Annals of Minimalism

by Rick Moody and Chris Abrahams

The physical component of this piece is an annotated playlist printed in the main book.

Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.

[Electronic music twinkles and thickens, mixing into a heavy, compelling texture, then, softly, almost inaudibly, a hopeful, sparkly tune emerges before all fades out.]

Hi, I’m Maddie Watkins, player of electric zithers and the lover of unusual music. And this is another episode of the Annals of Minimalism, brought to you by the University of California, Santa Cruz and recorded at the studios of UCSC in sunny Santa Cruz.

Now if you know your early minimalist music, you’ll know that what we’ve just been hearing is the classic shortwave piece by Thompson Augustus Shaw entitled “Himalayan Snowfield” from 1966. The piece, which by the way is well-respected in music circles, was produced after Shaw’s trip to Nepal where he, unfortunately, contracted hepatitis [serial wooden notes are struck in the background]. The trajectory of Shaw’s musical development after this recording: feedback experiments, some experiments witherminacy, and then finally the long duration pieces of Shaw’s mature period like [new-age-y guitar notes twanging, weaving through background music] “Thousand-Year Gong” and “Singing Bowls of Alpha Centauri” is now the stuff of music department dissertations [a gong is struck, reverberating through a room, your ear]. A fascination that has been especially fueled by Shaw’s subsequent silence, [ vocal buzzing, coming from deep in the singer’s throat, overpowers the other sounds, presumably in the of note A] which began in 1996 and was interrupted only once in 2001 by his singing whole tones on the note A at the Roulette in Brooklyn, New York, for six hours. [The buzzing rings out, pauses for a moment, and then continues as we sit in it for a while.] Since then he has stopped performing or releasing music of any kind. The music Shaw did make during the high impact time of minimalist composition, say, between 1965 and 1971 were all released on Hertz records, an independent label out of Syracuse, New York, and associated with the state university there.

The curator of Hertz records professor Arnold J. Wentz, PhD, of the German language department is here with us today in honor of Thompson Augustus Shaw’s 90th birthday. To give us some recollections of Shaw’s work on the Hertz label and on Thompson Augustus Shaw, the man himself. Welcome, Professor Wentz, to the Annals of Minimalism.

[Background coffee shop noises, steam wand sounding almost like electric drills, background conversations.]

[Wentz] Sorry, uh, about the, uh, surface noise as it were. God—can you hear me? Can you hear me okay? I’m getting some coffee and I’m gonna get back in the car. I’m so in love with this sound of the inside of an automobile, it’s the ideal recording venue.

[Watkins] Yeah, uh, sure!

[Wentz] So are we talking about Shaw? I have so many stories to tell. It’s just such a shame if it’s only about Shaw. You know, I did go one time to Paris to interview Pierre Schaeffer. You know his work, yes?

[Watkins] I was really hoping you would talk about Thompson Augustus Shaw and his legacy on Hertz. Especially the work you did with him before you sold the label in 1972.

[Wentz (uncertain)] I didn’t sell it. I mean, the way I see it, the stopping was consistent with the music of it, because the music first of all was about the oscillation between sound and silence.

[Watkins] I never thought about it like that—

[Wentz] Once Shaw and the others were experimenting with these long duration silences, you know, well, it seemed only right that I could take a break for a little while myself.

[Watkins] I just wanna ask you this one question—

[Wentz] You have no idea what I had to go through for that recording at Costello Gallery. The glass harmonic piece.

[High-pitch notes slither through Wentz’ monologue.]

[Wentz] Every other day in July of 1967—and it was a very hot July—I had to go to Shaw’s loft in SoHo and make him a hash milkshake—and it had to be this very particular kind of hash. And, even though he was dealing at the time, he wanted the hash to come from some other dealer, because my ability to get the hash was an indication of my seriousness as a producer. I had to get the hash. I had to take it to his loft. And that’s where he and his partner, Devereux, who was studying Ikebana, would drink the hash milkshake—and this part is the best—they were not using a twenty-four-hour-per-day clock. Twenty-four-hour days, they thought, was based on rigidifications of the human spirit brought about by Hipparchus blah blah blah and Devereux was vehement about this kind of thing. Hipparchus had perverted the Babylonian astronomical measurements.

