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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Minimalism Reconsidered

Labels are misleading.

For example, I see little or no similarity in what has been called Minimalism in the field of music and Minimalism in the visual arts. In my view, you can find elements in the music of Morton Feldman, Toru Takamitsu, and Anton Webern that share the Minimalist aesthetic of clean design, directness, avoidance of aperiodicity, embellishment, and noise. As different as these "pre-Minimalist" composers are from each other, any one of them could be a sympathetic companion to the Minimalist movement in art that began in painting and sculpture in the 1970s.

But in the field of contemporary music, Minimalism has been a significant cultural event. Like it or not, the presence of Minimalist music has gone from experimentation by a few non-establishment downtown composers working in lower Manhattan, to the international musical mainstream in just a few decades. I’ve observed it first hand, and am not oblivious to this monumental shift in musical culture or the reasons behind it. In the interest of simplicity, I will limit my discussion to the primary American proponents of Minimalist music, although there is currently a thriving sub-category of composers labeled as “Eastern European Mystic Minimalists.” These composers include Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt.

I have known about Minimalist composers since the late 1960’s and early 70’s, when Philip Glass and his ensemble performed regularly in Greenwich Village. Tim Page, the music critic with the Village Voice, would often review these concerts at The Kitchen and at other small venues. Glass, was a Juilliard graduate who attended concurrently along side Joshua Rifkin, the well-known pianist, conductor, and musicologist. Glass, upon his return to NY from studies in Paris was looking for work. He ultimately supported himself as a plumber and NYC taxi driver while composing in his spare time. These side-line professions were later to become part of the Glass mystique.

In 1974, curious to learn what this music was all about, I purchased a ticket for what has since been called by John Rockwell (music critic for the NY Times) a historic concert. It was the first complete performance of Glass’s “Music in Twelve Parts.” The venue was Town Hall. This was the first time his music would be presented in an “uptown” venue (although technically it was “mid-town”). The concert was indeed a happening. The near-capacity audience was very different from the new music concerts I usually attended by ensembles such as “The Group for Contemporary Music” at Columbia University. These concert-goers were young and trendy, NYC hip, and looked ready and eager to hear something new and avant-garde. As I looked around the hall, most member of the audience had their eyes closed and seemed to be using the drone of the loud pulsating music as a way to facilitate self-induced meditation or trance.

Experiencing Minimalism through their ears was an eye opener for me. It surely was a way of listening that was very different from what I was accustomed to, and I was simply not able to experience the music as they did. Personally I found Glass’s music to be too loud, harmonically static, needlessly repetitive, devoid of form and content, totally lacking any semblance of melodic line, and missing even the most basic elements of contrast and forward harmonic motion. At the end of the evening, the ensemble ended together - cold, randomly, and for no musical rhyme or reason at all. Everyone was quite amazed (and in my case relieved) that the musicians could end at precisely the same time, since there was no other clear indication that the work had completed its course or come to a logical conclusion. Although the concert had gone on for many hours with the same monotonous drone, I couldn’t deny the cultural significance of the moment. It was perhaps THE inflection point of a change that would dominate the world of musical composition for the next three or four decades.

In America the battle between the dominant “isms” of the Schoenberg and Stravinsky legacies went well into the 1970’s, with Minimalism slowly but steadily making major in-roads as a major player (Remember that Stravinsky lived until 1971). In November of 1976 the Glass-Wilson opera “Einstein on the Beach” filled the Metropolitan Opera house for two sold out performances at a time when “serious” productions of operas by modernist composers was unheard of. Other Minimalist composers/performers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich were getting more attention too, and in time they made their way to major recording labels. But there was always serious friction between the academic musical community, and the band of renegade outsiders who the critics conveniently lumped together under the label “Minimalists.” They didn’t fit the mold of having a PhD and a university professorship. They did not descend aesthetically from either the Schoenberg or Stravinsky lineage. They were more akin to electronic rock musicians on a road trip than what the establishment considered as part of the standard profile for an American composer.

I remember attending a Terry Riley concert sponsored by the Fromm Foundation at Sanders Theatre at Harvard in the early 1970’s. The Fromm concerts at Harvard did (and still do) offer a diversity of musical viewpoints. The Riley concert was very well attended, but Earl Kim (a distinguished composer from the Harvard faculty) and his wife conspicuously stormed out of the hall about 10 minutes into the performance. I’m sure he knew quite well what Riley’s music would be like before attending, but he was making a strong visual and political statement by walking out in disgust. In his view (and by implication the view of the musical establishment at Harvard), this was not contemporary music, and perhaps not even music at all.

