California Tones, Drones and Arpeggios: The Magic of Minimalism


California

Charles Hazlewood explores the four great American minimalist composers who rebooted classical music in the 20th century. He begins with La Monte Young and Terry Riley.


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Transcript


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SIMPLE BEAT STARTS

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COMPOSITION SLOWLY BUILDS

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This is ground zero of a musical revolution.

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In C, written and first performed by Terry Riley in 1964,

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ushered in a whole new musical form.

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Arguably the most important musical form of the 20th century.

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Believe me, I've tried in this whole lifetime

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to come up with another idea, that could be that simple and inclusive,

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and I haven't been able to do it either.

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Minimalism's power lay in repetition,

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in transcendence and in technology.

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And it changed the face of music instantly.

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From 1958 to 1976,

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minimalism was the last big idea in classical music.

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Born in California before exploding in New York,

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minimalism kicked down the barriers between rock and roll

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and the concert hall

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and influenced some of the biggest albums and bands of the era.

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I'm a minimalist. Come on!

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Four revolutionary composers changed what we thought of as music.

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I love it. Are we rolling?

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I mean, he was all on the stuff, learning to write music.

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I mean, that's really good.

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I'm very unusual. There's no doubt about it.

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But I have talents that are beyond compare.

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And this is the story of the two Californians,

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La Monte Young and Terry Riley, who kicked it all off.

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Nothing would be quite the same again.

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MUSIC: G Song by Kronos Quartet

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California - land of freedom, opportunity

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and the home of minimalism.

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This is an exploration of the impact

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of the two Californian pioneering wizards in minimalism.

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La Monte Young and Terry Riley.

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What they shared was a love of eastern influences, of drones,

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and the blissful absorption of chaos and transcendence

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through repetition.

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Riley and Young were prophets without honour,

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visionaries who pre-scored the road ahead.

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Their music had a new sensuality and freedom.

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It prefigured the adventure, love and sheer subversive fun

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that was shortly to sweep right across West Coast '60s America.

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Late '50s America was optimistic.

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It was the end of the Eisenhower era.

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A time of post-war economic boom, 2.5 children,

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shiny new suburbs and white picket fences.

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And in California, a flowering world of freedom, new possibility

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and sunshine,

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with a soundtrack of cool jazz.

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Minimalism had to start in California.

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I think if it hadn't started in California,

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it might not have started at all.

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Barriers were breaking down.

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Fun was being had in the traditional world of classical music.

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DRUM CRASH

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One Californian throwing down a gauntlet to the music establishment

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was pre-minimalist composer John Cage.

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Seen here turning the pages on his own work.

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He was out there...

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..yet deadly serious.

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In terms of a minimalist piece, it doesn't get more minimalist

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than 4' 33" - the silent piece of 1951.

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That same sense of freedom and the kind of limitlessness

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of what you could be as a composer.

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Not even the sounds you could come up with

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but what it meant to be a composer.

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Cage had given them that freedom.

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Cage's outrageous work was all about challenging

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what the world understood as music.

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In 1952, he scandalously declared that Beethoven was wrong.

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An utterance that would sow the seeds of minimalism.

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Pretty much since forever, music has been linear.

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It's been goal-oriented.

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A melody will be broken up into, sort of, subsections

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but each one building on the last one - taking you somewhere.

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Usually in groups of three, by the way. Look at this.

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HE PLAYS "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" Setting out its stall.

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Little bit of development and then, third phrase,

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we get emancipation

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and everything is aiming to there.

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Now, along comes the amazing,

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iconoclastic, avant-garde composer John Cage in the 1950s

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and he says, maybe that's all wrong.

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Maybe there's another way of making music

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which is about vertical slices of time,

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about the eternal now, about perhaps very, very intense repetition.

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So, perhaps... REPEATS SEQUENCE OF NOTES

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The whole piece could just be about that.

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One element from Happy birthday or many other opportunities besides

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and the minimalists took that idea to the Nth degree.

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It was just the idea of repetition.

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That you could hear a process going on

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and you could get drawn into something very subtle

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after years in which music had had a kind of kitchen-sink approach

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where you were supposed to use everything in the world.

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Big brass sections, big percussion sections.

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Every piece was supposed to do everything

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and all of a sudden you had these little pieces

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that would just hammer on one sound for a while

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and you would hear something really interesting going on

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and it would just capture your attention

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and you couldn't stop listening to it.

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RHYTHMIC CLAPPING

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MUSIC: Facades by Philip Glass Ensemble

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It was one of Cage's disciples who invented minimalism

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by slowing down time.

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La Monte Young is a mysterious shaman, now in his 80s,

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who lives in New York, and I've come to find him.

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So, behind this door lives the man

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known as the grandaddy of minimalism.

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A somewhat mystical figure,

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so I don't really know quite what to expect.

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You can't buy his music, he doesn't release it,

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it fetches enormous sums when bartered over online,

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and he's never, ever been on the BBC before.

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We shall see.

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Here you go.

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This is the only known performance footage of La Monte Young,

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performing The Well-tuned Piano in 1987.

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La Monte, he was the most dramatic.

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In those days, he was dressed in leather, leather boots,

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like a biker's, and chains.

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He wasn't misleading you.

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I mean, the clothes went with the man.

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They weren't just assumed.

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There was always a strong feeling of authenticity about La Monte,

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no matter what you thought of the music and whatever.

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It didn't matter, he was for real.

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Young was born in 1935 and grew up in the Golden State.

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Can I take you back to growing up in California and what impact that

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landscape and that environment had upon your development?

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Well, you know, as Gertrude Stein said it,

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that no matter where you are,

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the environment has a big effect on you.

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In California,

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people think nothing of driving eight hours across town

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to visit a friend,

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then they spend eight hours there,

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and then they have to drive eight hours back,

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sometimes they wait till the next day.

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The sense of time gets really...

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..stretched out, and it's just quite the opposite in New York City,

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where everything is jammed together.

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Time was an important part of the California experience.

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Young's Trio For Strings of 1958 was written in the lofty compositional

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style that held sway at the time, serialism,

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invented by the great Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.

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The idea is that you create melodies

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through using all 12 of the semitones

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that lie within an octave.

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Yeah? 12 semitones.

