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Terry Riley May 15, 1990 Village Voice_0001Terry Riley: A Revolution in 53 Melodies
Kyle Gann
Village Voice, May 15 1990

A brand-new Yamaha grand piano with a MIDI output has just arrived at the Sri Moonshine Ranch, out in the hills, elevation 2000 feet, three hours from San Francisco toward Lake Tahoe. Terry Riley says, “It’s the first good piano I’ve ever gotten.” That’s an amazing statement coming from one of the world’s foremost keyboard improvisers, equally at home in ragtime, jazz, rock, Indian, classical, and minimalist idioms. First thing he’s going to do is retune it to an exotic, Arabic-sounding mode, so he can record his Piano Quintet with the Kronos Quartet. But before he gets that chance, he’s coming to New York (see article’s end for details).

He’s not coming alone. For the first time, Riley, 54, has put together a large ensemble to play his own music. Called Khayal (Urdu for “imagination”), the group’s a cross between a jazz band and a world music outfit, which grew out of the 25th anniversary performance in San Francisco of Riley’s 1964 classic, “In C”. The singers–Molly Holm, Mihr’un’issa Douglass, Shabda Owens–come from classical Indian and jazz backgrounds. The instrumentalists are similarly split, with jazz players joined by Jaron Lanier on ethnic instruments including bagpipes, and possibly sitarist Krishna Bhatt. As usual, Riley is breaking ground; the tunes are pop songs “played almost like art songs” he says, based on texts he’s written over the years, in a singing technique “somewhere between Indian and jazz.”

“In C” is Riley’s earliest major work–made from 53 melodic fragments that may be repeated for any length of time–and it’s still Riley’s warhorse. It’s been played by a Canadian rock band, on 18 marimbas in Mexico, and was recently recorded by a Shanghai orchestra using indigenous instruments and intonation. Reifying history, one could say that “new music” was conceived in 1957–the year La Monte Young subverted 12-tone method by stretching each note out to 20 seconds or more–and born in 1964 with “In C”‘s premiere. Several writers have called that debut a turning point as dramatic as (and opposite in significance to) the 1912 “Le Sacre du Printemps” scandal, not because of the audience’s reaction but because of that of the performers. Its cast of then unknowns included Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, Jon Gibson, Phil Winsor, and Ramon Sender, who all later carried the influence into their own diverse musics. “In C”‘s subtitle could be called “A Revolution in 53 Melodies.”

Riley credits Young (who’s four months younger) with leading him into a modal, nondevelopmental idiom, and it was only through mishap–literally a change in the wind–that Riley’s emergence in the American record industry preceded Young’s by 18 years. Columbia issued “In C” in October of ’68. (In high school I taped the piece off Dallas’s WRR-FM radio. It gave me a headache but I couldn’t stop listening to it and it drove me to criticism.)

Columbia planned a Young release concurrent with “In C”. Young and Marian Zazeela singing in response to the resonance of the ocean at Westhampton Beach. Then, the day they tried to record, a gale ruined the sound of both singing and ocean. Young wanted to retape, Columbia’s producer wanted to save money by dubbing a new ocean recording beneath Young’s voice, and the disagreement killed the project. As the winds of fate had it, Riley became a cult figure on the pop periphery, while Young stayed in the shadows until his 1987 Gramavision recording of “The Well-Tuned Piano”.

Nevertheless, there’s no Riley-Young rivalry, unlike the bitterness between other innovator pairs like Boulez-Stockhausen, Reich-Glass, and Chatham-Branca. “My music,” Riley admits, “got a wide acceptance before people were hearing about La Monte. Certainly he was a big inspiration for me, especially the stuff he did with his early group, with Tony Conrad, and John Cale. I think La Monte’s creation of a form from just scalic elements–just scales or patterns, like you find in the East–was a forerunner for all the forms I worked with during that period. It inspired the formal element in my music. From me, it filtered down to other composers but I was recorded first.

