Books on music: the Source Anthology

I wasn't planning for so many book reviews in a row, but last week I learned that there is a newly-published anthology of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, which was a short-lived publication in the late 60s/early 70s that has reached legendary status among New Music devotees.  I got my copy in the mail yesterday, and since I'm already intimately familiar with the original print run, I'm compelled to provide an online review that mentions an important detail left out of all of the other online mentions of this new book.

The new atop the old.

Let's start with the positive: if you're a fan of avant-garde music from the 60s to the present, a music student, a music librarian, or a composer yourself, this book is beyond essential.  You should find a copy immediately and read it cover to cover at first opportunity.  This anthology presents interviews, profiles, discussions, images, and examples of graphic notation and text scores representing the wide range of new music efforts from the 60s and 70s.  Most of this material is unavailable anywhere else, and all of it is truly potent work that has lost no relevance in its 35+ years of hiding in rare book collections.  If anything, these resources emerge from the shadows of obscurity as essentially contemporary work.  It's remarkable how fresh this stuff remains.  Present-day efforts in minimalism, electroacoustic music, free improvisation, process composition, brutal prog, avant-garde concert music and the like seem at times to be practically regressive compared to the stuff one finds in Source.  It's as though the materials in the original periodicals were internalized and used among the small number of people who came into contact with the tiny original print run, while for others they've become a tragic secret of almost mythological importance to those who care about these kinds of music.  Or as Douglas Kahn puts it in the anthology's preface, issues of Source "have moved from limited circulation to even more limited circulation, all the while becoming increasingly relevant to contemporary activities, in musical and artistic practice and in historical study by students, teachers and scholars of the period."

But let us address that detail I have yet to see in other reviews or promotional material for the book, because I think it's extremely important: this anthology doesn't reprint the scores.  While I think the anthology remains critically important as a document of at least some Source content, this deeply undermines the value of this project in my opinion.  The introduction explains that this was an economic decision: the original publications were essentially handmade, large-format affairs that would be prohibitively expensive to reproduce given the anticipated demand.  Douglas Kahn states the case in the preface like this: "It made no sense to replace one collector's item with another."

Personally, I find this terribly disappointing.  While I can sympathize with the effort/money concerns that would surely make full or almost-full reprints very expensive, I think there is a market for more comprehensive reissues.  More importantly, I believe there is a great need for the scores.  Looking through original issues of the publication, it's clear that publishing scores was the focal point of the whole project, and interviews/discussions and other material were intended as supplementary to the scores themselves.  And Source explicitly declared its priority on scores, too.  Consider the opening lines of its inaugural issue, ironically reprinted in the scoreless anthology:

"Next to actual performance--recorded or live--the score remains to date the most reliable means of circulating and evaluating new music.  Source, a chronicle of the most recent and often the most controversial scores, serves as a medium of communication for the composer, the performer, and the student of the avant garde.  A magazine that is free from the inherent restrictions of foundations and universities (however enlightened), uncommitted to the inevitable factional interests of societies and composers' groups, can probe and be provocative--our first issue contains five new scores. "

At the time of its publication, very little of the music covered by Source was being recorded--in fact some of it doesn't lend itself to full representation through recording--and little was being picked up for print publication, either.  To read the scores, or have them available to try yourself or with a group of your friends, was perhaps the most important thing facilitated by its circulation.  Decades later, few of the pieces in its pages were ever subsequently recorded or published outside of their appearance in Source.  Without including them in this new anthology, those pieces remain lost in the rarity of the original issues.

Some pieces are represented with a few example pages in the anthology, but in a sense I find this practice even more irritating than simply excluding them altogether.  Keep in mind that most of these scores used unorthodox notational systems, from totally abstract sorts of representational/graphic scores to more personal modifications of relatively-traditional notation.  Most also included opening pages explaining their specialized notational systems.  In the anthology, scores that are represented feature a page of the how-to-play information and a page or two of the music itself.  And they're reprinted in a very, very small format in which it's frequently difficult to make out actual notes or details.

For students of this music, I can see how reprinting the instructional pages of the scores might help explain the "how" aspects of playing the music.  But without the full scores, it's impossible to experience the music by either fully reading it or attempting to play it, which would answer what I consider to be much more fundamental musical questions related to "why."  In fact, there is potential for actually blurring the distinctions of "why" in this music by printing only a few example pages of it: the focus shifts from the music itself to the superficial aspects of its unique presentation on paper.  Both then and now, the kinds of music represented in Source had to battle a reputation as crazy, random nonsense, weirdness for its own sake.  Where the original publications helped to clarify those impressions by sharing the scores in full, running only a couple of the most visually provocative sample pages for those in the anthology only serves to reinforce the stereotypes of novelty and technical/extramusical obsession this music needs to transcend.  There is much to say and emote through this music, but I'm afraid that point isn't easily made by talking around the music instead of letting it represent itself.

