Terry Jennings: The Quiet Sense of Something Lost

 Things Happen In Moments, Not Measures

When Terry Jennings was 20 years old, in December 1960, he was invited to present his music in Yoko Ono’s Manhattan loft, along with fellow composers and close friends Richard Maxwell, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Jennings obliged with nine pieces. We can now look back and consider this: that was more than half of his extant available compositions.

We can also do this: we can hear about 10 of his available works scattered across a clutch of CDs, and a few performances via YouTube and Ubuweb. All but the five piano miniatures found on the remarkable 2009 release Lost Daylight are of uneven audio quality, to put it generously. What we cannot do-and I have made every effort for the past year to do so- is discover more than a few pages of critical texts about his stunningly beautiful, prescient music. Nor can you avail yourself of but a few photographs telling even a part of his story.

Since hearing Winter Trees and the four other short pieces of Lost Daylight nearly ten years ago, I have periodically returned to Jennings’ music. Naturally, plumbing the 30 minutes of the resonant, floating world of those five pieces, breathed into the present moment by the extraordinary John Tilbury, I wanted to hear more. I began my search.

There is evidence, more or less, of 16 compositions, less than 10 available on CD. Outside of Lost Daylight, Jennings’ work can only be found on several anthology collections, mainly of the music of John Cale. The record of his public performances are few-as I said, several can be found streaming with poor audio quality. Jennings played numerous private concerts at Cal Arts with Charlemagne Palestine, as well as happenings like the Ono event. Fragments exist of those encounters.

This impoverished legacy has nagged at me- those who heard his music when the eighteen-year old stepped out of his parent’s strict upper class home into the company of the twenty-something avant gardists we now regard as the 60s West Coast minimalist constellation – Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Dennis Johnson and Harold Budd- to share his spare, transfixing pieces, were astonished. Young, in his 2006 program notes to a Cal Arts performance of Jennings’ String Quartet, called him “the most talented musician I know.” Riley described him as “a musician of great originality and expressive power.” Budd, asked about Jennings legacy by American Music editor Brett Boutwell, replied “Has any American composer done more than Winter Trees?” When Jennings visited England in 1970, his piano music was instantly embraced by Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury; 39 years later, Tilbury would see his realization of five of Jennings’ piano pieces released by Another Timbre, the aforementioned Lost Daylight.  Cale, Johnson and Riley have all stated in interviews over the years Jennings was a “natural”, who created brief, brilliant works that were studies in the play of time and memory, privileging silence and space, augurs of the concerns taken up by many composers three decades later.

Even considering Jennings premature death at 41, the lacunae found in every available historical account of those fertile and fecund early years of American minimalism around Jennings’ presence and contributions didn’t sit well with me. Putting aside the compositions themselves, the evidence of his relationships within an astonishing cadre of creative composers and musicians suggests Jennings was a colleague and collaborator, not a footnote, among those who have fared much better in our collective memory-Harold Budd, Peter Garland, Terry Riley, Dennis Johnson and La Monte Young. For example, Jennings played Johnson’s recently discovered and feted long-form piece from 1959, November; in fact, the 100 minute tape fragment of November Young sent to composer and critic Kyle Gann in 1992, setting in motion the process of getting it reworked and released in 2013, was a recording of either Johnson or Jennings on the Jennings family piano, replete with the Jennings family dog barking along. Young acknowledges November as the inspiration for his much better known The Well Tuned Piano. Budd and Garland played Jennings piano music publicly throughout the 70s. The cross-fertilization was endless, the praise for Jennings by his peers striking, and, given a little patient persistence, the present day listener can hear for themselves the providence in the few works available to us.

