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The Rise of Minimalism

(the following is an article from the Winter 2012 edition of Listen Magazine, reprinted with permission)

A short history of the people and gestures that made a movement.
By Menon Dwarka

Minimalism changed the listener’s experience to something much more akin to that of a museumgoer. When a pattern repeats, you have a few moments to listen to the various parts of the sounds as if you are walking around a sculpture. When the pattern changes slightly, it is as if the sculpture moves or shifts with each change in the pattern; you can gain new insight into the music with each movement or change. The act of listening is much more peaceful and simple.
—Joan La Barbara, vocalist and composer

Franz Liszt wrote In festo transfigurationis Domini nostri Jesu Christi, a piece for solo piano, in 1880. In many ways the work is representative of Liszt’s late, experimental style: it has sparse, ascetic textures, fleeting traces of theme or motive, and modulations that leave the work ending in a different key than it began. The work’s most striking feature, however, is the music’s texture. The piece opens with a slowly moving melody doubled in octaves in the left hand, while the right hand maintains constant upward arpeggios, with both hands stopping for rolled chords or silence. It sounds uncannily like the music of Philip Glass, whose work came to symbolize the height of Minimalism in the late 1960s and ’70s.

Barring outright plagiarism, what conditions would allow a listener to confuse the work of a twentieth- century composer with that of a late-nineteenth-century piano virtuoso?

First, the piano virtuoso was more of a composer than he’s usually given credit for; Liszt foreshadowed the harmonic developments of the early 1900s even as he consolidated the Romantic style of the time. Still, no one could have predicted how quickly things would change in the twentieth century. Music began to mirror the increasing complexity of the industrialized West. Orchestras got bigger, scores got louder, and the sound of the music started to take on both the internal, psychological turmoil of the composer as well as the percussive, machine-like sonorities of urban life. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók and Varèse crafted scores full of dissonance, noise and chaos. By the 1950s, a collective of young European composers was trying to tame this wildness by relying on numerical relationships between the various parameters of sound (pitch, duration, dynamics, timbre), but this only resulted in works of greater complexity. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen, a work for three orchestras, is now regarded as the masterwork of this period. Each orchestra has its own conductor, sometimes converging on a single tempo, sometimes running off in different directions. Completed in 1957, Gruppen is a thrilling example of postwar aesthetics, a triumph of rational thought over sentimental emotion, self-consciously pointing the way towards the music of the future. The following year, a twenty-three-year old UCLA student named La Monte Young would pen a string trio that would change the course of music history.

Young could have been one of America’s great jazz musicians. He started his career playing alongside Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in Los Angeles, but before too long, Gagaku — a form of Japanese classical music — and Indian classical music began to capture his imagination. He also fell under the musical spell of Anton Webern,
the Viennese composer whose atonal miniatures were filled with as much sound as silence. Add to this Young’s interest in early European liturgical music, and you have a composer whose vantage point was well outside the norm of most classical music listeners. But Young was not strictly a classical composer. He was a creative musician whose passion encompassed notated and improvised, Western and Eastern, ancient and avant-garde music.

Young’s Trio for Strings, written in 1958, presents no new compositional techniques. It’s a very modest twelve- tone work following Anton Webern’s example, and there are no new notational or performance practices in the score. But there is one striking thing about the work: it’s slow. Very, very slow. By simply ratcheting down the tempo of the piece, Young altered the listener’s perception of the material in the same way that time-lapse photography reveals details otherwise invisible to the naked eye. There are no drones in this piece (as there would be in Young’s subsequent work), but the very slow tempo makes otherwise long notes seem everlasting, if not eternal. With just a few notes on the page, Young offered a new way of hearing music for the curious listener, and an alternate path away from Stockhausen’s dazzling deluge of notes. His trio would be the soil from which Minimalism would take root.