Again, I truly appreciate the effort that did go into the anthology, and I don't mean to be harsh, but it's a very significant problem in my opinion.  What can be done?  There are some truly unusual elements painstakingly added into the original publications that couldn't be reproduced (I'll put some pictures below).  But the majority of each issue could be reproduced in original format/size with color where appropriate.  Perhaps they could be reissued as individual volumes like the originals over time.  What would each issue have to cost as a mostly complete reproduction--$100?  $150?  It would be expensive, but I don't agree that such a price would be "replacing one collector's item for another."  It would be making them uncompromisingly available again to a much wider audience who would absolutely get value for their high dollar commitment.  Practically speaking, it would make them available to college/university libraries all over the world again, and those are places that already pay hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for books or journal subscriptions when those materials are important for students.  I can't help but notice using WorldCat that very few libraries, academic or otherwise, have Source.  Imagine how many more students would be exposed to Source if all of those places had the opportunity to order a set.  Many non-academic folks in the U.S. would potentially have access to reprinted volumes, too, as land grant university libraries are open to the public.

For what it's worth, if the materials still exist for the unpublished 12th volume of Source, I'd be elated to see that published by itself, too.

It's also worth mentioning here that three issues of Source contained 10'' records of music from the publication.  These have been lovingly reissued as a 3 CD set by Pogus.  This set is an excellent supplement to either a purchase of the new anthology or a browse through any original issues of Source. You can also listen on UbuWeb, which is itself easily the best avant-garde art reference on the internet.

The editorial team of Source also produced a few radio programs for KPFA in the late 60s, a couple of which can be found here and here via archive.org.

Here are a few photos of Source materials:

Some notational innovations via
Barney Childs' "Jack's New Bag."

Brilliant inner-score page flips put a new spin on the repetition
common to many classical forms in Stanley Lunetta's "Piano Music."

One needs a slide projector to view this "score-map" from Jocy de Oliveira
in full detail, part of the multimedia "Probabilistic Theater I."

My favorite photo of Harry Partch at the bottom center:
Father of Captain Beefheart, Granddad to Tom Waits?

A page from my favorite score in the run of Source, "Blues and Screamer"
by David Reck.  Something about the approach to notation in this chart
continues to influence my approach to music on paper.  Efficient, clear,
and emotive/visually evocative all at once.

The graphic scores reproduced in color for the original run are amazing.
This one is from "A Piano: Piece" by Daniel Lentz.

The brown square for Jon Hassell's "Map2" is both an instrument and part
of its own score.  It's 3 layers of pre-recorded magnetic tape.  Add a playback
head/amp, follow the directions, and you're playing the most interactively
demanding recording you'll probably ever see.

I know I just complained above about the anthology including scores
just for their visual interest.  Forgive me, and blame Joel Gutsche for his
beautiful "Overture to the Iceberg Sonata."


  1. Thanks for verbalizing – and as importantly, visually demonstrating through photographs of the original Source issues - what those familiar the original publication now feel an urgent need to share with the uninitiated audience of readers generated by the new UC Press publication.

  2. I didn't see this person's review before mine, but he (she?) echoes many of the same sentiments: http://renewablemusic.blogspot.com/2011/08/return-to-source.html

  3. Thanks for your comment. Wishing still to remain anonymous, let me first say something with which the other commenters surely can agree: The “words on sounds” review is superbly crafted and deftly articulates why the originally published Source does/or could – influence today’s students, musicians, and savvy music aficionados much more completely than the UC Press abridgement. As the reviewer lucidly describes, Source never really became just a time capsule after its last issue, but rather was a springboard and catalyst for a very broad range of artistic/performance expression and composition. In my view, this review provides so much additional context and supporting material that it deserves at least footnote status in the Wikipedia article about Source. How’s that for praise?

    I can only imagine the 2011 publication editors’ angst at having to drastically pare the original issues thus making the result unavoidably much more academic and descriptive. Moreover, taken as a whole the original issues were intentionally not designed to be repetitive, or for that matter fully duplicated. Rather, they continuously exploded unpredictably in so many directions. The 2011 publication is a start, but let’s all do more to expand the availability of the full content in the original issues.

  4. Hey, I just noticed this comment--it got pulled into the Blogger spam filter where I just rescued it.

    First, thanks for the comment! Very kind.

    Angst, indeed! I have received an unexpected primary source report describing some of the pulling of hair and biting of nails that went on. I appreciate their work and feel their pain.

    And it's created another situation: it's at too preliminary a stage to detail here, but a few people are gathering information toward the goal of expanded availability. If you'd like more information, please do send me an email. neonren at hotmail will reach me.