“I’ve always admired Young’s one-pointed approach. Very few people can work that way. It points to what music is striving for in a basic, elemental way. Many of the rest of us have tried to do it through other means, to get into that very deep feeling. He’s a very deep soul.” Riley may be, too, but he can’t stay in one place like Young. The friendship’s still intact, but Riley’s wandered from the primeval tone to many stylistically distant points. Starting out in cool, nonmodulating, modal improv, by 1971 Riley made a minimalist-flavored rock disc with John Cale, “Church of Anthrax”. The ’70s records include stunning, jazzy scores for European films, Alexander Whitelaw’s “Le Secret de la vie” and Joel Santoni’s “Les Yeux Fermes”–good luck finding them in used-record stores.

Riley nearly disappeared from public view in the late 70s, due, he says, to his teaching responsibilities at Mills College from 1971 to 1981. In 1970 he first visited India, where he and Young began studying with Pandit Pran Nath, and by the early 80s, Riley felt confident enough to perform ragas in public. His next soundtrack, “No Man’s Land”, added Bhatt’s tabla and sitar to Riley’s clean-focussed jazz riffs. A major piano cycle, “the Harp of New Albion” turned improvisation toward an almost impressionist experiment in modulating just intonation.

Then David Harrington of Kronos began bugging Riley to write for the string quartet, and Riley eventually responded with an amazing series of quartets beginning with “Cadenza on the Night Plain” and extending most recently to a justly tuned Piano Quintet, and “Salome Dances For Peace”. These pieces are the core of a new, more classical phase: multi-movement works, rarely static, moving from motive to motive and texture to texture with a sense of spiritual journey. Now Riley’s writing a seven-movement orchestra piece for Leonard Slatkin to perform with the St. Louis Symphony, similar in style, he says, to “Salome”.

Having successfully juggled an undefinable career among pop and classical, jazz and Asian, worlds, Riley is more sanguine than many composers about new music’s continued underground status, about the fact that official honors like the Pulitzer Prize and Grauwmeyer Awards still go to conservative atonalists like Mel Powell and Joan Tower. Part of “In C”‘s significance is that it granted American music a new starting point after the wartime arrival of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith on these shores suffocated the native experimental scene of the 30s. ” A lot of the music in America,” Riley notes, “that looks for its inspiration in world music, or jazz, or folk music, or even just natural sound, tends to be suspected of not being a highly elevated enough art form by the establishment that’s come out of European culture, where it’s considered that you have to have a certain X,Y, plus Z to make a form work.

“Although a lot of these composers incorporate Western ideals into their music, there seems to be a definite philosophical viewpoint which separates one kind of composer from the other. The people who are closer to the ideals I’m interested in are jazz musicians, musicians who play a lot through their feelings, rather than make a form modeled on certain, what I’d call pretensions. I feel it’s a very real way to work. Unfortunately, the audiences and places to perform for jazz have given musicians a difficult path, having to play in clubs.”

If anything points “Salome” back to Europe, it’s the highly motivic texture in a multi-movement form, though the modes are still clearly Eastern. Only a few years ago Morton Feldman theorized that multi-movement form was the one musical idea that was really dead in the late 20th century. “What I would consider dead,” Riley responds, “would be repeating myself, getting stuck in a place where I was just churning out pieces in a style. I feel like each thing I do should be something I haven’t worked with before. In that sense my model is the Beatles of the 60s, which I felt was a real high point in Western art. That’s what I want to do now, create a music out of all the materials I have available.

“Pieces like “Rainbow” made from one motive–I don’t feel compelled to do anything like that recently. That’s not to say I don’t like it. I guess we don’t know the reasons why we do things. I always seem to be gaining one audience and losing another every time I write a new work. People say to me, “I liked the last thing you did, but I don’t like what you’re doing now. It’s like Miles Davis, a lot of people wonder what he’s doing. I’m sure no musicians are able to control what they do. We don’t have that much free will. We get interested in things, we keep trying to satisfy our souls and our desire to liberate ourselves through certain kinds of ideas. It’s not something where you’re in control; it happens to us.

