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The Twentieth Century
by Don Robertson

Part Five: The Return to Tonality

© 2005 by Rising World Entertainment

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From across the sea came the inspiration that reawakened tonality in contemporary classical music.

Following the onslaught of discordant music that occurred during the twentieth century, the return to tonality slowly began in the 1960s. The profound effect that the classical music of North India had upon the classical music of the Western world, especially in America during the 1960s, cannot be overestimated.
     In 1967 and 1968 I was privately studying contemporary, discordant classical music with American composer Morton Feldman at the same time that I was studying North Indian classical music with the great maestro from India, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. I was faced with two contrasting styles, one sublimely spiritual, ancient, and transcendent, the other cold, frightening, and modern, until one day, I finally fully realized the dichotomy between these two completely opposite styles: discordant/stressful as opposed to concordant/spiritual. (see Don and Morton Feldman).
     When I discovered what I called the duochord, I permanently left the world of "contemporary" discordant classical music with its discords, and stressful, negative music. At the time, I realized that this decision was an important one: a shift back to tonality in 1967 was obviously, to me at least, the next step in the evolution of classical music, the previous one having been taken by Arnold Schönberg at the beginning of the century. I also realized that I was probably not the only composer who had realized that a huge change in classical music would take place. And I wasn't.
     In 1967, a friend gave me the score to La Monte Young’s 1958 composition Trio For Strings. This music is now considered to be the benchmark piece of minimalist music and a historic moment in the development of classical music. It incorporated long silences and extended sounds without melodic or rhythmic development. Inspired by Young's piece and by my teacher Morton Feldman, I began ardently pursuing my own brand of minimalism (although that term would be unfamiliar to me for at least fifteen more years). I owned a record containing a piece of music composed by John Cage student Christian Wolfe. It was for violin and piano, I believe. This music was all about incredibly long silences and very isolated notes. I discovered my own music when I slowed that LP down to half speed, 16 RPM. Soon after, I composed MU for Horn and Piano, performed in 1968 at a concert at Julliard School of Music, and witnessed audience members breaking out in laughter during the first really long silences, being taken completely off guard, not knowing if the piece had ended or not, and being confronted with nothing on which to place their attention, probably the same kind of reaction that Cage experienced when he first presented 4' 33".

