Category: In Print

Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding New Music in the ’90s

In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”

Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.

American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”

“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”

David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”

But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.

This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.

The cover for Will Robin's book Industry

In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.

Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.

And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”

In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”

“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.

The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.

Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.

A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”

And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.

Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”

Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.

NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.

Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.

Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.”  The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”

After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.

“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”

One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.

Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”

These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)

An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.

In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.

And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.

Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.

But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”

According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)

Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.

And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.

And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.

By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.

But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.

What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.

Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.

As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.

This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.

In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.

One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.

“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”

Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.

Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.

Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.

In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.

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.

Cage = 100: Cage and Zen, Perspectives from Two Recent Books

John Cage

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

There’s a tendency to acknowledge a certain area of John Cage’s aesthetic without overly considering it. The bright-eyed and necktied young man so eager to define art for the 20th century seems generally to have weathered better than the mushroom-collecting Zen enthusiast, bearded and dressed in denim, that Cage became in later years. There seems to be, in other words, an effort (collective-subconsciously, perhaps) to protect Cage from being seen as hokey, or (equally incriminatingly) proto New Age.

But much of what makes Cage Cage also makes New Age New Age. Consider by way of example a strip from the reliably wryly observant comic Doonesbury. The no-nonsense football and military hero BD comes home to find his former cheerleader wife Boopsie listening to a New Age record. She asks him if he likes it and he says he can’t hear anything. Isn’t it wonderful?, she replies, it’s called “Air Pudding.” Boopsie could just as easily have been listening to the work Cage will always be most famous for.

That discussion—framed around New Age sensibilities or not—is key to an honest portrait of John Cage. And the root of that particular conversation is Cage’s deep interest in Buddhism. It’s not ignored in most profiles of him, but often it is treated—like being gay or being from L.A.—as a biographical detail, an interesting aside. Kay Larson, in her Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists, attempts to provide a fresh perspective on Cage by viewing him through a Zen lens.

Where The Heart Beats

Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists (The Penguin Press, 474 pp., cloth $29.95)

It’s a delicate task to take on. Cage loved knowledge and even sought outside input into the creation of his work to the extent of actively ceding decision-making power in his own compositions in order to make room for external influences. And certainly Buddhist thought was one of the principle external influences that guided his life and work. But a tight focus on a figure as complex as Cage is likely to lead to tunnel vision-induced errors. One could, for example, construct a biography of Cage based on his love for Thoreau and the natural world or say that the whole of his work was a reaction against Schoenberg. In neither case would the biographical details be wrong exactly, but both would fail in getting the whole picture. Defining a figure as complex as Cage in terms of his influences runs the risk of seeing the thinness of a dime without noticing that it’s also round.

This is the trap Larson falls into. Her writings about art have appeared in ARTnews, The Village Voice, and The New York Times, and she has been a practicing Buddhist since 1994, so she’s well equipped for the task she’s taken on. But in a sense, she fails to see the trees for the forest.

Larson takes a keen interest in Cage’s personal life, more than most biographers have in the past. Other writers have shied away from Cage’s homosexuality perhaps because he himself never spoke about it. While he and choreographer Merce Cunningham lived and worked together for most of their lives, their private life was kept private. The rules change, of course, after a public figure’s death, and consideration of the details of Cage’s sexuality and how repressing it during repressed times might have affected him is at this point fair game. But Larson romanticizes it. She describes their first meeting, when Cage was hired to accompany dance classes at Cornish College in Seattle, saying: “The two men met in that moment, even if neither of them quite realized it.” Later, in discussing Cage’s closeted homosexuality, she writes, “The heart-issues that Cage had never resolved were now beating like the undead on the locked doors of his awareness.”

It comes off as a bit prurient, and all the more so given the fact that she seems to have little to say about the actual music. She gives historical details but generally avoids any reactions to or analysis of the works. (She does call the mesmerizing cacophony of HPSCHD “excruciating,” however, and makes reference to Schoenberg’s “agonizing dissonance.”) It’s more than a little telling that the one piece she discusses at any length is 4’33”, the piece for which Cage famously wrote no music.

Larson’s interest in Zen, however, and her interest in Cage as a person, give her rather specialized biography some interesting angles. She provides a nice consideration to the philosopher and author D. T. Suzuki, a scholar respected in his time for bringing Buddhist thought to the West. He isn’t a major figure in the history of Buddhist practice, but he was one of the most profound influences in Cage’s understanding of Eastern thought. While Cage biographies tend not to give him much more than a passing mention, Larson gives him the page space to become a character in his own right. Likewise, her concern for knowing the passions of her subject lead her to give a more complete picture of Xenia Kashevaroff, Cage’s wife from 1935 to 1945, and of the circle of painters and composers he surrounded himself with in New York in the 1950s.

While Larson’s interest in Cage as a practitioner—an applied philosopher perhaps—is clear, one can’t help but imagine her wishing Cage had stopped with the so-called silent piece so she wouldn’t have had to listen to anything more. And in fact, she pretty much skips over the last 30 years of his life. Ultimately, the assignment she’s given herself is a curious one. Buddhism was one of Cage’s lifelong interests, but he never called himself a “Buddhist,” so while her accounts of his life and of the tenets of Buddhism aren’t wrong, she can never quite be all the way right. The fit is a bit forced from the outset.

Haskins Cage

Rob Haskins, John Cage (Reaktion Books, 178 pp., paper, $16.95)

Cage’s relationship with Buddhist thought isn’t the driving force behind Rob Haskins’ concise biography, simply titled John Cage, but he gives a more balanced assessment in a ten-page section on the subject than Larson does in her whole book. Haskins, an assistant professor in the department of music at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, does a fine job of dealing with Cage’s many facets—his use of chance and thoughts about the ego and individualism, his flair for populism, his poetry and visual art—in much the same way he handles the Buddhist element: he deals with them intelligently and succinctly and then moves along. He also manages what Larson doesn’t quite find in herself, which is to deal with the music. In discussing Cartridge Music, one of Cage’s least “musical” works, he quite candidly writes, “At first, one hardly knows how to listen to such music: the electronics lend a certain harshness to the sounds that makes them seem overly mechanical. Soon enough, though, the complexity of the sounds becomes noticeable.” This is exactly how Cage listened to the forest, or traffic, and how we must listen to him.

Whether or not the world needs another John Cage biography is an open question. Haskins doesn’t best David Revill’s excellent 1993 bio The Roaring Silence: John Cage—a Life in any way except for brevity: at 180 pages, it’s about half the length and so might hold more appeal to the casual centenary celebrator. In that regard, Haskins does a laudably thorough job. It’s a quick, intelligent, and quite readable book.

In his epilogue, Haskins addresses quite nicely the problem of considering Cage as too much of any one thing:

Cage’s complexity resides not least in his own heterogeneity—his famous, cheerful restlessness—which in turn accounts for the great number of extraordinary misunderstandings his work has provoked and for the tendency to view askance or to minimize one or another of his creative activities. […] Cage cannot be, and will never be, explained completely: he will always retain the capacity to infuriate and confound, and even his most poetic achievements will perhaps amuse many more than they inspire.

Why should we study John Cage? Because we can never understand him. And there lies the Zen of Cage.


Kurt Gottschalk’s writing about jazz, rock and new music has appeared in All About Jazz, Time Out, The Village Voice, and The Wire as well as publications in France, Ireland, Portugal and Russia. He is the host of the weekly program Miniature Minotaurs on WFMU and recently published a collection of poetry, Sentences. His occasionally-updated blog can be found at

Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, Generational Perspectives, and the Fluid Nature of Copyright in a Classical Context

Luciano Berio in Castiglioncello, 1996.
Photo by Marina Berio

Twenty years ago this year, the late Sussex University professor David Osmond-Smith (1946-2007) published Berio [Oxford], a tidy overview of the work—and to the extent that they relate, the life—of Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), as part of the series Oxford Studies of Composers.

I read it for the first time recently, for background on Osmond-Smith’s perspective on Berio before a planned dive into Playing on Words, the book on Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-1969) that he had published a half-decade prior.

I’ve been focused on Sinfonia lately because it had come to triangulate two different personal interests that I’d previously thought of more in parallel. The work is both a successful foray by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic into experimental contemporary music during the 1960s, and a precursor to the sample-based music that is so commonplace in our current time.

The former concern is in contrast with Bernstein’s infamous 1964 fail involving John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, for which the recently deceased computer-music trailblazer Max Matthews had developed a 50-channel mixer (a little factoid I learned while reviewing Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage [Knopf] by Kenneth Silverman for Nature earlier this year).

The latter concern, however, is my primary interest, because the ongoing discussion about copyright is front and center in musical consciousness today, from both a legal and compositional point of view.

Osmond-Smith’s Berio is relatively breezy, with occasional full-stop breaks for close musicological line readings. (I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t acknowledge that the note-parsing is largely over my head, but even then I still found some threads I could learn from. It didn’t hurt that in the copy of the book I borrowed from the library someone had penciled in numeric values for some of the note sequences. Now that’s what I call crowd-sourcing.) The volume is a brief survey of Berio’s work, from electronic-iconoclast innovation in Milan, to his extensive output for voice and (“conventional”) instrumentation, to his exploration in the realm of theater. It’s an excellent overview, with summaries of major works, and biographical details to explain the context in which the works were composed and initially performed. The purely biographical aspects can be deadpan to a fault—the second and third time Berio is married, there’s little-to-no mention of personal turmoil (well, when he takes his second wife, it’s made clear that his working relationship with his first, the vocalist Cathy Berberian, hasn’t suffered); it’s like he’s simply traded in one car or house for another.

The outlines of a jet-setting composer’s life aside, the two main things I came away with from the book, secondary to simply knowing far more about Berio than I had when I started reading it, are as follows:

First, there isn’t much about “meaning” in the book. There is excellent detail of how the pieces work, about the mechanisms of Berio’s music, how it functions, how Berio accomplishes what he’s after technically. There is, however, little explanation, little interpretation, of what it is he’s after, what he’s expressing, both intentionally and as perceived by the book’s author. There is a brief moment when a psychological reading of a work is considered, and then dispensed with. And in regard to Sinfonia, a parenthetical allows that the way several pre-existing works were handled in tandem suggests that by doing so Berio was commenting on them as a whole—but that interpretive thread is left dangling, tantalizingly to me.

Osmond-Smith was by no means a conservative voice, either in scholarship (he studied in the early 1970s with Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes, both of who had their impact on Berio’s work) or in life (during roughly the same period of time he was reportedly the founder of the Gay Society at Sussex). Which leaves me to wonder the extent to which this lack of exploration of meaning is generational—but that’s a path of consideration that will remain on hold for me until I’ve more thoroughly read up on the copyright matters.

