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and the Art of Music
by Dane Rudhyar

Chapter 10

Music in Transformation:
Avant-Garde Music
and the Deconditioning Process
Part Two

Characteristic Elements in Avant-Garde Music

The most significant motive of avant-garde musicians is a deep urge to disavow and sever themselves from the beliefs and ways of life of their families and social environment, and thus to seek radically different conditions of existence, experiences, and modes of self-expression. A less constructive motive may be an eagerness to follow new musical fashions in the hope of developing a degree of originality in them, which may provide entrιe to the Promised Land of grants, commissions, performances, and fellowships abroad.
      Severance from traditional ways of behaving, feeling, and thinking begins with the performance of actions that family and society reject, because they are considered unsound, dangerous, or immoral. The rebel believes that such actions produce different experiences from those acceptable to family, religion, and reputable society — experiences the rebels think will help them "find themselves." Sexual activities considered unwholesome or (especially in the case of young women) premature and dangerous have always been sought by youths eager to "liberate" themselves. The use of intoxicants and drugs has also been, at least since the Romantic era, a "way out" — a path to experiences that are not only new, fascinating, excitingly unsocial, and subjective, but seem to render irrelevant the traditional frame of reference for feelings and experiences and reveal its stiffling narrowness and rationalistic exclusivism. In the Sixties, mescaline, peyote, LSD, and other psychedelic substances were used by the rebellious young of permissive and spiritually empty suburban families and by dissatisfied, restless, and neurotic intellectuals reacting to the pressures of an industrial and electronic urban society.
      The psychedelic movement spread rapidly all over the world. It produced the remarkable, beautiful, yet naive, phenomena of "flower children" and the hippie counter-culture; and it also became an important factor in the development of avant-garde music. All avant-garde musicians today seem to have had at least a few experiences with psychedelic drugs. These experiences had a deconditioning effect. They enabled the musicians' consciousness to experience sound — and to see color — in a fascinating, new way; their sense of music became dis-Europeanized and to some degree dis-culturalized, that is, free from the limitations that any culture imposes on the experience of reality.
      Such freedom is confusing, even bewildering. In reaction to it, the mind and psyche seek new limitations, radically different from those of their natal culture and socio-religious background. This search was easily satisfied by the personal contacts with Oriental cultures the second World War had made possible, and also by the spread of movements and sects based on yoga and Hinduism, Sufism, and Zen. The influence of Asian ideas and practices — not only in terms of their approaches to arts, but also in terms of the general concepts young musicians assimilated and the subjective experiences they came to expect-became the second most important influence on avant-garde music. Most avant-garde composers have, at least at one time, been associated with — or the disciples of — Asian gurus or teachers.
      Just as there are many types of drugs — some of which are only physical stimulants that do not alter the quality of the consciousness by weakening the personal ego and the protective mechanisms culture has built — so there are many kinds of gurus and self-styled spiritual and teachers. Many Western youths, attracted by the apparently all inclusive scope of Asian philosophies with their many levels of consciousness and reality, or fascinated by reports or experiences of a reputed guru's power, lack discrimination and an objective, historical approach to what is presented to them. They fail to realize that the teachings of the guru, even if modified for Western consumption, are as much the product of a particular culture's mentality and psychism — and even of its people's physiological temperament — as the teachings of a Catholic school, a fundamentalist Protestant college, or a Jewish or Islamic university. Differences of concepts, symbols, words, practice, and training represent differences of culture, family environment, education, and social conditions, and also of biological and psychic responses.
      When a Brahmin adolescent in a tradition respecting family begins intensive yoga or meditation practice, he (and far more rarely, she) does so under direct supervision. Moreover, the childhood having prepared the adolescent for the practice is totally different from that of a boy or girl of a well-to-do middle-class American family with little religion, a great deal of permissiveness, and a constant stress on interpersonal relationships fed by daily exposure to the sentimentality and violence of television and movies. In the study of music the same is true — the religious, cultural, and sonic background of a young Hindu differs greatly from that of a young American growing up amid the unceasing noise, tension, and rapid changes of moods and experiences of a large U.S. city.
