Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

by Will Hermes

18 November 2011


Stoned and Droning

Riley wound up back in New York that fall, too. He wasn’t pleased when he discovered Reich pursuing ideas Riley felt were his, and they never worked together again. Reich did strike up a friendship with another like-minded composer, Philip Glass, a Juilliard classmate who reintroduced himself at a concert Reich gave at Paula Cooper’s Park Place Gallery—the foremost exhibition space for minimalist artists such as Sol LeWitt—in early ’67. Reich and Glass soon formed a collective ensemble to perform each other’s work. They also formed a furniture-moving company, Chelsea Light Moving, as neither of them made enough money from their music to pay their bills.

Meanwhile, Reich’s longtime interest in drumming was rising up. He was inspired to visit Ghana in 1970 by Alfred Ladzekpo, a Ghanaian drummer teaching at Columbia University. (Ladzekpo’s African Dances and Games LP, which may have seeded Willie Colón’s “Che Che Cole,” had just been released.) The trip was something of a nightmare—Reich contracted malaria and left a month earlier than planned—but his studies there blew his mind, confirming many of his ideas on rhythm. At the end of ’71 he premiered his extended Drumming—for bongo drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, female voices, piccolo, and a whistler (for now, himself)—over two weeks at three concerts: at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Town Hall. As a new music composer, he had arrived.

Still, a gig at Carnegie Hall, the bastion of old-school classical music, was not on his to-do list when the phone rang in late ’72. Yet the guy on the line—Michael Tilson Thomas, twenty-seven-year-old conductor of the Boston Symphony—was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Reich’s music. He was curating a new-music program for Carnegie Hall called the Spectrum series, which hoped to lure a younger audience. Thomas wanted Reich in it.

Reich agreed. His Four Organs, an extended piece employing extreme repetition and performed with four Farfisa electric organs and some Latin Percussion rawhide-and-buckshot maracas, was presented in Boston without incident. The performance in his hometown on January 18, 1973, was another story.

Four Organs was not new to New York, having premiered at the Guggenheim Museum back in 1970, with Glass at one of the keyboards. Performed this evening by the musicians in shirtsleeves—a statement in itself on the formal Carnegie Hall stage—the performance lasted about sixteen minutes. The music was amplified, but it wasn’t rock concert loud. After a few minutes, the performers could hear the noise of the audience—more old guard than the young vanguard they’d hoped for—fidgeting in their seats, coughing, murmuring, and rustling their programs. Soon, this was joined by groans and, eventually, straight-out shouting and heckling.

The musicians traded glances. There was nothing to do but to keep playing the repeated, stabbing phrases, over and over and over. The audience noise grew so loud, they couldn’t hear one another play; they had to mouth their cues, and eventually yell them, to keep the piece from falling apart. The audience was literally trying to stop the performance by shouting it down. At one point, a woman got out of her seat and walked down the aisle toward the musicians. All eyes were on her, and when she reached the lip of the stage, she began mock-banging her head against it repeatedly, wailing: “Stop, stop—I confess!”

When the piece ended, there was a moment of silence, then a tidal wave of boos and catcalls. The musicians bowed, and walked offstage with as much composure as they could muster.

In his review, Harold C . Schonberg of The New York Times described the audience reaction “as though red-hot needles were being inserted under fingernails,” adding that he himself had heard “nothing much to like, nothing much to dislike.” Alan Rich of New York magazine praised it as a “marvelous, original invention about musical time and rate of change.”

Afterward, Steve Reich returned to his element, giving free performances of works-in-progress alongside exhibitions by his new friend Sol LeWitt at the John Weber Gallery. When Reich’s old colleague Phil Lesh came east to play Nassau Coliseum with the Dead that March, they did not see each other.

The Carnegie Hall Four Organs was the most striking aboveground display for the New York school of music branded “minimalism,” after the art movement. Some critics called it “static music” (for its apparent lack of motion, not its resemblance to white noise—although using the latter was not out of the question). The composer Tom Johnson, who was also the Voice’s classical music critic, wrote of the “New York Hypnotic School”—Reich, Glass, Riley, and the school’s provost, La Monte Young— composers who made music “that lulls, hypnotizes, and draws you into its world.” It was music that functioned as a more or less flat field, not unlike the visual work of LeWitt, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and the Nashville jazz saxophonist turned painter Robert Ryman. Static, however, did not necessarily equal boring. “A pitch changes slightly, a rhythm is altered, something fades in or out. They are not big changes, but they are changes,” Johnson wrote, “and there are more than enough of them to sustain one’s interest, provided he can tune in on this minimal level.”