Because the second thing I took away from the book was that it’s hard to imagine it being written this way today. By “this way” I mean that one of the fundamental aspects of Berio’s compositional approach is his use of pre-existing composition, from Mahler to folk song, to his experiments in tape collage and other forms of electronic manipulation—and the copyright aspect of that is never touched on in these pages. We know Berio collaborated with Eco and with Italo Calvino, among others, but the vast majority of his “collaborators” are unwitting ones, the composers (and authors, including Samuel Beckett and Claude Lévi-Strauss) whose work he interpolated into his own. We learn a lot, thanks to Osmond-Smith’s detailed knowledge of the works, about how these pieces of music and writing become Berio’s own, through force of his compositional ingenuity (Osmond-Smith’s explanation of Berio’s adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses is particularly rich, in that he locates parallels between the way the composer and author posited thematic material). What we don’t know is what permissions Berio sought out, or the extent to which doing so was even necessary during his period as a composer. We know from the book more about the development of a real-time sound processor by former CERN physicist Giuseppe Di Giugno (called Peppino here, evidence of Osmond-Smith’s familiarity with the people in Berio’s life) than we do about how Berio gained permission, if he even did, for the prior existing work that he took as his compositional source material. And Di Giugno’s gadget, however forward-thinking, was a much less central aspect of Berio’s career than was the device we call appropriation.

Even though Berio was published more than a decade after the birth of hip-hop, general asides to appropriation beyond classical music, let alone the word “sampling,” remain unexplored here. There are numerous terms that serve as precursors to the word “sampling” (let’s put aside the pejoratives: pilfered, stolen, lifted, and so forth): to pay homage, invoke, quote, cite, reference, allude to, and so forth. Few, if any, play a role in Osmond-Smith’s consideration.

And that’s not to fault the author. Quite the contrary, it’s just to view how the concerns of the period during which he wrote, during which Berio worked, are different from those that rule in conversation today. With orchestras in crisis, with the record industry struggling to develop a business model in the wake of the CD’s certain death, with composers setting up shop on Kickstarter to help fund commissions, discussions about classical music today, as with discussions about any type of music, inevitably come back to financial models.

The complex thing is that the financial models inevitably involve matters of proprietorship of works in a way that an imagination and a career such as Berio’s seem to flout. Importantly, Berio is no peculiar outlier in this regard, except to the extent that more than with many composers his appropriations had a conceptual element whose seams he generally desired to let show. Classical music has a longstanding history of composers drawing on compositional material from both within and without its literature—a history that is humorously at odds with the not incorrect perception of a sustained tension between much of classical music’s audience and sample-based music.

Perhaps all this will be cleared up for me when I next read Osmond-Smith’s quarter-century-old book that is wholly dedicated to Sinfonia, so I write this more than anything as a place-marker in my learning process.


Marc Weidenbaum

Marc Weidenbaum is an editor and writer based in San Francisco. He was an editor at Pulse! and a co-founding editor at Classical Pulse!, and he consulted on the launch of Among the publications for which he has written are Nature, Boing Boing, e/i, Jazziz,, Big, Make, and The Ukulele Occasional. Comics he edited have appeared in various books, including Justin Green’s Musical Legends (Last Gasp) and Adrian Tomine’s Scrapbook (Drawn & Quarterly). He has self-published, a website about ambient/electronic music, since 1996; it features interviews with, among others, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Gavin Bryars, Zbigniew Karkowski, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, the creators of the Buddha Machine, netlabel proprietors, and sound-app developers.

Introduction to A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

Reprinted with permission from A Power Stronger Than Itself, by George E. Lewis, published by the University of Chicago Press.

© 2008 by George E. Lewis. All rights reserved.

READ and watch a conversation with George E. Lewis.


Around the fall of 1996, I had been promoted to full professor in the department of music at the University of California, San Diego. I was sitting in the office of my colleague, F. Richard Moore, who probably doesn’t realize his role in the creation of this book. Dick had just finished his landmark book, Elements of Computer Music, and was busy extending cmusic, his set of software tools for musical experimentation. Dick saw cmusic as an example of a research project blending creativity and science, and pointed out to me that this was the very sort of project that might not receive support outside of the academic environment, even if the underlying ideas were arguably fundamental to the field of music technology. That was an argument I understood, because as an itinerant artist, I had tried to write on planes and trains, in the manner that one imagined Duke Ellington doing during the writing of his memoir, Music Is My Mistress. Now, I began to wonder about the kinds of projects I could initiate that would best utilize the strengths of the academic infrastructure in ways that complemented or exceeded my already established career as an itinerant artist. I began to think seriously about writing a biography of Muhal Richard Abrams.

As it happened, that year, 1996, Wadada Leo Smith had invited Muhal for a residency and concert in his program in African American improvisational music at the California Institute of the Arts. Muhal had invited me to participate in the concert, and so I drove up to Valencia from San Diego with the intention of sounding him out about the project. We went on a long walking excursion in the desert warmth, ostensibly searching for an espresso bar, although Muhal doesn’t drink coffee. When I broached my idea, he quickly shook his head—but then said that he would rather be part of a book project on the history of the AACM. That possibility had also crossed my mind, of course, and it seemed completely appropriate, since so many of our dreams as members of the collective had focused on creating a book about that history.

In 1981, Joseph Jarman and Leo Smith interviewed each other with a view toward constructing a general history of the AACM. The project was never completed. In the end, realizing such a work requires considerable infrastructure, by which I mean a network of people who are willing to engage the work—read it, comment on it, publish it, distribute it, and provide the time and funds for the kinds of ethnographic and historical research that the life of an itinerant artist makes difficult, even given the amazing achievements of the early twentieth-century African American historians that the late Jacob Carruthers called “the old scrappers,” including J. A. Rogers and John G. Jackson, among others.

I had already begun to realize that the AACM membership would never trust an outsider to construct its history. As AACM cofounder Jodie Christian told me in 1998, “Muhal said that it should be somebody in the AACM, and pretty soon, somebody will write a book; this was four or five years ago. One time I thought he would write one, but he ain’t got time to write no book.” So Muhal and I began talking about what the book could be, and I came away from the project with a determination to begin writing. At the behest of Samuel Floyd, then the dynamic director of the Center for Black Music Research, I had just completed my first published article for Black Music Research Journal, and was ready to proceed with a new project. During a visit to the Midwest in December 1997, I began interviewing musicians, starting (naturally) with Muhal. It quickly became evident that our conversations would range far beyond the biographical orientation that one might expect. Naturally, Muhal was vitally concerned with how the organization would be represented in the narrative.

If it’s going to be a musicology thing, or a thing that includes the AACM and talks about all this other stuff, I’m not going to participate. I’ll just cut right out right now. We’ve waited too long to put out a document. I don’t want to be part of that. . . . I didn’t spend all these years to be put in a situation that didn’t have nothing to do with what I did. This book gives an opportunity to do what the musicians say happened.

It became clear, however, that a book that did justice to the work of the AACM would have to move beyond a project of vindication, and would have to include more than just the voices of musicians. My working method necessarily juxtaposed oral histories of AACM members with written accounts of the period, a process that combines the ethnographic with the archival. I performed more than ninety-two interviews with members and supporters, ranging anywhere from two to six hours in duration, and for the older members, two or three such interviews were sometimes necessary. These interviews provided me with important insights, reminded me of things I had forgotten, and destabilized comfortable assumptions I had made. In many, perhaps most, cases, the remembrances I recorded of Chicago, New York, Paris, and other geographical/historical locations were powerfully corroborative of the written histories of these same places and eras. As a complex, multigenre, intergenerational network of people, places, and musical and cultural references began to emerge in my notes, I saw a responsibility to be inclusive, rather than to concentrate on those AACM members with more prominent public profiles. Even so, certain members have achieved more notoriety than others, and I felt that this would naturally come out in the course of the work. In any event, I do regret not being able to interview everyone I would have liked to.

The worldwide impact of the AACM has been amply documented in many countries—in print, on recordings, and in popular and specialty magazines, academic treatises, and books. As a scholar, it would be irresponsible of me to simply ignore this level of paper trail, or to dismiss these additional narratives out of hand. Thus, the book features a very conscious effort to problematize the “creator vs. critic” binary that both inflects and infects critical work in jazz, while at the same time providing unique and personal insights that only orature can provide.

“I was glad that somebody did come on the scene that was in the AACM and knew some of our members and had a little idea about the group itself,” Jodie Christian observed in our 1998 interview. “Being in the organization, you had a chance to see some things yourself. You could make those kinds of judgments from that period of time. You can do that because you were there. It wouldn’t be something that you surmised, but something that actually happened, and when you say it, it’s authentic.” As a scholar, however, I want to handle the idea of “authenticity” with extreme care. In fact, I was not there when the AACM began, though I am always flattered by those of my forebears who, when memories fail, somehow place me at the scene. My construction of the AACM is but one of many possible versions, and my hope is that other scholars will take up aspects of the AACM’s work for which a more detailed discussion eluded the scope of this already rather long book.

Truth be told, however, the “real” story, if there is one, will not be captured in a set of recordings or an archive of texts. Here, I take my cue from an unnamed AACM musician’s answer to a query from writer Whitney Balliett about “the” AACM sound: “If you take all the sounds of all the A.A.C.M. musicians and put them together, that’s the A.A.C.M. sound, but I don’t think anyone’s heard that yet.” Nonetheless, what I am hoping for is that a useful story might be realized out of the many voices heard in this book, the maelstrom of heteroglossia in which we nervously tread water.

Autobiography—factual, fictional, and virtually every variation thereof has constituted a crucially important African American literary form, both in the scholarly literature, such as Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates’s classic work, The Slave’s Narrative, and in popular works, from James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man to the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley’s Roots, and the Delany Sisters’ Having Our Say. The insistence on autobiography, as Jon Michael Spencer maintains in his book on Harlem Renaissance composers, The New Negroes and Their Music, became a weapon in the battle over the historicity of the African diaspora, where issues of credit and vindication were of prime importance. In the 1960s, both people of letters and people in the street were vitally invested in this struggle for history.

It should therefore be not surprising that the historiography of jazz is similarly dominated by autobiography, most often in the form of transcribed and published interviews, as well as the frequent “as told to” ghostwritten efforts. For instance, as historian Burton Peretti has noted, the interviewers for the National Endowment for the Arts Oral History projects of the 1970s were largely drawn from the ranks of “veteran jazz writers.” Certainly, historians owe a debt to these writers, who pursued their enthusiasms for their subjects in the face of considerable disapprobation concerning the utility of documenting black music. Nonetheless, for Peretti, “the interviewers tend not to ask the questions that would be of most interest to scholars. They are strong on straight biography, who played with whom, discographies—and anecdotes, anecdotes, and more anecdotes. They tend to avoid addressing issues of intellectual development, social context, racial conditions, or the subjects’ views of culture, history and philosophy.”

The effect of these serious omissions is to decontextualize the music, to frame it as outside the purview of both general social history and the history of music. This experience indicated the need for viable alternatives to the journalistic paradigm that, according to Peretti, still dominates the historiographical process regarding black music. My musician colleagues had been looking for these alternatives for many years. In pianist Jodie Christian’s experience, “There were a lot of hits and misses with people trying to figure out in their minds what this was about and what that was about. Even though they were interviewing people, they would come up with their own idea about what the AACM was about.” On one view, this was certainly understandable; in my experience, the people who were trying to figure out what the AACM was about included, most crucially, AACM people themselves. Thus, my collegial interview/conversations seemed automatically to turn to the very issues that Peretti found lacking in many of the NEA interviews: intellectual development, issues of race, class, and gender, musical form and aesthetics, and the interpretation of history. I began to notice a distinct lack of funny stories and anecdotes, even from people such as the late Lester Bowie, whom we all knew to be given to pointedly ironic jocularity. I imagine that for some readers, these preoccupations could seem unnecessarily dour at times in comparison with other kinds of musicianly texts that rely in large measure on interviews.