“As you’re working on a piece, an idea will come and you say, “Where did this come from?” You trust it. It might seem silly or not relevant to what you’re doing, then suddenly its meaning becomes apparent. That’s the exciting thing. We don’t have anything else in our life that’s quite like that. So if you think you’re in control [Riley laughs incredulously, gazing at the California hills for an answer], the game’s over.

Riley’s concerts, part of the fourth annual Bang on a Can Festival, will be performed May 11 at eight and 10 at RAPP Arts Center, 220 East 4th Street. At the 10 o’clock show Khayal will be joined by the Kronos Quartet for a performance of “In C”. In addition, Kronos will give the New York premiere of Riley’s two-hour quartet “Salome Dances for Peace” May 12 at 8 in Alice Tully Hall.

An Annotated Discography

DORIAN REEDS (Mass Art, 1966): Early minimalish. Only 1000 copies made and half of them sent to Scandinavia. You’ll never find it.

IN C (Columbia, 1968): Unremitting, 53 phrases played over a repeated pulse in the top two C”s on the piano. Rather harsh performance by the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY at Buffalo. New Albion will soon issue another recording, which Riley prefers, with players from the work’s 25th anniversary concert in San Francisco.

A RAINBOW IN CURVED AIR (Columbia, 1969): bouncy, psychedelic electronics, one of Riley’s most popular albums, “Manhattan became a meadow in which unfortunates form the Bowery were allowed to live out their fantasies in the sunshine and were cured.” The flipside’s “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band” is lovely but darker, more like “serious” 60s electronics.

CHURCH OF ANTHRAX (CBS, 1971): With John Cale, this varies from hot jazz jamming to a rocked-up version of Riley’s sax improv, with one haunting Beatles-ish vocal. Harks back more than any other record to Cale’s static improvs with La Monte Young.

PERSIAN SURGERY DERVISHES (Shanti, 1972): Smooth, two-record set of live modal improvisations, with tape delay in Los Angeles and Paris.

HAPPY ENDING (WEA Filipacchi Music, 1972): Music composed for the film “Les Yeux Fermes” and, on the flipside, a piece called “Journey from the Death of a Friend”. This is the best source for Riley’s elegant soprano sax lines, electronically echoed.

LIFESPAN (Stip, 1975): Original soundtrack of Alexander Whitelaw’s film “Le Secret de la vie”, containing Riley’s most easiest listening music and catchiest tunes. Mellow soprano sax over organ.

SHRI CAMEL (Columbia, 190): Like the “dervish” records, but tighter. The purest and most concise of Riley’s keyboard solos, his improvisation-with-delay method honed down to four well-wrought vignettes.

DESCENDING MOONSHINE DERVISHES (Kuckuck, 1982): Like “Persian Surgery”, laid-back improv over ostinatos and rhythmic cycles. It was recorded in 1975.

SONGS FOR THE TEN VOICES OF THE TWO PROPHETS (Kuckuck, 1982) That’s “Prophets” as in the synthesizer brand. A mutual friend once told me, “We try to encourage Terry not to sing.” and the rough-hewn vocals make this one of the less ingratiating albums. Scintillating synth work, singing style half-Indian, half-Bob Dylan-before-his-morning-coffee.

NO MAN’S LAND (Plainisphare, 1984): Krishna Bhatt’s tabla and sitar add more driving energy than usual to Riley’s modal jazz.

CADENZA ON THE NIGHT PLAIN AND OTHER STRING QUARTETS (Gramavision, 1985): Riley’s first disc with the Kronos Quartet, this is his pleasantest chamber music and best title, cyclic rhythm and raga melody refreshingly applied to strings. Parts recapture the energy of “In C”, others introduce a rhetorical style new to Western music. Includes one arrangement from “Lifespan.”