La Monte Young was raised as a Mormon in Idaho and studied music in Los Angeles, where he focused on the saxophone. He was an L.A. City College classmate of Eric Dolphy, who he beat out for a spot in the college dance band in 1956; he also led a group with the drummer Billy Higgins, and occasionally played with another Ornette Coleman associate, the trumpeter Don Cherry. Around the same time, Young became obsessed with a record of ragas by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and especially by the drone sound of the tamboura; he listened to it so incessantly while living in his grandmother’s house that she worriedly wrote the words “Opium Music” on the LP jacket. His interest in sustained tones grew, and during the summer of 1958 he wrote the roughly hour-long Trio for Strings at the great organ in Royce Hall at UCLA, where he’d just completed his BA. He presented the piece during his first semester of graduate studies at Berkeley, to a composition class held in the home of Professor Seymour Schiffrin; his classmates included Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and David Del Tredici. The work’s vast fields of drones and silences were alien territory. It was the birth of minimalist composition.

Arriving in New York City in the fall of 1960 on a Berkeley scholarship, at age twenty-five, Young became a proto–rock star, moving through galleries and performance halls in a black cape in the shadow of his hero turned rival John Cage. Within two months he was involved with the Fluxus art movement, curating the first loft concert series with Yoko Ono at her place on Chambers Street. Young was composing busily, swinging between Cagean conceptualism and tonal minimalism. Piano Piece for David Tudor #1 (Tudor was a close associate of Cage) instructs the performer to “bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano, or leave it to eat by itself.” The droning Composition 1960 #7 consists of a B and an F-sharp, notated on a staff with the direction “to be held for a long time.” Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) for Henry Flynt (1960) called for a loud percussive sound to be repeated at will; in one performance, Young played a piano chord 1,698 times. Unlike music made in uptown performance halls, which generally divided concerts into five- to thirty-minute slots for individual works, loft settings gave composers the option of presenting extended pieces. In this way, Young and Ono’s brief series changed the sound of modern composition.

By the time John Cale began working with Young in his Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble in the mid-’60s, radically sustained notes and chords were at the core of the work. With his new wife, the light artist turned singer Marian Zazeela, Young moved into a loft space at 275 Church Street, where the group would perform for hours, through the night; a waking day for the couple would last anywhere from eighteen to twenty-seven hours or longer. A recording from April 1965 features the table-saw drones of Tony Conrad’s violin and John Cale’s viola, their modulations stretching clock time like putty.

The group continued in various forms throughout the ’60s, occasionally touring and performing in galleries and museums. But as Young became more obsessed with the idea of the eternal in music—of a work that might literally last forever—he began setting up what he called “Dream House” installations: rooms in which music was produced continuously by precisely tuned sine-wave generators, sometimes with human accompaniment. The initial and primary one was in his loft; it ran pretty much uninterrupted from September ’66 through January ’70, when Young and Zazeela began their long relationship with the North Indian master singer Pandit Pran Nath, and continued intermittently after that.

Recordings of this music were somewhat beside the point. But Young often rolled tape, and in ’73 he captured what became a French LP called Dream House 78’ 17”. The number denotes the duration of the LP, and the “song titles” note simply the date, time, and locale of the recording. “13 I 73 5:35–6:14:03 PM NYC ” demonstrated vocal techniques inspired by Pran Nath. “Drift Study 14 VII 73 9:27:27– 10:06:41 PM NYC ” was the sound of three sine-wave generators, which presumably burbled out strange harmonics before the recorder was turned on, and continued after it was shut off.

Performances of extreme duration—lasting as long as, say, a psychedelic drug experience—were being explored by many artists of the era. The New York Times critic John Rockwell identified a “newly meditational mode of perception” in audiences, partly code for saying everyone would be stoned. According to the trumpeter Jon Hassell, a devotee of Miles Davis’s electric experiments who studied and played with Young, “the history of drugs in America is inextricably interlaced with early minimalism.” To him, there was a need in the ’70s for a new sort of classical music that “one could actually enjoy listening to, that you could float away to.” Young’s music catered to this need and reveled in it. He had been a weed smoker since his jazz days, and by his own account, the Theatre of Eternal Music got high for every concert. And according to the photographer Billy Name of Andy Warhol’s Factory posse, who played with an early version of the ensemble, the scene at the Church Street loft was a heady one:

La Monte Young was the best drug connection in New York. He had the best drugs—the best! Great big acid pills, and opium, and grass, too. When you went over to La Monte and Marian’s place, you were there for a minimum of seven hours—probably end up to be two or three days. It was a pad with everything on the floor and beads and great hashish and street people coming and scoring, and this droning music going on.

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