Perhaps this serious mien was an inevitable artifact of an interview process that often felt like a kind of collaborative mode of writing history, after the fashion that James Clifford has proposed, even if the adoption of this collaborative ethos seemed to develop spontaneously, rather than as a conscious and studied attempt to address the issues Clifford identified regarding the authority of the interviewer. People felt free to explicitly express their love for the AACM, an organization that in many cases had given them creative birth and nurturing. Interviews served as a form of generational reconnection for some of my subjects, who frequently asked about what had been happening over the years to the people with whom they had been so intensely involved, and about where the organization was headed now. In this way, the book became an autobiography indeed—the autobiography of a collective, a history of an organization that developed into an ongoing social and aesthetic movement. Perhaps at least part of that movement’s dynamism was derived from the clarity with which its members realized that the project could not really be completed; its unfinished nature became its crucial strength.

Historical, autobiographical, and ethnographic processes necessarily cast the historian-ethnographer in the role of intermediary between the subject and the public. The construction of this role during the process of engaging the oral narrative is obviously of prime importance, since the process involves not only transcription, but also interpretation and editorial choices. To pretend that race and gender do not mediate these proceedings is needlessly naïve; at the same time, to claim special advantages based solely on these factors is equally untenable. Thus, a signal factor in the historicization of black music concerns the fact that in the vast majority of cases prior to the late 1960s, as Amiri Baraka pointed out in an important essay from 1963, “Jazz and the White Critic,” those doing interviews with black jazz musicians were most often white, male, and of a different class background than the person being interviewed.

In the 1970s, this began to change. For me, and for many musicians, the watershed work of this generation was the drummer Arthur Taylor’s book of interviews with his musical colleagues, Notes and Tones. Taylor’s initially self- published book demonstrated forcefully that the questions that Burton Peretti felt were of most interest to scholars were also of great interest to the important musicians of the period, such as Betty Carter, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and many others. While Peretti’s critique of oral histories does not directly connect the failure of scholars to review these seemingly fairly obvious areas of interest to institutionalized systems of ethnic and class domination, articulated as a form of historical denial, to Taylor and to many of his subjects, this was precisely what was at stake. Thus, Taylor’s book functioned as perhaps the sharpest musician-centered critique then available of the racialization of media access, which both for Taylor and his subjects, amounted to a form of censorship. In a self-conscious act of intervention, Taylor used his insider status as a canonically important drummer to allow his subjects wide latitude to critique the discourses and economic and social conditions surrounding their métier, including possible distinctions between being interviewed by white critics and by black colleagues.

Even as so much African American literature, from the slave narratives forward, favored the autobiographical in some way, it was becoming clear to me that what was needed was not only a compendium of personal reminiscences and observations, but also a framing of the AACM in dialogue with the history of music and the history of ideas. In fact, AACM members who published critical work in the 1970s and 1980s tended to take this approach. Leo Smith’s writings, notably his 1973 Notes (8 pieces) source a new world music: creative music, and his 1974 “(M1) American Music,”12 were closely followed by Anthony Braxton’s massive three-volume Tri-Axium Writings, a work that, while clearly in dialogue with John Cage’s 1961 manifesto Silence, Amiri Baraka’s 1963 Blues People, and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1963 Texte zur Musik, extends considerably beyond each of these texts, both in length and in range of inquiry. For me, the works of these AACM members constituted sources of inspiration and instruction for my own research, as did Derek Bailey’s influential book, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music.

With these texts as antecedents, I felt that my goals could be better accomplished by deploying methodologies associated with academic historical inquiry, rather than with journalistic models. Of course, this issue is connected with the writerly voice of the book. Early on, several good friends and colleagues were concerned that the book avoid “academese,” or the arcane jargon that these well- meaning people associated with scholarly books. These associates felt that using more accessible language would produce a friendly and nonthreatening introduction to the AACM and its work that would appeal to a wide audience. The jazz writer Stanley Dance was evidently a devotee of this approach, judging from his critique of two jazz studies anthologies published in the 1990s by film scholar Krin Gabbard, Representing Jazz and Jazz among the Discourses:

There is original thought here, but the reader is immediately confronted by the language academics apparently use to communicate with one another. Sometimes it reads like a translation from the German, at others that they are merely trying to impress or indulging in a verbal cutting contest. Here are a few of the words you should be prepared to encounter: hermeneutics, commodifi ed, contextualizing, conceptualize, hyperanimacy, taxonomic, metacritical, rhizome, perspectivizing, nomadology, indexical, polysemy, auratic, reifi cation, metonymic, synecdoche, biodegradability, interstitial, valorize, diegetic, allegoresis, grammatology, oracy, centripetality, and esemplastic.

Dance felt that these kinds of words “obviously impose considerable restraint on the transfer of knowledge.” Girding against what he saw (correctly) as an attack on his métier, the writer grumbled that “the academics tend to be critical and rather patronizing about the accepted journalistic standards of jazz writing, which, to judge from their back notes, they have investigated haphazardly.” Finally, Dance ventured that instead of drawing from writers such as Gunther Schuller, “Gabbard’s people seem more attached to Theodor Adorno and Roland Barthes, of whom the average unscholarly jazz fan has probably never heard.” For me, however, the interdisciplinary approaches to black music and improvisation in the Gabbard texts—the work of Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Walser, Lorenzo Turner, John Corbett, and Scott DeVeaux, among others (as well as the references to Adorno and Barthes) were inspiring, announcing a new generation of writers on improvised music who were, first, declining to conflate oversimplification with accessibility; second, asserting common cause with intellectuals in other fields concerning the ways in which music could announce social and cultural change; and finally, seeking liberation from the Sisyphean repetition of ersatz populist prolegomena that seemed endemic to the field.

Another important book that came out around this time was Ronald Radano’s New Musical Figurations, an account of the career of Anthony Braxton that included a chapter on the AACM that was much closer to my own experience than anything I had read before, and which introduced a new character to the heretofore white-coded historiography of American experimentalism: the “black experimentalist.” These texts helped me to realize that in looking for ways to theorize the music I had been trying for so many years to compose, improvise, and perform, I needed to involve myself with the tools, methods, and discourses that had been developed in a range of fields of inquiry. Doing so would not only allow readers less invested in music but familiar with those discourses and debates to find commonalities with the histories surrounding new music, but could also provide musically oriented readers unfamiliar with those discourses with an opportunity to engage them on familiar ground. As I began to publish, I discovered a rapidly developing, questing new literature, a group of wonderful new colleagues, an exciting crop of graduate students, and an international reading public, including many musicians, who were eager for a new kind of writing about music that did not patronize the reader or assume his or her ignorance of the matters under review. Perhaps most gratifying of all, in these new texts, complex ideas were worked out at sufficient length and in detail in a manner that seemed compatible with my experience as an artist.

Thus, as I told an interviewer/friend in 2002 regarding the progress of this book, “I’ve made some concessions to narrativity. Someone else can write the Cliffs Notes later.” Indeed, in the nine years since I began this project, a new generation of progressive musicians has come out of Chicago, whom I can mention only in passing, such as cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Jeff Parker, trombonist Steve Berry, and rapper Khari B; trumpeters Robert Griffin and Corey Wilkes; singers Dee Alexander and Taalib’Din Ziyad; drummers Chad Taylor, Mike Reed, and Vincent Davis; saxophonists Matana Roberts, Aaron Getsug, and David Boykin; bassists Darius Savage, Josh Abrams, Cecile Savage, and Harrison Bankhead; and many others. Perhaps one or more of those people will create a sequel, after one fashion or another. For now, one of the aims of this book is to help those younger artists in dealing with the richness of the legacy that they carry, as well as in understanding what has been achieved, what was shown to be possible, and what remains to be realized.

The stakes are quite high in this endeavor, as I realized when a friend alerted me to a letter in the British magazine Wire from the African American experimental musician Morgan Craft, living in Italy at this writing. I found his remarks both poignant and terribly telling:

So here we are in the year 2005 and I actually agree to sit down and write about being black, American and experimental in music. The genesis springs from looking at a magazine devoted to challenging, progressive musics from around the world, and seeing their top 50 list for last year (The Wire 251) and the only black Americans were rappers (three) and old jazz era men (one living, one dead). So I bring up this observation about the lack of a black American presence on the avant garde scene under the age of 50 just to see if maybe I’m not paying attention. I’m constantly fed this steady stream of future thinking folks from Germany, Japan, UK, Norway, etc, but when it comes to America all I hear about is the genius that is free folk or if it’s black it must be hiphop, jazz, or long dead. How many more articles on Albert Ayler do we really need?

In fact, black artists on both sides of the age-fifty divide shared Craft’s dilemma, and the analysis of this issue is central to this book. Literary critic Fred Moten has expressed this issue so well and so succinctly that I want to preview his remarks here before redeploying them in another chapter:

The idea of a black avant-garde exists, as it were, oxymoronically—as if black, on the one hand, and avant-garde, on the other hand, each depends for its coherence on the exclusion of the other. Now this is probably an overstatement of the case. Yet it’s all but justified by a vast interdisciplinary text representative not only of a problematically positivist conclusion that the avant-garde has been exclusively Euro-American, but of a deeper, perhaps unconscious, formulation of the avant-garde as necessarily not black.

Part of my task in this book, as I see it, is to bring to the surface the strategies that have been developed to discursively disconnect African American artists from any notion of experimentalism or the avant-garde. This effort, as Craft seems to have noticed, has now moved into the international arena. If Craft—and Ayler, for that matter—exist simply as oxymorons in an international consensus based on the presumption of pan- European intellectual dominance (a dynamic extending beyond the individual phenotypical to the collective institutional), the histories and analyses that I recount here are meant to shepherd young African American artists such as Craft through the convolutions and contortions that were needed to construct this ethnically cleansed discourse; to encourage younger African American artists to see themselves as being able to claim multiple histories of experimentalism despite the histories of erasure, both willful and unwitting; and to reassure young black artists that if you find yourself written out of history, you can feel free to write yourself back in, to provide an antidote to the nervous pan-European fictionalizations that populate so much scholarship on new music.

The set of issues Craft identifies was also rather well symbolized in a lecture I attended by a scholar who insisted that if academics hoped to have any real effect on the culture, the only music worth studying and writing about was music that “everybody” listened to. As an example, this well-known speaker referred to an even better-known rapper who, despite his misogynistic lyrics, was someone who needed to be “dialogued” with so that scholars could reach young African Americans in particular with more “enlightened” ideas. I was struck by the superficiality of this understanding of the many ways in which music exercises cultural impact. First of all, in my experience, young African Americans are generally particularly pleased to discover the depth and breadth of the cultural artifacts created by their forebears. I write these words directly to those young people who, along with those ancestors, are participating in the development of a most influential panoply of expressive voices, not all of which will be heard by majoritarian culture. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that much of the most influential music of the twentieth century—music that will probably never appear on any major U.S. television network—was nonetheless being avidly attended to by the heroes of rock, the early rappers, and techno’s originators—or was it purely coincidental that so many early Mothers of Invention fans absorbed Edgard Varese’s manifesto, strategically placed on the back of the albums: “The present-day composer refuses to die!”