[Barista, in the background] Here ya go.

[Wentz, speaking away from the phone] No, I want the double espresso with the macadamia milk. It’s right here. Yes!

[Watkins] Uh, you know if you wanna record another day we could.

[Wentz] The thing with it is they had their clock on am and pm model but their pm simply had 13 hours and nine minutes. And so if they said 3 pm—this is what I’m trying to tell you—there wasn’t a chance that it was actually 3 pm, not as you or I would understand it. And so scheduling the Costello show, getting the guy there with a reel-to-reel deck and the microphones. I had an assistant and it was her job to call Devereux periodically and just ask her what time it was where she was, which really irritated Devereux I can tell you that.

[Watkins] Yeah, I mean, you know, so, like, was there any recording at that time that you couldn’t get—like, from the Shaw period, you know, like a legendary piece or sort of like a lost cause that might’ve been, you know, for those of us who love the music, from this period?

[Wentz] I should’ve called the label Utter Futility Recordings.

[The conversation inside the coffee shop stops short as a door opens and slams shut. Footfalls on a sidewalk and the occasional passing car.]

[Watkins] Really?

[Wentz] There is one story that has to do with Amagansett on Long Island. Don’t ask me what Shaw and Devereux were doing out there—they don’t drive! Somehow Shaw and Devereux were out there staying with someone, and they’d been at the beach there, Amagansett, and Shaw heard something in the sound of the surf that he said he hadn’t heard anywhere before. He said it had a very particular overtone sequence.

It is fair to ask how many people go to the beach for the overtone sequences. I mean there is that sort of feeling of peace that you get, like when you park your car in the lot and you’re not at the beach yet, but you know the water is just over the lip of that dune right there. You can hear the surf. When you can hear the surf from the parking lot you get this big swell of Being There. And I am not immune to that feeling. Personally I don’t go to the beach that much myself. I’m not sure that Shaw did either, but mostly because he and Devereux were inside smoking hash and playing the Shruti Box. Maybe that stretch of shore wasn’t really different than any other [ominous foreshadowing piano thump].

Anyway on the phone, Shaw was saying all this incredibly ridiculous stuff—at top speed. [Dissonant piano keys.] All about the relationship between wind and sea and the essential particles of sunlight and influence of the particles over the tide and wind. He said the droning signal at Amagansett was like a sound that freight trains made in Southwest when he was in graduate school. And the freight trains—the ones that go through town—had this particular intervallic something or other, [train whistles] some relationship between mass and bulk, and notes in the base register and the kind of steel and the wheels on the tracks and the relationship between wheel squeal and train acceleration, I think he said it was a ratio of one hundred twenty eight to eighty one and don’t ask me how I can remember this but you know that when you listen to an obsessed person about intervallic ratios for long enough, some of it sinks in, so Shaw had extremely emotional feelings about the freight trains and the one hundred twenty eight to eighty one interval. He would talk about it with tears in his eyes. [Trumpet squeals as car door opens, then shuts. Background is quiet.] Ah, can’t you hear how much better the signal sounds in the car?

[Watkins] You know, I had a mini van with the kids and I always thought it sounded a little tinny.

[Wentz] These models probably don’t have enough carpeting. Anyway, this spot in Amagansett wasot developed and later they made it into a wildlife refuge, and I think Shaw must have gone there for a beach party or something and [a simple sustained tone sets in] he said that it had that one-hundred-and-twenty-eight to eighty-one interval, which he said acted upon the human nervous system in this particular way, just being there, and if I just recorded this area and released it on Hertz then we would be doing this tremendous good. [Lower tone warbles in and out, as if waking up.] He was probably kind of high at the time cause that’s how it was back then. But he insisted that a recording of the surf at this particular beach would stop military conflict if people could just, you know, on some widespread basis hear the sound of this surf. [Electronic burbling and bloops continue to build, whooshing in and out.]