In 1963 one of Young’s friends, Terry Riley, was commissioned to write a piece for the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Like Young, Riley was an improvising musician who was also interested in non-Western music, but Riley had had conservatory training prior to his undergraduate work. Despite the name, the Tape Center was frequented by a group of composer–performers that included Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and a young Steve Reich.

The Tape Center musicians played a group of instruments that didn’t fit neatly into a standard chamber music group, and Riley’s piece was meant to be performed with minimal rehearsal. The result was In C, a score written on a single sheet of paper but containing fifty-three melodic fragments. No instrumentation is specified, so the work can be performed by any number and any type of instrumentalist. Each melodic fragment is repeated for a performer-determined length of time before he or she moves to the next one. The fragments resemble ones that would later appear in Minimalist works of the 1970s, but since the players determine the number of times they will repeat a fragment, the surface texture of the work lies somewhere between canon (the imitation of a melody at a later point in time, sounding over itself to create its own accompaniment), heterophony (the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line between several parts) and hocket (when two or more melodies, sounding together, make a third that, while heard, does not appear in the score). Like Young’s trio, things take a long time to change in In C, but there’s a lot more surface activity between big changes in texture and register.

There are certain performance problems inherent in presenting a work like In C, not least of which is keeping everyone in time while allowing them the freedom to move independently to subsequent melodic fragments without getting lost. There is, however, a performance instruction in the notes of the score that is meant to address this problem: “The ensemble can be aided by the means of an eighth note pulse played on the high Cs of the piano or on a mallet instrument.” This suggestion seems to have come not from Riley, but from one of his fellow composers who took part in the premiere, Steve Reich.

Reich had a more traditional music education than either Young or Riley. He studied composition at Juilliard and worked with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud at Mills College, but his boyhood passion had been drumming, particularly the bebop drumming of Kenny Clarke. Performing in the premiere of In C exposed Reich to a rich palette of fresh ideas, including the use of diatonic material unmoored from the safe harbor of common-practice harmony, and writing against a constant pulse rather than set meters of threes, fours, fives, et cetera. And, of course, repetition. Lots and lots of repetition, with big changes happening at a glacial pace. Since the pitch material for Reich’s work was diatonic and not twelve-tone, when he spent a lot of time in that space, it was not unpleasant. In fact, it was thrilling and enjoyable. Reich was introducing Western music to groove, something that had existed in twentieth-century popular music but had been all but invisible in classical concert halls. (Only Stravinsky’s ostinato figures had approached groove, which is one reason why the Russian-born New Yorker is cited as an important influence on the early Minimalists.)

For all its promise, In C is a road map for a performance, not a score. It was Reich who bridged the gap between mass improvisation and formal composition by creating fully notated scores. He also created clear formal divisions between sections of a work, giving the music a shape and definition that was not possible in a performance of In C. Drumming, a work from 1971, represents the best of Reich’s writing during that period.

Finding performers to play this new kind of music wasn’t easy. Some thought the return to tonal writing laughable, the incessant repetition of material indicating a poverty of ideas on the part of the composer. In truth, very few musicians could perform this music with the precision and stamina it required. Reich formed his own ensemble. Over the years many composer–performers of note passed through it, including James Tenney and Joan La Barbara. And in 1967 Reich found an equal partner in the development of this style when he presented a concert of his music in a loft in New York’s SoHo district, and Philip Glass was in the audience.

The two began to perform in each other’s ensembles, working together to support each other’s vision. Glass had an even more traditional music education than Reich; he had attended Juilliard and worked with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, which had become a kind of finishing school among American composers since Aaron Copland had first joined her class in the 1920s. Like other Minimalist composers, Glass had an awareness of non-Western music, having had the good fortune to work with sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar as a copyist and transcriber during his time in Paris.

Glass’s signature melodic figure is the arpeggio (a linear representation of a chord), and one of his prime methods of forward movement is the use of scales. Arpeggios and scales are the foundation of most pieces of Western music, but at this early stage of his career, Glass seemed intent on recombining these elements into new configurations. What is striking about the work of Glass and Reich during this early period is the speed of many of the pieces, the slightest variation in length of repetition sounding like a skipping needle on an old vinyl record player. The Glass work Music in Similar Motion from 1969 is an exemplary work of this style.