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And the rule is you can use all of those semitones,

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in fact you must use all of them, in whatever order you like,

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but you can't repeat one until you've had all of the others,

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and thus whole pieces of music were created.

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So, to give you an example, this is from a waltz in the 1920s

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of Schoenberg which is purely serial.

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Now, that strange, capricious little melody has all 12 semitones,

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but in a very particular order,

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and then the joy of the piece is in how he can develop that row

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of notes, but again, without ever repeating one

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until he's had all of the others.

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But what made La Monte Young's Trio For Strings the first work of

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minimalism was the length of the notes.

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Nominally, it started with a 12-tone string trio

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that La Monte Young wrote in 1958

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that was just the only thing that differentiated it from any other

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12-tone chamber piece was

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it was extremely long and the notes were held for a really long time.

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SINGLE NOTE PLAYS

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It's an hour-long piece almost,

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I think there are about 88 notes in it.

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And the first sound lasts for four and a half minutes.

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And then there's a silence, and then it goes on to the next.

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The Trio For Strings was probably the first...

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..work in the history of music that really...

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..laid out long, sustained tones.

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The Trio is only an hour, but five or ten years ago,

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I made a version that was, I think, three hours

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that was probably what I could have,

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should have done in the beginning...

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..but I was a very...

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You know, you're very constrained by the performance possibilities.

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Like all music students in the 1950s,

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La Monte Young was taught that serialism

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was THE compositional style of the day.

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But music such as Alban Berg's Chamber Concerto belonged

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to an austere European past

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and spoke little to a forward-looking, modern America.

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This music is probably past its peak,

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it's on the way down, you know.

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We're really talking about the endgame,

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though it carried on for another 40 years.

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No-one stopped them, and so they kept on going.

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But the brilliant music was pretty much composed by then.

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La Monte Young's Damascene moment occurred when he visited Darmstadt

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in Germany in 1959 for a composition seminar

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with Karlheinz Stockhausen.

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And it was there that he met the American composer John Cage -

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the towering daddy of post-war American experimentalism.

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So under his tutelage,

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Young's compositions strayed further from pure notation and became much

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more about conceptualism.

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How was it meeting John Cage, did that resonate for you?

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Well, John was interested in me

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because he was one of the first people who

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was well-established who really promoted me.

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La Monte's Compositions 1960 are unusual,

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some of them even frankly unperformable.

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But each of them explores a certain supposition

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about the nature of music and art and carries ideas to the extreme.

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One instructs, "Draw a straight line and follow it."

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Another simply states that the piece is a little whirlpool,

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out in the middle of the ocean.

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Piece Number 2 from Compositions 1960

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is pretty remarkable.

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Here are the instructions.

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"Build a fire in front of the audience,

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"preferably use wood,

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"although any combustibles may be used as necessary

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"for starting the fire or controlling the kind of smoke.

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"The fire may be of any size, but it should not be the kind which is

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"associated with another object such as a candle or a cigarette lighter.

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"The lights may be turned out.

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"After the fire is burning,

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"the builder may sit by and watch it for the duration of the composition.

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"However he, they,

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"should not sit between the fire and the audience

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"in order that its members will be able to see and enjoy the fire."

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Young was influenced by conceptual art of the time -

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groups like Fluxus, a collection of artists, poets,

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and musicians whose shared impulse was to integrate life into art and

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bring about social change.

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An artist such as La Monte Young,

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and he's very much involved with the Fluxus movement

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about the idea of art of all kinds as performance,

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how an audience reacts to it when they're in the room with it

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at any given time.

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So, for example, the piece

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where he builds a fire and the music is really...

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..the sounds and the spectacle of this fire happening at very close

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quarters, all the fear that that engenders,

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all the worry for the equipment,

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cos he says that the fire has got to be close-miked,

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that is all part of it.

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Those links with the visual art world are not accidental.

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It's because of the freedom of thought that's happening,

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and the Fluxus movement, and the connections that John Cage

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had already established.

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There was a freedom of thought there which certainly the institutional

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classical music culture simply didn't have.

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He's expanding the consciousness of everyone, right?

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The visual art world through sound,

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the classical music world, well, I mean, it just...

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..it blows that apart into a kind of cosmic harmony.

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Of Young's Compositions 1960,

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it's Number 7 that has retrospectively become known

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as having the most significance for minimalism.

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It consists simply of two notes to be played together and held

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for a very long time.

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Simply a B...

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..and then an F sharp, which is exactly five notes above it.

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There's the F sharp.

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Those two notes together, what's known as a perfect fifth.

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And the one, by the way, inextricably linked,

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almost umbilically bound to the other.

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If I show you what I mean...

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If I was the place down the B silently so that

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the string is ready to resonate, and I just strike the F sharp...

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..you can hear that resonating in the B,

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so the F sharp is in the B already,

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it's completely, inextricably linked.

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This is an endless open suggestion.

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That gave rise to a headline, I believe, in The New Yorker,

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which said, "When La Monte Young says, 'Take it from the top,'

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"he means last Wednesday."

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That's the kind of timescale we were talking about.

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Long hypnotic tones.

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A wide sense of space.

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La Monte's work slowed the world down.

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Young's ever-evolving masterpiece is The Well-Tuned Piano,

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a work conceived in 1964,

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not yet finished or indeed published by the composer.

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A nod to Bach's Well-Tempered Keyboard,

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the piano is tuned to Young's own inventive tuning.

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He's still working on it now,

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and a performance of it will typically take

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five or six hours out of your life.

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Minimalism is a music that imposes its own listening mode

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by the fact that events happen less frequently than you expect.

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So there is a slowed down progression of information,

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and the normal left-brain processes

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with which we listen to pop music or classical music get

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frustrated and have to give up.

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And if the music works, then it's all the more enjoyable

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because you quit keeping track of time, you quit all of that logic,

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syntax stuff and you surrender to the music.

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-How's that?

-HE LAUGHS

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And you're still working on The Well-tuned Piano, right?

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-That piece is unfinished?

-Yeah, I mean, I will play it if I'm given

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the right circumstances,

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but you have to understand that it's not a joke.

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I began to realise that, the more I got into music,

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that music requires its own time.

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And, I was not suited to this world.

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But I am suited for the world I have created.

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La Monte's use of long tones was a world within itself

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at the turn of the decade.