[Watkins] But—

[Wentz] Since it was impractical to bring, you know, the decision makers, the Pentagon, up to Amagansett especially without disturbing the ecosystem, at least I could make this recording and release it on Hertz. So the first day I was at the beach with him I think I was probably very impressionable. The reality that no recording on Hertz had ever sold more than five hundred copies, maybe a thousand if something was really hot. Anyway I didn’t expect recording the beach at Amagansett was going to create some sort of harmonic universal convergence but that was Shaw, who was also working on the brass piece and he had let me hear an early rehearsal and it was really good, so what the hell. [Unsettling trumpet squeals weave into imposing electronic tones, and then they all fade out.]

We agreed that we really needed very good recording equipment and we needed to record after the season was over, once school was back in session and the kids were gone, and Shaw was really worried about this part because he felt that you needed a sunny, unstoppable feeling that you got in summer. He wanted a variance from the town where the beach would be closed indefinitely, except to us. And Shaw was also worried about the possibility of seagulls. It was a thing that came up a lot.

[Watkins] Hmm...

[Wentz] Jesus, the seagulls! I’m thinking back, you know, it’s almost like the ones in the Jersey Shore. They dive-bomb your sandwich. I brought this grad student from upstate and she could help carry the equipment, and also she was gonna chase off the seagulls. She saw a seagull, she was gonna run at it, silently [seagulls calling], run it down the beach but not making any noise. She well, uhh, actually she’s my wife now.

[Watkins] You know I was gonna ask you about that, Anne Chen. She has credit on some of the later Hertz recordings.

[Wentz] Right. Well, you know, these days she’s doing performance art and installations. [Seagulls, the beach fading in.] Shaw had a very particular binaural recording apparatus that he liked and it involved bringing part of a mannequin to the beach, a real mannequin, to facilitate the microphone placement that was exactly identical to his first experience of the surf on this spot. And so he set up the mikes on an array around the mannequin’s head, and as we did this Anne was flapping down the beach like a pterosaur trying to keep gulls away.

Finally, Shaw pushed the red button on the TEAC deck. Devereux was back up by the dunes. She was wrapped in a basket full of towels because she didn’t like the sun, and I was waiting for her to pronounce some aspect of the production totally unsatisfactory because that was the thing that she inevitably did. the initial recording lasted for the lengths of one twelve-hundred-foot reel. Two hours and eight minutes. And so we sat there on the beach for two hours and eight minutes. And, you know, first the recording was about the ambient qualities, listening to what the microphones were listening to, but Devereux had packed the hash milkshakes and we were drinking them quietly, and so that after a while the sky and the sea and the beach were one, and even if the police had come along they couldn’t have distinguished us from knobs on driftwood, and the waves rolled in, and the waves rolled back out. [Calm, effervescent surf rolls in and out, long enough that we get pulled in and forget we’re listening to an interview.]

I guess I noticed Shaw was getting pissed off at a certain point. Got up and he stalked down the beach, and I could see, I could intuit, hell I had even prepared for him to disrupt the whole thing. There would definitely be an imperfection. Anne told me that Shaw walked down to where she was, and told her that she was being too animated with the birds and these gestures would have implications on the recording, even though she was fifty yards off. The good news is that Anne thought this was really funny.

And eventually the tape ran out and the right hand reel was skittering all around, and that’s when Shaw really boiled over.

“Something’s different! Something’s not right! The drone is different from before!”

[Eerie notes played slowly on an electronic instrument, wispy and celestial. Footfalls in sand coming nearer.]

It was Devereux, of course, who stalked down from her seclusion and, of course, Devereux is going, “Yes! There was a different interval! It’s not one hundred-twenty-eight to eighty-one.”

So I ticked off all of the possibilities of what could’ve been different, you know, the tide could vary in the lunar cycle. The seasonal currents could be different. Wind could be stronger, maybe coming from a different direction. Could it be more humid? There might have been sun spots, or construction nearby. The historical context of the recording might have changed since we first discussed it. So that now, it was a recording about recording instead of just recording.

All of this seemed to draw him up short. He fell into some kind of silence. Eventually we packed up the equipment with the idea that we would meet again and try anew, maybe next week, with failure all being part of the process.

You know how this is going to go, right?

[Watkins] You spent months and months and months on it?