It is beyond the scope of this appreciation of Terry Jennings to address the multifaceted nest of hooks that is music history, formal and informal. Like all historical narratives, it is sustained greatly by its mere repetition, the echo chamber of the chroniclers of minimalism reiterating, Young>Riley>Reich. Jennings and Johnson are inhabitants of this realm, sharing a little of the pallid light shed in the margins from time to time.  The received narrative of the roots and branches of American minimalism has been revisited here and there, at least to the degree that the holy quartet of Reich, Glass, Young and Riley has been shaken up a little. The recent resurrection of Johnson’s November, and, an example from the following decade, the revivification of the brilliant Julius Eastman, demonstrates that the territorializing of any artistic landscape should be subject to a long, critical gaze. Recent rediscovery and publication of the music of composers Phillip Corner and Tom Johnson, for further examples, both born within a couple of years of Young, serve to shake things up the more.

Regarded, as I have come to do, as a landscape of intersections and affinities, not privileging “firsts” alone as the basis for establishing authorship and influence, Jennings’ music is all the more astonishing, his backgrounding the sadder. There is no question Young and Riley merit the attention given to the groundwork they established around 1958-1959; laying out a linear storyline, however, that has Young as the fountainhead, Riley and Jennings as tributaries, is sustained as much by that lacunae in which Jennings’ work is held, as by any objective analysis. It is to this nihility that I turn.

 But over all this brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

Jennings was a heroin addict when he began his close association with his peers; he was murdered in 1981, age 41, in a drug deal gone wrong. He had met and grown close to fellow experimental composer Richard Maxwell, who co-curated the Ono bash in 1960 that saw the debut of Jennings’ nine compositions. Maxfield, 13 years Jennings senior, committed suicide at the age of 42. His archives are held by La Monte Young’s Mela Foundation. When Jennings died, Young sought and obtained exclusive rights to Jennings’ tapes and manuscripts, under the auspices of his Mela Foundation.

There is no doubt that Jennings had little if any regard for the idea of a legacy-his social reticence and awkwardness, recalled by all who knew him, and his increasingly debilitating heroin addiction supplant any sort of self-promotion, and likely feed the postmortem narrative sustained in countless interviews with Young that Jennings was his student, even devotee. Dying young and leaving only a small body of accessible work serves to seal the story. Webern, frequently cited as a composer whose radical impact and influence rested for years on 31 compositions that fit on six CDs, is prodigious by comparison. But there is no question, to this writer, that that sealed, impoverished legacy is sustained as much by Young’s decision to hold Jennings’ tapes and manuscripts hostage, unavailable to a curious public. For historians, academicians and simply avid listeners who are mining the milieu Jennings practiced, created and collaborated in, Young’s archival control of Maxwell, Jennings and, as many more readers are no doubt aware of, the ensemble Theater of Eternal Music, presents a pattern that serves no one but Young, enabling the now 83 year old composer to maintain a strange narrative of influence and control. Young actually has not been averse in occasional interviews over the years to characterizing himself in terms of control and power, even offering a self-attributed guru status, albeit without a suggestion that these are problematic qualities where the history of this music is concerned.

So we come to the unanswered question- what could we further understand and relish, what might we hear, where Jennings’ life and legacy are concerned, if his legacy had been entrusted to an executor who chose to share it with the curious listener? The Mela Foundation holds all the extant manuscripts and tapes- if you search as I have for insights, even glimpses, into Jennings’ practice, you will find nearly all of it issues from Young. He has declined to respond to inquiries from those seeking his perspective on the matter of Jennings’ archived work, including a fairly recent inquiry from Professor Brett Boutwell, an editor and writer whose article Terry Jennings: The Lost Minimalist was enormously useful when I discovered it months into my search for Terry Jennings.