La Monte Young

     I have never met La Monte Young, but he seems like a spiritual brother born seven years earlier than I in a two-room cabin in Bern, Idaho in 1935. He began his music study at age 7 when his father, a sheep herder, brought him a saxophone. The family moved to Los Angeles where La Monte enrolled in high school. It was there that he began to learn about jazz, and began playing it on his sax, and it was there that he fell in love with the music of Charlie Parker.
     In Los Angeles he began studying with Leonard Stein, Arnold Schönberg’s most important American disciple who later became the director of the Arnold Schönberg Institute at UCLA and curator of Schönberg’s archive. (I too studied with Stein, almost ten years later). In 1957 he entered the University of California at Los Angeles and while he was there, Mandel Hood opened the doors for the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA that I will later attend in the summer of 1965. 
    Like myself, La Monte's turning point in his musical life was when he bought a recording of the music of the great Indian maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He played it so much that his mother wrote “opium Music” on the album cover! Meanwhile he was studying Gregorian chant and medieval music at UCLA and began to draw connections between that music and the music of India. When he graduated from UCLA in 1958, he was obsessed with the music of Anton Webern, medieval music, and with non-Western music, just as I would be. So La Monte, whom I have never met, I find to be a kind of soul mate.
      After graduation he composed his Trio For Strings, the score I was given by a friend eight years later in New York (I recall that it had a transparent cover with a picture of La Monte in a thick fur coat). A performance of the work attracted composer Terry Riley, and they soon became lasting friends.
     In 1985, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called La Monte Young the most influential U.S. composer of the last quarter century. He is often credited with the birth of minimalism.  However, more accurately, the trend in music called minimalism has more than one source. Naturally the source of his realization of sustained chords was from the hero across the sea, North Indian classical music.
     In 1959, Young traveled to Darmstadt, Germany, which at that time was the world-renowned center for “Contemporary" discordant Music, and there he found out about John Cage from Karlheinz Stockhausen, the musical leader of the avant garde in Europe. From reading and listening to Cage, Young realized that any sound could constitute music. Back at Berkeley, he began organizing noon concerts, and with the help of Terry Riley, he shocked the teachers and students at the university. Vision of 1959 was performed in the dark and created a panic in the audience, unfamiliar with its strange sounds. Poem for Tables, Chairs, Benches, Etc. of 1960 involved the sounds of furniture being dragged across the floor.
    In 1960, afraid he would take over the music department with his, and fellow-student Terry Riley’s, shenanigans, the University gave him a travel fellowship and La Monte went to New York City. By this time, he was writing little pieces that were simply a sentence or two on a piece of paper, such as “Draw a straight line and follow it,” or an open fifth with instructions to play it for a long time. Soon he drew the attention of Yoko Ono, and in her large loft on Chambers Street, he began organizing a group of like-minded composers, painters, and writers. Thus “Performance Art” was born. After 1961, Young became dissatisfied with Ono and performance art and drifted away from the scene. Inspired by the recent recordings of John Coltrane, he decided to pick up the saxophone again. Coltrane, influenced by Ravi Shankar, was now playing florid solos over sustained chords.
     La Monte married Marian Zazeela in 1963 and soon organized an ensemble to back up, with sustained chords, his moving sax solos. One member was John Cale, who after two years would leave the group to organize the rock group Velvet Underground, using what he had learned from Young. Soon Young abandoned the sax, and the group performed just the long sustained sounds, abandoning the well-tempered system for just intonation. In 1964, he began work on his The Well-Tuned Piano in just intonation, a composition that can take up to six hours for Young to play. 
    During 1970 La Monte and his wife helped bring a classical singer named Pandit Pran Nath to New York City from India. His arrival had been announced a year earlier by a man named Shyam Bhatnagar, who sold copies of a 10-inch red-vinyl record by Pandit Pran Nath with Raga Bupali on one side and Raga Komel Re Asawari on the other, and held meetings in his home. These were attended by many young people, such as myself, as well as notables, such as Alan Watts. Things got out of hand, however, when Bhatnagar started played tampura with the gourd of the instrument placed directly on the backs of some of the young people who attended his meetings. After a long period of droning tampura had affected their sympathetic nervous systems, these kids became so spaced out that they could barely talk or walk for a while. I loved the recording of Raga Komel Re Asawari on the red record and the profundity of the singing, but I left New York to study at Ali Akbar Khan's new school in California just before Pran Nath arrived, and I never returned to live again in New York City. I would attend classes given by Pran Nath only briefly during the early 1980s in California, but I was never as fully impressed with this musician as were his devoted students, as I believed he was somewhat overrated by them, and from what I have been told, this was largely due to his own efforts at self promotion.
    Riley and Young both became students of Pran Nath when he arrived in New York. Pran Nath, known to his students as “Guruji,” died in 1996.

Terry Riley

     Composer and musician Terry Riley was born and raised in Colfax, California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1935. His parents gave him a violin when he was six. Later he switched to piano. He attended high school in Redding, California and there became acquainted with "contemporary" discordant classical music and bebop jazz. He played in the high school band and orchestra and in a small dance band after school. He practiced to become a classical pianist for years, but in 1955 when he entered San Francisco State University did he decide to become a composer. He enrolled at University of California at Berkeley in 1958, where he met La Monte Young.
     After Young left for New York, Riley became interested in using repetition as a musical structure and in 1960, he began experimenting with tape loops. It was at Berkeley that Riley began listening to non-western music recordings and he attended a concert by Ravi Shankar. In 1962 and 1964 he traveled to Morocco where he became familiar with the music of that country.
     In 1964, Riley visited New York City, where he spent time with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. In November he presented In C, which will become the seed from which what later will spring what will be called minimalism by the Great Unwashed. The piece was performed in darkness and dual projectors filled the room with light and colored patterns.  Columbia Records released In C in 1968, and it became an anthem for a new kind of music. Riley was seeking a spiritual sound in which one could loose oneself, giving in to the sounds, much like La Monte was doing in New York, only Riley was using patterns while Young used sustained chords. In C consists of 53 musical 'clips', pieces of melody in C major, and the performers can repeat one of these as often as they wish before moving on to the next. The piece (for any number of players or any kind of instruments) ends when the last player has finished.