      Westerners may be surfeited with environmental stimulation and are, understandably, eager to escape from it. But a consciousness reacting against or escaping from years of particular conditions of life is bound to be radically different from a consciousness unquestioningly accepting these conditions. The consciousness that accepts the conditions of life of the culture that molded it accepts also the culture's type of musical communication, which is intimately associated with, and indeed has emerged from, the specific circumstances in which the culture has matured. In music, even more than in any other artistic manifestation of a culture, it is the quality of the collective psychism that makes communication possible. Technique and the means for producing and organizing sounds are of only secondary importance. A collective psychism is the only medium through which music can communicate; and musical communication is very different from the aural enjoyment of unfamiliar sounds. New sounds may be interesting or pleasurable, they may titillate the ears, the auditory center of the brain, and through it, the mind; but one should not mistake a fascination with the exotic for the ability to respond psychically to a tone communication carrying a message — a "seed" — of transformation.
      The first phase of a process of transformation is deconditioning. Psychedelic drugs decondition; resonating to the myths, symbols, and vocabulary of a culture different from the one that formed one's mind also deconditions. But both types of deconditioning may also be dangerous. Psychedelic drugs can destroy one's sanity by opening wide an unprepared and unprotected consciousness to unassimilable, frightening intrusions; and not a few "passages to India," where contacts with a variety of holy men may be confusing and create whirlpools of psychic energy in an already partially uprooted psyche, have produced violent backlashes leading to a compulsive return to the narrowest forms of our collective and traditional Christian psychism.
      Psychism is not spirituality. Spirituality is beyond culture, but also through culture. To be the progenitor of a new culture, one must have risen beyond any culture, Eastern or Western. The goal is not to unite East and West, but to reach beyond the psychism of the cultures of East and West, North and South, to the sacred place where a new and more inclusive aspect of the archetype Man is being gradually released. As it is released, all ancient structures collapse because their ensouling psychism has become dissipated.
      This does not mean that Oriental music has no value or meaning for Western musicians. There must be mental as well as psychic deconditioning. The mind must incessantly question the validity of what its culture has made it take for granted — whether as historical fact or as methods of research, interpretation or composition — and it also must positively attune itself to universal principles of organization through whose energy spirit and matter may reach a condition of polarized harmony.
      This approach of positive mental attunement will be discussed in the following chapter. I mention it briefly here because the basic question a deconditioned (or deconditioning) consciousness eventually has to ask is, to what universal principles can it attune itself? Many avant-garde musicians attempt to answer this question by returning to what they consider the natural character of sound, which acousticians and philosophers relate to the harmonic structures of biological organisms and material formations. The terms nature, harmony, and hamonic, however, can be defined in many ways. Is harmony at the level of mind and Man — in the archetypal sense of these terms-the same as the harmony of nature at the level of life?
      The generation that has expressed itself in the many experiments of avant-garde music also has expressed its yearning for a return to both nature and simplicity. But simplicity can be a distillate of what once had been complexity, or it can be an escape from complexity into the naivete of child's play or the weariness of a mind frustrated by its own restlessness. The nature that can be returned to is only the nature of the earth's biosphere instinctual, biopsychic nature which, at best, can only reflect evanescent images of a primordial state of unity before differentiation began. Religious philosophies, however, postulate a higher, all-encompassing, divine Nature, which from a metaphysical point of view is pure, unconditioned motion. The one characteristic of this ubiquitous and endless motion is its unceasing, cyclic, selfinduced and impartial response to disharmony — to any need.
      In music, the desire for simplicity and the longing to return to a life sustained and inspired by the experience of primordial natural energies, has taken the form of "minimal music." This music features the constant repetition of simple sequences of sounds linked by harmonic relationships. In his excellent book, Through Music to the Self, the German composer Peter Michael Hamel, who has himself been deeply affected by contacts with Hindu gurus and musicians, speaks of minimal music as follows:(1)
The chief characteristic of minimal music is the repetition of short motifs which alter almost imperceptibly and are varied only minimally. Music is transposed into a state of constant regeneration, so that a "continuous, iridescent sound results which gradually alters without changing its substance" (Dieter Schnebel). Through the successive superimposition of minute figures, or through nothing more than the sustaining of a note and the production of its overtones, the distinction between movement and non-movement is dissolved into a kind of synchronicity. Everything proceeds as though the principle of repetition had no other purpose than to hypnotize the listener. At a first hearing, such music sounds "primitive" and monotonous; yet as soon as one gets the feel of it a deep self-experience becomes possible.
      Not the least significant precursors of these endless repetitions, periodic formulae and prolonged sounds are Indian music, African rhythmic figures and gamelan music. The fathers of this new music in the early sixties were the Americans Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Steve Reich, who are still today the most important representatives of this movement, alongside Phil Glass, Robert Moran and Frederick Rzewski. The best-known and most seminal of them is without doubt Terry Riley, who has influenced musicians of all schools (pp. 142-43).