During the early 1970s, Reich made several trips to Europe to perform his music. Since these tours were conducted on a tight budget, he decided to hire local musicians in London to perform in his ensemble. Cornelius Cardew and Gavin Bryars became part of the group, as well as Michael Nyman, who appears to have coined the term Minimalism for these early Glass and Reich works just as the movement began turning away from its original principles.

In 1974 Glass completed a work for his ensemble called Music in 12 Parts. It would be the culmination of his work as a Minimalist composer. One of the greatest contributions of Minimalism had been the way it sidestepped traditional harmony by employing canon, heterophony and hocket, but by the time Glass composed Music in 12 Parts, he had integrated common-practice harmony back into his music by reintroducing functional bass lines. He also used a twelve-tone row as a passacaglia theme, appropriating the chief technical device used by Stockhausen and the musical world the Minimalists had originally rebelled against.

Glass also focused the repetition away from the local level, where short patterns had given his music that feeling of a skipping vinyl record, to the phrase structure of the work, which isn’t so different from how composers like Schubert or Bruckner extended material in their own works.

Written after the mid-1970s, Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach and Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians can best be classified as post-Minimalist pieces because of the way they parse out harmony over huge blocks of time. While Einstein has sections that hearken back to the heterophony of Glass’s earlier work, there are clear chord progressions, as well.

One of the last vestiges of Minimalism was unusual instrumentation. Since the first performance of In C, minimalist groups had typically formed around a small number of musicians and had tended to favor specific colors not associated with classical chamber music. Reich’s group used a lot of mallet instruments, while Glass used portable organs and keyboards. But as these composers’ reputations grew, so did the appetite of commissioning organizations for their work; with these larger commissions came larger ensembles of a more traditional makeup. Satyagraha, Glass’s 1979 opera on Gandhi’s early struggles in South Africa, was scored for an orchestra of strings and winds. It sounds closer to a movie score than to Young’s trio.

From the end of the 1970s, the French term for Minimalism, La musique répétitive, might better describe the music that followed. Many of the composers who performed with Reich on his first European tours went on to have commercial success writing repetitive music. Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) had chart success with a recording featuring singer Tom Waits, and Michael Nyman wrote one of the most commercially successful soundtracks in the history of film for Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993).

But the influence of Minimalism had already been felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki withdrew from styles even more dense that Stockhausen’s Gruppen to write some of Europe’s most serene music in centuries. Pärt, whom Reich has called “Europe’s greatest living composer,” developed a technique, tintinnabuli, that pairs the notes of a diatonic melody with its closest neighbor of a tonic triad, providing new note combinations not possible in traditional harmony — all set against the backdrop of a pervasive chordal drone. Soprano Dawn Upshaw’s recording of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, which uses canon and long sustained notes to create a meditative and lush palette, sold over one million copies. Even György Ligeti, a colleague of Stockhausen and one of the true pioneers of postwar music, paid homage to Minimalism in the second of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos, Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin is there, too).

Over time, the elements of Minimalism became so denatured that phrase repetition replaced pattern repetition, functional harmony and tonal modulation replaced pantonal forms, strings and pianos replaced marimbas and organs, and heterophonic textures were replaced by melodies with accompaniment. There was nothing stop- ping composers from writing like Franz Liszt, and they could fully turn their back on the East without betraying their brand. John Adams and Michael Torke have absorbed elements of Minimalism into their own styles, but their audience is seeking something more familiar to the current state of American concert life. Still, Louis Andriessen seems committed to expanding the harmonic palette of Minimalism to include darker, more ambiguous colors, and the Bang on a Can collective of composer and performers will ensure an enduring connection between Minimalism and rock music, something Glass achieved with his connections to David Bowie and Brian Eno. It appears that the fallout of Minimalism will be with us for some time to come.