Reflections on "In C"

     One Sunday afternoon, students at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, a few blocks from my home in Nashville, performed Terry Riley’s 1964 composition called In C. It had been forty years since this work was published, and how time passed! I walked over to the school to hear the performance. Less than a dozen people showed up to experience the work that came forth at the beginning of the period in music now called minimalism. It had been 37 years since I first heard the composer perform in New York City. I felt the piece was historically important because an American composer, during the time when extreme serial music was rampant, had actually written a piece in the (God-forbid!) key of C!
    As I sat quietly during the hour-long performance, I realized how bored I was and how uninspiring the music was. I would have left early, but I didn't want to insult the performers. There was no feeling in this music, the kind of feeling that had filled the music of the renaissance and romantic eras. This was an intellectual exercise, an experiment, that happened to become famous. It was a game, without any inspired composition or any important improvisation, since it was limited to “gee, which one of these little figures should I play next?” The work was a curiosity, an experiment. That’s all. 

     Riley moved to New York in 1965. The following year he bought a soprano saxophone, and in 1967 he began performing his piece Poppy No-good and the Phantom Band. I attended one of these performances and found the music unstimulating, and had no interest in perusing Riley's music further. In fact, at that time, I had become completely mesmerized by Raga Darbari Kanada, and especially the recording by the Ali Brothers of Pakistan, and nothing Riley played could compare to this exalted performance of the greatest raga in North Indian classical music.
    Riley moved back to California where he has remained to this day. During the 1970s he, like myself, composed no music. Instead he concentrated on his studies with Pandit Pran Nath.
     My friends, Bernard and Barbara Xolotl, whose painting adorns the cover of Riley's Shri Camel album and the background of his website, and who consider Riley a great musical master, do not understand my lack of interest in Riley's music. What can I say? I am glad he helped lead the journey out of the woods of serialism, but for me, his music is just not "there."


Following Terry Riley and La Monte Young, a new trend in music began, begging for a place alongside so-called "contemporary" or "serial" music in the world of 'hi-brow' classical music. It acquired the name minimalism, or minimalistic music.
     The term had been introduced in the world of visual arts during 1965 and was first applied to music by Barbara Rose in an 1965 article called ABC Art, referring to the music of La Monte Young and Morton Feldman. In my opinion, the term applies more directly to the music of these two composers than it does any of the composers that the world has come to associate with the term. Strictly, it refers to using a minimum amount of sound to construct the music, such as we find in Cage's 4’ 33” and the works of Feldman and Le Monte Young (and don't forget Christian Wolfe). But the term has come to be applied to the works derived from Riley’s famous In C, where repeating musical patterns are employed, and the works of composers Phillip Glass and Steve Reich.
     It is perhaps uncertain where the term minimalism actually originated. By 1972, the music of La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich was sometimes called the music of the hypnotic school and often was referred to as trance music. The term began to be associated specifically with the music of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich in 1972, when it was introduced in print in an article by Tom Johnson that appeared in the Village Voice. After the debut of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and the production of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, music critics began to look for a label for the new musical style that these composers were using, and the term minimalism started to become the standard descriptive term, although the term trance music will still be widely used for a while. As had occurred when the term impressionism was invented, the main composers to which the term has been applied have never approved of it themselves.  
The main composers who have been identified with the minimalist movement are La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. Their influence was John Cage, John Coltrane, who was influenced by Ravi Shankar, and North Indian classical music. All these musicians recognized that the atonal music currently holding forth needed to be transcended. In fact, Riley is said to have labeled the music neurotic. They all turned away from serial music, criticizing it. Glass called the European serialists, such as Boulez, Nono, and Castigliono, “creeps.”
     While Glass was, perhaps superficially, influenced by Ravi Shankar, the classical singing tradition introduced to Riley and La Monte Young by Pandit Pran Nath was much deeper than a superficial understanding of the music of Ravi Shankar would yield.

