Soundings from the West Coast August 30, 1973

Little magazines come and go every year, and generally they are of little consequence. But a unique new music magazine called Soundings merits special attention. While quite a few of the scores and articles in Soundings are by older composers and East Coast composers, this little quarterly is largely a product of West Coast avant-gardists, many of whom are still in their 20s. And as a whole it offers a musical point of view quite different from any encountered around New York.

Soundings is primarily the brainchild of its editor, Peter Garland. It grew out of a class at Cal Arts, a publishing seminar taught by Dick Higgins in 1970, and its first issue appeared in January 1972. Now, a year and a half later, the little magazine still has only about 170 bona fide subscribers. But the six issues it has published form a rather remarkable body of new music and ideas about new music.

From a New York point of view, perhaps the most jolting thing about Soundings is its sense of recent music history. Most young composers today find their roots in Webern, Stockhausen, or Cage. But in Soundings these names are scarcely mentioned. Instead, the older-generation mentors are composers like Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Silvestre Revueltas, and Dane Rudhyar.

Partch and Harrison have often been overlooked or underestimated, largely, I think, because they don’t fit into any perceivable mainstream. But they are both fine composers, and it is easy to understand why young musicians on the West Coast might look up to them. Both are Californians. Both have been strongly influenced by Oriental ideas, which seem to have more appeal for each new generation. Both are stubborn individuals. And both have focused their attention on acoustics and actual sounds, scorning the more intellectual procedures of both serialism and probability theory.

The emphasis of Revueltas seems to have a political basis, since, as an early 20th-century Mexican, he represents the Third World. Revueltas made extensive use of Indian and folk material in his music and had strong nationalistic tendencies. He identified with the lower classes and often spoke out against the American and European oriented musical life in his country, which he viewed as a kind of musical imperialism. Other South American composers also receive attention in Soundings. One issue contains the score of one of Conlon Nancarrow’s remarkably complex player piano pieces. About half of one issue is devoted to the pretentious and rather unenlightening theories of Julian Carrillo.

It is hard to explain why Rudhyar and his music receive so much space in Soundings. Rudhyar is much better known to us for his books on astrology than for his early atonal music, and his expressionistic scores look rather chaotic and uninteresting to me. His articles, however, with their strong concern for the Orient and for acoustical matters, seem appropriate to the context of the magazine.

Another surprising thing about Soundings is that, unlike every other avant-garde periodical I can think of, electronics plays a small role. I can’t recall a single reference to computers, and the vast majority of scores have nothing to do with electronic equipment other than, perhaps, calling for standard amplification. ‘Too much attention has been focused on machines to the detriment of the social and physical ground of music,’ states Garland in one of his editorial comments.

But almost every other recent musical idiom is well represented, and many of the scores are quite good. I was particularly impressed with James Tenney’s ‘Clang,’ a 15-minute orchestra piece which uses many semi-improvised techniques, similar to those currently fashionable elsewhere, but without any of the flashiness, virtuoso overtones and dramatic intensity which one finds, for example, in Ginastera or Ligeti. Philip Corner’s ‘Ink Marks for Performance’ is one of the most interesting graphic scores I have seen. It is fascinating to study the intricate patterns of Frederic Rzewski’s 17-page melody, which accompanies a text by the Attica victim Sam Melville in ‘Coming Together,’ Part One. Ivan Tcherepnin’s two-piano arrangement of ‘Silent Night,’ slowed down, and with the rhythm altered, is lovely in a very odd sort of way. The simple melodies of Lou Harrison’s ‘Peace Pieces’ are enticing. And some of the conceptual art pieces are provocative, especially those of Pauline Oliveros.

One fascinating, if somewhat bewildering, aspect of Soundings is its many minimal scores. Of course, composers all over have recently become interested in working with limited materials and subtle variations. But some of the scores in Soundings go far beyond the kind of minimalism New York audiences have heard in Steve Reich, La Monte Young or even Charlemagne Palestine.

One of Harold Budd’s ‘Sun Pieces,’ for example, simply asks us to begin a drone tone when the sun first begins to appear over the horizon, and to alter the sound imperceptibly until the sun has completely risen.

In Michael Byron’s ‘Song of the Lifting Up of the Head,’ a pianist is requested to keep repeating seven little one-bar fragments for at least 15 minutes.

In Tom Nixon’s ‘Scarhead,’ a simple chant-like melody for clarinet is blithely marked ‘hold each note as long as possible,’ which would probably drag the three simple phrases out for about 10 to 15 minutes or longer, depending on the size of the clarinettist’s lungs.

There is admittedly some appeal in this kind of innocence and simplicity, but I can’t help feeling that pieces like this are a little too innocent, a little too simple, even a little naive, in a highly educated sort of way. Sometimes when I think of the many religious cults which have sprung up in California, I get the impression that Californians are a little gullible, that they like to ride bandwagons, tend to carry things to extremes, and often loose sight of the forest. At other times, when I think of BankAmericards, super highways, topless dancers, and air pollution, I have the feeling that everything starts in California, and that the Californians are simply a few years ahead of the rest of us.

A friend of mine suggested another theory. According to him, this extreme form of California minimalism all has to do with acid. Tripping has always been big on the Coast, and people who trip a lot don’t need much stimulation. They can be quite content just staring at the wallpaper or listening to one note. Which is not to say that these composers and their audiences are all acid heads, but only to suggest that the psychedelic ’60s may have left an impression on the general artistic climate of the West Coast.

Whatever one’s pet theory about California happens to be, and however one chooses to interpret California minimalism, the values presented in Soundings are, at the very least, provocative. And some of them could turn out to be prophetic.


Soundings still exists. A letter from Peter Garland in August 1988 reported that the address was P.O.B. 8319, Santa Fe, N.M. 87504/8319 and that issue 16 was in progress.