On that view, it should come as no surprise that the impact of music on culture cannot be meaningfully investigated simply by reviewing Soundscan figures or tuning in to Dancing with the Stars. Moreover, advocating the neglect of “unpopular” sonic constituencies in favor of yet another safe valorization of corporate-approved cultural production—this time disguised as “critique” or “dialogue”—seemed to revoke local musical agency, even as the term “local” moves beyond its original, geographically centralized meaning toward a technologically mediated articulation of diaspora. As scholars, we ignore at our peril the networks that carry the flows of new musical ideas, since it’s so easy to miss nascent musical phenomena while they are still growing—in other words, the trajectory of hip-hop culture itself, not to mention its heir apparent, reggaeton, a phenomenon that like its predecessor from the Bronx, flows across borders of class, race, geography, and language.

This is not a version of the standard, hopeless rejoinder to those who point out the obvious lack of mass audience for some kinds of new music that “one day,” this music will be vindicated by ending up in everyone’s ear. Rather, I wish to point out that naturalizing this kind of vindicationism as a goal may be misdirected. African American culture has produced a vast array of musical practices, which have been taken up to varying degrees by a diverse array of constituencies. Some of these practices, however, remained indigestible to powerful players such as modern media corporations, whose products, in economist Jacques Attali’s 1977 formulation, were recursively reinscribed through a powerful “economy of repetition” that drowned out alternative voices. For Attali, “Free jazz created locally the conditions for a different model of musical production, a new music. But since this noise was not inscribed on the same level as the messages circulating in the network of repetition, it could not make itself heard.” This observation seems to evoke a special need for vigilance on the part of music scholars. As Attali wrote, “Conceptualizing the coming order on the basis of the designation of the fundamental noise should be the central work of today’s researchers. Of the only worthwhile researchers: undisciplined ones. The ones who refuse to answer new questions using only pregiven tools.” Thus, if we wish to avoid the appearance of positioning not only the musical production of entire cultures, but also our own research, as wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate megamedia, we will be obliged to tune our discourses to the resonant frequencies of insurgent musical forms around the world, to make sure that we can hear Attali’s “new noise.”

From No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”

Reprinted from No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33″ Copyright © 2010 by Yale University Press. Used with permission of the author and publisher.

From Chapter One, 4′33″ at First Listening

John Cage’s 4′33″ is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life. But to beg is not always to receive.

What was this piece, this “composition” 4′33″? For so famous and recent a work, the number of questions that still surround it is extraordinary—from its lost original manuscript, to its multiple notations, to unexplained deviations in the lengths of the movements, to the peculiar process of adding up silences with which it was composed, to the biggest ambiguity of all: How are we supposed to understand it? In what sense is it a composition? Is it a hoax? A joke? A bit of Dada? A piece of theater? A thought experiment? A kind of apotheosis of 20th-century music? An example of Zen practice? An attempt to change basic human behavior? Let’s try the hoax hypothesis. Here are some definitions for hoax:

1. An act intended to deceive or trick;
2. Something that has been established or accepted by fraudulent means;
3. Deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage (synonym: fraud);
4. A deception for mockery or mischief.

In what was Cage trying to deceive the audience? Attempting to make them think they had heard something when they hadn’t? The audience was fully aware that Tudor was sitting onstage and neither touching the keyboard nor making any audible sounds. If Cage was trying to fool the audience into thinking he had written a piece when he really hadn’t, who was deceived? One could argue that Cage was mocking the audience, but he wasn’t doing so by deceiving them. There was no attempt to cover up what 4′33″ was: a man sitting at a piano for four and a half minutes without playing. There was no moment following the performance at which listeners learned that what they’d heard was not what they thought.

Perhaps it was trickery intended to gain an advantage? Ah yes, the advantage! And what was that advantage? Why, money, of course! Every time I have ever played or explained 4′33″ to a class, one student has always exclaimed indignantly, “You mean he got paid for that?” According to the common understanding of how musicians lead their careers, the musician makes some music, it gets played, and the musician is given some money through some means or another. But Cage wasn’t paid for writing 4′33″; the piece wasn’t commissioned. The concert was a benefit for a good cause. The money people paid to hear David Tudor play did not go to Cage, or even to Tudor.

And in fact, while songwriters usually get paid for their performances and receive royalties for the use of their songs, classical composers like Cage sometimes compose for commissions, but also often write pieces with no commission at all. Often they compose simply because they have an idea, or they’re building up a portfolio for future performances, or they’re trying to advance their careers by doing something impressive, or—quite often—they compose for the sheer love of composing, which can be an enjoyable and fulfilling activity. At that time, Cage was, as he said, “poor as a church mouse,” and he had been so for many years. He had spent the year 1951 composing his piano piece Music of Changes on the sidewalk and on the subway, and asking friends and strangers to support him by buying shares in his music in case it ever did actually make some money. The year following the 4′33″ premiere, the old Lower West Side apartment house Cage was living in was scheduled for demolition, and he was forced to relocate. Not affluent enough to find another place in the city (even with cheap 1950s rents), he eventually moved with friends to an artists’ collective upstate at the community of Stony Point, where he could enjoy two small rooms for $24.15 a month (about $194 in 2008 dollars).1 Not until the 1960s would Cage gain any measure of financial security. The idea that he might have made any money off an avant-garde gesture like 4′33″ is a raw caricature of a composer’s life. (In the 1960s, however, when he was much more famous, Cage did sell the manuscript of 4′33″ for a large sum of money, much as one might sell any document that had come to have historical significance.)

Or perhaps Cage was just lazy, “writing” a piece that took no work at all and hoping to make some money off it later. Any such impression is belied by the sheer volume of Cage’s lifelong output, the detailed complexity of many of his scores, and the loving care he put into copying his manuscripts. He would later say that 4′33″ took longer for him to write than any other piece, because he worked on it, as a concept, for four years. And in 1951 he had written the tremendously virtuosic and complex Music of Changes, more difficult to conceive and compose than anything a lazy person would have ever contemplated.

In 2004 the BBC broadcast an orchestral version of 4′33″—which meant that the BBC Symphony Orchestra sat onstage for four and a half minutes without making sounds, and people listened to their silence in the hall and over the radio. Some of the comments the BBC received over the Internet played into the “hoax” theme:

I’m sorry, but this is absolutely ridiculous. The rock ‘n’ rollers and the punks were wrongly bashed in their day, but this genuinely deserves a big thumbs down.

This is clearly a gimmick, when he ‘wrote’ this piece he was testing who was stupid enough to fall for it. I think you’ll find he wrote it on 01 April 1952.

I find it quite patronising and disturbing that self proclaimed intellectuals are trying to convince us that this is art—just another nail in the coffin for the world of art!

Is this how our licence fee money is being used? I’ve never heard of such a stupid thing in my life! God rest his soul, but this ‘composition’ by Cage smacks of arrogance and self importance . . .

Emperor’s new clothes anyone?2

Yet for the rest of his life, Cage talked about 4′33″ as his most important work, the one he returned to again and again as the basis for his other new works. He knew what it consisted of and was well aware of the range of receptions it generated.

How about the “joke” theory? Well, Cage was certainly afraid it would be taken as a joke, which is why it took him four and a half years (nice coincidence) from conceiving the piece to actually presenting it publicly. (“I have a horror of appearing an idiot,” he once told a critic.)3 In a 1973 interview he admitted, “I was afraid that my making a piece that had no sounds in it would appear as if I were making a joke. In fact, I probably worked longer on my ‘silent’ piece than I worked on any other.”4 Cage explained the “joke”: “I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece. It has three movements, and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.”5 For a joke, this is an awfully earnest philosophical program.

How about Dada? Dada was an art movement, or perhaps anti-art movement, associated with the period during and after World War I. Disillusioned by the great world of European culture being plunged into war, artists like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Sophie Tauber, Erik Satie, and others dove into a world of nonsensical art that eschewed reason and logic in favor of chaos, randomness, and paradox. In the foreword to his seminal early book Silence, Cage acknowledges a debt to Dada, and Satie was one of his favorite composers. Cage also notes that “what was Dada in Duchamp’s day is now just art,” but on Cage’s own authority the possibility that 4′33″ was a Dada-inspired gesture, even if also more than that, cannot be entirely dismissed.

How about theater? One of the crucial aspects of 4′33″, at least in the first performances, is that there was a pianist onstage, whose presence, and whose behavior in the previous pieces on the program, clearly led the audience to expect that his hands would at some point engage the keyboard, and that they would hear deliberately made sounds coming from the stage. That this did not happen, that the listeners’ expectations were deliberately flouted, cannot be entirely divorced from the sonic identity of the piece, even though the way Cage talked about 4′33″ later in life—claiming, for instance, that he often “performed” the piece while alone—seems to suggest that it can. As New York Times critic Edward Rothstein suggested in a rather unsympathetic obituary of Cage, had Cage simply wanted his audience to listen, he could always have instructed them to do so.6 In fact, following 4′33″, Cage’s music, by his own enthusiastic admission, began tending more and more toward theater, and during the 1960s in particular he became very interested in the physical and cognitive relationship between performers and audience members.

The description of 4′33″‘s theatrical recontextualization can hardly be phrased more delicately and thoroughly, I think, than Douglas Kahn has done:

Ostensibly, even an audience comprised of reverential listeners would have plenty to hear, but in every performance I’ve attended the silence has been broken by the audience and become ironically noisy. It should be noted that each performance was held in a concert setting, where any muttering or clearing one’s throat, let alone heckling, was a breach of decorum. Thus, there was already in place in these settings, as in other settings for Western art music, a culturally specific mandate to be silent, a mandate regulating the behavior that precedes and accompanies musical performance. As with prayer, which has not always been silent, concertgoers were at one time more boisterous; this association was not lost on Luigi Russolo, who remarked on “the cretinous religious emotion of the Buddha-like listeners, drunk with repeating for the thousandth time their more or less acquired and snobbish ecstasy.” 4′33″, by tacitly instructing the performer to remain quiet in all respects, muted the site of centralized and privileged utterance, disrupted the unspoken audience code to remain unspoken, transposed the performance onto the audience members both in their utterances and in the acts of shifting perception toward other sounds, and legitimated bad behavior that in any number of other settings (including musical ones) would have been perfectly acceptable. 4′33″ achieved this involution through the act of silencing the performer. That is, Cagean silence followed and was dependent on a silencing. Indeed, it can also be understood that he extended the decorum of silencing by extending the silence imposed on the audience to the performer, asking the audience to continue to be obedient listeners and not to engage in the utterances that would distract them from shifting their perception toward other sounds. Extending the musical silencing, then, set into motion the process by which the realm of musical sounds would itself be extended.7

Kahn is right: 4′33″ cannot be bracketed as a purely sonic phenomenon. It called upon the audience members to remain obediently silent under unusual conditions. The pianist’s refusal to play calls a whole network of social connections into question and is likely to be reflected in equally unconventional responses on the part of the audience.