[Wentz] He decided that the missing ingredient that first day was a fog. Of all the difficult to reproduce weather-related phenomena in the Hamptons, Shaw chose fog. And, in particular, he chose foggy mornings and high tide.

[Watkins] Ha!

[Wentz] He went back to New York City and he studied the weather forecasts, which were less reliable back in those days. And Anne Chen and I drove back to Syracuse, and then he started with his relentless telephoning, over the course of months, whenever there was fog in the forecast—and it was my responsibility to get from Syracuse to Amagansett by 7 a.m. with the gear and my assistant and meet him for the recording. That is a seven-hour drive on a good day.

[Watkins] And you never got the right recording...

[Wentz] [sighs] We got lots and lots of recordings. And we got lots of recordings in the fog. Low lying banks of fog, variousents of fog. [A low foghorn.] Fog like the proverbial pea soup, fog that burned off, and Shaw became a kind of an expert on fog, and he could talk a lot about climatological conditions that might produce fog. Sound propagation in fog, that kind of thing. At one point he actually became convinced that the day that he had been at the beach—when he had had the revelation about ocean waves and harmonic intervals—that there had been a lunar eclipse that he had been unaware of at the time and that that was what was called for. Not the fog and high tide, but fog, high tide, and lunar eclipse. And, if I remember correctly, he wanted a penumbral eclipse. I think there were maybe five or six of those in the 20th century.

[Watkins] So are you still working on the project then, like, would you describe it as a project that still could be completed?

[Wentz] Technically, the project is ongoing. Though I believe that Shaw would have live another twelve or thirteen years for a good penumbral eclipse in Amagansett. At least the weather forecasting is better now. I have AccuWeather premium on my device here just in case. [Tones, bloops, piano notes shutter in and then quickly out.]

[Watkins] So what happened to the tapes?

[Wentz] Yeah, well, you know, Shaw was a bit scattered in those days, and it wasn’t a surprise really. He could put his glasses down, and maybe sit on them or he could forget about a commission. And all of this time while talking about the ratio of one-hundred-twenty-eight to eighty-one. And I tried to exploit these lapses.

The thing is I kept the tape from the first session—and I didn’t keep it for the obvious reason, I kept it for a personal reason. But I did keep it. It musta been August when Shaw finally called me. It was three or four months later and he said, “Where’s that tape?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” and that is where the really big fight began. I asked Shaw if I could have a co-composing credit on the project under the theory that no one could have been said to compose the sound of the ocean in Amagansett.

To be honest I had lost a lot of money on those early Hertz releases. Thousands of dollars. If this ocean recording somehow took off, I felt that would compensate me for some losses on the earlier Shaw recordings. You can imagine how this conversation went. In his view, of course, he had composed that ocean piece in that the edit was his, this minor sixth interval: one-hundred-twenty-eight to eighty-one. And I had betrayed him, betrayed him, by suggesting otherwise.

Nevermind that the recording we made that day allegedly did not feature the interval so desired. I think it was that moment when our relationship turned sour.

And later, as I think you know, it was just total silence. [A resonant, sustained note, a melodic piano riff, fades in, undergirding the speech that follows.] The thing is, despite everything, I know music was made for that piece. And I ask you, so where is the music in what I’ve described here? Is the music in the recording itself? Is it in the faint distortion from the technology of the mid-sixties? Is it in the preparation for the recording? Is it in the ongoing nature of the recordings? Is it in Shaw’s monologues to me on the phone about the fog and eclipses? Is it in the debriefing sessions afterward? Is it in the sound of the traffic in Amagansett—the drive from Syracuse? Is it in the movement of the planets? Is it the background radiation? Is it coming from aliens? Is it in the uranium underneath the beach, or the development on Long Island? Is it a music of industry? Or is it in this conversation—the back and forth between you and me— the music of reflection and recollection of days long ago?

I know it’s in there somewhere: the music.

And, you know, just for the record, that is why I saved the tape. It was the day that I knew that I was falling in love with Anne Chen. I thought it was probably on the tape: that moment.

That was the music.


[Waves washing in, waves washing out, fading slowly, ever so slowly.]