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But it would alter the shape of popular music in 1965

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when a student of his, viola player John Cale,

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took the technique into his own band, The Velvet Underground.

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# And what costume shall the poor girl wear?

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# To all tomorrow's parties. #

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Like minimalism, this was music that was based in the art world.

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The Velvet Underground started life

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as the house band of Andy Warhol's Factory.

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When you listen to, like, you know, old classics,

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like say Velvet Underground,

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can you hear, can you sense that much-lauded connection

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between, you know, La Monte Young influencing John Cale,

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and therefore influencing that music?

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It feels just like All Tomorrow's Parties or something,

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you've got that kind of viola rhythm...

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..droning away in the background.

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I guess that that must have come from

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him working with La Monte Young.

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And that's also probably what set off an audience

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to get into minimalism as well because...

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..they've kind of absorbed it through The Velvet Underground

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and stuff that came from there, you know.

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Enter our second wizard of minimalism.

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Terry Riley studied composition at the University of California in

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Berkeley with La Monte Young, but rather than writing for traditional

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instruments, Terry experimented with cutting-edge technology.

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In particular, early synthesizers and tape recorders,

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pieces of kit that would play a crucial role

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in the story of minimalism.

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You've heard his influence everywhere.

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From Pete Townsend's 1971 homage Baba O'Riley...

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MUSIC: Baba O'Riley by The Who

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..to the opening notes of one of the '70s biggest albums -

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Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

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MUSIC: Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield

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OK, Lucy, let's go.

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Terry is one of my all-time favourite composers,

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and I'm off to visit him

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on his ranch, five hours outside San Francisco.

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Terry is kind of a mystic, he's a really...

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..open-minded,

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just beautiful musician

0:21:250:21:27

whose music feels like he's still sort of 50 years in the future,

0:21:270:21:31

and the rest of us are still catching up.

0:21:310:21:34

The first time I heard Terry Riley's music, I was really young.

0:21:340:21:36

I mean, I was like sort of nine or ten. I was obsessed with the organ.

0:21:360:21:39

An old groovy kind of hippie music teacher in my primary school had a

0:21:390:21:42

record called A Rainbow In Curved Air,

0:21:420:21:45

which is the most insane,

0:21:450:21:46

psychedelic, trippy, looping,

0:21:460:21:49

organ overdubbing music,

0:21:490:21:51

which Terry made, I think, so the story goes,

0:21:510:21:53

in the course of one week in a studio in 1969.

0:21:530:21:57

And I'll never forget being sat down by this cool primary school

0:21:570:22:01

hippie music teacher and being introduced to this music.

0:22:010:22:05

But Riley's story began long before 1969.

0:22:240:22:27

And the musical journey he took to A Rainbow In Curved Air

0:22:280:22:32

is what I want to talk to him about.

0:22:320:22:33

Great to meet you last!

0:22:330:22:34

-Thanks for coming all this way.

-Thank you.

-Good to meet you too.

0:22:340:22:37

Thank you for having us. Really, really good to be here.

0:22:370:22:39

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

0:22:390:22:40

-Would you like to take a look around?

-Yeah.

0:22:400:22:44

I went to school with La Monte Young,

0:22:470:22:48

graduate school, which was a real big event in my life,

0:22:480:22:53

meeting La Monte, and we would sit around and talk.

0:22:530:22:55

And La Monte's main concern when he...

0:22:550:23:00

He didn't really have to have this concern cos it's already happening,

0:23:000:23:03

but he wanted to be the most original composer ever.

0:23:030:23:06

And I also felt like what La Monte was saying was something I felt for

0:23:060:23:12

myself, too, that I didn't want to just do music, I wanted to find

0:23:120:23:16

a way...

0:23:160:23:17

..to really get into who I was.

0:23:190:23:21

So, this influenced you in that it made you want to slow down as well?

0:23:210:23:26

Did you find yourself adopting some of the same?

0:23:260:23:29

It made me start hearing details in what I was doing like, say,

0:23:290:23:33

even if it's a tape loop,

0:23:330:23:35

how does the landscape of the tape loop change

0:23:350:23:37

every time it's replayed?

0:23:370:23:39

We know it does if we sit there and listen to it.

0:23:390:23:42

Can be, you know, a short loop, maybe one, two, three seconds.

0:23:420:23:45

If you play that for an hour,

0:23:450:23:47

you will continually hear new things in that landscape.

0:23:470:23:51

And it's a psychological property of music.

0:23:510:23:55

When did you first actually discover the possibility of tape?

0:24:020:24:05

This was probably 1960,

0:24:050:24:07

got a Wollensak tape recorder and I was working...

0:24:070:24:11

La Monte and I were both working with Anna Halprin, this dancer,

0:24:110:24:14

very visionary dancer that lives in Marin County,

0:24:140:24:17

and she kind of made us her musical directors,

0:24:170:24:20

so I was making pieces for her out of tape loops,

0:24:200:24:24

and I only had a monophonic single machine,

0:24:240:24:27

so I had to do sound-on-sound.

0:24:270:24:30

Obviously, very quickly, you build up tremendous amounts of noise,

0:24:300:24:34

and that started becoming interesting to me.

0:24:340:24:37

I see, so the noise is like hiss and other forms of distortion

0:24:370:24:40

-on the tape?

-Yes, hiss and hum.

0:24:400:24:42

Yeah, limitation actually changed kind of a direction in my thinking,

0:24:420:24:47

so it changed the way I thought about music.

0:24:470:24:49

MUSIC: So What by Miles Davis

0:24:490:24:51

In the late '50s, the USA was in the grip of the sound of jazz,

0:24:580:25:02

and the Miles Davis classic So What...

0:25:020:25:05

..was the basis for one of Riley's early tape experiments.

0:25:070:25:11

Played by the West Coast jazz great Chet Baker.

0:25:130:25:16

Got to work in RTF, the French radio studios,

0:25:190:25:22

so they arranged for me to work with Chet there,

0:25:220:25:27

and Chet had a quintet, so then I asked them to all

0:25:270:25:31

record So What as a group,

0:25:310:25:35

and then I asked them to record their solos separately.

0:25:350:25:37

More or less the same as they had been playing in the full

0:25:370:25:40

-ensemble?

-Yeah, and then I took it upstairs and I put those together,

0:25:400:25:44

I looped them and then I recombined it all.

