By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of music’s most ardent redefiners, used the vast electronic mainframe facilities of West German Radio at Cologne to produce his Gesang der Jünglinge, a work of symphonic proportions constructed entirely out of synthesized sounds plus the processed voice of a boy soprano. The Hungarian expatriate György Ligeti worked at Cologne for a time, and then succeeded in duplicating some of tape music’s marvelously atmospheric sounds with live performers. Some of the ethereal swooshing in Ligeti’s spellbinding Requiemfound its way into Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it underscored the spaceship’s journey to Jupiter through psychedelic space.
In California, young composers — among them Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley — worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, blending poetry, visual art and electronically produced sounds into a unique multimedia art. Their guru was the Michigan-born Robert Erickson, whose own music often included natural sounds (waves pounding the coast, a brooklet in the Sierra) blended with instruments.
A building-filling electronic installation set up in New York, funded by Columbia, Princeton and the Bell Laboratories, attracted hordes of composers young and old, including the venerable 12-tone evangelist Milton Babbitt, whose immensely appealing 1964 Philomel used synthesized sounds to describe the maiden of legend transformed into a nightingale. Not many years later, Subotnick used a synthesizer no larger than a dining-room tabletop, designed by Donald Buchla, to compose his Silver Apples of the Moon. Electronic gadgetry shrank in size (and in price) as its versatility expanded. Subotnick would soon move on to CalArts and develop one of the pioneer college-run electronic-music curricula.
Whether inspired by John Cage’s libertarian proclamations or off on their own, composers in these years seemed hell-bent on expanding music’s boundaries. Freedom rang; to LaMonte Young, a proper musical experience might consist of watching a violin burn in an East Village loft, or enduring a single tone sustained for two weeks. Stockhausen, not long after the implicit rigidity of his electronic pieces, turned 180 degrees to invoke principles of chance in his "happenings," quasi-theatrical events to bear out the Cageian dictum that "Everything we do is music"; Stockhausen’s Kurzwellen had live musicians improvising on the spot to whatever happened to be emerging from a shortwave radio at the time of performance. In San Francisco, Terry Riley dreamed up a trance-inducing piece called In Cin which any number of performers played a series of short fragments at any speed and at any length; a performance might last 20 minutes or three hours. Steve Reich concocted an extended piece in which a short spoken phrase, "come out to show them," was repeated on multiple tape loops, with the tracks gradually oozing out of phase to create an enormous onslaught of sound. A new word, minimalism(borrowed, like so much of music’s vocabulary, from the visual arts), stood for their kind of music: maximum impact created out of a minimum of material, gradually changing.
Wherever you tuned in, there were new sounds. Greece’s Iannis Xenakis, renowned both as a composer and as a disciple of the great architect Le Corbusier, devised music that did, indeed, seem in its undulations to suggest physical structures — proving Goethe’s famous dictum that architecture is frozen music. Lou Harrison — like Cage a onetime Schoenberg student — flooded his music with the bright jangle of the Indonesian gamelan. Conlon Nancarrow, an American expatriate working in Mexico, composed music for player piano, punching out the paper rolls by hand and thus creating rhythmic complexities beyond the reach of any ordinary pianist. George Crumb’s haunting Ancient Voices of Children (based on García Lorca’s poetry) used small, tuned stones as part of its "orchestra." Crumb’s Black Angels, written in 1970 as a Vietnam protest, subjected a string quartet to violent overamplification — grinding, gnashing, intensely disturbing — to send its outcry skyward. The self-taught hobo-turned-composer Harry Partch devised fantastic, colorful pieces that employed scales of 43 tones (instead of the "normal" 12), and built his own fantastic, colorful instruments to play them. Luciano Berio’s exhilarating Sinfonia included one movement in which a group of actors declaimed selections from various activist writings while the orchestra performed a collage compiled from familiar symphonic works of the past.
It was a time, too, of striking contradictions. Cage and his disciples proclaimed the notion of "anything goes." The element of randomness motivated others as well, notably Poland’s Witold Lutoslawski, whose Second and Third symphonies contained episodes that freed the players in certain passages to improvise (within a stipulated time frame). In sharp contrast, the young Frenchman Pierre Boulez had re-examined the Schoenbergian principles of strict 12-note organization and discovered that Schoenberg’s disciple Anton Webern had taken the notion of strict serial organization into matters of tone color and rhythm. Boulez earned his early fame with Le Marteau sans Maître: poetry by René Char intoned by a soprano with a chamber ensemble (a conscious tribute to Schoenberg’s seminal Pierrot Lunaire), remarkable also for the way recurrences and structural details in both words and music are rigidly worked out as a kind of audible mathematics. Boulez would go on to found his famous Parisian Institute for Acoustic/ Musical Research and Coordination (IRCAM), a hotbed for experimentation in the ways the computer, the live musician and electronically generated sound might join in this whole redefinition process.