[Watkins] And that is another episode of the Annals of Minimalism, brought to you each week from sunny Santa Cruz, California. I’m your host Maddie Watkins, former contrabass player of the new music quartet, the Quantum Entanglements. Next week, tune in as Francoise Lundi plays excerpts from her series of curated recordings, Electrical Substations of the American Southwest. And as always on the last Friday of the month, here’s a recording of my cat named Goose.

[Goose purring, distorted such that it has a sumptuous, reverberating roundness. It loops for a time, hypnotic, almost massaging the brain, until fading into silence.]

Annotated Playlist


Fifteen Great Classics of Minimalism in Contemporary Music Since 1963

By Arnold Wentz, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of German Language, Literature, and Culture, Syracuse University

People often ask me about the high period of minimalism, because of my profound engagement with this period in music, and then ask if I can make a bit of a playlist of minimalist classics for them. Well, I don’t know if often is an accurate word here, but on certain occasions, people have asked. Over the years, I have toyed with such an undertaking. In a way, making a list of fifteen such works is against the spirit of minimalism as I understand it. Were I being accurate, I would choose three or maybe four recordings: a minimal list on a minimalist subject. But so engaged with the high period of the form was I, in New York City, in the mid-1960s, that it’s now impossible for me to make a short list, and thus I have capitulated to this rather odious form, the longish and excessively partisan blog listicle. The occasion for this work coming to fruition, after so many decades, was my recent appearance on a podcast out of San Diego with a young music critic named Maddie Atkins, a memorable and delightful person who has somehow conceived of a podcast on the subject of minimalism, titled Annals of Minimalism, that explores all kinds of minimal thinking, but especially minimal expressions of music. I felt like Atkins plucked me out of a withering-into-obscurity (in this, my very nearly eighth decade), and created for me a new vigor about this topic to which I have so long given my heart and soul. Therefore, see my selections below, with a few remarks, which I hope will feel as minimal as the subject.

1. “Next Time,” Elimae Ambrose, 1968

In Ambrose’s celebrated response to Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” she takes a recording of James Baldwin reading the title of The Fire Next Time, excerpted from a highly regarded reading at the 92nd Street Y, and subjects it to a reiteration crisis, as well as to pans, phases, and choruses—tactics that recall Reich’s aural treatment of the voice of one of the young men beaten by the police during the 1964 Little Fruit Stand Riot in Harlem. Ambrose’s piece is a meta-commentary—important in the conceptually driven minimalist community—and also a beautiful piece in its own right. Baldwin’s voice is unique, mellifluous. As Reich’s piece grew more popular, though, and came to define early minimalist music, Ambrose’s response was overlooked—and isn’t that, unfortunately, the way? Reich’s piece, they say, is about his own “coming out” as a Jewish artist, whereas Ambrose’s is about visibility, an affirmation of the future of the form, and this now seems as important as, if not more so than, the original.

2. “Overtone Piece,” Yoko Ono, 1964

A piece by one of the greatest thinkers and performers of Fluxus, who also wrote some of the most keenly insightful scores for music ever. (I refer, of course, to the excellent artist’s book Grapefruit, first published in 1964.) Certain serious composers—who did not, for example, marry a famous popular musician—borrowed ideas from Ono and went on to have careers and the adoration of the music community without ever making clear their indebtedness to this profoundly important innovator. Beyond being insufficiently championed, she was excoriated by a popular-music crowd not smart enough to understand her work, nor to see how many of their favorite artists borrowed from her, what a bunch of knuckleheads.

3. “Vexations,” Erik Satie (date unknown), Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team, 1963 performance

I was at this performance, is what I mean to note here, and I asked to play in it, and I was on the list to play, was even told I would, but it didn’t turn out that way. Though I don’t consider myself a memorable pianist by any means—I’m really kind of a mediocre sight reader—I did memorize the Satie piece, which is short, but which is meant to be repeated 840 times. This performance was the first time it was played in full, and John Cage, the evening’s impresario, thought it was only going to take eleven hours, but it ended up taking eighteen hours, split into twenty-minute shifts among a team of eleven pianists, and I was willing to play for every one of those seven additional hours, and I was sitting right there, willing to play, and no one asked me to play. It is really hard to understand the function of the 840 repetitions of the piece if you are fuming over the fact that you drove six hours from Syracuse thinking you were going to perform, but then you aren’t asked to perform, and you think it’s maybe some kind of conspiracy to keep you out of the vital inner circle of the evolving form because—why? Because you are socially awkward? The critic from the Times fell dead asleep, completely unconscious, on an expanse of empty seats—I saw it—and it’s a measure of how tiring the performance was that the chairs were very uncomfortable, and yet he slept.