How about a “thought experiment,” a kind of “metamusic” that makes a statement about music itself? For many people, including me, 4′33″ is certainly that, if not only that. One story about Cage recounts his sitting in a restaurant with the painter Willem de Kooning, who, for the sake of argument, placed his fingers in such a way as to frame some bread crumbs on the table and said, “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art.” Cage argued that it indeed was art, which tells us something about 4′33″.8 Certainly, through the conventional and well-understood acts of placing the title of a composition on a program and arranging the audience in chairs facing a pianist, Cage was framing the sounds that the audience heard in an experimental attempt to make people perceive as art sounds that were not usually so perceived. One of the most common effects of 4′33″—possibly the most important and widespread effect—was to seduce people into considering as art phenomena that were normally not associated with art. Perhaps even more, its effect was to drive home the point that the difference between “art” and “non-art” is merely one of perception, and that we can control how we organize our perceptions. A person who took away nothing from 4′33″ but this realization would, in my view, already be taking home something revolutionary.

From a broader perspective, how about 4′33″ as the apotheosis of twentieth-century music? There is something intriguing about the piece’s position as a kind of midpoint of the century. The years just following World War II had seen a resurgence of the twelve-tone music invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Milton Babbitt were expanding the twelve-tone idea from the realm of pitch to include rhythm, dynamics, and timbre, and in the process creating music of unprecedented complexity. Such hyperstructured music began to verge on the realm of incomprehensibility, a kind of perceptual chaos arising paradoxically from rational processes.

It’s true that most of this development appeared in the years just following 4′33″, but in the 1960s it became common to talk about how little different the super-controlled music of Stockhausen and Babbitt sounded from the totally chance-controlled music Cage was writing. And indirectly 4′33″ led to the developments from which grew the simpler and more accessible new style of minimalism. As a locus of historical hermeneutics, 4′33″ can be seen as a result of the exhaustion of the overgrown classical tradition that preceded it, a clearing of the ground that allowed a new musical era to start from scratch.

And how about 4′33″ as an example of Zen practice? This, I think, may be the most directly fertile suggestion. Cage first spoke of the possibility of a silent piece in 1948, and several steps in his thinking led him, over the next four years, to the inevitability of presenting such a work in public. There are many levels on which 4′33″ can be understood, and many simultaneous meanings to be grasped within it—which, after all, is one of the signs by which any great work of art can be recognized as such.9


1. Revill, The Roaring Silence, pp. 179-80.

2. “Radio 3 Plays Silent Symphony,” BBC News, January 19, 2004, (accessed April 9, 2009).

3. Donal Henahan, “Who Throws Dice, Reads I Ching, and Composes?” New York Times, September 3, 1972; quoted in Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 12.

4. Interview with Alan Gillmor and Roger Shattuck, quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 67.

5. Jeff Goldberg, “John Cage Interview,” Soho Weekly News, September 12, 1974.

6. Edward Rothstein, “Cage Played His Anarchy by the Rules,” New York Times, September 20, 1992.

7. Kahn, “John Cage: Silence and Silencing,” p. 7.

8. Interview with Robin White, quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, pp. 211-212.

9. Philip Gentry has theorized that 4′33″ might have represented for Cage, or for some of the audience, an appropriation or expression of the silence that gay men were forced to maintain (even more than usual) during the repression of the McCarthy era, when gays were being fired from government and institutional jobs—and that the audience’s anger may have had to do with the inherent homosexuality of the gesture, given Cage’s persona. However this may be, the anger does seem disproportionate in a way that begs for further explanation. See Gentry, “Cultural Politics of 4′33″.”

How to Succeed in the New Music Business (You Will Need to Try)

The Savvy Musician
  • READ an excerpt from chapter 1 of The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference (made available here as a .pdf)Reprinted from The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference by David Cutler. Copyright © by David Cutler and published by Helius Press. Used by permission of the author.
  • BUY the book.
    Based on both anecdotal evidence and the recent spate of published research on the subject, we are all well acquainted with the idea that the American public’s engagement with the nation’s traditional performing arts outlets is on the wane. However, we also know that plenty of talented and passionate composers and musicians continue to pursue advanced degrees at universities and conservatories across the country. How will they build careers to support their artistry in the coming decades?

    It’s clear it’s going to take a lot more than upping time spent in the practice room, but the standard guidebooks to “success in the music business” don’t often look at the issues facing those seeking to take their graduate degrees and make a name for themselves in genres like new music and jazz. In The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference, composer and pianist David Cutler collects strategies and success stories from 165 composers and musicians working in these musical arenas and sprinkles them throughout this slickly designed A-to-Z guide covering everything from building up a career to planning for retirement.

    Cutler and I chatted about what musicians need beyond straight-up musical chops to succeed in 2010. You can read an excerpt from the book here and get your own (autographed!) copy here. And, as you might expect from a venture of this nature, there is also a companion website/blog to be found here.—MS

    Molly Sheridan: You’re a jazz and classical composer and pianist, but you’re also an educator teaching at Duquesne University, where your work includes serving as the Coordinator of Music Entrepreneurship Studies. Sounds like the perfect gig to lead to a book of this nature. Did you determine that this kind of “nuts and bolts” career builder tome of information was needed based on your work with students in that capacity?

    David Cutler
    Author David Cutler

    David Cutler: Actually, it happened the opposite way. I was hired to teach composition and musicianship, which put me in close contact with many students. While most were growing into outstanding musicians, few developed the kinds of philosophical and practical skills necessary for success as a professional (opportunity creation, branding, marketing, building audiences, networking, raising capital, business aptitudes, etc). It’s as if they were learning that high levels of talent and artistic accomplishment alone would somehow lead to a viable and fulfilling career. In reality, this is far from true.

    Having experienced a comparable culture in my own education, and witnessing similar phenomena elsewhere, I felt compelled to address these largely absent themes. It just seemed like the ethical thing to do. I initially began discussing these topics with students in one-on-one meetings, and then in class presentations. Eventually it grew into The Savvy Musician, which was written to help cultivate a more holistic breed of artist, offering the greatest chance of personal/professional success.

    My role as Coordinator of Music Entrepreneurship Studies, as well as involvement in many activities I never could have dreamed up, presented themselves as a result of my interest in this area. Which brings up an important point. Following your heart and doing something a little different than everyone else can open all kinds of unexpected doors.

    MS: One thing that really caught my eye about this book is that it addresses jazz and new music composers directly. Rather than adapt advice geared towards illuminating “Ten Ways to Make Your Rock Band Famous,” readers can instead access information about publishing concert works in today’s market environment and hear stories from composers like Jennifer Higdon and Stacy Garrop. Do their challenges differ significantly from artists working in other genres?

    DC: There are many books in print about the “music business.” Most have little or nothing to do with the kind of work done by my students, teachers, friends, colleagues, and yours truly. Several focus exclusively on legal issues for the recording industry, or tactics for becoming a mega-star rock band. One text asks whether or not you must be able to read music in order to “make it”—surely a fascinating inquiry for some, but (with a doctorate in music) it’s not my question! Another publication actually has a short summary about becoming a concert music composer, concluding that there’s no possible way to make a living through this path. Perfect…

    On one level, the process behind selling any product/service is similar, be it a computer, breakfast food, video game, rock band, chamber ensemble CD, or music lesson: Satisfy a need, fill a gap, market like crazy, and connect with your audience.

    But each industry also has unique considerations. Earning a living as a jazz or concert music composer is not the same as working with a rock band (though I hope our work becomes just as popular!). We have different constituents, skill sets, functions, and opportunities. There are also common myths that need to be debunked, such as “jazz/concert music composers have just three career options: 1) film scoring, 2) college teaching, and 3) lawn care.”

    The Savvy Musician includes case studies of musicians with a similar background to many of your readers, illustrating a vast array of possibilities while sharing often innovative success strategies. And being a composer myself, I know exactly the kinds of challenges my colleagues are facing. No need for analogies. Let’s look at what successful jazz and classical musicians actually do.

    MS: You’ve built a companion website for The Savvy Musician, where you continue to push at issues from the book and gather feedback. How has this added to the traditional experience of publishing a how-to, career-help book?

    DC: Some kinds of content are better presented in a book, while others are more effective through the Internet. A website provides unlimited space, the opportunity to update regularly, and a forum to continue the exploration interactively.

    The tag line for is “Home Base for Music Careers & Entrepreneurship,” and I hope you find it to be just that. In addition to book information, the site hosts:

    • Blog. Expands on themes related to the book, exploring categories such as mindset, career, marketing, money, and education.
    • A Resource Center. Over 1000 links to valuable sites: funding sources, summer camps, magazines, music blogs, free resources, and more. Access is free!
    • Videos. Issue Videos showcase inspirational and informative talks by leaders both in and outside the music world. Music Videos feature creations by savvy musicians that are high quality AND unusual, innovative, humorous, or otherwise “purple.”
    • An opportunity to interact. Visitors are encouraged to leave blog comments, submit questions, and offer suggestions.

    MS: Speaking of videos, I love the Zoe Keating clip posted on your blog in which she de-romanticizes quitting your day job to become a professional touring musician. And we’ve all been reading the studies from the NEA and others about the decline in audience participation in live classical and jazz music performance. But that kind of news doesn’t seem to be stopping people from pursuing these careers, often including expensive postgraduate educations. After interviewing all the artists you include anecdotally in your book, do you sense a more positive future for musicians than these studies might indicate, or are many of us just destined for careers at Wal-Mart?

    DC: Great and important question! In the book’s introduction, I ask if there are too many professional musicians entering the workforce. The unfortunate reality is, yes, too many people are competing for “traditional opportunities.” In these oversaturated work environments, there simply aren’t enough positions to accommodate all qualified applicants.

    But for savvy musicians, there is unprecedented potential. For the first time, it’s possible for even an independent artist to compete against major corporations on equal footing, thanks to the Internet. And in our current era, the arts and the creative capital offered by artists is more valuable than it has been in a long time.

    However, for musicians to benefit optimally from these conditions, four attributes are necessary. It doesn’t matter how many diplomas hang from your wall if all areas aren’t present to some degree.

    1. musical skills
    2. communication skills
    3. business skills
    4. an entrepreneurial mindset

    So here’s my answer: There are not too many professional musicians. There are, however, too many of the wrong kind of musician, and not nearly enough well-rounded and innovative thinkers taking full advantage of the current circumstances facing our communities.

    From the book:

    ATTENTION: We Need Leaders!!!

    The music world is in need of creative artists who understand current realities and are brave enough to experiment with new solutions. There are opportunities waiting to be discovered by performers who bring great music to new settings, educators who instill its transcendent and spiritual values to students, and administrators who foster new audiences while insisting that artistic integrity remain high. There is a shortage of music leaders unveiling new models for success, and artist-citizens leading the crusade to keep meaningful musical experiences vibrant.

    Incidentally, it was delightful to hear many of The Savvy Musician interviewees declare that this is a great time to be a musician. I couldn’t agree more. At least if you’re savvy.

    MS: Say I’m already pretty savvy. What are a couple of questions I might ask myself if I’m wondering if this book would be a good resource to help me reach my music goals?

    DC: The Savvy Musician is not just a primer on basic business skills. It is a treatise exploring ways for high-quality musicians to—as individuals and a community—get more work, attract new audiences, improve financial standing, increase impact, and leave lasting legacies. Whether hoping to augment income, stand out from a competitive field, add variety to activities, or erect an empire, this comprehensive resource delivers the tools and entrepreneurial mindset necessary for increased success.