Discussing the works and ideas of La Monte Young, Mr. Hamel writes:
La Monte Young's pieces always consist of prolonged intervals and chords. The individual notes are derived from the natural harmonic series and La Monte describes them as the "integral diversity" of a common fundamental tone. The individual performers and singers decide beforehand which of the chosen overtones will be used and which combinations are possible. "Through reinforcement of the integral frequency ratios one obtains a rich texture of overtones, bourdon sounds, differentials and other combinations of overtones, which gives the performer the chance to achieve an extremely precise intonation" (pp. 147-48).

      The metaphysical or mystical intent which underlies minimal music can be further revealed by the two following quotations, the first referring to what La Monte Young envisions for the performance of his music, the second to Phil Glass's aim in composing:
The piece The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, with which Young and his group Theatre of Eternal Music began in 1964, takes place in the "Dream House" conceived especially for it. In other pieces La Monte lit an open fire, let butterflies flutter around the auditorium or distributed little notes on which was written nothing but a fifth with a pause-sign over it, or the words: "Draw a straight line and follow it."
      The first sounds to leave a deep impression on Young were the continual, slightly varying sighing of the wind, the humming of insects, the echo across valleys, lakes and plains. In an introduction he writes: ". . . and in the life of the 'Tortoise' there is the drone of the first sound. The drone continues on and on, without ever having begun, but from time to time it is taken up, until it re-echoes as a continual sound in the 'Dream House' where many musicians and students live and carry on their musical work. Such houses will help us to produce a music which after a year, ten years, a hundred years or more of uninterrupted playing would not only be a living organism with its own existence and tradition, but would have the ability to carry on under its own power. This music could continue playing for thousands of years without interruption. . ."
      Apart from Steve Reich it is Phil Glass who has done most to further in his own way the development of the technique of constant repetition for keyboard instruments. The complete performance of his cycle Music in 12 Parts would normally last three evenings. Individual parts of the cycle always emphasize one or more aspects of an essentially compulsory figure, and yet the development pursues unusual paths: it is carried on, so to speak, under a time-magnifying glass. A short, melodic, motif-like figure is continually repeated, and through overlappings with similar melodic figures, produces new resultant patterns. Of its first performance in Berlin, Glass writes: "Once it is established that nothing is 'happening' in the normal sense of the term, and that instead the gradual 'surveying' of the musical material can hold the listener's attention, perhaps he can discover a new kind of attentiveness, one in which neither memory nor anticipation (the psychological axioms of Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern music) have anything to do with the quality of musical perception. It is to be hoped that music will then become free of dramatic structures, as a pure sound-medium, as 'the now' " (P. 151).