THE HARP OF NEW ALBION (Celestial Harmonies, 1986): The piano is tuned to C# just intonation, but “The Orchestra of Tao” is in A-sharp, “Ascending Whale Dreams” in B-sharp, “The Magic Knot Waltz” in D. Result: every piece has a differently colored tonality, and the inspired playing blurs between Debussy and ragtime. Great disc for experiencing alternate tunings.

SALOME DANCES FOR PEACE (Nonesuch, 1989): Introverted brooding work performed by the Kronos Quartet, near-Eastern as to mode elegant in its small glissandos, formally complex and wide-ranging. A difficult piece to carry individual impressions from, but texturally absorbing.

IN C (Celestial Harmonies, 1989) Odd but delightful rush-through on chinese instruments with non-Western tuning, melodies out of order. Also nice minimalist-inspired pieces by David Mingyue Liang. -K.G.

Terry Riley May 15, 1990 Village Voice page

11873375_10206242718959982_5843434003561755307_na New Look at a Major Minimalist
by K. Robert Schwarz
Published: May 6, 1990, NY Times

During the heady days of psychedelia and flower power in the 1960’s, Terry Riley suddenly found himself leading the life of a famous composer. His ”In C” (1964) garnered Minimalism its first public acclaim. And his ”Rainbow in Curved Air” (1968), with its brightly-colored electric keyboard arpeggios and wide-eyed hippie sentiments, attained genuine crossover status, linking classically oriented new music and progressive rock into a promising new synthesis.

But in the 1970’s, Mr. Riley dropped almost entirely from view. While his Minimalist colleagues Steve Reich and Philip Glass achieved international fame, Mr. Riley ceased notated composition altogether. So complete was his disappearance that in the early 1980’s, when the Kronos Quartet finally coaxed him back toward musical notation, many listeners were shocked to discover that his new quartets sounded nothing like ”In C.” Could these pieces really be by the same composer?

The answer to that question will become obvious this week, when New Yorkers will have the opportunity to hear music spanning Mr. Riley’s entire compositional career. On Friday, at the RAPP Arts Center, 220 East Fourth Street, in Manhattan’s East Village, Mr. Riley’s new ensemble, Khayal, will make its debut as part of the Bang on a Can Festival. During the second of the evening’s two sets, the Kronos Quartet will jam with Khayal, offering an impromptu version of ”In C.” And on Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, the Kronos Quartet will present the New York premiere of Mr. Riley’s mammoth string quartet, ”Salome Dances for Peace.”

All in all, it is not a bad week for the 55-year-old composer, who has long enjoyed cult status as one of Minimalism’s founding fathers. Yet in the past Mr. Riley has been in the unenviable position of finding himself inextricably linked with a single, youthful work, ”In C”; none of his subsequent compositions have had quite the same impact. It is not hard to understand why. ”In C,” with its unrelenting pulse, clear tonal center, repeated melodic patterns and communally organized modular form, came as a breath of fresh air to an avant-garde that was suffocating under the weight of ultrarational, atonal Serialism. Nothing that has happened since in American Minimalism – not the music of Mr. Reichor Mr. Glass or John Adams – would have taken the same course if not for ”In C,” a fact that all thosecomposers readily admit.

But Mr. Riley was never interested in exploring the abstract, systematic musical processes that came to fascinate Mr. Reich and Mr. Glass. Considering his background in jazz, it is perhaps not surprising that by the 1970’s he had stopped notating his compositions. During a recent telephone interview from his remote northern California ranch, he said that that decision occurred partly because ”at the time there weren’t enough new music groups that were really dedicated to learning the music well.” But one also suspects that it occurred primarily because Mr. Riley’s heart lay with improvisation, a process he could work out much more easily as a solo keyboard performer than as an ensemble composer.

”The major difference between me and Reich and Glass was that they weren’t improvising musicians; they were writing everything out,” Mr. Riley said. ”Since I was really looking for ideas that would emerge during performance, I had to take the route of not writing things down, because otherwise I’d have to follow my own road map. And I wanted to be as spontaneous as possible.”

