Minimalism: Origins by Edward Strickland (c) 1993 by Edward Strickland ISBN 0-253-35499-4 excerpts 2014w

- pg 120 -

The break was far from sudden, however; as it develops Young's Trio itself emulates in long tones the Serial presentation of the tone-row. After the not-quite five-bar rest the second section presents three perfect fourths descending in semitones from F-sharp/B through F/B-flat to E/A in violin, cello (three octaves lower) and viola respectively. After another protracted rest, this time more than eleven measures in duration, the third section sustains a minor seventh in the violin (B-flat/A-flat) to which an A-natural in the viola is added, again bridging the intervallic gap. Although the piece has been described as strictly Serial in exposition, two of the three notes had been heard in the previous section. Not until another long rest are the remaining two notes in the chromatic scale, C and G, heard in the cello's open fifth, as if the archetypally simple harmony were reserved for last, exposed in a staff without accidentals only after eleven-plus minutes of sustained tones and intervals. "Heard" is itself problematic, since it appears only in a barely audible pppp with mute. ... Despite its Serial underpinnings, nothing like Young's Trio for Strings had ever been heard in Western music, a piece constructed exclusively of sustained tones and silences. It creates a musical landscape that seems not so much exotic as otherworldly. Terry Riley once compared performing Young's extended rests and long-tones to "being on a space-station waiting for lunch" [WKCR].... ... ... the Trio had its premiere in the home of Seymour Shifrin, a composer and composition professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier in the 1950s, Shifrin had been associated with Milton Babbitt and other progressive New York composers immersing themselves in the Second Viennese School. Far from being a blind devotee or a narrow-minded academic, Shifrin had pursued this interest while continuing to compose in his own largely tonal vein. He was neither unused to nor easily shocked by the vagaries of his students' experiments, but he had drawn the line when Young handed in the Trio as a first assignment in his graduate seminar. Young had graduated from the University of California in Los Angeles in June and while preparing for graduate studies on the Berkeley campus in September 1958, a month before his twenty-third birthday, he had completed it. In an interesting synchronicity, the completion of the work thus predates the inception of the black paintings by Stella on the opposite coast by a month or two.

The rookie graduate student was told that if he continued submitting assignments in this vein Shifrin could not give him a grade. Convinced that Young was not really hearing the bizarre structure he had created, and determined, perhaps as charitably as critically, to demonstrate to him the enormity of what he was perpetrating in the name of classical music, Shifrin arranged a student performance to show him the error of his ways.

The piece was performed at Shifrin's home by Oleg Kavalenko, John Graham, and Catherine Graff. The very small audience consisted of Shifrin and his class, including David del Tredici, Pauline Oliveros, Douglas Leedy, Loren Rush, Jules Langert, and Charles McDermott; Young describes their reaction as polite bewilderment. The most sympathetic fellow student Young encountered in Berkeley, who did not register until the next year, was a native Californian from the Sierra Nevada foothills a few hours northeast. Though he audited some of Shifrin's seminars, Terry Riley was not present that particular day, but thirty years later described the experience of first hearing and then performing Young's music as "an initiation. You're never quite the same afterwards" [AC 111]. Within six years Young and Riley had in very different musical styles laid the foundations of Minimal music.

- pg 125 - Young points frequently to gagaku and Webern as the foremost influences on his Trio. Gagaku, Japanese ceremonial music for mixed ensembles of largely high-pitched instruments, is described by Isabel K. F. Wong as "characterized by smoothness, serenity, and precise execution without virtuosic display" [Randel 331]. The Trio clearly shares these qualities -- though not, significantly, the timbral variety of the gagaku orchestra, which includes winds and percussion as well as strings. Most importantly, the sustained intervals that comprise much of the Trio are reminiscent of the prevalence of long tones sustained simultaneously by two or more instruments in gagaku, while its prolonged silences emulate the Zenlike spaciousness of the form....

- pg 128 -

Composer Ingram Marshall has suggested that, despite fundamental differences, Minimalism shares with Integral Serialism a post-World War II reaction against Romanticism, perceived as a contributing agent of mass destruction, much as three decades earlier neo-Classicism represented a stylistic retrenchment after the horror of the literal trenches of the first World War [AC 198]. Both neo-Classicism and Serialism replace the expressive theory of composition that is a remnant if not invention of Romanticism with a more objective concept of the artwork as a formal construct...

- pg 129 -

At the first private performance of the Trio in fall 1958, "Almost everyone thought that I had gone off the deep end," Young noted many years later [Palmer 1981 1]. Though others were supportive, he felt at the time that only Terry Riley and his Los Angeles friends Terry Jennings and Dennis Johnson understood what he was doing. Riley concurs, vividly recalling that at Young's subsequent presentations at college conferences "composers would laugh La Monte off the stage, because nobody could take that seriously as music -- only very few people" [AC 59, 110].

Seymour Shifrin was not one of them. He still obliged Young to come up with a more complex and directional piece in order to receive a grade. Young went as far as Study I, which fulfilled the course requirements while including long, spare, meditative sections. According to Young, Shifrin complained that "I was writing like an eighty-year old man, and I should be writing 'young' music with lines and climaxes and progress and direction [Vidic 25]...

- pg 135 -

Back in Berkeley in the fall, [from the the Darmstadt seminar] while working with Riley in the Halprin collaboration, Young began to produce compositions in which the Cage influence was obvious. Vision was notable even for its name after the earlier, almost clinically descriptive titles. Cage's Zen concerns with seeing and nonseeing were in evidence in the performance of the thirteen-minute piece with the lights out. This practice conduced to a desegregation of performers and audience that became a feature of Young's performances [cf. Cage 1961 40]. So did the positioning of the players around the room, as in Stockhausen's Gruppen, a piece Young admired which had been premiered just a year before the Darmstadt seminar, and the "spatial music" of Henry Brant, whom Young also admired.

Young continued his use of long tones on classical instruments, but Cage's philosophy seems to have affected him in a manner similar to the effect of Transcendentalism on Ives, for in accordance with Cage's nonjudgmentally inclusive aesthetic, the tones produced were not the subdued perfect intervals and minor sevenths of the trio but "really wild sounds" (e.g., "Howl," "Growl," "Herd of Elephants") on an instrumentarium including both a reedless bassoon and a bassoon reed and crook, with durations (up to four minutes-plus) determined by logarithmic relationships, reflecting Stockhausen's timbral explorations and pre-arranged compositional structures. The latter was combined, however, with Cageian aleatorics, insofar as numbers picked out of the telephone directory determined the apportionment of the durations. Young's mathematics soon found a sculptural analogy in the widening intervals within the serial placement of components in Donald Judd's grooved boxes and reliefs.

Random digits also controlled the more radically open-ended Poem for Tables, Chairs, Benches, etc., which involved moving the furniture in question across the floor, producing a wide range of sonic effects -- from cello-like sustained tones and squeals reminiscent of free jazz to (in)voluntary percussion or, to non-Cageians perhaps, a lot of noise.

Quite significantly, though, there was not necessarily a lot of anything in Young's Minimalist version of Cageian experimentalism. Some realizations of the piece have gone on for close to an hour and involved large groups of participants ("performers" suggests a dichotomous and here unidiomatic relationship with "audience," since presumably anyone in attendance who so much as causes his chair to squeak by shifting his position or a floorboard to rattle by fleeing the room thereby becomes a participant in the collective poem). Another midscale realization was used to accompany choreographer Yvonne Rainer's Three Seascapes. One realization, however, was solo and, according to the composer-performer, "about a quarter second long. I just moved a bench" [AC 62]. According to Terry Riley, their performance of the piece at the Western Student Composers Symposium at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah on April 30, 1960, provoked not only ridicule but public denunciation by one professor so outraged by the piece that tears came to his eyes when he rose to speak. ...

In the summer of 1960, Young left the Berkeley campus for New York on the Alfred Hertz Memorial Traveling Fellowship, in part, purportedly, because some members of the music faculty were anxious to see the fellow travel. If so, they succeeded beyond their hopes, since Young never came back. The raucousness of the audience's response to some of his performances (when not inspired to patriotic fervor and obscenity, they laughed disruptively, tore up programs, slammed doors behind them and so on) did not create the kind of ambiance the institution hoped to foster. In any case, Young went east to study electronic music with composer Richard Maxfield at the New School, ...

- pg 144 -

Young claims to have introduced the element of repetition to Minimalism in his "concept art" composition of April 1960, the previous year arabic number (any integer) to Henry Flynt (originally known as [X] to Henry Flynt). The arabic number or X indicated the number of times a sound is to be repeated. Which number and which sound are both left to the performer(s) in Young's characteristically exaggerated version of the indeterminacy practiced by Cage and his followers in open form or graphic notation: Earle Brown, Morton Felman, and Christian Wolff. The piece is generally realized percussively, whether on keyboard or gong or with "a wooden spoon on a cast-iron frying pan -- or with any type of beater on any object" in the description of Peter Yates, who views the piece as a complement to Cage's 4'33" and notes that he has interpreted both works "with pleasure and a not unfavorable audience response" [325-26]. Cage himself found [X] revelatory [John Cage 52].

Wiley Hitchcock was also favorable impressed by one realization of the work by Young in which the composer-interpreter hit "an overturned pan with a wooden spoon some 600 times"[1988] -- another instance of Young's severely reductive approach to Cageian sound-as-music-as-noise. Whereas Cage's aesthetic embraced a theoretical infinity of sounds as music, Young gravitated again and again to a specific and singular sound-event, on which he focused normally by means of extended duration, in this case combined with relentless repetition.

An even more extended realization of arabic number or [X], if more traditional in instrumentation, dates from March 3, 1961 and was entitled "1698" after the number of times Young played, pounded the same dissonant chord on the piano. Henry Flynt has noted that it was in part by embracing monotony as opposed to wild diversity of sounds within a given work that Young hoped to supplant Cage at the forefront of avant garde. Flynt has suggested that the deference shown Cage by Young in his later interviews and writings was in good part ex post facto -- this despite the obvious indebtedness to Cage not only in Young's (problematically) musical compositions but in the lecture he gave at Ann Halprin's summer 1960 dance workshop, which was later published in Selected Writings. The anecdotal non sequitur and hipper-than-thou cool of "Lecture 1960" features Riley (who here appears rather dim), Jennings, and Johnson as the supporting cast (a la Merce Cunningham et al. in Cage's writings for the lecturer/protagonist).