    I guarantee this book will fill you with ideas and strategies. I’m savvy too, but learned a ton through working on this project and talking with some of the most creative musical voices today.

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.

A Conversation with Robert Carl, author of Terry Riley’s In C

Robert Carl
  • READ an excerpt from Terry Riley’s In C by Robert Carl (Courtesy of Oxford University Press).[Ed note: Oxford University Press is a proud sponsor of NewMusicBox and this very book has been featured in their sponsored space on this site. However, despite this seredipidous synchronicity, their welcome support for NewMusicBox in no way influences our editorial content.]

    In April 2009, the 45th anniversary of Terry Riley’s In C was celebrated on the main stage of Carnegie Hall in an all-star performance assembled by the Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington. The event included the participation of musical luminaries across a wide swath of genres ranging from Philip Glass and Joan La Barbara to Dave Douglas, Lenny Pickett, and Wu Man, plus some of the participants in the piece’s earliest performances—Morton Subotnick, Katrina Krimsky, Jon Gibson, and Stuart Dempster. Some of us felt it was a long overdue acknowledgment from one of the world’s most prominent bastions of high culture for the historical significance of minimalism and the work which served as a catalyst for establishing this new musical paradigm. Although, fascinatingly enough, the 1968 New York premiere of In C, which directly led to its premiere recording on Columbia Masterworks, occurred in Carnegie’s much smaller, and at the time less high-profile, Recital Hall, now known as Weill Recital Hall. But if last year’s Carnegie Hall celebration confirmed In C‘s status as a landmark in music history, two more recent events reveal In C to be a harbinger of the future as well.

    In July 2009, Oxford University Press issued Robert Carl’s analytical volume Terry Riley’s In C as part of their series, Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation, the first work of a living composer to be so accredited. This may seem another accolade in the establishing of In C as standard repertoire, but in fact Robert Carl’s book is also largely about how In C‘s adaptability among musicians of a wide variety of stylistic backgrounds provides an excellent road map for the future of music.

    In November 2009, innova issued In C Remixed, a 2-CD set featuring a crisp performance of Riley’s original score by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble along with 18 remixes and re-conceptualizations of In C by a broad range of people including some of today’s most forward thinking musical creators—e.g. David Lang, R. Luke DuBois, Phil Kline, Mason Bates (a.k.a. Masonic), and Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. D.J. Spooky That Subliminal Kid).

    Right before the start of this new year, I chatted with Robert Carl about his insightful book as well as the past, present, and future of what is an undeniable musical phenomenon. It is clear that in addition to being one of the most significant pieces of American music created thus far, In C also continues to shape and inform the music of today and tomorrow.—FJO



    Listen to Robert Carl and Frank J. Oteri’s wide-ranging discussion of Riley’s seminal work.

    Audio samples used in the program are pulled from GVSU New Music Ensemble’s new disc on innova records, In C Remixed.

    Purchase: Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble & Bill Ryan - In C Remixed

    Frank J. Oteri: Your book, Terry Riley’s In C, is part of a series of books, Oxford University Press’s Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation, which deal with single pieces of music. Curiously it’s the first book in that series to deal with the music of an American composer, and the first to deal with a living composer. There have been analytical books written about other specific books for decades, but books about single pieces of music are a relatively recent phenomenon. A few years back there was an excellent book about Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and there have been books about specific Broadway musicals and jazz albums, as well as close to a hundred books in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series on rock albums. I’m wondering how many of these types of book you yourself have read and how much of an impact they had on your own work.

    Robert Carl: I have to tell you that I’m woefully ignorant about all of this in many ways, but I’ve had this book as a glimmer in the back of my eye for a long period of time. At one point, just looking through the Oxford catalog of music books that turned up one day in the mail, I saw this series which I had never really thought of before. It’s essentially a musicological series dealing with monuments pretty much of the 19th century, maybe the early 20th: very scholarly, very historically oriented, dealing with manuscripts and source material study. And I thought, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be a hoot if In C were part of that?” So out of the blue I emailed the editor, whose name I saw there—Malcolm Gilles. He’s a rather remarkable polymathic man who is a Bartók scholar, among many other things. I asked him whether such a book could possibly be part of this series, even though it was kind of the camel’s nose under the tent, in terms of bringing the 20th century in. And he wrote back, “What an interesting idea. Send us a proposal.” And that’s how it started. It was totally out of the blue. And I think he was as intrigued by the idea that if there was to be a break in the wall of these 19th century monuments that this series was dealing with, this might be a very interesting piece to do it with—that a piece that is recent 20th century and actually in many ways highly experimental and radical in terms of its practice might take its place along with these repertoire monuments. So I have to say that I was more driven by the topic of the book than I was by driven by the genre of the book.

    FJO: A book of this nature is ultimately fundamentally different from a biography or a book about a specific style or time period. Your book is not really a book about Terry Riley or a book on minimalism or the 1960s, although all of those topics get fleshed out in it. By focusing on a single piece, you provide a very specific window through which all of these other things can be observed.

    RC: I should say that, if someone hasn’t seen it, it’s not a big book—it’s about 160 pages. But it is to some degree a portrait or a bio of Terry Riley leading up to In C, so in a sense it’s the first half of his life. When I first met him he did say, “I haven’t had a biography yet, and maybe this is it.” I hope it isn’t; I hope there’s more coming down the pipeline. But it serves a certain function of taking him up to about 1968-69, and it does also deal with the pieces that led up to In C, starting from works that he was writing just after he got to San Francisco and Berkeley: the String Quartet; the Trio; Music for the Gift, which he made in Paris—the pieces that are both acoustic—”classical”—and the pieces that are electro-acoustic. And the influences of jazz and drug use and the culture which was in between Beat and Counterculture in San Francisco at that time, all of those things go into the mix and I think are essential to show how he got to a certain critical point where he wrote the piece essentially in one night in a white heat. That’s one of those apocryphal stories that seems to be true. At least the horse’s mouth says it is, and I believe him.

    FJO: We often talk about composers and principal works of theirs that immediately spring to mind, e.g. Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring. Certainly Stravinsky had a very long career and wrote lots of other fabulous music, but Rite of Spring is the piece that everyone thinks of. With Schoenberg, it is probably less so with Pierrot. People also think of Verklärte Nacht and the development of twelve-tone music, which was later. But Terry and In C are almost inseparable. No other piece he’s done has had quite the same impact. It’s sad that Terry thought that this book will be his biography considering he created so many incredible works for string quartet—he’s probably our most prolific living composer of quartets—plus all the remarkable solo keyboard compositions and improvisations. Why do you think that is?

    RC: For one thing, In C met a particular need with genius at the moment, to work out a strategy for dealing with open form that still preserved character and a certain precision and yet was also so incredibly open. I think the balancing act that he got doing that with the structure of the piece—a one-page score with 53 modules—is a remarkable thing. He himself says he could have gone on and done it over and over again and he decided not to. Only a couple of pieces that followed are anything like this: Tread the Trail and Autumn Leaves. So it stands out because it seems to meet a very particular need for structured and improvised musics melding together. Another thing that I discovered about it listening to a lot of the recordings that have been made over the years is that there are few pieces that are as welcoming to musicians who come from an unbelievable range of experience, not just classical versus non-classical but also Western and non-Western, popular and learned, whatever that is, all of these points on the spectrum seem to be able to find a meeting point in the piece. In that sense, it’s one of the most benign forms of globalization that you could possibly have; it’s a counter-model to the ways that has gone.

    FJO: You mentioned these other two In C-like pieces, which are barely known at all. And I also thought of a third, Olson III.

    RC: Yes.

    FJO: But none of those pieces caught on either. There are no recordings of the two pieces you mentioned, and there’s only one archival recording of Olson III that was issued on CD by the Cortical Foundation in the 1990s. So there isn’t a well-spring the way there has been with In C. And I wonder if perhaps to some extent it’s because the score is so widely available—Terry has offered it for free on his website and links to that score are on other sites all over the internet. Plus it’s so easy to disseminate: it’s just one page and everyone plays from the same page. So aside from all this philosophical stuff we’ve been talking about—being open to all musicians, being a platform for globalization—it’s also downright practical. Anyone can get a hold of it and put together a group of people to perform it without too much trouble.

    RC: I think that’s a great point. I couldn’t agree more. It was an incredibly courageous decision to print the score on the foldout of the original LP. You bought the LP and there it was: white on black, very ’60s! So everybody got the score when they bought the recording, and it immediately became clear how it worked. There was no mystification about what the technique or the process was. You could figure it out in a second. So that was enormously courageous, but at the same time it was prescient because it was like freeware. Free is the new economy, and he did that. And I think no thing was more important to the practical professional aspects of his career than that giving away that he did. It’s had an enormous impact on why that piece is iconic.

    FJO: In terms of contemporary music compositions, I can’t think of any that have been recorded as many times. Having all these different versions of In C out there to choose from is like the access we have to so many different conductors’ takes on the Beethoven symphonies or various Mozart operas.

    RC: I think there’s a subtle but a real difference, though, between the repertoire and In C. In C has an open instrumentation and an open duration. And as a consequence of the kind of accordion structure it has, where it can expand or contract, the relationships between the modules are also different from performance to performance, even though the sequence always remains the same. Every time someone decides to perform it, every time someone decides to record it, it’s a new version, maybe a new realization. Maybe we should be using the word realization instead of interpretation, because interpretation suggests a 19th-century ideal of a score which is a fixed artifact that one is supposed to realize as close as possible to the text. But with In C, you can only get so close and then like a magnet you bounce off it.

    FJO: One of the things I find so wonderful about your book is that you include this elaborate annotated discography of all the different recordings of In C that have come out. There are some listeners out there who are not particularly attuned to minimalism and find constant repetition a source of irritation. To listen to one recording would be a challenge for such a person, to listen to twelve different recordings and to be able to describe how each one is unique would be sheer torture. I imagine you had to listen to each of these recordings many times over in order to get the level of detail that you bring to this. So I’m interested in hearing your analytical listening process and the amount of time you spent with all these recordings.

    RC: There’s a much prettier realization in the book than what I was working from, which were raw sheets. I worked up a template which showed a time grid going from left to right and then from top to bottom the modules. I would just listen and figure out when each module entered and exited, so there’s this series of horizontal bars that are moving their way from left to right across the page and slowly descending with different types of overlaps. I’d do that with each one and over time I got better at it and so it didn’t take so long. The first one I did is the 1968 premiere recording. And, by the way, I’m sure that someone else will listen and will hear differences with what I hear because many of the modules are deliberately close to one another. If you’re hearing one [module] ending you may actually be fooled because it’s the beginning of one that’s very closely structured. It’s one of those things where you try to make the best judgment call you can.

    One of the more unusual In C recordings to be released thus far features the Moscow-based Terry Riley Repetitition [sic] Orchestra.

    The other answer is that strangely enough, precisely because of the difference between the spirit of the different recordings, it almost becomes this adventure of what’s next. What’s it gonna be now? There’s this one Russian recording with a group that’s called The Terry Riley Repetitition [sic] Orchestra. I’m sure it’s not a typo; I think it’s a joke. It’s a performance from Moscow and there are sleigh bells and women yodeling. It’s like Les Noces gone wild and yet it’s the piece; you hear everything in it.