I wasn’t looking for the La Monte Young storyline when I set out to simply hear more and learn more of Jennings’ work. In an effort to discuss both Jennings and Young with someone who bridges their respective lives and music, I initiated a phone conversation in August 2017 with the cellist Charles Curtis. Curtis was generous with his time (we talked 70 minutes). I have listened to his work for many years and admire him greatly-in past years I had reached out to him to discuss Eliane Radigue, the subject of a piece I was writing, and to invite him to perform in a concert series I curated in Minneapolis/St. Paul for six years. I knew a little of his long association with Young, an association that extends to this day, and of his affinity with Jennings’ cello music, which Curtis has performed in concert as recently as 2016. Curtis told me he heard about Jennings in the 80s from Young and has performed Jennings’ Piece For Cello and Saxophone as a cello/vocal duet with Young numerous times, a structured improvisation for Young’s vocals above a drone. Curtis continues to play in concert a solo cello piece by Jennings that Young holds the rights to; he has done so every decade since the 80s, twice in 2016. When I raised the question of Young’s motivation in holding on to Jennings’ work and declining to release any of it to the public, Curtis said he couldn’t address the business of Jennings’ legacy or speculate on Young’s operation of the Mela Foundation where that legacy is concerned.

 Nothing Is Ever Lost, Nor Can Be Lost

Likely we will need to content ourselves with what we have. As I said, Jennings’ legacy is shaped by the braiding of forces self-destructive and Young’s hold on an archive signed over in the immediate wake of that self-destruction.

Wending through my search for Terry Jennings I have had to side-step all but a few brief, cursory tangents of the Tony Conrad/La Monte Young story. As it too concerns Young and issues of narrative and legacy in collaborative music, I will offer the most succinct of summaries: the filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad was an early participant in the ensemble Theater of Eternal Music, along with Jennings, John Cale, Young, and other notable musicians associated principally with the downtown NYC experimental music scene. In the years after he’d departed the ensemble, and Young’s sphere of influence, Conrad, along with other departed members, was involved in a lengthy legal dispute with Young over the rights to his work with the ensemble. Along with the legal engagement, Conrad had, prior to his death in 2016, occasionally picketed Young’s public performances. This last action is sufficiently unusual in the experimental music realm that he was asked about it more than once in interviews; in one such interview, Conrad, clearly irritated with the interviewer, said a couple of things I find bracing and relevant to the Jennings story. Conrad always viewed his work with Young as collaborative, non-hierarchical, and was therefore outraged at the control Young maintained over the rights to the work. “Why doesn’t La Monte Young want these recordings heard, when their historical influence is stronger than their actual audibility?” He goes on to say that his picketing was just one available action to resist what he regarded as Young’s “isolationism”, his control of the historical narrative. “When I picket La Monte Young, I am not only making a cultural statement in the formal arena of political action, I am also consciously pressuring the societal isolationism that Young stands for as a figurehead of this earlier movement.”

Listen to Jennings’ piano miniatures, the bare bones architecture of his string quartet, the oceanic cello and saxophone modal music; imagine the sound were it extended beyond his addiction and violent, stupid, early death. Consider the influence of a body of work less than a decade in its flow, were it flowing still. Keep alert to the possibility that Terry Jennings’ music hasn’t all been found, that what was lost is immanent- not lost, waiting to be found.


Lost Daylight, Another Timbre, 2009, reissued in September 2017

Thanks a million to Quatuor Bozzini for sharing sound files of two of their four performances of Jennings’ String Quartet, a single movement piece comprising 43 notes.

SQ version 1: recorded in Jürg Frey’s concert series, Aarau, Switzerland, 2006
SQ version 2: recorded in Boras, Sweden, 2007

Things happen in moments, not measures  Michael Pisaro, liner notes to Lost Daylight, October 2009

 But over all this brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.
 Tennyson, In Memoriam: A.H.H

Nothing Is Ever Lost, Nor Can Be Lost  Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Brett Boutwell, Terry Jennings, the Lost Minimalist, American Music, Spring 2014

Tony Conrad interview with Brian Duguid, June 1996, Estweb

Telephone conversation with Charles Curtis, August 31, 2017


Terry Jennings & Yoko Ono NYC 1960

3 Replies to “Terry Jennings: The Quiet Sense of Something Lost”

    1. Thanks for reading- Jennings’ piece for cello and saxophone will be available in July on Saltern records. It is actually a solo cello version, masterfully realized by Charles Curtis.


Leave a Reply to jessewgoin Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: