Talking Music by William Duckworth (c) 1995 by Schirmer Books ISBN 0-02-870823-7 excerpts 1663w

- pg 229 -

DUCKWORTH: How long after the Trio for Strings was written did it take before you got a performance of it?

YOUNG: Not too long afterward. When I got to Berkeley, Seymour Shifrin, whose composition class I was in, was pretty concerned about whether I knew what it sounded like, so he arranged to have it played at his house. He had these little evenings of the graduate composition seminar. We would go there and listen to recordings and different things. So he arranged for a live performance by some very good players. We heard it, and there was a great deal of discussion afterwards. He pretty much told me that I couldn't write that way in his class, or he wouldn't be able to give me a grade. So I wrote Study I for piano to prove to him that I could write music that was understandable on more conventional terms. So I was unable to write the kind of music I wanted to in his class, but it was nonetheless an interesting class because I was very eager to understand traditional approaches to composition. After all, I had excelled at counterpoint, and I was interested to know about the Schenker long lines and ideas that were important to people like Sessions and others. Andrew Imbrie was also at Berkeley, and I had some analysis classes with him that I liked a lot.

DUCKWORTH: It's still a little surprising you got the Trio for Strings performed, though; it is an hour long. Shifrin must have taken you very seriously as a composer.

YOUNG: Oh, he took me very seriously, because I practically took over the class. You know, that class had me, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, David Del Tredici, Doug Leedy, Loren Rush, Charles MacDermot, and Jules Langert in it. I occupied a lot of the time in the class, and I had a lot to say about other people's compositions as well as my own. I was able to really speak about my music, to describe the things that I was looking for in composition, and to talk about the feeling of the music and relate it to the technical analysis of the work. I think that it was quite surprising for Shifrin and the other students to find somebody who had that kind of ability.

- pg 231 -

YOUNG: I was first writing these radical pieces back in the late fifties and the early sixties. Take 2 sounds: it's really a very radical piece, and very noisy, and created riots when it was first performed, and I realized right away that I knew how to upset an audience. I could create a riot, or I could write a piece like the Trio for Strings that nobody had the foggiest idea what it was about. As time went on, I began to think, "Well, you did that and nothing happened. You didn't communicate enough with them to help them up to the next level so that they understood the piece." So I realized it wasn't sufficient to just be very creative, and have very pure ideas, and to create them, because they could end up just existing in a vacuum....

- pg 233 -

DUCKWORTH: The reason I'm curious about Darmstadt is that it seems that immediately after you came back your work made a radical change in the direction of Cage, which I assume would be away from Stockhausen.

YOUNG: It would, except that Stockhausen was so influenced by Cage, and was so much talking about Cage, that it was more he supported that approach and, if anything, pushed me in that direction.

DUCKWORTH: Did your piece Vision come directly out of your Darmstadt experiences?

YOUNG: Yes, Vision was directly out of Darmstadt. It's absolutely, you could say, my assimilation of Darmstadt.

DUCKWORTH: It only has eleven sounds in it, though. How is that an assimilation of Darmstadt?

YOUNG: Well, that's "La Monte Young"; the whole approach to the time framework is "La Monte Young." Eleven sounds in thirteen minutes, and they each have their independent entry and exit, and they're laid out in a contrapuntal texture. It's very much the same type of time structure as the Trio for Strings. But the sound sources, the radical way to play stringed instruments, the various glissandi, and the idea of picking the sounds and the durations out of a hat and tying them together randomly -- that's where Cage comes in, so that it's a combination of the two approaches at that point. Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, Etc. gets more in my direction because of the static nature of all these more similar sounds.

DUCKWORTH: I've read, I believe, that you've acknowledged Cage's influence on your work to a tremendous degree. Is it Cage's influence that led to the Compositions 1960?