0:25:440:25:47

So, it was... The first thing,

0:25:470:25:49

the ding for me was, "This can be

0:25:490:25:51

"an instrumental music process of writing."

0:25:510:25:54

Music For The Gift, as the Baker experiment became known,

0:26:090:26:13

was a crucial game-changer in minimalism's development.

0:26:130:26:16

It pioneered the idea of electronic manipulation of time,

0:26:240:26:28

a technique Riley would describe as time-lag accumulation.

0:26:280:26:33

Electronic repetition was a key element in Riley's minimalist work.

0:26:330:26:37

To understand what this means,

0:26:400:26:42

I've enlisted the help of Portishead's Adrian Utley

0:26:420:26:45

and two tape machines for an old-school experiment.

0:26:450:26:48

REPETITIVE, ECHOING TONES

0:26:480:26:51

So I don't really understand how this is working.

0:27:130:27:15

Um...

0:27:150:27:18

It's like an internal looping or delay effect, isn't it?

0:27:180:27:22

-Yeah.

-But how does it actually work?

0:27:220:27:24

It's got one reel on one tape machine,

0:27:250:27:28

the tape goes like this along to the next tape machine

0:27:280:27:32

which is playing it,

0:27:320:27:34

so that is our distance of delay.

0:27:340:27:37

So record it here, wait,

0:27:370:27:40

play. And that's what's happening.

0:27:400:27:42

So with the regeneration of feeding it

0:27:420:27:44

back into the first recorder, you get this endless delay.

0:27:440:27:49

The recording machine not only picks up the guitar being played,

0:27:570:28:01

but also the sound from the machine playing it back,

0:28:010:28:05

creating a seemingly endless echo.

0:28:050:28:07

And that's why there's quite a lot of hiss on it as well because...

0:28:090:28:12

Yeah, it's building up hiss.

0:28:120:28:14

-It's building up hiss.

-Yeah.

0:28:140:28:15

Which is lovely, actually, it's sort of warm.

0:28:150:28:17

I think we like that sound because it's not clinical.

0:28:190:28:22

Did Terry Riley call it the ghost in the machine?

0:28:220:28:25

Right.

0:28:250:28:26

It's a build-up of atmosphere that you couldn't...

0:28:260:28:31

..get from an acoustic instrument.

0:28:320:28:33

Effectively, what you've set up here, then,

0:28:410:28:43

is what Terry Riley I think called his time-lag accumulation technique.

0:28:430:28:48

Yeah, I guess that's it.

0:28:480:28:49

The artistic climate in San Francisco in 1961

0:29:070:29:11

was ringing with new ideas.

0:29:110:29:13

A number of adventurous composers including Terry Riley,

0:29:130:29:16

Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros decided

0:29:160:29:20

to create their own improvised electronic music studio -

0:29:200:29:24

the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

0:29:240:29:27

Now a dance studio,

0:29:290:29:31

this unremarkable building on Divisadero Street

0:29:310:29:34

was once the nexus of a group of visionaries who dragged the past

0:29:340:29:37

into the future in front of an audience essentially of themselves.

0:29:370:29:42

The Tape Music Center was a kind of countercultural little hall where...

0:29:440:29:49

Nothing like any concert hall,

0:29:490:29:51

it really was just kind of a small room.

0:29:510:29:53

They had a radio station, KPFA, that

0:29:530:29:56

had the room right next door, and a lot of really interesting things

0:29:560:29:59

started happening there.

0:29:590:30:01

If you've enjoyed electronic music's rich tapestry

0:30:060:30:09

since Kraftwerk emerged in the '70s...

0:30:090:30:11

..then consider the pioneers who were exploring it

0:30:150:30:18

over a decade earlier.

0:30:180:30:19

The Tape Music Center's gift to the future of minimalism was the first

0:30:230:30:27

complete synthesizer.

0:30:270:30:28

And this is it, the original Buchla 100,

0:30:310:30:35

commissioned by composer and Riley peer Morton Subotnick.

0:30:350:30:39

It has become important partly

0:30:390:30:41

because it may have been the first

0:30:410:30:43

complete system that you would have that would do everything

0:30:430:30:46

you wanted it to do,

0:30:460:30:48

not just something to add on to something else,

0:30:480:30:51

which would make it the first total analogue synthesizer.

0:30:510:30:54

The sequencer was originally conceptualised by me...

0:30:560:31:01

..to be a sequence of events.

0:31:020:31:06

MELODIC BEEPS

0:31:060:31:09

While Riley and the San Fran Tape Center

0:31:460:31:48

were experimenting with electronics,

0:31:480:31:51

in 1960 La Monte Young moved from California to New York

0:31:510:31:54

to pursue an ambitious vision -

0:31:540:31:57

a light and sound installation designed with his partner,

0:31:570:32:00

the artist Marian Zazeela,

0:32:000:32:01

where minimal music could exist multi-dimensionally,

0:32:010:32:04

24 hours a day.

0:32:040:32:06

A Dream House,

0:32:120:32:15

and it still exists to this day in the same Chamber Street loft.

0:32:150:32:19

On my visit, I was immediately immersed in a striking collection of

0:32:200:32:24

audiovisual works created by long-time La Monte Young disciple

0:32:240:32:28

Jung Hee Choi.

0:32:280:32:29

The concept of a Dream House

0:32:320:32:34

was invented by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in 1962,

0:32:340:32:38

and Jung Hee Choi is the only artist

0:32:380:32:40

that we have ever given long-term installations

0:32:400:32:44

in our Dream House.

0:32:440:32:45

She is our senior disciple.

0:32:450:32:47

she performs with us in all of our performances

0:32:470:32:51

and appears with us in all of our presentations.

0:32:510:32:55

In the early '60s, Young's work was centred around drones.

0:33:000:33:03

Sparse, sustained tones continuously sounded throughout most

0:33:030:33:08

or all of a piece.

0:33:080:33:10

At first, it just sounded like one big buzz,

0:33:100:33:13

or tinnitus amplified

0:33:130:33:14

or something, you know.

0:33:140:33:17

But there were loads and loads of speakers all over the place,

0:33:170:33:20

and it seems like they were all just doing different tones.

0:33:200:33:23

They probably just create those tones all the time.