Another crucial factor, one that also worked to drive Mr. Riley away from formal composition, was the study of non-Western music. In 1970, he traveled to India to study with the vocalist Pandit Pran Nath (who also taught that other pioneering Minimalist, La Monte Young). When Mr. Riley returned, he began ”setting aside a large amount of time for my studies in North Indian classical music, which I felt needed to have six to eight hours a day of my attention and practice.”

In fact, it is possible that if Mr. Riley had not met the Kronos Quartet in 1978 – when they were all teaching at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., – he might never have returned to notated composition. David Harrington, the Kronos’sfirst violinist, immediately attempted to convince Mr. Riley to write a string quartet. ”But,” said Mr. Riley, ”it took me a while to change gears from being a solo performer who composed music just for myself, to trying to write everything down. At first I tried to make improvisation charts, but that wasn’t the way to work with the Kronos; they preferred to have everything written out – at least all the notes.”

Mr. Harrington recalls being startled when the Kronos Quartet first began rehearsing Mr. Riley’s ”Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” (1981). ”It consisted of little slips of paper, not like any piece I’d seen before. Right there in his studio we began to put these little fragments together, to assemble them into an order.”

Instead of feeling stifled by the notational process, Mr. Riley felt liberated. And he became obsessed with the string-quartet medium, one which offers the Western composer opportunities to inflect pitch in ways more commonly associated with non-Western music. By 1984, when he completed ”Cadenza on the Night Plain,” he had turned his back on the Minimalism of ”In C,” instead exploring sonic realms stretching from the long-breathed lyricism of North India to the spiky, fragmented development of Bartok.

Still, Mr. Riley’s compositional process is anything but conventional. Both ”Salome Dances for Peace” (1986) and ”Cadenza on the Night Plain” were really collaborations between the composer and the members of the Kronos Quartet. ”When I write a score for them,” Mr. Riley said, ”it’s an unedited score. I put in just a minimal amount of dynamics and phrasing marks. It’s essentially a score like Vivaldi would have done. So when we go to rehearsal, we spend a lot of time trying out different ideas in order to shape the music, to form it.” The relationship that results is one about which Mr. Riley feels strongly. ”At the end of the process, it makes the performers actually own the music. That to me is the best way for composers and musicians to interact.”

The climax of this interaction has been ”Salome Dances for Peace” (recently released on an Elektra/Nonesuch recording, 9 79217-2). ”It took Terry two years to write,” said Mr. Harrington, ”but it took us three years to learn to play. It began to evolve in performance, through trial and error, by our saying to each other, ‘Let’s try it this way tonight.’ Finally, we got to the point you hear on the recording.”

Originally conceived as a ballet in which Salome, reincarnated 2,000 years after her run-in with John the Baptist, would use her ”alluring powers to actually create peace in the world,” as Mr. Riley puts it in the liner notes, ”Salome Dances for Peace” grew into a loosely programmatic string quartet based largely on native American mythology. But if the mythic basis of ”Salome Dances for Peace” is cross-cultural, its music is even more so. During its two hours, the quartet mingles Asian modes, static drones, Arabic melodic arabesques and nontempered tunings – with dissonant Bartokian counterpoint, bluesy inflections, jazzy syncopations and Minimalist repetition.

And it succeeds in speaking this multitude of musical tongues without ever slipping into mere pastiche. According to the composer, such multicultural evocations arise in an entirely natural way. ”It’s not something I attempt to do. I guess because I’ve listened to a lot of music from all over the world for 30 years, these things just seem to come through.”

Mr. Harrington has an even simpler explanation: ”All the kinds of music Terry loves are in that piece.”

Despite the ease with which ”Salome” explores the process of notated composition – and despite a Carnegie Hall commission for an orchestral work, to have its premiere there next February by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin – Mr. Riley has no intention of turning his back on improvisation. His new nine-member ensemble, Khayal – drawing its name from the Urdu word for imagination – consists of singers, keyboards, winds, bass, percussion and a variety of ethnic instruments. And though the core of Khayal’s songs are composed, the working-out of those songs depends on group improvisation.