4. “Four Violins,” Tony Conrad, 1964, as reconstructed on early minimalism, 1997

There was, as you probably know, a dispute about leadership and the necessity of leadership in Presque Vu, a notable minimalist ensemble from the mid-’60s, and Tony Conrad was on the wrong side of this dispute. And so later in life he came to recompose and re-release the music he had played on the violin for the ensemble, after many decades of making films and teaching. This is, therefore, a re-performance—even an appropriation—of his earlier themes, and how much more beautiful they are in 1997, when Conrad was an older person, teaching multimedia art at SUNY. The brilliance of the gesture recalls Borges’s celebrated comment on Pierre Menard’s re-performance of the Quixote: “Historical truth is not what happened; it’s what we believe happened.” I performed in one of Conrad’s films, by the way, but it’s not one that is routinely screened, so I’m not going to go on and on about it, embarrassing myself and putting pressure on his estate to show the work, which, nevertheless, certainly does merit attention.

5 & 6. Memory Night, Chris Abrahams, 2013; Sex, The Necks, 1989

I don’t like contemporary music, actually. I think loops are too easy. I can’t stand the sound of automated percussion. The whole point of minimalist music is that the battle to perform it is a battle against physical limitation, in which the possibility of error is always imminent. How do you count those repetitions before the change if they are in the hundreds? If you have a machine do the counting for you, it takes all the risk of expression out of it. Music is not about the notes; it’s about the timbre, the feel, the way the notes are played. So I don’t listen to any contemporary music, because it ignores all this. But someone said I should listen to this Australian guy who’s all about the tone—pedaling, ambience, gentleness—and the first thing I listened to was this jazz piece by a group he plays in, the Necks, and it sounded like a jazz piece, except they basically played the same ostinato for an hour. It was a smart idea, all double bass roots and dotted quarter notes on the ride cymbal, and these bits of piano melody that came and went like the call of a migratory flock passing overhead, always the same bits of melodic material, but used in new ways, new contexts. Improvisation never sounded so minimal, so non-improvised, like an LP of Kind of Blue that got stuck in a groove. Anyway, this led me to look further into the individual work of the participants, and I found the astonishing solo album Memory Night by the pianist in the group, the guy in question, Chris Abrahams—an album so minimal it made the jazz ensemble sound like a symphony orchestra. It doesn’t even always feature a piano. It consists of indeterminate washes of stuff that can’t be said to come from any recognizable source, except maybe the sounds of an industrial economy, or the grinding of the Rust Belt, or things you might hear on a television program about insect life. Just dazzling, this coming in and out, this shimmering across interpretability, as if from the beyond.

7. “Alpha,” Nora Morgrav, 1978

As I was telling Maddie on her podcast, I did, for a time, own and operate a small record label called Hz Recordings, pronounced “Hertz” (which somehow managed to avoid catching the attention of the car rental corporation), which released a number of pivotal minimal recordings, including Thompson Augustus Shaw’s “Garohvahm.” In 1972, I gave the label to some friends in NYC, who ran it until they could no longer afford to and then, after a woeful period of moribundity, sold the backlist to Tzadik Records. In 1978, I lobbied these friends to release Nora Morgrav’s “Alpha.” The piece was an attempt to make an eight-hour recording that exactly mimicked intracranial alpha waves, producing a kind of primitive ASMR effect that would cause the listener to, in essence, dream. I had heard the recording in Rochester at the Kodak Research Labs, and had brought home a copy that played ceaselessly for many months in our guest room as a sound art installation. Its grounding effect made it possible for me to survive interdepartmental squabbles at work and was particularly popular with our dog, a very agitated Pekingese, especially after his progressive retinal atrophy. Alas, my so-called friends at Hz refused to release the Morgrav track, thus resolving the ambiguity with respect to my role at the label.

