Drawing the Connections

Back in Evanston, Illinois, in the early ’80s, I used to know Evelyn Becker, the widow of composer John J. Becker. Becker is the member of the “American Five” that you can never think of, unless you also can’t remember Wallingford Riegger. Riegger was a Communist, and Mrs. Becker reported that he had scandalized her by writing John letters that began, “Dear Comrade….” “After all,” she shuddered, “we were good Catholics!”

In 1933-34, John Cage moved to New York at Henry Cowell’s advice, to study with Adolph Weiss – but also found himself playing cards with Weiss and Wallingford Riegger. In 1941, a 15-year-old Morton Feldman studied with Riegger. And later in 1952 or ’53, Riegger took a sabbatical replacement position at Manhattan School of Music, where a young Robert Ashley was pursuing his Master’s degree. Ashley and Riegger both had apartments on the East Side, and ended up taking the same bus to school every day. Riegger was the first composition teacher Ashley had found sympathetic, and Ashley remembers being the only kid in class interested in the 12-tone techniques Riegger was teaching. Riegger wrote an astonishing Study in Sonority in 1928, more radical to my ears than anything Schoenberg had yet done, and attractive Third and Fourth Symphonies and a Piano Concerto all in a 12-tone idiom, and also a beautifully retro Canon and Fugue in old-fashioned D minor. 

I’m not a real music historian, but I’m a sufficiently enthusiastic fake one to get a kick from knowing and drawing these connections. We don’t think, for example, of Cage and Ralph Shapey inhabiting the same scene, but at some point circa 1950 they, along with Feldman, were drawn into the orbit of Stefan Wolpe; and ten years later, we find Wolpe and Cage hobnobbing with Cage’s New School student Toshi Ichiyanagi and his new bride Yoko Ono. Someday there will be a book on James Tenney, who studied with Varese, befriended Ruggles, argued with Partch, made psychedelic eletcronic music with Mort Subotnick, played in the ensembles of Steve Reich and Phil Glass, taught alongside Harold Budd, and taught Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, John Luther Adams, and Michael Byron, among many others. Tenney is a line wandering through American musical history, drawing a variety of unexpected connections. The people most central to American music, those who can’t be pulled out of the fabric without it unraveling, are not always the household names. 

And so interviewing Ashley (12 hours so far this week) is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. He doesn’t like reminiscing about the past – he thinks I should concentrate on his most recent ideas – and doesn’t realize how quietly the history of 20th-century music falls into focus as he tells me about all the contacts he made in his youth. (One thing I learned – Luciano Berio was a wealthy man from the beginning. Why? Heir to the Berio olive oil fortune. I think of Berio every time I see that olive oil in the grocery store, but never knew the connection.) Yesterday, Ashley told me:

“The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple of other guys, music had always been about the eventfulness: like, when things happened, and if they happened, whether they would be a surprise, or an enjoyment, or something like that… It’s about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. I mean, just literally, sound in the Morton Feldman sense…. There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me… That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.”

It reminded me strongly of when, years ago, La Monte Young showed me his early string quartet in which the five movements are all almost identical, and I asked him why, and after a moment’s musing he responded, “Contrast is for people who can’t write music.” When I quote that there are always people who get defensive and agitated about it, but for many of us, that’s just our aesthetic. It’s not going to replace Mozart, and you’ll still get to hear Stravinsky, and there’s no reason to think that our saying that is the end of the world, and that we have to be smothered, or stopped, or else we’ll bring the whole edifice of culture crashing down. For some of us, eventfulness is boring, contrast is unnecessary, and we’re interested in the aspects of music that don’t relate to time. And the fact that we moved to that in a single generation from Riegger and Wolpe, and that these important threads can be teased out of history, is a tremendously thoughtful pleasure.

UPDATE: McLaren points out in comments that Riegger’s Study in Sonority isn’t currently available in any form. So here it is. 