”I’ve arranged things for the group, but they’re more like head arrangement in a jazz chart for a big band. We’ll come into sections where there’s an arrangement to pull us all together, and then from there it goes into improvisation.”

If this weekend’s juxtaposition of ”In C,” ”Salome Dances for Peace” and Khayal is any indication, Mr. Riley has finally discovered that elusive inner balance between his wide-ranging musical interests -notated composition and improvisation, Western and non-Western traditions, classical and popular sources. It’s a balance that has taken him nearly three decades to craft. But, considering his unexpected rebirth as a creative force in American music, it seems to have been worth the wait. ”These days, you always have the sense that there’s time around Terry,” said Mr. Harrington with a trace of awe. ”There’s time to be kind, time to be human, time to let the music find its particular place.”

61940_1568517285934_6975782_n
RECORDINGS; A MAVERICK EASES INTO THE ABOVEGROUND
By Robert Palmer
Published: April 5, 1987, NY Times

La Monte Young, THE 51-YEAR-OLD American maverick composer, is often called the father of Minimalism, but one could make an equally strong case for him as the father of punk rock.

His mid-1960’s performing group, originally dubbed the Dream Syndicate and later the Theater of Eternal Music, built on a minimalist determination to “let sounds be themselves” that was evident in Mr. Young’s work at least as early as the 1958 “Trio for Strings.” But the same group introduced an attitude of extreme sonic aggression that was new to music, playing at higher volume levels and with more single-minded intensity than any rock group of the period. And from the Young ensemble came John Cale, Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise, founding members (along with Lou Reed) of the Velvet Underground, the very fountainhead of punk and all modern rock. Recently unearthed Velvet Underground performances from the 60’s, most notably “Hey Mr. Rain” on the album “Another View” (Polydor), make the connection to Mr. Young’s music palpable. Another significant influence on contemporary rock, Brian Eno, once remarked, “La Monte Young is the daddy of us all.”

If one is startled by the idea of, say, Philip Glass and Live Skull sharing the same roots, it’s because those roots have remained hidden below ground. For 30 years, La Monte Young’s music has been more heard of than heard – unavailable on records except for the rare limited edition or import, infrequently performed. But this situation is about to change dramatically. A 30-year retrospective concert series began March 29 with a performance by the composer of his “Well Tuned Piano” at the Dia Art Foundation Performance Space, 155 Mercer Street. The concerts will continue at Dia through May 21 and will include performances of rarely heard works for brass, strings, guitar and other instruments. And later this month Gramavision plans to issue a splendid recording of “The Well Tuned Piano,” a continuous five-hour performance by Mr. Young on a specially retuned Bosendorfer Imperial, as a five-record boxed LP set and in cassette and CD formats as well.

Some longtime Young-watchers suspect that he might still be perfecting his music and biding his time if a generous chunk of the art-world funding he has long enjoyed had not dried up a few years ago. The Dia Art Foundation, funded principally by Houston oil money, had purchased the former New York Mercantile Exchange building on Harrison Street and revamped it to serve as a permanent home, gallery, archive and performance space for the composer. But the foundation ran into financial problems and was forced to sell the building. Mr. Young and others then formed the MELA Foundation, which is presenting this spring’s concert series, to help support his work. He admits the change in his fortunes was an impetus to activity, though the negotiations for release of “The Well Tuned Piano” had already been under way before Dia’s problems. But whatever the motivations, La Monte Young’s finally stepping into the spotlight is a notable, long-awaited musical event.

Musically, as well as in career terms, Mr. Young has always taken his time. His Trio for Strings, to be performed in concert on May 18, takes five minutes to present the first four notes. During the 1970’s, he set up a series of “dream house” sound installations in galleries and lofts, with drones sounded by fixed-pitch electronic sine-wave generators. The composer and his performing group, which at one time or another included such future new-music luminaries as Terry Riley, Jon Hassell, Jon Gibson and Garrett List, as well as Mr. Young’s wife and longtime collaborator, the visual artist Marian Zazeela, would show up from time to time to play long tones along with the drone, but the “dream house” itself was theoretically eternal.