0:33:230:33:26

But the amazing thing and the thing that I always will remember about it

0:33:260:33:30

was suddenly realising... You know, at first, "All right, OK,

0:33:300:33:33

"there's a big buzz, whatevs, sounds like a giant bee, whatever."

0:33:330:33:37

But then when you start to walk through the room,

0:33:370:33:40

so then you're nearer to one speaker than another,

0:33:400:33:42

you get all these kind of weird wobbly patterns happening

0:33:420:33:45

actually inside your head because you've got the interference

0:33:450:33:48

of this note just a bit lower than this one, so you get that...

0:33:480:33:51

-RAPID VIBRATING NOISE

-Then you turn your head a bit, and it goes...

0:33:510:33:54

SLOWER VIBRATING NOISE

0:33:540:33:55

And so suddenly, it became the most fascinating thing

0:33:550:33:58

in the world because you think,

0:33:580:33:59

"Well, what if I put my head like this?"

0:33:590:34:02

And you could be like walking through and then,

0:34:020:34:04

"Oh, that's good, that one."

0:34:040:34:06

So you become really active in it and explore this...

0:34:060:34:08

You could stay in that room forever

0:34:080:34:10

because just a tiny tilt of your head

0:34:100:34:14

creates a completely different experience.

0:34:140:34:16

And you kind of look at other people in the room,

0:34:160:34:19

but obviously they're not hearing what you're hearing at all.

0:34:190:34:22

It's really... It was a unique thing and I keep meaning to...

0:34:220:34:26

I wish I could go back.

0:34:260:34:29

What was so interesting about you putting forward the idea of

0:34:290:34:32

drone music in Western culture?

0:34:320:34:35

Drone music had been there since the beginning of time.

0:34:350:34:38

But in the West not so much?

0:34:380:34:40

Well, yes, it's true that I introduced it in a way

0:34:400:34:44

that really made waves,

0:34:440:34:46

and I did it because I liked it,

0:34:460:34:48

and I wanted the world to have that experience.

0:34:480:34:52

You have to kind of not expect big events, and then you start wondering

0:34:560:34:59

whether you're just imagining things that are happening,

0:34:590:35:02

and I think that's one of the interesting things

0:35:020:35:05

about La Monte Young's music.

0:35:050:35:06

Is that you think nothing's happening,

0:35:060:35:08

you think it's a static thing, but then suddenly...

0:35:080:35:12

..after maybe 20 minutes, you realise that

0:35:130:35:15

what you're listening to is totally different to what

0:35:150:35:18

you started off listening to,

0:35:180:35:19

but you've got no recollection of how you got there.

0:35:190:35:22

The idea of meditative, long-held notes was at the root

0:35:270:35:31

of minimalism, but it was not a new concept.

0:35:310:35:34

Both La Monte and Terry studied Indian classical music,

0:35:340:35:38

an ancient style rooted in drones.

0:35:380:35:40

This is called a tanpura.

0:35:450:35:48

It is essentially a drone instrument

0:35:480:35:52

which you play so that you can sing at a certain scale.

0:35:520:35:57

It's very meditative.

0:35:580:36:00

It obviously gives a sense of peacefulness,

0:36:000:36:05

and there is a little austerity

0:36:050:36:09

which one associates with very high order of notes,

0:36:090:36:15

high order of music.

0:36:150:36:17

In its simplicity, there is a lot of depth.

0:36:170:36:20

These composers studying Indian music was at a time

0:36:240:36:28

in the '60s when people

0:36:280:36:30

in the West were looking to Asia, to India,

0:36:300:36:35

to other cultures for an alternative state of mind.

0:36:350:36:40

We think of The Beatles, of course, most famously -

0:36:400:36:43

George Harrison studying sitar with Ravi Shankar,

0:36:430:36:46

and them going off to study meditation in India.

0:36:460:36:51

It was the thing at the time.

0:36:510:36:54

HE HOLDS NOTE

0:36:540:36:57

In 1970, Young and Riley both became disciples of the great raga vocalist

0:37:000:37:06

Pandit Pran Nath

0:37:060:37:07

and would study with him for the next 26 years.

0:37:070:37:10

We found ourselves attracted to him like iron filings to a magnet.

0:37:120:37:17

It became essentially a force

0:37:170:37:21

that was much more powerful than any of us

0:37:210:37:25

or him in that we found ourselves drawn together.

0:37:250:37:29

And he insisted that we become his disciples in order to study.

0:37:290:37:36

As well as drones, Indian music is based around the raga,

0:37:410:37:44

a kind of microtonal scale.

0:37:440:37:46

I felt like I was in kindergarten again

0:38:290:38:32

when I started studying Indian music because I had to learn a whole new

0:38:320:38:36

way of perceiving and listening.

0:38:360:38:38

You and the note, the note and you.

0:38:390:38:42

HE SINGS IN HINDI

0:38:420:38:46

I always practise early in the morning.

0:38:580:39:00

First thing I do is do my ragas in the morning.

0:39:000:39:03

And, you know, it kind of tunes me up for the whole day.

0:39:040:39:08

It's a lot of work just to maintain the huge vocabulary of raga that I

0:39:090:39:13

learned over the many years with Pandit Pran Nath.

0:39:130:39:16

Ragas share minimalism's aversion to Western music narrative.

0:39:270:39:31

Time often moves like an arrow in Western music.

0:39:340:39:36

We imagine there's a beginning and end, and somebody,

0:39:360:39:38

something or somebody, usually it's a composer, telling you the story,

0:39:380:39:42

that's going from a beginning to an end.

0:39:420:39:43

Well, in the music of Indian classical music,

0:39:430:39:46

and in La Monte Young's music, and Terry Riley's music especially,

0:39:460:39:49

you don't have that arrow.

0:39:490:39:50

You have instead an ocean of time in which you can be in,

0:39:500:39:55

in which you feel that the universe operates according to cycles

0:39:550:39:59

as opposed to arrows.

0:39:590:40:00

And to use a Western music to tap into that same energy that Indian

0:40:010:40:06

classical music, kind of, has always done,

0:40:060:40:08

is an amazing act of imagination.

0:40:080:40:10

Riley and Young's original experiments in sound abstraction

0:40:140:40:16

and repetition have been shared amongst a close-knit community,

0:40:160:40:20

but the crossover moment,

0:40:200:40:22

the Big Bang, if you like, would come in 1964.

