by Don Robertson
Part Five: The Return to Tonality
2005 by Rising World Entertainment
From across the sea
came the inspiration that reawakened tonality in contemporary
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
where he became familiar with the music of that country.
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.
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!
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.
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.
moved back to California where he has remained to this day.
During the 1970s he, like myself, composed no music. Instead he
on his studies with Pandit Pran Nath.
My friends, Bernard and Barbara
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
first minimalist pieces were the piano piece Phrygian Gates
(1977-1978) and string septet Shaker Loops (1978).
Rebirth of Tonality
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
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
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
Symphony actually made it to the pop charts in England!
The return to tonality will not be complete
until the 21st Century,