The interest in duration is part of a consuming interest in tuning, extending beyond conventional concern for accuracy to an immersion in the tuning process as it takes place over time, and in harmonic overtones, waveforms, acoustical phenomena and pitch perception. ”The Well Tuned Piano,” for example, exploits a phenomenon known as the missing fundamental. Every key on the piano is tuned to a rational harmonic of a single basic tone – an E-flat that lies some five octaves below the bottom of the instrument, and thus isn’t sounded during the performance. But sounded or not, that deep, underlying drone is heard, or perceived. In the language of psychoacoustics, it is a missing fundamental, or periodicity pitch. Researchers have established that such phantom pitches are not present as oscillations in the cochlear fluid of the inner ear. “It is assumed,” Mr. Young says, “that the ‘missing fundamental’ must be the result of neural processing at a higher level.” An electronic drone was sounding throughout a recent visit to the Church Street loft, bathing the space in sound while the refracted glow from Miss Zazeela’s light sculptures bathed it in light. One might have imagined that little had changed in the timeless world of La Monte Young. But, in fact, the composer’s early studies have long since been refined into a complex and comprehensive body of musical theory that integrates mathematical analysis of the harmonic frequency spectrum, the latest findings and theories in sound and hearing-related sciences, and a devoted, years-long study of the fine points of Indian music with the master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. A handful of theoretical works, such as Ernest G. McClain’s “Myth of Invariance,” have attempted to correlate these systems of knowledge, but Mr. Young has synthesized them into a flexible musical language, the language of the partly-composed, partly-improvised ”Well Tuned Piano.”

Essentially, Mr. Young has developed an alternative harmonic theory that enables him to modulate, if not into different keys in the strict sense, then into different harmonic areas, in what is essentially a monochord or drone tuning, geared for maximum resonance. During the busier sections of ”The Well Tuned Piano” the entire instrument reverberates, the interacting sounds seeming almost to solidify into a cloud above the open piano lid. The phantom French horns, strings, and massed choirs that many listeners initially dismiss as quirks of hearing are in fact intentional, precisely calibrated effects. Perhaps for the first time, a pianist does almost literally have an orchestra at his fingertips.

Mr. Young’s interest in the fundamentals and imponderables of sound had childhood beginnings. He was born in a log cabin, in the small Mormon community of Bern, Idaho, on Oct. 14, 1935. “I remember the sound of the wind, blowing through the chinks in the logs and sounding something like a flute,” he said. “Then when I was in junior high school, we were living on the shore of Utah Lake, and I would hear these resonances coming off the lake. Years later, in the 60’s, when I began working with harmonics, I started consciously using the seventh partial and realized that I had been hearing the lake resonating a seventh harmonic. But the main experience with harmonics that I remember from Idaho was the sound of a little power plant substation next to the Conoco station my grandfather ran. Later, when the family moved to Los Angeles and I was attending high school, I liked to listen to the drone of the lathe and drill press in the machine shop. I would whistle or sing along.”

For a time, these early sonic influences were overshadowed by a love affair with the saxophone, which Mr. Young began playing at the age of 7, with his father as his first instructor. He became a proficient jazz saxophonist, and in the mid-50’s was heard widely around Los Angeles, sometimes as leader of a group that included the future jazz greats Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Dennis Budimir. Surviving tapes capture an alto saxophonist with a marked affinity for the progressivism of such players as Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, but with a harder, slashing edge to the sound and an even more convoluted approach to phrasing.

During this period, a teacher, Leonard Stein, introduced him to the music of Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez and Stockhausen, and his interest in the saxophone was gradually subsumed by a passion for composition. His early pieces were serial in nature, but the interest in long tones and silences that survived from his childhood began to manifest itself early on. Following his development from “Five Small Pieces for String Quartet” (1956) and “For Brass” (1957) through the 1958 “Trio for Strings,” one can hear the extreme compression and purity of Webern interacting with the childhood influences that shaped his way of hearing sounds, the result being a radically original style.

