Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950

Meditation primarily denotes “thinking over,” “contemplation,” “mental or solemn reflection,” and “practice.” The phenomenon of musical meditation, however, was not completely new in the sixties. Charles Gounod and Olivier Messiaen, for instance, composed pieces entitled “meditation” in a Christian-mystic spirit.(14) Meditation can refer to the process of composition (as in the case of Giacinto Scelsi), to performance and to the effects on the listener.

A jazz saxophonist in the fifties, La Monte Young focuses in his musical projects mainly on improvisation. In the late fifties he became more and more interested in Indian, Japanese and Indonesian music and studied theoretical treatises like The Grammar of South Indian (or Karnatic) Music by Iyyar. But already before he began taking lessons in raga singing (Kirana style) with Pandit Pran Nath in 1970, he had found his characteristic improvisational approach to composition. Concerning works like Map of 49’s Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery (started in 1966) for voice, various instruments and sine waves, he provided his ensemble The Theatre of Eternal Music (1962), not with scores, but oral instructions. Each player has to memorize the selected and allowed tone combinations and improvise their durations and cues. Every realization of this conception provides, through improvisation, a new variation, which is considered a new autonomous composition and which is recorded, titled and catalogued. The Second Dream of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (The Melodic Version) for tunable and sustaining instruments of like timbre is based on a similar technique: “Within a framework of fixed rules, the musicians listen to each other and improvise durations and cues.”

Many performances of Young’s pieces took place in the so-called Dream House, a location specially designed and lighted by his wife, Marian Zazeela. Herein a generator incessantly produced sine waves and 80 to 90 musicians could join in and continuously improvise virtually for weeks, months, and years aspiring toward Young’s idea of “eternal music.” Listeners could come and go at any time and gain from a meditative atmosphere. Young considered his “organically evolving improvisations [as] approach to meditation in sound.” He was interested in a “Yogic approach to meditation through concentration.” (whereas the Zen approach would be to clear the mind.) and while improvising he endeavored to “[get] inside the sound” so that his body was no longer perceivable.

In comparison, Pauline Oliveros who has also dealt with improvisation throughout her career, began to discover meditation techniques as compositional material in the sixties. Influenced by her Tai Chi Chuan teacher, her improvisations gradually changed into meditation. She sang and played on her accordion long tones and kept them sounding until they changed her perception, and she translated the breath rhythms and slow natural motions of Tai Chi into her solo improvisations. Later she studied psychology, Asian philosophies, mythology, and rituals and developed her manifold concept of meditation whereby the aspects of global and focal attention and mandala symbols are of great importance. Oliveros views meditation basically as “steady attention and steady awareness for continuous or cyclic periods of time.” In her works such as Aeolian Partitions (1969), Sonic Meditations (1971-73) or the Deep Listening Pieces (1970-90) she applies various meditation techniques. In Aeolian Partitions (1969) for mixed ensemble Oliveros requires from performers and audience, for instance, the willingness to participate in “telepathic improvisation.” The participants have to concentrate on a single performer, hear an interval or chord mentally, perform one of the pitches and send the other to another performer by telepathy. They are further supposed to make silences by becoming mentally blank. Sonic Meditation I, for instance, is based on the observation of each performer’s breath cycle and gradual transitions from breathing to making sounds. Incidentally, the concept of the Sonic Meditations, according to Oliveros, surpasses improvisation, yet she includes telepathic improvisation in some of her meditations.

From Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950
By Sabine Feisst
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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