In 1964 Berio wrote his Folk Songs, which celebrated vernacular musical traditions worldwide, and in 1969 Stockhausen created Hymnen, using national anthems as the basis of an immense electroacoustic mural. How then is In C different?

    The answer rests in the words “very fabric.” In C‘s “genetic code,” its entire formal/developmental discourse, is responsive to traditions outside the Western classical canon. As in jazz, improvisation is an essential element. Players repeat a figure ad lib until they decide to continue, but they must listen to one another to decide when their change will have the greatest impact. Thus, though the notes and rhythms are all predetermined, the piece creates its own oral tradition. Like rock, it emphasizes a pulsating “groove” that propels the music forward. Though the music may relax at points, the pulse never disappears. Like Asian musics, it emphasizes mode, rather than chords, to generate harmony. In addition, though it mutates through different modal sets in a way that is dizzyingly varied from performance to performance, it also suggests (in its title, as well as its structure) a fundamental harmonic stasis similar to that of Indian music, which has been enormously influential to Riley. In short, the piece has synthesized and abstracted a host of influences, and yet the resulting music seems to have developed quasi-independently of any of them. When one listens to In C, it’s almost as though the rest of music doesn’t exist, that this is a certain essential music-making that’s at the root of the art.

    As a consequence, In C is eminently suitable for instrumentations that run the gamut of world-music possibilities. The extraordinary recording by the Shanghai Film Orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments is the most radical application of this principle, but a mixed instrumentation, such as that of Bang On a Can8 (featuring Chinese pipa and mandolin with amplified Western instruments) is just as compelling, albeit a bit subtler. But beyond the actual instruments used, it is also adaptable to a wide range of traditions.

    The only thing about In C that is truly “Eurocentric” is the fact that it uses Western notation. But that notation is simply the most efficient tool for communication, a shorthand that now has wide acceptance (like Arabic numerals). It is not an attempt to impose a particular attitude toward the role of notation. Thus In C is a work that is truly “trans-stylistic,” and as a result, possibly the first truly “globalist” composition, performable by any ensemble within any musical tradition that is willing to follow the instructions. In a period when the debate over “globalization” is more vociferous than ever, it presents a remarkably benign example, suggesting that a framework loose enough to accommodate cultural difference can exist, bringing forth new art that is neither pandering nor diluted In Comparison to source-traditions.


    A New Kind of Improvisation

    This openness suggests a final way in which the work is attuned to the demands of the twenty-first century: In C is a piece of software. I define “software” as a series of rules and predefined relationships that execute a task; the user can then customize input and tweak aspects of the rules and relations to produce a product that is regarded as personal. For example, the word processor that I am using to write this paragraph already defines many of the parameters governing my final written product (orthography, formatting, editing; even spelling and grammar are now under its watchful eye), but the ultimate meaning of my words is still under my control.

    In a similar way In C will generate a performance that is always recognizable as In C. Yet each performance will be different on a host of levels—instrumentation, duration, density, even (as we will see in analyses of different performances) harmonic content. One can again object that this process is really no different from the improvisation that occurs in classic jazz—there is a set of changes that is immutable, over which linear improvisation places a layer of personalized interpretation.9 While this is quite true, In C is yet again something new and different, because every single note and rhythm of the work is already determined in the score. The choices that performers make shape these materials via repetition, entry/exit, and dynamics (so as to background/foreground ideas). Otherwise, they do not involve the personal “invention” we usually associate with improvisatory traditions. In this way, In C strangely enough, is highly “classical” in the Western sense, that is, it is drawn from a score that determines the pitches and rhythms of the piece.

    But of course it is resolutely non-Western in a host of other aspects. This paradox is basic to its originality and success. The extraordinary balance between the constrained and free, the ordered and open, the personal and communal, help to make it original, enduring, and an emerging beacon for a global musical practice.


    Our journey toward a comprehensive understanding of In C begins with the historical backdrop for the creation and premiere of the work. Chapter 2 concentrates on the Bay Area music scene of the early 1960s and is based on conversations with Riley and those who knew and collaborated with him in that period. In addition, it closely examines several works which lead up to In C, and which develop and solidify the techniques essential to In C‘s practice (including the String Trio and Quartet, collaborative works with La Monte Young, the film soundtrack Mescalin Mix, and the multimedia tape piece Music for the Gift).

    Chapter 3 reconstructs the premiere of the piece, based above all on interviews with participants. The sources for reconstruction of the performance have been sketchy and scattered. A host of questions need to be answered, and we are in the enviable position of recording firsthand accounts from those who were present at the event. Questions include:

    How was the piece written?
    What were the stages of its conception and realization before it went into rehearsal?
    Did the piece develop/change during the rehearsal process?
    What were the contributions of other musicians to the final product?
    What were the physical circumstances of the premiere?
    What was its exact instrumentation?
    How long did it last?
    What were the acoustics of the hall?
    What was the effect, if any, on the performance of the other Riley works on the program, in terms of the context they created for In C‘s reception?

