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.