YOUNG: The Compositions 1960 are after Vision and Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, Etc. and very definitely still show Cage's philosophical approach, although they're getting to be more "La Monte Young" again in that they're focusing on one thing very strongly. It's, I think, reaching back to haiku. The thing I was reading during that summer was the Tao, and that was what I was thinking about. I think that Lao-tzu had a strong influence on me at the time I was writing the Trio for Strings. I was reaching back to haiku with the Compositions 1960. You see, what differentiates my event pieces -- those 1960 conceptual pieces -- from others that were written, such as George Brecht's and Dick Higgins's, is that mine were crystallized down into this haiku-like essence -- focusing on one event -- whereas, if you look at the George Brecht Motor Vehicle Sundown event, that's got a lot of different things going on at once. That's more Cagean.

- pg 234 -

DUCKWORTH: What strikes me about the Compositions 1960 is how radically different they are from the pre-Darmstadt compositions. Were you going through any kind of aesthetic change, or did you see them as coming logically out of your previous work?

YOUNG: I think there was some aesthetic change because of Cage's influence. Also, I was in a social situation at Berkeley that was very stifling and very academic. Those pieces should be seen in a social context. They're especially meaningful when performed in a traditional concert setting, more so than if they're performed in a gallery/happening-type setting, because they were composed specifically in response to what was happening to me at Berkeley. You know: "You can't write this way"; or "You can't do this kind of concert in the auditorium." They wouldn't allow me to perform the butterfly piece in Hertz Hall so, as a result of that, I did the chamber opera version of Poem. And that was absolutely wild. I had somebody on stage frying eggs, and a girl in the aisle was sleeping in a sleeping bag, and a game of marbles was going on somewhere, and Phyllis Jones was playing Beethoven at the piano, and my 2 sounds was being played electronically on speakers, and my entire music appreciation class and Gardner Rust's entire music appreciation class were walking through the audience reading from their music appreciation textbooks, and I was walking through the audience shouting "Green" into a bucket. And Bruce Connor, the artist, had a cricket in his shoe -- you know, one of those that clicks -- and he was walking through the audience and passing out literature.

- pg 236 -

DUCKWORTH: Hadn't you gone to New York the year before specifically to study electronic music with Maxfield?

YOUNG: I had passed through New York on my way to Darmstadt because the Berkeley music department librarian, Ken Wollitz, had introduced me to Maxfield's music just before I left. Ken told me to look him up, which I did. And it turned out Richard was doing electronic music, and I found that very interesting. After I got back to Berkeley I presented a concert of Richard's music at the San Francisco Medical Center and I also included his tapes on other programs I presented in Berkeley. Then Terry Riley and I both won Alfred Hertz Memorial Scholarships. The way the rumor goes, they gave me the traveling scholarship to separate us. In order to get it, I had to be going to study with somebody, so I listed that I wanted to study in New York with Cage and Maxfield. Cage was not here when I got to New York, so I studied electronic music with Maxfield.

- pg 239 -

DUCKWORTH: Are you pleased with being considered the "Father of Minimalism"?

YOUNG: I think it's true. I think it would have never started without me. Terry Riley was the person who began the kind of repetitive phase-shifting music that is known as minimalism, and there's no question in my mind or Terry's but that I was a primary influence on him. And although not all of my music shows that aspect, if you heard some of my sopranino saxophone playing or the early Well-Tuned Piano from 1964, you can hear a great deal of repetitive activity -- very rhythmic, with a very limited set of tones. I think that both directly through those kinds of works, and indirectly through the long sustained tones of the earlier works, that Terry was influenced by my music to the point where he produced these minimal pieces such as In C. And he influenced Steve Reich, who played in In C, and who came to Terry afterwards and said he wanted to write like that. Actually, Terry discouraged him. He said, "No, you should find your own way." But Steve really wanted to write that way, and he did. And although it's different from Terry, it's clearly out of Terry. Then, according to Steve, Phil and Steve had a group together, and Phil began to play the way he does after he was in that group with Steve.