The "Minimalists"

Steve Reich

     New York City native Steve Reich was born in 1936. He studied the piano for two or three years as a child, but he didn’t really discover music until he was 14, when he first heard bebop and classical music. His preference was baroque and 20th century music. In 1953 he entered Cornell University where he played drums with a Jazz band after school. In 1957, he began studying composition with Hal Overton. He then entered Julliard School of Music. During this period, he discovered the contemporary classical composers Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio. He met Phillip Glass at Julliard, but they did not take to each other. Neither did either of them like La Monte Young’s Trio for Strings. In fact, Reich did not grasp the full significance of Feldman’s music until long after the composer’s death in 1987! So much for their relationship to the first real minimalists!
     Reich dropped out of Julliard and moved to San Francisco and began studies with Berio at Mills Collage in 1961. That year, he (along with many other musicians including La Monte Young and myself) discovered the music of John Coltrane. Reich felt a pull between what Coltrane was doing and what Berio was doing, just as I had with Feldman and Ali Akbar Khan. Remember, the modal jazz Coltrane was playing was a direct result of his contact with North Indian classical music.
    After Graduating from Mills in 1963, Reich began experimenting with tape loops, as had Riley. Soon he actually met Riley who showed him the score for In C. Reich liked what he saw and volunteered to help Riley with its performance. He then created a tape piece called It’s Gonna Rain in 1965 using identical tapes of a recorded speech pattern that were out of phase. This piece was inspired by Riley, and when Riley heard it, he was angry, and they have not gotten along since this time. Riley felt that he had been ripped off by Glass and Reich, and dedicated a piece to them called The Rite of the Imitators.
Reich moved back to NY in 1965 and continued making tape pieces. After another piece in 1966, Reich realized he had grown tired of working with tapes and longed to write for real instruments, which he began doing in 1967. The first piece, Piano Phase, used two pianos to create the out-of-phase condition that he had been realizing with tape. He organized an ensemble and in March of that year, presented the piece at the Park Place Gallery, at that time the main gallery displaying minimalist art and sculpture. Phillip Glass came to see what his old schoolmate was doing. Soon, they combined their ensembles to perform both of their compositions.
    Reich continued to compose, the combined Glass-Reich ensemble performing his works mainly at art gallery venues. In 1970, he wrote Four Organs, a piece that used four small electric organs to expand a single chord from its inception of a single pulse. In October, 1971, Four Organs was presented in Boston’s Symphony Hall, included in a program of music by Mozart, Bartok and Liszt. In January, 1973, the conductor who presented Four Organs in Boston arranged for a performance in Carnegie Hall where a near riot broke out. Next Reich studied African drumming and then composed a piece called Drumming for percussion instruments and voices. In four parts, the first part is for four pairs of tuned bongos, the second for three marimbas, the third for three glockenspiels and piccolo, and the fourth for the all of the instruments together.
    Reich soon became recognized as a composer. With his ensemble now separated from Glass’s, he began touring in 1971. At that time he began studying the gamelan. He wrote Music for Mallet Instruments in 1973, then after nearly two years of work, he created Music for 18 Musicians, a piece that garnered wide acceptance. He started receiving commissions mostly from Europe. More works were the result of commissions that he had received. Reich continues to compose, but he has not concentrated upon becoming a commercial success. 