      The urge to experience music in the "now" has manifested in avant-garde music as a strong emphasis on improvisation and the chance happening glorified in aleatory music. This emphasis on improvisation is a reaction against the authoritarian power of the musical score, a protest against the notion that the score is the music, that music can exist only in terms of rigid relationships between notes and precisely indicated modes of playing that have been determined by a composer once-and-for-all.
      Improvisation, however, may take many forms. When composers of Baroque or Romantic music improvised at the organ or the piano they probably did so within a set, culturally preconceived form or according to traditional formulas of development. Jazz improvisation also is rigidly conditioned by rules concerning the length of melodic lines, tonality, and rhythm. New styles are simply variations in these rules. With jazz, however, group improvisation presumably began, at least in Western music.
      Avant-garde musicians, alienated in spirit from the mainstream of "serious" concert-hall music, as well as from their predominantly middle-class bourgeois culture, often seek inner security and inspiration in a group of similarly oriented musicians. Groups and the idea of group participation indeed dominates the new age movement with which many avant-garde musicians are affiliated. This may nevertheless be a manifestation of a fear to assume responsibility as an individual and of an unwillingness or inability to trust an inner source of power. Improvisation may allow this innermost center free, spontaneous expression, either for sheer joy or in answer to a strong, perhaps poignant need in oneself or in others. Such freedom, however, is rare. It may be sought through the process of meditation.
      Meditation is usually identified by the counterculture of the Sixties and early Seventies with a turning inward of a consciousness intent on counteracting the dominant extraversion of Western civilization. There are, however, many kinds of meditation. The term is ambiguous, and its practice may disguise various motivations. A person who feels defeated by family or society may find solace and peace in withdrawing inward. This may avoid serious outer difficulties, and a period of withdrawal may indeed be beneficial. But there is a great difference between a temporary phase and a permanent policy of withdrawal. It is the difference between — on the one hand — a period of deconditioning for the sake of presenting a clean and empty mental vessel to the downpour of spiritual forces and "seed ideas" which, having experienced an evolutionary mutation, are future-oriented in their readiness for germination, and — on the other hand — a long term or even permanent devotional involvement in the traditional approach of an essentially alien culture.
      Meditation is especially valuable when two results are sought and at least partially achieved. The first goal of the withdrawal should be to become more aware of one's direction in life (if not of a clearly defined goal) and of one's strength and resilience as an individual. The second aim-which is as and often more important-is to gain perspective and an objective, historical understanding of the nature and potentials of one's situation in life. Thus may arise the need to make a significant choice. It is between withdrawing to a relatively isolated individual center or accepting to become an agent, through whom an origin-establishing power may become focused: one agent perhaps among many, a humble, imperfect agent nevertheless dedicated to the service of humanity, beyond all past or present cultural exclusivisms and forms of pride.
      Minimal music (at least in its more popular aspect) is music for meditation. It can be very attractive to persons tense with psychological complexes or battered by the constant shocks of a society hypocritically glorifying collective patterns of competition, a topsy-turvy legal system, and the binding molds of rapidly changing fashions in thinking, feeling, and behaving. The repetitive patterns of meditation music can relax taut nerves and induce quasi-hypnotic states in which the mind may become quiet as a lake reflecting the sky. Archaic magic used repetition and in so doing reflected the cosmogonic process. All material organizations' generate a great deal of inertia, and at the beginning of the universe the undifferentiated matter of chaos has to be whirled for immense periods into spirals of cosmic motion through the repetitive operation of forces which in their unity aspect constitute creative spirit. The acts of spirit are immensely repetitive (spirit has been symbolized by the hammer of Thor, the whirling swastika). Spirit, however, can operate for destructive as well as constructive purposes. The character of the purpose is determined by the nature of the material (mental, psychic, or physical) on which it operates. The cruder or more resistant to change the material, the more primitive and prolonged the repetitive process. Much hammering is needed to produce a greatly resonant metal gong, to change a long-held habit of the mind or emotions, or to break down the psychic hold of an ego built on a foundation of insecurity, frustration, and fear.
      Therefore, if one is objectively and impersonally to evaluate the products of today's musical avant-garde one has to look, also objectively and impersonally, at the general social, cultural, and psychological situation that led to such music. Musicians trained along traditional lines and music lovers used to listening to the repertoire of concert music may pass an emotional, altogether negative judgment on this simplistic, basically consonant, and peaceful music, just as they might pass a similar judgment on the gamelan music of Bali and Java, with its lengthy flow of rippling sounds. One should ask, however, to what profound collective need does minimal or meditation music answer?
      Young European and American composers want to satisfy their frantic culture's need for psychological relaxation and inner quietness (real peace is more difficult to evoke!). In order to compensate for the dreary, usually spiritually empty, daily routine of business and home life they have turned to the exotic, the fascinating. They seek to introvert a music that had become too extroverted, too complex, and with the Schφnberg school, too intellectual and formal.