0:40:220:40:26

The date was November 4th

0:40:260:40:28

and ground zero was the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

0:40:280:40:32

Riley's big idea was to translate techniques of repetition

0:40:400:40:44

and an immersive attitude to time

0:40:440:40:46

into a work for musicians rather than machines.

0:40:460:40:50

The result was the ground-breaking In C.

0:40:520:40:56

Let's talk about that first performance of In C,

0:40:570:40:59

because obviously with that first performance,

0:40:590:41:02

you launched a kind of musical revolution.

0:41:020:41:04

Believe me, I tried...

0:41:040:41:05

..in this whole lifetime since In C to come up with another idea,

0:41:070:41:11

that it could be that simple and inclusive.

0:41:110:41:15

And I haven't been able to do it either.

0:41:150:41:17

You know, I got back after working with Chet Baker,

0:41:250:41:27

I thought, "I should write something new like this."

0:41:270:41:30

So I had this, you know,

0:41:300:41:32

idea to write for a large group of instruments.

0:41:320:41:35

But I was writing it all out, you know.

0:41:350:41:38

And afterwards, at some point, I was thinking,

0:41:380:41:40

"Boy, this is hard, you know,

0:41:400:41:41

"because it doesn't have the freedom that I really want.

0:41:410:41:44

"And I'm actually writing the structure out."

0:41:440:41:46

Isn't it the most beautifully baffling and illogical thing?

0:42:110:42:14

That here is a piece, called In C, that can take upwards of three

0:42:140:42:17

or four hours to perform,

0:42:170:42:19

and the entire score is contained on one sheet of paper.

0:42:190:42:24

53 beautiful little melodic extracts,

0:42:240:42:27

all basically in the key of C major.

0:42:270:42:29

Every player is the master or mistress of their own destiny.

0:42:440:42:47

They can choose how many times exactly they want to repeat

0:42:470:42:50

Extract One before they move to Extract Two.

0:42:500:42:52

They can choose to play at exactly the speed of the pulse

0:42:520:42:54

or they can choose to play at double the speed or quarter the speed.

0:42:540:42:58

But, of course, the essence of the magic of the piece

0:43:100:43:12

is what happens when one extract is being played by one player

0:43:120:43:15

while another player is playing the same extract

0:43:150:43:17

but slightly out of phase with the first player.

0:43:170:43:19

Or a third player is playing the extract in front

0:43:190:43:21

of that same extract or the one just behind it.

0:43:210:43:24

Cos let's remember the rule of this piece is that however many members

0:43:240:43:27

there are in the ensemble, no-one is allowed to get more than three

0:43:270:43:31

extracts either ahead or behind anyone else.

0:43:310:43:34

None of those present at the premiere

0:43:370:43:40

on November he 4th, 1964, had seen or heard anything like it.

0:43:400:43:44

What was the impact on the audience that night?

0:43:450:43:48

Well, it was significant.

0:43:480:43:50

I mean, people were really blown away.

0:43:500:43:53

We all knew. I think everybody in the group knew that there was

0:43:540:43:57

something special happening that night.

0:43:570:43:59

In C marked a moment when the world began to prick up its ears to this

0:44:010:44:05

whole movement.

0:44:050:44:07

The memorably named critic of the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle

0:44:070:44:11

Alfred Frankenstein came to the first performance of In C.

0:44:110:44:15

And he was completely knocked for six by it.

0:44:150:44:18

The headline is, "Music like none other on Earth."

0:44:180:44:21

And most brilliantly he says,

0:44:210:44:23

"At times you feel you have never done anything all your life long but

0:44:230:44:27

"listen to this music,

0:44:270:44:29

"and as if that is all there is or ever will be."

0:44:290:44:33

I think this piece is the Big Bang of minimalism.

0:44:420:44:44

Because, for a start, it's total democracy in action.

0:44:440:44:47

It's not the conventional or traditional model

0:44:470:44:50

where the composer imposes

0:44:500:44:52

a very precise, tight and defined structure.

0:44:520:44:55

Exactly who plays what, and in what direction of travel,

0:44:550:44:58

and in what order of play.

0:44:580:45:00

This is absolutely about whoever's in any ensemble who decide to

0:45:000:45:05

play In C, each and every one of those musicians

0:45:050:45:07

making their own choices

0:45:070:45:09

within, of course, as we've said, very controlled parameters.

0:45:090:45:12

So that there can't ever be two even remotely similar performances

0:45:120:45:17

of In C. Every single time it's performed,

0:45:170:45:19

it is a world apart from any previous performance.

0:45:190:45:22

So that in itself is like a kind of revolution

0:45:220:45:25

of the most extreme sort.

0:45:250:45:26

It is an amazing piece.

0:45:330:45:34

It's an amazing piece because it expresses all sorts of...

0:45:340:45:37

You know, the sort of gestures

0:45:390:45:40

which became sort of quite central to minimalism.

0:45:400:45:43

It's, you know, that sort of political aspect of it,

0:45:430:45:46

in the sense that it's a kind of community project

0:45:460:45:49

and, you know, there's no leader,

0:45:490:45:51

and all of these sorts of ideas were sort of encapsulated in that.

0:45:510:45:56

There's a great liberation that this music gives musical culture.

0:45:560:45:58

Not just in the way it sounds but the way it's made,

0:45:580:46:01

so that you can have a roomful of people

0:46:010:46:03

and it's defined by the way they interact with each other,

0:46:030:46:08

the journey through that piece.

0:46:080:46:09

As much as, really more than, what the composer tells them.

0:46:090:46:13

It's also, by the way, I think, a democracy of listening because it

0:46:140:46:17

involves being hyperaware of one another as performers.

0:46:170:46:22

And you're aware that your own contribution is, you know,

0:46:220:46:24

maximally important, you have to be totally responsible for it.

0:46:240:46:28

And yet, at the same time, you're also part and responsible

0:46:280:46:31

for this bigger ocean that's being created by the whole piece.

0:46:310:46:37

In C crystallised ideas of freedom three years before anyone heard the

0:46:370:46:42

words summer of love.

0:46:420:46:44

Do you think that that had anything to do with location?

0:46:480:46:51

The West Coast of America has always been a place where people are more

0:46:510:46:53

free to experiment, that there's less sense of judgment.