Philip Glass

     Philip Glass was born in 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland, the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Russia. His father sold records and this enabled Philip to listen to a wide range of music when he was a child, both classical and popular. He began studying violin at the age of six, then switched to flute and finally to piano. He was admitted to the University of Chicago in 1952 when he was only fifteen years old. He majored in mathematics and philosophy and listened to the music of "contemporary" discordant composers Anton Webern and Charles Ives during his spare time. He graduated at age 19. By then he had begun composing music. His early work was in the style of Webern. 
     Glass entered Julliard School of Music where he abandoned the style of Webern and began writing in the style of Aaron Copland and William Schuman who were the predilection of Julliard school during the 1950s and 1960s. He received his master’s degree from Julliard in 1961. He wrote very conventional music for a living for a while, until he decided to return to Paris in 1964, ten years after his first visit there. There he studied with the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger who had taught Copland and Virgil Thompson.
     During his second year with Boulanger in 1965, he was hired by Conrad Rooks to be the musical director for his move Chappaqua. One of his duties was to transcribe into Western notation the music of Ravi Shankar that was to appear in the film. Glass spent several months with Shankar and Alla Rakha. It was during this period of time with that Glass discovered what he needed to begin a new musical journey.
     Similar to what John Coltrane learned from Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass really learned very little. This is not meant as a criticism; Glass has never claimed any differently, nor had Coltrane. Composers in the past have tried to use the what they have learned from Middle Eastern and Indian music to influence their own style without spending much time really absorbing it. Opportunities for serious studies were just not available until the late 1960s. Composers such as Terry Riley and La Monte Young are examples of those who took the challenge of really absorbing what other great music traditions have to offer.
     Glass had never heard Indian music before. What Glass thought that he had learned from Ravi Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha was that their music was not cyclic as was ours, but was a continuous flow of beats that was constructed in an additive process. This understanding, although not correct, gave him the ideas he would use for his own music. He had completely misunderstood the music, but it inspired him nonetheless. His misunderstanding, he recognized and acknowledged later. But just the same, Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha stimulated him to start in a new direction.
     Back in New York, in March 1967 Glass attended a performance of Steve Reich’s music at the park Place Gallery, and as explained above, the two began working together. That year Glass composed Strung Out for solo amplified violin, a piece that consisted of a steady stream of rapid eight notes and no bar lines, and used only five pitches, the repetition proceeding by means of the additive process he thought he had acquired from Ravi Shankar. Two Pages for Steve Reich of 1968 consisted of a single line of music played on electronic keyboards and wind instruments. The line of music is expanded and shortened in the process of development. These works were clearly minimalist. The additive process works by adding or subtracting notes in a repeated phrase. Music in Fifths has two lines of quickly executed eighth notes, each line expanding and contracting. Both go along side by side as parallel faiths. Music in Contrary Motion had two lines of eighth notes moving in contrary motion, with a bass provided as a drone. Music in Similar Motion began with one line of unison eighth notes that expanded to four lines, all moving similarly. All these obviously experimental works, stark and stripped-down, were composed during 1969. In the following year, Glass composed Music with Changing Parts, another experimental work. 
     As is the case at any of the times where artistic styles make a radical change, the performances of the Philip Glass Ensemble caused a controversy. In Amsterdam, a man from the audience ran onto the stage and tried to play along with Glass, who punched him, knocking him off the stage. In 1972, the director of the Spoleto Festival in Italy, opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, walked out on the festival during a Glass performance, and someone tried to cut the power supply. In New York in 1973 a man screamed “They’re not musicians! They can’t play! I’m a music teacher and I know they’re not really playing their instruments!"
     In June 1974, Glass made his first appearance in a downtown New York concert hall, Town Hall, and received a standing ovation. He performed Music in Twelve Parts, a piece that he had been working on since 1971. Glass also began meeting with the visionary American stage director Robert Wilson and work began on Einstein of the Beach, his first opera, based on the character of Albert Einstein. Nearly five hours long, the Philip Glass Ensemble supplied the music. Einstein on the Beach has no character development or conventional narrative, and there is no story or plot. It had its world première in August, 1976 at the Avignon Festival in France. After playing in five other European countries, Glass brought it to New York and in November he sponsored a performance at the Metropolitan Opera on a night when the hall was available for rental. He believed enough in it to fork out the money for the performance. Word of the opera had apparently reached New York as the performance was sold out. It cost Glass $900,000 for Einstein’s productions that year. The work was a huge success, but Glass returned to driving a cab.
     His next opera was Satyagraha in 1979, then Akhnaten in 1983. After these three operas, Glass became the most familiar and the most requested living composer. 