    FJO: I often joke with people about the critics in Gramophone magazine who compare the tempos and differences in accelerandos in different recordings of Bruckner symphonies.

    RC: Indeed, this is Oxford Press, and I do say what the tempo is. It’s very easy. You just have your metronome with you and listen to the pulse very carefully and adjust it until you’ve got the light flashing with it. So that’s there for the documentation. And since the book has come out, two more recordings of In C have come out. It means there has to be another edition; that’s my hope if I can keep up with them.

    FJO: One of the recordings that just came out is a two-disc set of In C remixes by all different people, which perhaps takes this notion of malleability, realization rather than performance, to an even further extreme even though they were all working with the same performance by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble. Some of the resultant pieces are very different, but all of them have hints of In C. How does a process like that create a further interpretative history for this piece?

    innova’s In C Remixed, featuring the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, open up a whole new set of possibilities.

    RC: Terry is very open to whatever people do. He’s very generous and I think he’s inherently curious, so I don’t think he has any trouble with it. I listened once through the whole set, and I think that the works that appeal to me the most are in fact the ones that are so different that they stand on their own as pieces. When you listen to the performance of In C that the group gives, which is a great one—it’s very tight and is actually one of the shortest ones around—the piece still stands as a monument. I hate to use this word because it’s so counterculture, but it still has this quality. Many of the other pieces strike me as hommages. It’s the “Tombeau de Terry” that we have here. But there were two that I was particularly taken by. There are a couple that make it into a club mix that people can dance to, maybe that’s one of the hopes that they had for the album, that it will go out into the world and do that like the Reich Remix album did. But the one by Mason Bates had a really interesting mix between the original sounds and the techno sounds. And then David Lang’s which went completely somewhere else, processed enormously and turned into this big, slowly mutating electro-acoustic texture. It’s like the ghost of the piece floating along. For me, I like the works that take off from it and actually make truly new pieces, but that’s just my taste.

    FJO: David Lang has said publicly a number of times that for him and composers of his generation and beyond, In C was the same kind of life changing work that The Rite of Spring had been to an earlier generation of composers.

    RC: It occupies a similar position in the birth of a movement. You can look at Paris in 1913 and say, “Well, there’s modernism.” That’s where it starts. It’s easy to mark it as a break point, even though there are a million things that presage it and you could choose other important strands. It’s the same thing with minimalism, but I think that In C is really such an obvious encapsulation of everything that was going on. Everything that’s in In C was already in the air, but it’s the first piece to bring slow harmonic motion, pulse, and repetition, and actually modal harmonic structure—all of those elements together in one piece. All of those were out in the air but not combined as fully and as successfully as I think In C does. So in that sense it is The Rite of Spring of a movement. I would say one other thing, too. A lot of early minimalism was extremely purist, very strict, rigorous, and abstract. Like the early Reich phasing pieces. They’re enormously different from the sound of modernist music, but actually share a rigorous abstraction that is tied to modernism. In C is one of the first pieces that sounds more like both popular music and world music. Rock wasn’t so much in Terry’s mind at the time. It was much more jazz and world music, Indian music in particular. So it’s opening up to other types of music in the world. Also, it’s much more playful. And that playfulness makes it a kind of post-modern thing as well as minimalist, and I think that’s maybe another aspect of the influence that’s gone on with it.

    FJO: He may not have had rock music in mind but he was a hero to rock musicians. The Who recorded “Baba O’Riley,” and early on there was even a rock band named Curved Air after another one of Terry’s pieces, A Rainbow In Curved Air. And so many rock groups have done the piece.

    RC: Oh sure.

    The Styrenes is one of the rock bands that has recorded In C.

    FJO: In terms of the people who were involved with the premiere and the premiere recording of it, that’s another thing about the catalyst that it represented—there were so many important composers. You mentioned Steve Reich. Reich participated in that first performance. And he hadn’t done those phase pieces you mentioned yet. Those came after In C. It’s Gonna Rain is 1965; that’s a year later. Pauline Oliveros was also involved, as was Morton Subotnick, whose own music was very different. Stuart Dempster was on the first recording, as was Jon Hassell, David Rosenboom, and Katrina Krimsky—all these major figures of the last half century, as well as some important figures who should be better known today like Ramon Sender, Jon Gibson, and Phil Winsor. That’s a really heady group of people.

    RC: Terry inspires a certain loyalty to begin with. He’s very generous and people reciprocate. He actually wrote In C for a retrospective concert in 1964—they were doing it that year at the San Francisco Tape Music Center as a part of a series of local artists each with their own show. And he was just sort of calling people up, getting people off the street. There was one man, a jazz pianist named James Lowe who played in it, who basically was working at the Tape Music Center in a barter arrangement. He did custodial type work and they gave him access to the machines. And Terry said, “C’mon and play in my piece.” It was that sort of thing. Actually Reich said that at the dress rehearsal a couple of hippies came in with a trumpet and tried to start playing and Reich was the one who threw them out. “I just wanna blow, man!” Terry probably would have let them play. But the group was there because they enjoyed the communal experiences that they’d had in a lot of different ways. And they’d been together for a while. Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, and Terry had all been in grad school together. Other people were there that he’d been working with at the Tape Music Center. So it was a good chance to do a kind of community action to express their bonding. And the thing that was great about it, aside from just the fact that it birthed a piece, is that there was, in particular, Stuart Dempster there, who interestingly enough did not play the premiere. He had another gig [that night]. When I interviewed him for the book he couldn’t believe he didn’t do it, but then he went back and looked at his books—he has meticulously documented his life—and in fact he said, “Gosh, I had a gig with the Oakland Symphony that night so I couldn’t have played.” But he played in a revival concert that happened maybe about half a year later, just before Terry was to leave to go to Europe. (That actually didn’t happen; he ended up going to New York.) So [Stuart] knew the piece and he had the score. And when he got to Buffalo, for the Creative Associates program, he was the one who said, “We should do this piece.” And he brought it to the attention of Lukas Foss. That led to some recital type performances in Buffalo and then they took it to New York [City]. And David Behrman had been brought into the mix, so to speak, as a listener. He liked the piece and went back to Columbia [Records] and said, “We should really record this piece.” And one thing led to another.

    Columbia Masterworks’ 1968 World Premiere Recording of In C was akin to a second premiere.

    One thing that is very interesting about In C as a new model in the 20th century is that it is a piece that had two premieres. The concert premiere was certainly incredibly important, especially as an event historically that we can look back on. But if it had only been that, this piece might not have been the piece it became. It was the fact that it had the recording that came out in 1968 on a major label that amazingly enough thought it would actually have crossover appeal going in both directions—to both classical listeners and a counterculture youth audience. They were looking for things that might fit that mold. And that’s something that I’m not sure has ever happened before.

    FJO: The other thing I find interesting about the composition of the piece, which is an extension of its openness and Terry’s own openness, is that the pulse—which is so significant to both the sound and the functionality of the piece—was actually not part of his original conception. The fact that this only emerged during rehearsals strikes me similarly to how I felt when I learned that the poem we know today as The Waste Land is just as much a product of Ezra Pound’s role as its editor as T.S. Eliot’s role as poet.

    RC: This is where Steve Reich comes in. He was part of the ensemble. There were not many rehearsals, by the way. No one knows exactly how many there were. No one really remembers. It was really informal. By what was more or less the dress rehearsal, they were still floundering around, they couldn’t quite keep together. And Reich said, “Well, once a drummer, always a drummer; let’s have a pulse.” They didn’t have a trap set, so they put it on the piano and they had Reich’s girlfriend at the time, Jeanie Brechan, doing it. It’s very interesting. It’s signed by Terry Riley, but there is a Steve Reich thumbprint on it. It probably would have been much more like Music for the Gift which is the electro-acoustic piece that precedes it. It would have felt much more like big amorphous cycles; it would not have had the precision. But again, one of the things that Terry has a gift for is that he says, “Hey, that’s a good idea; let’s do that!” And he’s not appropriative or defensive about where something comes from if it works. That’s part of the collaborative process.

    FJO: One of the stories I find so fascinating about all the composers who were at that premiere is the story you have in the book about the man who walked out, Henry Jacobs. I was hoping you would have done an interview with him. I did some web surfing to find more information about him, and I found a website that purports to have contact information for him. Maybe the site hasn’t been updated in a while. He was involved with Ken Nordine and there’s a recording for sale there called Vortex Sound Experiments which sounds pretty wacked out. So I thought to myself, “This guy’s a nut job! He’s off the wall adventurous, totally my kind of composer. So why is he having a problem with In C?” Seems like instead he should have been part of the performance!

    RC: Somebody who’s a graduate student at Berkeley emailed me about this, too. He’s doing a dissertation on Henry Jacobs. And I wrote back to him and said this is what I have from participants. But I don’t know. I didn’t interview him, I’m not sure if he’s still alive or not. If he is and he finds this, please let me know and don’t be too angry with me! But I think it’s probably like when you have dueling Marxist sects. There is a group of people doing a certain type of experimental thing, which is really their world and they feel that that’s really where it needs to be going. I think he had a series at the San Francisco Exploratorium; I’m just imaging this, but it could be a little bit like an American version of INA-GRM series in France with this very surrealistic San Francisco inflected musique concrète. I could see that if he was doing very wacked out electro-acoustic music, this music, which sounded so relatively simplistic—if you were really involved with complex electro-acoustic layering and textures—might have had markers about it that set off the wrong alarm bells. But this really is a guess. And I don’t want to malign someone without knowing what the truth is.

    FJO: Well, if he’s still around, I want to track him down. You’ve inspired me.

    RC: Please do and please let me know.

    FJO: All of this brings me to talk with you about your own music. In many ways, you’re a back door historian; you’re a composer and that’s primarily what you do. And I find it interesting to talk about these rival aesthetics because your own music is worlds away from In C and from what it engendered.