0:46:530:46:56

I think you're right. It had to happen, not only in the West Coast,

0:46:560:47:00

but it had to happen in San Francisco.

0:47:000:47:03

My whole history of spending a lot of time in San Francisco,

0:47:030:47:07

there's a kind of Pacific Rim mentality that is connected to Asia,

0:47:070:47:13

whereas East Coast is connected to Europe.

0:47:130:47:15

I think it had to happen where it happened.

0:47:150:47:17

Terry Riley makes it very clear in his somewhat bold instructions

0:47:360:47:39

to the piece that the way that the piece finishes

0:47:390:47:41

is that everyone eventually in the ensemble arrives

0:47:410:47:44

at extract number 53.

0:47:440:47:46

And then they end up kind of in unison on extract number 53 before

0:47:460:47:50

gradually disintegrating.

0:47:500:47:52

So a musician will decide to cut out.

0:47:520:47:55

Leaving four left.

0:47:550:47:57

And then another one cuts out, and then a third, and a fourth.

0:47:570:48:00

And eventually there's just one lonely player left.

0:48:000:48:02

And then he or she cuts out.

0:48:020:48:04

And then finally the pulse is switched off.

0:48:040:48:07

With In C,

0:48:220:48:24

an appreciation of minimalism began to spill beyond the fringes of the

0:48:240:48:28

Tape Music Center.

0:48:280:48:30

Meanwhile, the new technologies the Center had been trialling were about

0:48:300:48:33

to break out, too.

0:48:330:48:34

Coming into contact with this relatively new technology

0:48:410:48:44

of the tape recorder and the possibility of manipulating

0:48:440:48:48

recorded sound made...

0:48:480:48:51

..a whole new set of things possible

0:48:520:48:55

in music.

0:48:550:48:56

I'm thinking particularly of Steve Reich,

0:48:560:48:58

for whom the technology of the tape recorder opened up

0:48:580:49:02

a whole new world of possibilities.

0:49:020:49:04

28-year-old San Francisco inhabitant Steve Reich was a friend

0:49:060:49:09

of Terry Riley who'd been involved

0:49:090:49:11

in rehearsals for the premiere of In C.

0:49:110:49:13

-TV NARRATOR:

-The people of San Francisco dress well,

0:49:150:49:18

walk briskly, and their friendliness,

0:49:180:49:20

as much as the charm of their city,

0:49:200:49:22

causes visitors to return again and again.

0:49:220:49:26

In former days, Union Square was the heart of the city.

0:49:260:49:30

It is still the centre of the downtown shopping area.

0:49:300:49:33

In late '64, Reich heard about an extraordinary black preacher

0:49:350:49:39

who could be heard every Sunday in Union Square.

0:49:390:49:43

He began to warn the people, he said,

0:49:430:49:46

"After all, it's going to rain after all."

0:49:460:49:48

For 40 days and for 40 nights.

0:49:480:49:50

And the people didn't believe him,

0:49:500:49:51

and they began to laugh at him, and they began to mock him,

0:49:510:49:54

and they began to say, "It ain't gonna rain!"

0:49:540:49:57

Brother Walter was the black Pentecostal preacher

0:49:580:50:01

who I recorded in Union Square in 1964,

0:50:010:50:05

and in January '65 did the piece.

0:50:050:50:07

He's talking about the end of the world.

0:50:080:50:10

It's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:50:100:50:13

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:50:130:50:15

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain

0:50:150:50:18

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:50:180:50:20

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:50:200:50:23

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:50:230:50:25

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:50:250:50:28

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain...

0:50:280:50:29

Now, this is 1964.

0:50:290:50:33

The Cuban missile crisis was '62.

0:50:330:50:35

I've mentioned this before, but it bears re-mentioning.

0:50:350:50:38

And I think almost everybody in America, certainly myself,

0:50:380:50:42

were thinking, you know, when that happened, you know,

0:50:420:50:45

one false move and we're all so much radioactive dust.

0:50:450:50:48

It's the kind of thing that stays with you.

0:50:480:50:51

It's unsettling. So,

0:50:510:50:52

if you hear something about the end of the world, which is biblical and

0:50:520:50:55

which was contemporary, and which was musical.

0:50:550:50:59

"It's gonna rain," bam-ba-da-dum, bam-ba-da-dum...

0:50:590:51:02

The pigeon drummer who happened to take-off at the moment he said that.

0:51:020:51:05

The pigeons...

0:51:050:51:06

It's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:51:060:51:08

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:51:080:51:10

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:51:100:51:13

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:51:130:51:15

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain...

0:51:150:51:17

Playing two identical loops simultaneously on old tape recorders

0:51:170:51:21

that ran at slightly different speeds,

0:51:210:51:24

Reich chanced upon the future.

0:51:240:51:26

So, I made the two tape loops as perfectly as I could.

0:51:270:51:30

In those days, you put tape into a splicing box,

0:51:300:51:33

cut it with a razor blade,

0:51:330:51:34

and then put the two ends together, back in the block,

0:51:340:51:36

and then put some splicing tape over it.

0:51:360:51:38

And then I just pressed the go button.

0:51:380:51:40

And I am just glued to this process,

0:51:400:51:43

going... I'm thinking, "Wow, you know, what's going on here?"

0:51:430:51:46

Cos there's all kinds of irrational things and then

0:51:460:51:48

you get something that really makes musical sense.

0:51:480:51:51

And then there's this sort of blur and then there's more.

0:51:510:51:54

And then finally you're back together again.

0:51:540:51:56

Wow, you know. That's a whole lot more interesting

0:51:560:51:58

than just, "It's gonna, it's gonna..."

0:51:580:52:01

It's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:52:010:52:03

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:52:030:52:05

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain...

0:52:050:52:08

And so that was really a chance procedure,

0:52:080:52:10

even though you hadn't ordained it as such,

0:52:100:52:12

it happened by chance to you.

0:52:120:52:14

Well, I don't see things as ever by chance.

0:52:140:52:18

I think there's no such thing as coincidence.

0:52:180:52:20

The eternal's hand is at work...

0:52:200:52:23

But, in no causative way, I mean,

0:52:230:52:25

in no way that I could care to discuss or whatnot.

0:52:250:52:28

But I think that that viewpoint makes life a little bit more...