John Adams

     The laurel of most-performed living composer was passed to John Adams in the 1990s. Born in 1947, he is younger than the other 'minimalist' composers.       
     As a teenager, he played clarinet in a New Hampshire community orchestra, the only teenager in the otherwise adult orchestra. He conducted his first large-scale composition when he was thirteen, attended Harvard University, then in 1967, became a hippie. He wrote a setting for chamber orchestra and soprano of a song cycle based on psychedelic poems written by a friend at Harvard. After he entered Harvard he began to realize that he was living a double life. In class, he analyzed tone rows in Anton Webern's music, but outside of class he got high and listened to the Rolling Stones and Coltrane. His spiritual side was in this music, and his musical studies in discordant contemporary music was a lifeless drill.
     He received a master’s degree from Harvard in 1971. As a graduation present, his parents gave him Cage’s book Silence, and this book transformed his world completely. He moved to San Francisco after graduation, taking the book with him. From 1972 to 1982, he worked at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he was the head of the new music program. He played with sound for a while, then electronic instruments, but after five years of electronic collages and Cage-like creations, he turned to tonality. In 1974, he Heard Steve Reich and that converted him to minimalism, but he took a more emotional direction. “I’m trying to embrace the tragic aspects of life in my work.” he said in 1985. Also, in 1992, he said “I think minimalism was a wonderful shock to Western art music.” He states that what makes him different from Glass and Reich is that he is not a modernist. He embraces his past, rock and roll and all.
     His first minimalist pieces were the piano piece Phrygian Gates (1977-1978) and string septet Shaker Loops (1978). 

The Rebirth of Tonality

     The new tonal composers met their challenge in 1984 when  the infamous Darmstadt controversy occurred. Darmstadt, Germany was the bastion of "contemporary" discordant music during the second half of the twentieth century. The European "serialist" movement originated there after World War II. Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen had both emerged from Darmstadt and all of the major European composers, Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, etc, came there for concerts and study, and the Darmstadt Orchestra was performing discordant works continually. There had been a standing joke among musicians that the members of the Darmstadt Orchestra were all sterile (because of the music)!
     Darmstadt stood for the pinnacle of new Western classical music, and was known the world over. However, a shock came to the Darmstadt community in 1984 when the International Summer Course for New Music in Germany, as it the yearly festival of new music that took place at Darmstadt each summer was called, included for the first time, works by the Minimalists! 
   Now this was a full twenty years since Riley's In C was composed. The discord community felt nothing but scorn and condescension for composers who wrote tonal music, and allowing them into this select circle? Well, that was the ultimate disgrace! But it had been felt by some at Darmstadt, including Friedrich Hommel the recently designated director, that the summer festival should no longer be the exclusive domain of the atonalists and serialists. Major works by such composers as Terry Riley and Philip Glass were perfumed that summer as well as European works that were written in a romantic style, and this caused explosive reactions!
    This event marked a point in history where the old would have to give away to the new. Now in a steady decline, the reign of discordant music would diminish, although even the minimalist composers had not themselves completely abandoned elements of stress and discord in their own music! But the event was a milestone in the return to tonality.
     A number of composers have embraced tonality, some not completely, some, like Easley Blackwood, who shocked critics with his romantic 5th Symphony, making a complete turn around.
  Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony actually made it to the pop charts in England!
    The return to tonality will not be complete until the 21st Century, however.

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