Minimalism has a long tradition of disputes between authors. Branden Joseph first noted this trend in his book on Tony Conrad, singling out in particular those between Conrad and La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, Reich and Philip Glass, and Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. When I proposed looking further into these disputes for my doctoral research, professors warned against falling into gossip and hearsay, or worse, arbitrating decades-old interpersonal feuds. I thus clarified my questions: Why does minimalism in particular feature so many authorship disputes? Why is it that these composers’ critiques of traditional authorship so often paradoxically fell into disputes over authorship?
Investigating these interauthorial relationships has frequently led me into archives, where the interplay of public and private has been central to both the disputes and my research into them. This is particularly true of Conrad and Young. Young has long made proprietary claims on the archive of tape recordings of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a drone ensemble in which he and Conrad performed together alongside John Cale, Marian Zazeela, and others. In contrast, Conrad understood their music as the “death and abjuration of the composer” through the refusal of that “military” dispatch, the score. Instead, Conrad favoured democratic composition under a shared collective name. Many of the rehearsals were thus “written” to magnetic tape for posterity, instead of staff paper, and held in Young’s loft with the assumption that they were collective property.
In 1987 Young approached Conrad and Cale, asking them to sign forms allowing the release of his (Young’s) music. They refused, and Conrad began a protracted dispute with Young—not necessarily over the propriety of those tapes, but over the claim that the drones recorded on them could have a single author. Conrad’s tactics always aimed towards publicizing their music, which Young has shrouded in mystery. Conrad first picketed a series of Buffalo concerts by Young in 1990 to bring the dispute to public attention, rather than keeping it hidden in lawyers’ letters ; he then reconstructed and released the music under the name Early Minimalism (Table of the Elements, 1997), and supported the commercial release of a fugitive copy of one of the original tapes as Day of Niagara (Table of the Elements, 2000). A flurry of “open letters” followed the release, including Young criticizing the release; an apology from the composer Arnold Dreyblatt, who had made the copy; and another from Conrad reaffirming his position.
Recognizing the dispute as a battle over propriety and publicity, I’ve been struck by the difficulty of properly citing and reproducing relevant documents. Working interauthorially, rather than on one or the other composer, it becomes quite clear that the defenses of authorship—legal, historiographical, discursive—are formulated to keep existing authors authorized, while limiting the possibility of someone from outside proclaiming a fundamental wrong in the structures and privileges of that authorship. The benefit of considering a dispute like that between Young and Conrad is that, unlike the multi-million dollar legal disputes over authorship that end up in court (recently, think Robin Thicke or Led Zeppelin), this one plays out entirely on a theoretical plane. Theory here should not be read as meaning abstract, immaterial, or irrelevant; rather, it’s simply that binding, judicial proclamations of right and wrong will never play a part.
Nevertheless, the limits of private and public have had practical impacts on my archival work and writing about the dispute. When I found a series of small cards in a folder of correspondence between Young and Steve Reich, I experienced the shock of immediately recognizing something I had never seen before. The cards—printed copies of Marian Zazeela’s calligraphy, somewhere between concert poster and printed invitation—outlined the date, location, performers, and title of several concerts from 1964 through 1966. While they did not provide new information about the concerts in question, they had never been published or even mentioned in print before, and I felt that the egalitarian, calligraphic presentation of the names of all four performers, with no clear designation of composer, was in itself notable. I subsequently found several of the cards in scans of correspondence with Young in other archives, but since all of them had come from folders of correspondence, I needed Young’s permission to publish them. Anyone who has read the introduction to Jeremy Grimshaw’s book on Young will not be surprised that I had little hope of getting that permission, especially given that my research further complicates the historiographical understanding of authorship in the Theatre of Eternal Music.
Having already accepted that I could not include images of the cards in my dissertation, last month several came to me in that most social of archives: Facebook. Jeff Hunt of Table of the Elements posted a series of the cards (which he considers public programs), which were found in Conrad’s papers during research for Tyler Hubby’s recent documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.
Hashtagged #ownthearchive, Hunt’s post put the issue into relief for me. The dispute between Young and Conrad, perhaps like many others, exists in a sphere in which control over what can be “public” or common is held by a party with the strongest prerogative to maintain the closure of that commons. Like Conrad, Hunt and Hubby have spent years publicizing the terms of the dispute, always polemically standing on the side of publication of raw materials: of “owning”—that is, polemically insisting upon the non-proprietary nature of the materials in—Young’s very closed archive. When drawn from Conrad’s archive, the exact same documents have a very different status as public programs, entirely available for circulation. When pursuing dissemination, though, the ethical research imperative to recognize them as private correspondence strongly overpowers any claim that they might be recognized as public. From my perspective, neither Young’s claim that they are private correspondence, nor Conrad’s that they are public programs, is absolutely correct here; sadly, a court injunction on the ontological status of the documents seems highly unlikely.
In a climate of “alternative facts,” several questions become pertinent: Is there a scholarly duty to make relevant primary documents public? Further, does the archival decision to class what Conrad considered a “public program” as, following Young’s conception, “correspondence” bar that document from public commentary and circulation? I of course respect the responsibility of librarians and archivists to those who deposit materials with them; but where does the line fall between respect for well-founded institutional regulations and what would, in other domains, be called simple censorship? Should that line be redrawn when someone like Hunt makes the same documents publically available? That is, are these cards—now that they are available online—still material that cannot be reproduced according to the categorization of the archives where I first saw them? Or do they officially make the ontological-classificatory leap from “correspondence” to “program”? All of this does not even begin to raise the most important problem: if permission is required from anyone, should it not be Marian Zazeela, whose calligraphic design on the cards is the only thing that can be considered intellectual property?
Musical authorship, and the subsequent understanding of authority generally, can be read not only in the materials of an archive, but simply in a composer’s personal relationship to concepts of public and private, access and secrecy. Since Conrad’s death in April 2016, it is more likely than ever that this dispute will never reach any conclusive resolution. Twenty years earlier, at the height of the feud, Conrad famously told an interviewer “La Monte Young wants me to die without hearing my music.” As a researcher engaged with these secret documents—and perhaps this applies to any musicologist working with or on living musicians—it feels pertinent not to forget the perspective an individual has on the documents of their actions: is public scrutiny a liability or an asset?
Patrick Nickleson is a doctoral candidate in musicology at the University of Toronto, where his dissertation research examines the authorial politics of minimalism, drawing extensively on the historiographic theory of Jacques Rancière. His article on transcription in minimalism is forthcoming in Twentieth Century Music.
 Branden Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Verso, 2008): 35-6.  Tony Conrad, Early Minimalism: Volume 1 (Table of the Elements CD As-33, 1997).  http://media.hyperreal.org/zines/est/intervs/conrad.html  Jeremy Grimshaw, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).