0:52:280:52:31

..liveable and optimistic and hopeful in an admittedly dark time.

0:52:330:52:39

It's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:52:390:52:41

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:52:410:52:43

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain,

0:52:430:52:46

it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain after all!

0:52:460:52:48

It's Gonna Rain represented a technological breakthrough

0:52:510:52:54

for minimalism, known as phasing.

0:52:540:52:56

To find out how it worked,

0:52:590:53:01

I've decided to replicate Reich's experiment.

0:53:010:53:04

Ade and I have recorded a long synth loop

0:53:080:53:10

on two rickety old tape machines.

0:53:100:53:13

OK, Ade, so we've got that beautiful seven-beat sequence

0:53:180:53:21

identically recorded on both of these machines.

0:53:210:53:24

Yep. We've lined them up.

0:53:240:53:26

-At the beginning of the sequence.

-Yep.

0:53:280:53:30

By finding the very beginning of it.

0:53:300:53:33

All we need to do is push go.

0:53:330:53:35

MACHINE PLAYS

0:53:350:53:37

Due to the analogue vagaries of old-school tech,

0:53:400:53:44

the tape machines play back at slightly different speeds.

0:53:440:53:47

We've started off with seven notes.

0:53:530:53:55

I haven't got seven fingers on each hand but if I did,

0:53:550:53:58

let's say this that each one of my fingers is a note.

0:53:580:54:01

They start off together like that

0:54:030:54:06

and they slowly slip out of time,

0:54:060:54:08

so one is falling behind the other one.

0:54:080:54:11

Or...

0:54:110:54:12

And so it's doing this.

0:54:120:54:14

And this, when it's like that, you hear...

0:54:140:54:17

That's the duh-duh-duh-duh-duh kind of rhythm.

0:54:170:54:20

And then they slip back into time

0:54:200:54:22

but their notes are not in sync with each other any more.

0:54:220:54:25

So that's where we get our harmonies from.

0:54:250:54:28

MACHINE CONTINUES PLAYING

0:54:280:54:30

-It's awesome, isn't it?

-It's absolutely amazing.

0:54:380:54:41

-Yeah.

-It gets so densely populated.

0:54:410:54:43

Yeah.

0:54:430:54:44

When they're really forming across each other.

0:54:440:54:46

-Yeah, it's not unmusical either.

-No.

0:54:460:54:49

For me this is another absolutely bull's-eye example of what

0:54:510:54:54

minimalism is about. That it is very busy, this.

0:54:540:54:56

There's a heck of a lot of information

0:54:560:54:58

coming through our senses right now.

0:54:580:55:00

And yet it's incredibly transcendent.

0:55:000:55:02

That's something that I've heard from all of the composers within that genre,

0:55:020:55:06

that there's a kind of meditative thing happening quite a lot.

0:55:060:55:10

Even with its uptight, fairly frantic music,

0:55:100:55:12

there's kind of very slow melodies happening underneath this thing.

0:55:120:55:17

And it's quite spiritual.

0:55:170:55:18

And the smell of the hot tapes.

0:55:190:55:22

Ah... Sends me into a complete paroxysm of joy.

0:55:240:55:26

Phasing, repetition with gradual change over time,

0:55:560:56:00

represented the start of minimalism's halcyon period.

0:56:000:56:04

From the late '60s into the '70s,

0:56:040:56:06

Steve Reich and new kid on the block Philip Glass

0:56:060:56:09

would preside over a high court of New York minimalism

0:56:090:56:13

and take it into the stratosphere.

0:56:130:56:15

The composers who began it all, Terry Riley and La Monte Young,

0:56:190:56:24

have continued in their own vain,

0:56:240:56:26

remaining to this day happy, experimental musicians.

0:56:260:56:30

What do you think of the term minimalism and do you think it applies to you in any way?

0:56:310:56:35

Well, you know, minimalism, what does it mean?

0:56:350:56:37

I have my definition.

0:56:370:56:39

-Go on.

-You want it?

0:56:390:56:41

That which is created with a minimal...

0:56:410:56:43

A minimum of means.

0:56:430:56:45

Minimalism is that which is created with a minimum of means.

0:56:450:56:49

But what do you think it is?

0:56:490:56:50

What it does to me, it sounds like we're a bunch of simpletons, you know, minimalists.

0:56:510:56:55

We can't be more complex thinkers, or even feelers, you know.

0:56:550:57:01

So it doesn't explain the spiritual aspects to the music at all.

0:57:010:57:06

And it also doesn't approach explaining who we all are.

0:57:060:57:11

What the term minimalism does do, however, is help the listener.

0:57:330:57:38

It's a gateway into a world of extraordinary transcendental music

0:57:380:57:42

of wildly differing styles

0:57:420:57:44

that could only have been born in the USA.

0:57:440:57:48

We did all happen that you, er...

0:57:540:57:56

All being ourselves in the '60s,

0:57:560:57:59

and we all used repetition to some degree.

0:57:590:58:02

But then everybody went their own way.

0:58:020:58:05

I haven't kept up. I mean, in all honesty, I haven't kept up with it.

0:58:050:58:09

Because it's not my favourite music to listen to.

0:58:090:58:12

Next time, I go to New York and explore how Steve Reich and Philip Glass

0:58:160:58:20

took minimalism into the mainstream and beyond.

0:58:200:58:23

In this episode Charles Hazlewood tracks down the pioneers of minimalism, which began on America's west coast in the 1950s. Describing them as 'prophets without honour', Charles explores La Monte Young's groundbreaking experiments with musical form that included notes held for exceptionally long periods of time, and drones inspired by Eastern classical music and Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath.

He drives out into the Californian countryside to the ranch of Terry Riley and discusses the musician's revolutionary experiments with tape recording looping and phasing, along with early synthesizer sound. The episode includes excerpts from key early minimalist pieces, including Riley's now famous In C, performed by Charles Hazlewood's All Stars Collective and detailed workshopping by Hazlewood where pieces are deconstructed musically.

The key attributes of minimalism, its reliance on repetition, its mesmerizing transcendent qualities and innovative use of technology are also discussed with broadcaster and writer Tom Service; Gillian Moore, Director of Music at the Southbank Centre; composers Morton Subotnick, Max Richter and Bryce Dessner, and musicians Jarvis Cocker and Adrian Utley.


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