8. Music On A Long Thin Wire, Alvin Lucier, 1980

This is another piece I worked on, in production, leading up to the first performance of it, in 1979, at the Winrock Town Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This performance lasted five days. The wire was really long.

9. The Disintegration Loops, William Basinski, 2002

My wife, Anne Chen, insisted I put this on here, and she has exquisite taste, but she has otherwise asked that I forbear mentioning her further in this blog post, owing to her dislike of Tumblr.

10 & 11. “Thousand Year Gong,” Thompson Augustus Shaw, 1966–1992;

“Amagansett Interval,” Arnold Wentz, 1965, and ongoing (unreleased)

As you may know, I was at one point involved in collaborating with Thompson Augustus Shaw, and my legacy as a music critic and public personality rests primarily on this collaboration. And it is true that he and I did try, over the course of some months and years, to record the ambient sounds of a beach in Amagansett, New York, without success. Shaw, it is worth noting, referred to this piece as “Premonitory Lunar Penumbra, with 128:61, 40.9737° N, 72.1437° W, 1965–2020,” though his use of this name was undertaken in the spirit of denying my role as a full collaborator. I personally feel that his title is the epitome of prolixity, and that’s without even mentioning the lengthy remarks about the piece that he published in some downtown literary rag circa 1970. That a friendship could be ended over such a dispute does seem to suggest some unpalatable truths about friendship. In the old days, I knew a lot about Thompson Augustus Shaw, such as the fact that he was particularly fond of certain kinds of fruit pies and that he thought “Moon River” was a beautiful song. And, of course, I worked really hard with him on “Thousand Year Gong,” which was not easy, because he liked the gong to be tuned precisely. There is a long list of things I did for Shaw, things he could not do for himself, and these kindnesses were almost entirely overlooked. And thus I have renamed the piece and claimed it as my own, hereby acknowledging not only my own essential participation in its conception and performance, but also the participation of a graduate student working with me on the first day of recording: one Anne Chen.

12. Triptych, Éliane Radigue, 1978

A piece of uncommon drama and beauty.

13. “Door Squeak,” Sun Ra and his Astro-Infinity Arkestra, from Strange Strings, 1967

It’s ten minutes and twenty-eight seconds of a door squeaking, a remarkable door squeaking, on an album on which members of the orchestra play instruments they are not technically skilled at. This disc follows another exceedingly original album titled Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, both artifacts of a time when Sun Ra, a legendary interstellar being masquerading as a jazz musician, was playing in New York City, where minimalist music was first being evoked. I could not hold this output in higher esteem. As an act of transmuting everyday experience into musical expression, “Door Squeak” is without parallel, unburdened by an explanatory apparatus. It simply is. And the threshold of that doorway—from one space into another in those ten minutes and twenty-eight seconds—shimmers with insight.

14. “Cold Sweat,” James Brown, 1967

The music of James Brown had a lasting impact on the first wave of minimalism, and this I can tell you as a participant in the scene. While certain practitioners will go on and on about the influence that Pandit Pran Nath had on our music, the composers of the first wave did listen to a lot of James Brown. The melodic repetition and barely developing guitar parts, the nearly mechanistic rhythms played expertly by humans, et cetera—these had a powerful effect. I have it on good authority that “Reich: Drumming” would never have been written if not for the composer’s love of James Brown.

15. “Candy Bullets and Moon,” Meredith Monk and Don Preston, 1967

We conclude here with an acknowledgment of the human voice. Oh, the human voice as an instrument, floating wordlessly above the din. Music starting and ending with the human voice.

Honorable mentions: Henry Flynt, Terry Riley, John Cale, Philip Glass, C. Christer Hennix, Faust, Angus MacLise, the Ramones, Suicide.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a volume of essays on music, and two volumes of memoir. He teaches at Brown University.

Chris Abrahams is best known as the pianist in the group the Necks. He has also released eleven solo albums. He tours extensively in Australia, Europe, and the US.