After studies with a succession of teachers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen (at a Darmstadt seminar) and the innovative electronic composer Richard Maxfield, Mr. Young settled in New York and became involved with a group of ambitious young artists who pioneered mixed-media presentations and became known collectively as Fluxus. He organized the first Fluxus concert series, which was also New York’s first series of downtown loft concerts, held at Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street loft in 1960.

This period in Mr. Young’s development might most accurately be called minimalist. In a series of “Compositions 1960” and “Compositions 1961,” he followed John Cage’s lead in paring composition and performance to the bone. One composition simply instructed, “Draw a straight line and follow it.” Another provided a single major chord, with the instruction “to be held for a long time.” More whimsical compositions included one that instructed the performer, “Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink.”

In 1963, Mr. Young formed his own ensemble, something later minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich would also do. A year later, he decided he liked the hum of the motor that powered his aquarium, amplified it, and asked his group to improvise long tones against it. This was the beginning of his “dream house” phase. But the same year, on an old upright piano, he realized the first version of the tuning he gradually refined for “The Well Tuned Piano.”

Mr. Young’s detractors in the music world, and there are some, have suggested that no single composition, however grand in theory and design, needs to germinate for 20 years or more. They wonder if the years spent studying Indian music from the ground up with Pandit Pran Nath might have been better spent diversifying his composing. But then, back in the 60’s, the Velvet Underground had its detractors, people who said the sound was more noise than music. The Velvets’ reputation has survived the criticism handily, with the help of the band’s body of recorded work.

The Gramavision recording of “The Well Tuned Piano” captures the diversity and depth of La Monte Young’s musical vision, now more nearly maximal than minimal, with superb clarity. There are passages of ravishing lyricism, as delicate as any minimalist piano solo, even if the tuning may initially sound odd to some. There are also stormy welters of sonic interference patterns, as bracing as the Velvets’ screaming feedback surges. “The Well Tuned Piano” isn’t so much a single composition as a formal and intuitive synthesis of everything Mr. Young has done. His music was already controversial while it was still in the process of creation. Now it is going to be heard, and it’s about time.

20150727_200507_20150730190244000

Charles Ives (Hillary Hahn, Valentina Lisitsa) – Four Sonatas for Violin & Sonata
Ornette Coleman – Body Meta
Wes Montgomery – Smokin’ at the Half Note
Sam Rivers – Crystals
Gil Evans – the Complete Pacific Jazz Sessions
Sting and Gil Evans – Last Session
Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd – Brilliant Corners
Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd – Monk’s Dream
Steve Lacy – Cliches
Tord Gustavson – Being There
John Abercrombie and Andy LaVerne – a Nice Idea
Chick Corea and Gary Burton – Native Sense
David Gilmour – David Gilmour
Mobeius – Blotch
Cosmic Couriers – Other Places

…and much more.

Anthony Braxton in “Forces in Motion”:

“Harry Partch has profoundly affected me, but I’ve not been able to demonstrate what I’ve learned from this man. For instance, I’ve always wanted to put out my own records, like Mr. Partch did, but I’ve never had the money. His book would also be very inspirational, and my move to build instruments would come from Mr. Partch’s example. I think he’s a great composer too; he’s so underrated in this period it’s a damned shame. It’s an indictment of America that there’s no understanding of, or respect for, this man’s music.

The fact that he would look back to the ancients to understand better what music is, and then build a system based on the fundamentals — this is what connects me to Harry Partch because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. And if I’m allowed to do my work in the future that’s exactly what I’ll continue to do: go to the ancients and to the scientists to understand better the route of a given information line and the transformational potential of music. Harry Partch short-circuited the whole post-Webern continuum and established a whole other area for investigation. The dynamic implications of his music, as well as its actual beauty, affected me and helped me develop the mind-set to begin looking at my own evolution.”

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