      Undoubtedly this is a worthwhile purpose, and this is the positive way of evaluating this type of music. But is such a musical answer to present needs a solid basis for a music of the future? Is it not another aspect of the process of deconditioning? Is there not a further step to take? And can we not build the foundation for this future step now?
      Another question that has to be asked about avant-garde music concerns the actual sounds it uses (though one has to consider the means of producing sounds practically available to young composers).
      The sounds are usually too banal and impotent to communicate a rich, moving experience of significant and intense living. They seem psychically empty, especially if they have been produced, amplified, combined, and distorted by electrical circuits, products of intellectual and engineering skill. The complex resonances of material instruments, often made of once-living substances, differ profoundly from mathematically measured, synthesized sounds. The theory of harmonics as constituents of instrumental and vocal sounds, upon which the synthesizing of tones rests, is the product of the analytical power of the intellect. Avant-garde composers — although fascinated with Oriental traditions, which were based on mythical, non-scientific mentality — find it convenient to use the products of scientific technology without realizing the conflict. In their attempts to discover original sounds and sound combinations — and to elude the increasingly unresolvable problem of having their works performed by trained, unionized professional musicians — composers who want to be innovators at any cost use incongruous and commonplace means of sound production — glasses of wine, for example, which performers strike, then drink from, to alter the pitch, then strike again.
      There is, of course, no superficially logical reason why pots and pans, metal pipes — any resonant objects — cannot be used to produce sounds. However, truly transformative energies cannot be released through procedures imitating sacromagical rituals but using instrumental means whose nature is fundamentally profane and commonplace. To ancient musicians, instruments like the vina, the Tibetan trumpet, or the great Javanese gongs were the bodies of gods. They were made with intense concentration and dedication to a religious or sacromagical purpose. Their makers poured into them the psychism ensouling their cultures. Now, however, the sacred and magical are merely intellectual concepts and their expression commonplace and vulgar. Sources of sound are chosen for the unusual effects their sonic vibrations will produce, for convenience, or for the sake of following a social fashion, lest one be thought of as an uncreative non-entity.
      Electronic synthesizers and tape recorders are most convenient inasmuch as they allow composers to operate strictly as individuals in full control of their material and, above all, to actually hear what they have composed and make it available to others. This is very important at a time when the number of technically proficient composers has proliferated, and modern music that is difficult to play can be successfully performed only by few excellent orchestras intended to produce the technically easy works of the traditional repertoire their large, middle-class public demands to hear. Thus the new scientifically engineered and quantitatively operating instruments make the individualizing of music theoretically and practically possible. But the individuals operating in Western societ — where the cult of the individual is official and highly publicized — are profoundly affected by rapidly changing fashions and media-manufactured moods. The freedom of individuals is lost in their subservience to collective pressures very few artists or musicians can dismiss as irrelevant.
      The motive of convenience reaches its extreme form in "conceptual music." The "composer" simply writes down a series of actions which a group of people are to perform in order to produce and react to sounds. What the sounds actually are is of only secondary importance. The "music," once thought to be in the score, is now refocused in the performing — in the experience of a series of gestures and sounds for which the composer is only distantly responsible.
      The scenario is often purposely ludicrous, even absurd. Unfortunately a number of avant-garde composers Have been greatly affected by the iconoclastic, Dadaist spirit, which, of course, is a part of the deconditioning process. Irony, sarcasm, and spoofing have long been used to attack the stolid rigidity and inertia of middle-class society. The French composer Erik Satie pioneered this type of music early this century, and it was adopted by many painters and writers. When such catabolic turns of mind become fashionable, the culture applauding them is indeed in a state of disintegration and vulgarization. (The reductionism of psychoanalysis, which empties cultural symbols and myths of their meaning and stresses the commonplace in the lives and heroic deeds of great personages, is a powerful agent of this disintegration.) Disintegration is inevitable once the collective psychism of a culture-whole loses its capacity to maintain the effectiveness of its archetypes of relationship, whether between people, between classes, or between the notes and the organizational concepts of music.
      Yet disintegration can polarize and provide the necessary background for the vision and efforts of creative individuals who, having personally experienced the death-rebirth process, are able to bring into at least partial focus the evolutionary potential of a culture. Such creative individuals are working in the musical avant-garde; others are working in the mainstream of the European tradition, seeking to bring traditional materials to such a state of tension and inner heat that they burst forth, releasing the seed of a music that may realize rebirth through and beyond disintegration.

1. Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala Publications, 1976.  Return

By permission of Leyla Rudhyar Hill
Copyright © 1982; by Dane Rudhyar
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