  1. says

    That La Monte Young quote is priceless. Almost as good as my favorite Young quote: “Once I tried lots of mustard on a raw turnip. I liked it better than any Beethoven I had ever heard.” (Lecture, 1960)
    The term “eventfulness” is pretty useful, too, as a somewhat more down-to-earth and intuitive way of thinking about whether music has traditional teleology. “Eventfulness” is arguably one of the things that roughly divides Minimalism from Postminimalism.
    KG replies: True – but I have a theory that lately postminimalism is drawing back toward noneventfulness.

  2. says

    I share your enthusiasm for the “Study in Sonority” of Wallingford Riegger. A truly wonderful composer, rarely heard these days. One of Henry Brant’s teachers too. Do you remember the NY Phil concert when Kurt Masur, of all people, conducted Henry’s “Desert Forests,” followed by “Three Places in New England,” followed by the Riegger “Study…” (the original 8-violin version, not the Stokowski arrangement) and concluding with “Sun Treader” by Carl Ruggles? Very fine, astonishing programming. Riegger belongs in such company, of course.
    KG replies: I remember the concert, but somehow don’t remember Study in Sonority being on it. How could I have forgotten a rare live performance of a piece I teach so often?

  3. richard says

    I still think Riegger’s third symphony is the “Great American Symphony”. Sadly, it’s never played. On the issue of eventfulness vs. uneventfulness I find myself torn, as I like both. Woe is me.
    KG replies: I’m not torn, I just go back and forth. Some of my pieces have to have events, and others don’t. I usually aim for don’t, sometimes don’t make it.

  4. mclaren says

    Riegger’s Study in Sonority isn’t available on any extant recording. You can’t buy it, you can’t hear it, and no one performs it anymore. I’ve never heard it, and there is no prospect that I will ever be able to hear it anywhere, at any time, by any means, in any way.
    This raises an interesting question: to what extent should we discuss pieces of modern music which no one in the audience has any prospect of ever hearing?
    KG replies: Heavens, you’re right, that is awful. Here is it, from the old Louisville recording:
    But by all means we could keep talking about great music that isn’t available, to keep up pressure for someone to make it available.

  5. Anthony B. Creamer III says

    During the 1995 Santa Fe production of Robert Ashley’s four part, four night, opera Now Eleanor’s Idea there was a low rider car on stage for the last night performance. The car started going up and down as low riders are apt to do.
    I thought that was pretty eventful and has been stuck in my head ever since.
    All kidding aside, have you ever noticed at a rock concert that the biggest applause usually comes after a note is held for a really long time or one is repeated again and again and again ?

  6. says

    I remember hearing a lovely performance of Study in Sonority at an Evenings for New Music Concert at the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo:
    Concert 103 (ENM103)
    OCTOBER 27, 1973
    Performed in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery
    Composer: Riegger, Wallingford
    Title: Study in sonority (1927)
    Performer(s): Benjamin Hudson, Jon Shallit, Michael Rosenbloom, Douglas Cone, Charles Haupt, Jacquelynne Leonard, Carol Zeavin, Rhoda Gena, Dennis Piwowarski, Donald Weilerstein, violins; Lukas Foss, conductor
    Duration: 10:08
    It had a stellar cast of players, including the concertmaster of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the first violinist of the Cleveland String Quartet. I would imagine that the UB library would have the recording.
    Other pieces on the program were Threnody I and II by Copland, L’histoire du Soldat (with narrators) and Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (!).

  7. says

    I got into a quiet argument this week debating whether Cage or Coltrane were more important to music. We touched on Modal Jazz where he said “they started getting to the point where they’d start a song with a groove that didn’t have a lot of change to it, like an intro. Except it wasn’t an intro to anything. They just decided to turn that into a song itself.”
    I almost jumped up and said “yes! That’s just like the uneventfulness in minimalism.” He was a little startled. I thought it was a great connection, though.

  8. eric segnitz says

    Hi Kyle-
    someone posted a performance of Study in Sonorities on YouTube-
    that’s me playing it in the right-hand corner, along with seven pre-recorded tracks. As far as I know, it’s the only non-orchestral version of it… I did record it, have not done anything with it yet.
    still working on the Ben Johnston quartet discs, should be another one out in the Spring…