    Chapter 4 undertakes the first substantive analysis of In C. The piece has been consistently described in terms of its basic premises and elements, but never examined as a piece unfolding in time. In addition, a number of casual descriptions have summed it up as a series of general modal areas that morph from one to another, but offer no explanation of how they do so. The analysis looks at how the careful progression of motives from one to another affects both the texture and the general harmonic profile of the work. In this case the work is considered “exogenously,” outside of time, as a network of relations between motivic materials that define larger-scale connections. From this perspective, some sense of overall progression is derived.

    Chapter 5 explores a circumstance that is idiomatic to In C, both as a work with its own special qualities and as a seminal work of the late twentieth century. The piece experienced a “second premiere” in 1968 with its release by Columbia Records in a landmark LP. The chapter investigates the process of recording and the implications of the record for the position the piece assumed in public consciousness of the Minimalist movement.

    Among critical questions to consider are:

    Was there any influence on In C of Riley’s works composed during the interim period, such as A Rainbow in Curved Air and Poppy Nogood’s Phantom Band, fruits of his loft concerts in New York?
    How had the work changed since its initial San Francisco performance in Riley’s mind and ear?
    What were the exact circumstances of the recording session?
    What decisions unique to its circumstances were made to define the work’s character?

    Chapter 5 also examines the work from a different analytic viewpoint. The decisions of timing, pacing, and interaction made by real musicians will inevitably bring to the foreground different aspects of the music. By focusing on a particular set of motives, players can create a climax, push forward movement, or hold movement in a static pattern. Further, depending on which motives are held or released at what point, the modal content of the piece at a given moment may be quite different from one performance to another, suggesting variable harmonic profiles.

    Thus, an “endogenous” analysis (within time) of the piece will explore the first recorded performance to determine when motives enter, when they exit, and what rhythmic and harmonic content of the work results.

    Finally, chapter 6 considers the legacy of In C. Part of this is the evolving idea of the piece, traced through observations by the performers who premiered the work in both the concert and recorded versions (a group that contains some of the most important voices in American music). In addition, a variety of prominent contemporary musicians—composers, performers, critics, and musicologists—discuss the impact of In C on their own development as practicing professionals and on their view of music generally. These “post–In C” musicians stand as evidence of the enduring and evolving impact of the piece.

    The “endogenous” analysis of the premiere recording will be extended to a series of recorded performances (in the appendix). Tabulating and examining these results will lead to a developmental map of the work, which then can be compared with other performances to suggest the work’s range of possible realizations. One of the essential aspects of In C is that it can never exist in a “definitive” version. These analyses can only suggest the richness of the piece but can never describe it authoritatively. In C deserves the increased understanding that theoretical study can impart, but our analysis will also reveal the limits of what such an approach can yield. In C possesses certain qualities that will always defy attempts to pin it down.


    By the end I hope each reader will have experienced an “enlightenment” in regard to In C, similar to what those who undertake a performance of the piece itself experience. This book is our own “map” to follow through the forking paths of In C‘s music and history. Riley speaks of a long process of mastering the basics of a tradition so that one can “speak” within it naturally and fluently.10 Perhaps by our own immersion within the history, analysis, aesthetics, and performance practice of In C, we as an audience can come to a similarly rich, deep, and flexible understanding.



    1.David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press 1983/1998), p. 263.

    2.Celestial Harmonies 13026-2 and Wergo 6650 2, respectively.

    3.James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 37.

    4.Cf. Iannis Xenakis, Formalized Music (Bloomington: Indiana Univeristy Press, 1971); and Elliott Carter, Harmony Book ed. Nicholas Hopkins and John Link (New York: Boosey and Hawkes, 2002).

    5.This concept was first articulated by Michael Nyman in his Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), esp. in the first chapter, pp. 1-26. Nyman draws a distinction between experimentalism and what he calls the “avant garde,” which is basically the same as what I refer to as modernist classical music.

    6.Robert Carl, “The Politics of Definition in New Music,” College Music Symposium 29 (1989), 101-114.

    7.Cf. Michael Hicks, Henry Cowell, Bohemian (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

    8.Cantaloupe Music 20014.

    9.Indeed, if In C is similar to anything, it is to a raga, whose core information of scales and rhythms intersects with a carefully preserved performance tradition, within which musicians can assert their virtuosity and individuality. And this similarity is not surprising, considering Riley’s lifelong interest in and study of Indian music.

    10.Author interview with Terry Riley, Richmond, Calif., December 2, 2006.