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Musical Toronto: Russell Hartenberger – You can’t make me call it minimalism

Most Minimalists don’t carry membership cards anymore. But they do know something about guilt by association. Just ask Russell Hartenberger.

Picture yourself in SoHo, New York, in the summer of 1970. Psychedelia was dying out. There was violence and civil unrest reported in the news. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated the year before. There was a massacre at My Lai in Vietnam. Students were protesting at eight different University campuses across the U.S.

Nineteen-seventy New York City was a hotbed for a new type of DIY style classical music that is still very much underground. The fires of political unrest set the stage for musicians to seek alternative ways to create classical music that better represented America’s cultural melting pot.

In comes Russell Hartenberger, a young graduate student from Wesleyan University, obsessed with African percussion. He was planning a summer trip to Ghana, to learn more about it. “There is something about repetition that draws you inside and puts you in touch with your inner self as a performer and also as a listener,” he recalls.

While Hartenberger was getting deep into African Drumming with his teacher, Abraham Adzenyah, he is introduced to Steve Reich, who was busy composing Drumming, a new experimental piece that uses his trademark technique of phasing. Hartenberger joined Reich’s group for a rehearsal, and “found the music really interesting and different… and I’ve been playing with them ever since — that was the Spring of 1971…”.

Hartenberger described the “rote process” as something similar to his experience learning African drumming. “Steve was composing while we were rehearsing it. He would come in and demonstrate the parts, and we would imitate it for a long time until we got it right, and then we would get to the part we learned the week before.” It was a revelation for Hartenberger. For the first time, he saw how non-western music could coexist side-by-side with Western art music.

By Michael Vincent.

Read the full profile here.