La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass September 7, 1972

I’ve heard people refer to the ‘New York Hypnotic School’ several times now, and have been trying to figure out if it is a good term or not. Composers are all really individuals, of course, and lumping them into groups and schools often seems untrue and academic. But in this case I am beginning to think it is valid. At least it helps to define one of the more important areas of new music.

I think the term should refer primarily to La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. Some people might want to add Frederic Rzewski, Philip Corner, or David Behrman to the list, although it seems to me that their work does not fit into the category quite so neatly. Gavin Bryars’s music, on the other hand, is very much in the style. But it’s a little difficult to consider him part of a New York school since he lives in England. There are a number of other composers writing hypnotic music whose names I will omit because they have not yet attracted significant public attention. And there are no doubt many others that I don’t know about.

So, like any school, it is a hazy category, but it seems fair enough to define it, for the moment at least, in terms of Young, Reich, Riley, and Glass. My knowledge of the music by these four composers has many gaps, but I have heard enough from each of them to see common threads running through their work.

Some of their pieces employ traditional scales and some do not. Some of them chug along with a persistent beat and some float by without any rhythmic articulation. Most of them are loud and employ electronic resources. And some employ standard instruments without amplification or electronic manipulation of any kind. Yet they all have the same basic concern, which can be described as flat, static, minimal, and hypnotic.

The form of their pieces is always flat. They are not interested in building to climaxes, or in manipulating tension and relaxation, or in working with large contrasts of any kind. They keep their music flat, never allowing it to rise above or fall below a certain plane. In a way this flatness is related to the idea of ‘all over’ painting. In both cases, there is an attempt to make all areas of the form equal in importance.

The term ‘static’ is often used in reference to their music, since it never leaves this one level and never seems to be moving toward anything. Traditionally this word has been considered derogatory when applied to music, and in many quarters it still is. But in listening to the music of these composers, one soon discovers that static does not necessarily mean boring, the way we always thought it did. Many interesting things can happen all on one plane. A pitch changes slightly, a rhythm is altered, something fades in or out. They are not big changes, but they are changes, and there are more than enough of them to sustain one’s interest, provided that he can tune in on this minimal level.

This brings us to the word ‘minimal’ and to the very small range of contrast within their pieces. The pitches, rhythms, and colors presented in the first few minutes usually define a specific kind of music, and the remainder of the piece will not depart very far from that. Yet within these limitations, hundreds or thousands of variations may occur.

‘Hypnotic’ is probably the best word for this music, because it comes closest to describing the effect that it has on the listener. The music never entertains or stimulates in an overt way. It simply lulls, hypnotizes, and draws him into its world. Of course, it won’t put him into a true trance, medically speaking, but the effect is something like that. The music of the New York Hypnotic School is easier to hear than much contemporary music. It never concentrates on intellectual devices such as turning things upside down and backward. It has no in-joke references to ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ and no fancy tricks about deriving one theme from another. The music deals primarily with sound itself, and often the layman is as well equipped to hear what is going on as the trained musician is.

So it is relatively accessible, and I suppose it will eventually reach a wider audience than most contemporary music has. But since its aesthetic premises are a rather sharp departure from the tradition, it may take a long time for the audience to grow.

It is interesting to look around a concert hall and observe people who are having their first exposure to this music. Ten minutes into the piece, they may still be sitting there expecting something to happen. Sometimes the frustration and bewilderment are too much and they leave. But often they become drawn into the details and begin listening—and perhaps hearing.