    RC: It’s hard for me not to like a new piece of music. I can be disappointed, sure, but it’s always a thrill for me. That’s the most facile answer I’ll give, but I’ll get more substantial. I also write a lot of reviews of new music CDs for Fanfare [magazine] and I kept hearing recordings of In C. And my whole idea of it changed as I heard more and more realizations. I realized what a remarkably flexible, open, and adaptable piece it is. And in terms of my own music, I’ve written a lot of pieces and I have a whole category of pieces that are more open form and improvisational. I think that this aspect of 21st-century music practice is only going to get more and more important. The lines between what’s called jazz and classical are melting as we speak. What In C represents is one of many useful models for ways of dealing with that greater interpenetration between different traditions. The other thing is my students at the Hartt School [University of Hartford]. These young composers just take this for granted. The piece is a landmark, it’s an icon, it’s a masterpiece—fine. They are also—let’s call them young classical composers, for lack of a better word—really much more open to using improvisation and structuring improvisation than previous generations. They see it as part of their craft. For me as a composer teaching composition, that led me to think more and more about the importance of this piece and why I wanted to do a study of it. And I feel I learned an enormous amount. Even though, you’re right, my music is very different from what would be called minimalist or post-minimalist. If there’s any tradition it’s coming from, it’s probably more early American ultra-modernism with Ives and Ruggles and then some romantic elements thrown in. But the idea of pacing, the idea of space, the idea of allowing music to open up and take as long as is necessary to do what it needs to do, that’s what I learned from minimalism. Just as I learned from [John] Cage to stop being afraid. Cage is the ultimate model to do what needs to be done and to follow your imagination. There’s a composer to whom in one sense I have no relation in my own music in any sort of technical way but who is an enormous inspiration to me. I probably first heard In C in maybe about ’74, which is six years after the disc came out. And I remember when I first heard it, it was kind of a disorienting experience. I was a late starter as a composer and I was just starting to get involved with writing music. I was in college was very drawn to the music of Ives and Carter—and this music is still very important to me. So In C was a challenge and almost an insult in some ways. I think I was scared of it at first. And I also think that first recording, fantastic though it is, defined the piece a little too clearly in people’s ears. It was much more a kind of carnival and you didn’t hear the structure as well. There are many different aspects to it, and the multiplicity of it got frozen in amber for a while because of that recording. That was the devil’s bargain; that was the trade-off. So, I heard it early on, but frankly it took me a long time to grow up to where I think I could really appreciate it enough to have something that was maybe useful to say about it and that I hope shows a love of the piece. I listen to it now, and after years of hearing all these different performances, I know when this or that module is coming up. When module 35 hits with the long melody I get a rush and think, how are they going to deal with it now? I know that’s kind of insider, but, like any great piece of music, eventually you know it: you know the sequence and you know the tunes and the progressions. In that sense, I can’t imagine being disappointed by it as a piece. I might be disappointed by some performance, though in a way it would have to be really bad. In C is almost indestructible; the performance would have to be really bad for it to be significantly maimed. It could be left kind of anodyne, but not really destroyed.

    FJO: Coming to this piece from being a Carter devotee as well as an admirer of Ives and Ruggles, I’d like to ask you about where you think In C fits in the continuum of the so-called American maverick tradition. Though it sounds very different, what Terry Riley has done here is so individual and is yet another manifestation of this kind of rugged independence. Maybe now that we’re in the 21st century we can look back and perceive connections between—to rehash terms that now seem somewhat quaint, though the tremors of them still have impact in certain places—”uptown” and “downtown”. Nowadays you can do “uptown” analytical work on a “downtown” piece. You can also go hear Carter played at a downtown club. We’ve passed these boundaries.

    RC: It’s sort of a dream. We’re both composers and we’ve lived through the same period and I suspect that we’re both pretty happy to see the way things have gone. It’s not like one side has crushed the other. As a matter of fact, the interesting thing about the youth that I deal with [at Hartt] is that they tend to snarf it up pretty equally. They may write a piece which is quite Zappa-esque in terms of its sound, and yet it’s using complex rhythmic structures that may come out of Carter. Of course, Zappa’s music is complex to begin with, but mixing and matching is going on all the time. I will tell you that when the millennium turned over I said, “I am so happy that I’m now a 21st century composer.” Because when you were a 20th century composer, it felt like there was so much baggage that came with different aesthetics and camps and battles that had been fought. When the clock ticked and it went past midnight, here we are now and we can truly do what we want to do. It’s totally artificial, I know, but it felt that way to me. And it didn’t feel like the post-modernism thing where everything’s fine, we can mix and match, rather we can now work with these materials and make them personal and synthesize them anyway we want and integrate them anyway we want. In that sense, I remain a total Pollyanna and quite irrationally optimistic about the field.

    FJO: So then a final question to bring this back to In C. You alluded earlier in our conversation to the idea that it goes against the counterculture nature of this piece to call it a landmark or a masterpiece, but here we are 45 years after its conception and it is music of the previous century. It’s undeniably part of history, but is it also part of the canon of classical music? To look at it from a counterculture point of view, a canon is what we rebel against in order to create something new. So do we rebel against In C? How?

    RC: The canon itself is constantly expanding as well. It’s bringing in other cultures. We’re not far at all from a point where composers who study what’s called classical music are going to know the major canonical gamelan works and the major canonical gagaku works—you already see it—and certain major pieces and major musicians who come out of African music of all sorts. Classical music, whatever we call it, is just going to keep broadening its definition in terms of what we’re calling a music made for its own sake, concert music of some sort, but it also has a social function. And In C fits very comfortably within whatever that tradition or that field is as a landmark work and I think it will survive. In that sense we don’t need to worry too much; its prospects for survival are excellent as a work of music that people are going to keep doing seriously. And when you mention counterculture, I should mention that it still is in many ways a prophetic work, because it’s one of the greatest examples of human beings getting together to agree to do a communal action where they maintain their individually yet with a prescribed goal. I think it’s a political statement. More than Cage, I think it’s an example of a structured anarchy which is very positive. And as such I think it remains a useful idealistic model for us in terms of all the political and social issues that we have.

Inside Notations 21

Weighing in at 300+ heavily inked pages, Notations 21 carries both the intellectual heft of an academic text book and the intrigue of a good coffee table read. Structured in such a way that you can almost open it at random and sink into something fascinating, we took a peek between the pages with the book’s editor Theresa Sauer to find out how it stacked against Cage’s iconic Notations and what new worlds graphic notation has opened up for composers, performers, and listeners.

Special thanks to Sauer and Mark Batty Publisher for their assistance in assembling the short film that accompanies this interview.

Molly Sheridan: Notations 21 is, of course, an extension of what John Cage did with Notations in 1969. How do the two collections compare?

Theresa Sauer: I felt that there are so many composer/artists who have been influenced by his ideas that I wanted to title my book Notations 21 to honor John Cage.

The two collections include some iconic composers such as John Cage, Yuji Takahashi, Cathy Berberian, Earle Brown, James Tenney, Joan La Barbara, Pauline Oliveros, and Leon Schidlowsky. Notations 21 has some fascinating original essays included that set it apart. I’m also proud to say that it includes Halim El-Dabh, whose submission for the original Notations missed the deadline by just a hair.

Of course, the Notations 21 collection includes works from the emerging artists since those times. It also casts a wider net around the world, including works by composers from over 40 countries. I’d like to think that John Cage would have wanted to have a more international focus, but with the Internet making the world a more connected place, it was much easier for me to investigate composers from around the globe. However, like Cage, I found that I received submissions in an almost random pattern, and never knew who would contact me next! I still continually receive submissions of composers’ works, and they are now part of the ongoing Notations 21 Project; I hope to make another anthology in the future, because these works continue to intrigue and impress me in extraordinary ways.

There was very little use of “chance operations” in the development of this book. A high criterion for inclusion in this volume was necessary. I have a great respect for the work of Alison Knowles and her original design layout for Notations. I had wonderful assistance from Michael Perry and the people at Mark Batty Publisher for the design of Notations 21. But everything was planned and not left to chance.

I wanted to include biographies and descriptions of the works when composers wanted to include them because I am dedicated to creating a forum for these composers and their music. The Notations 21 Project is becoming a true network, and the composers connect with one another and with me, to collaborate. I am planning performances, concerts, exhibits, and lectures for the future.

MS: What is the place and role of this type of scoring in the larger musical world? What does it uniquely offer?

TS: The role of graphic notation in the world today is to broaden communication between composer, performer, and listener. When Western notation was first developed, the composer was concerned about creating a symbol to represent a sound. Composers still have that viewpoint but now have seen many more possibilities. They have ideas about collaboration, intuition, imagination, improvisation, time, and space, stretching the limits of what we can communicate in symbols.

There are composers who use extended notational language in the Notations 21 collection, including Keren Rosenbaum, Kyong Mee Choi, Brice Pauset, Jef Chippewa, and Takayuki Rai, whose new forms actually assist the performer to more specifically perform the music as it was conceived by the composer, in order to accommodate new musical concepts.

But there are composers who have developed new languages that evolve into events, such as the work of Stuart Saunders Smith. Stuart says, “All Western music notation is a symbol-system of graphic notation which musicians interpret. Furthermore, it is a pre-scriptive notation rather than a post-scriptive notation. I am keenly aware that when I am writing music, I am making a code which shapes the mind of the interpreter. I constantly ask, ‘How will my notational strategy be taken in?’ The score indicates not just what to play, but how to play. Embedded in the design of the symbols are implicit meanings that literally shape the consciousness of the performers.”

At the other end of the spectrum there are examples in the book where the visual art invites complete improvisation. For example, Voya Toncitch’s Indian Elegy and Will Redman’s Book pieces (one of which graces the cover of Notations 21) do this very thing. Will Redman’s directives for his work are simply, “For interpretation, however radical, by any performer(s) in any place, at any time, for any duration.”

The creative genius of the Notations 21 artists and their new musical innovations are creating a new vibrant world that will be moving toward them in the future. Their work is so provocative on so many levels that it draws great interest from those willing to see and hear.

MS: The presentation of these 290 scores by 165 composers is, of course, a principally visual experience. So is it art or is it music?

TS: The scores are music because they were created for performance. However, I would say that many of these scores rival the best in contemporary visual arts. Many of these composers have backgrounds in visual art in addition to their musicality, such as Douglas C. Wadle, Tony Martin, Jennifer Walshe, Steve Roden, and John Kannenberg, and the visual aesthetic is extremely important to these composers for the most part. Notations 21 score samples are a collection of what might be called a “fusion” of music and visual art.

Yes, these scores can be evaluated on a purely visual or musical basis, which makes these scores even more interesting. But I would encourage anyone who does have a volume of the book to seek out the composer’s music. The joy of hearing these new scores while putting this book together was an incredible experience for me.

MS: How did what was going on in the visual art world influence this type of scoring, both back in the 1960s and now in 2009?

TS: Western notated music is highly deterministic, leaving very little to interpretation for the performer. The composer used notation to guide every detail of the performance leaving very little to chance. The rise of the Fluxus movement explored indeterminacy in art and music and was a very exciting time in history. It included such historical stars as John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, La Monte Young, Dick Higgins, and others.

Political and social issues, the idea of freedom and breaking rules, collaboration and community, choices and creating new boundaries…. these were the issues to be dealt with in the 1960’s.

In 2009, many of the composers included in Notations 21 are dealing with new and very powerful political and social issues, ideas of freedom and our environment on a larger and more global scale. These new and old issues are represented in Notations 21 side-by-side. The book explores how John Cage guided his students in the ’60s and how composers are now are addressing issues through the power of musical creativity and art. It has always been music and art throughout history that has made such an impact during times of social change.

You will see that these new, daring musical manifestations are also ideas and philosophies put to paper that should be heard and understood and brought into mainstream consciousness. It is the future of music and art together.

MS: Is there a “type” of composer who scores in this way? Does it delineate a kind of genre all its own?

TS: There is absolutely no “type” of composer who scores in a nontraditional way—there are so many different reasons why someone might not choose to use traditional Western notation. Composers are coming from many cultures around the world and communicating in many languages. That is effecting the development of new notation. New technology and the inclusion of electronic material and new instruments demand new notational languages. When you incorporate influences such as folk music, jazz, rock, spiritual music, sounds from the environment from all world sources, there needs to be a more open mind when it comes to notation. To think that Western notation is going to fit the needs of musicians of all cultures when we are now a global culture is not reality. Notations 21 gives just a hint at what that new reality is and where all music will eventually move. It has to if we are to communicate creatively on a global scale.