Jump ahead 34 years… Philip Glass has become the establishment. In 2007 he was invited to represent American composers at the re-dedication of Lincoln Center for a nationally televised PBS broadcast Live from Lincoln Center "Lincoln Center Special: A Gala Night at Alice Tully Hall." At that event he sat down at a Steinway grand piano to perform his solo Etude. I swear that he arpeggiated the same insipid nonsensical chords that I heard him play at Town Hall three and a half decades earlier. Glass (now with the aid of a cadre of assistants) has composed a large catalog of musical works for chamber ensemble, chorus, orchestra, and - according to his own words - “has written so many operas that he has lost count.” Glass has guest appeared on popular TV shows such as NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and made millions of dollars from movie scores, concerts, and recordings. He is in fact a household name, surpassing Bernstein or Copland, at least with the younger generation. In terms of public recognition and support, Glass has outpaced virtually all of his contemporaries in the field, and acquired a cult status usually associated with mega-pop stars. NY Times critic John Rockwell played a significant role in popularizing Glass.

Those are the facts. But should this cultural shift in music be considered a victory for Minimal-ism over the other “isms?”

Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about another composer often identified as a proponent of Minimalistic music.

In 2007 “Minimalist” composer John Adams delivered a speech at Paine Hall, Harvard. It was an acceptance speech for a distinguished music award presented to him by the university’s president. He read a section of his forthcoming book of memoirs and commentary on American musical life (“A Rhythm Among Harmonie”), and referenced his tumultuous years as a composition student at Harvard, and how he found the prevailing “isms” of academia in the 1970’s stymieing. He said “those were dark times.”

John Adams is not that much older than I, and our musical development, studies, and personal journey as students in Boston were nearly contemporaneous. We must have known some of the same musicians and teachers, and attended some of the same concerts. We were educated with a similar methodology and in a similar cultural context. He studied at Harvard with Kirchner. I studied at New England Conservatory and Brandeis with Martino and Boykan. At the core, we are both products of the same musical upbringing and social network.

When Adams referred to “those dark times” concerning Boston’s new music scene in the 1970’s, I had to think that we must have been on different planets. I found almost everything about contemporary music in the Boston of that era to be fascinating, exciting, and intellectually intriguing. Gunther Schuller was making history as President of New England Conservatory, the Boston Musica Viva regularly premiered new works by Boston-area composers, and other new music groups played a diversity of compelling works. Conard Pope and Rodney Lister had curated an innovative concert series of new music at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Great pieces were being written by composers who just happened to hold academic positions for their livelihood. While they may have worked at the one of many colleges, conservatories, or universities in town, they were serious composers first and foremost. I see nothing dismal or lacking in the music of Kirchner, Kim, Shrifrin, Boykan, Martino, Schuller… (and the list goes on). So I don’t quite understand what Adams found boring, lacking, oppressive, or lethal to his creativity. The Zeitgeist of that time was a good one, not evil, ominous, or dark.

If you live long enough, you will see history repeat itself. Now that Minimalism is the establishment, another disruptive style of music will likely ensue. I have listened carefully to the form of Minimalism that Adams has adopted, and heard it evolve over the years. I’m not sure that he still has a lot in common with Glass, Reich, or Riley. He is really a devotee of another kind of “ism” – that of Stravinsky. Although there certainly are a lot of repetitive patterns in Adams’ music, there are also meaningful chord progressions, a sense of musical form in the traditional sense, and at times a semblance of melody. He is willing to take chances and experiment. Adams, and many of the “neo-minimalists” have adopted the surface texture - the driving regular rhythm of Glass – and creatively adopted it to their own methods and style. He seems to have found his voice and niche in stage works. Yet, by riding the cultural wave of the Minimalist bandwagon, he has been able to gain the acceptance of a larger audience while striving to continue the tradition of Stravinsky’s middle period. There is nothing wrong with that. But I have always been wary of those who make pronouncements about moving on to the future while trashing where they came from.

Like Glass, Adams is now a member of the establishment too, although he’d prefer not to admit it. When he won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2003, he emailed a reporter for the NY Times downplaying the significance of the distinguished award. He said “no composer of any value has won the Pulitzer in recent years.” He was apparently trying to distance himself from the entrenched composers of academia, which happen to include his own teacher Leon Kirchner. Yet, Adams could now easily find employment at any university he would want to teach at, and was on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory for a decade.

Today, in 2008 Minimalism in music is little more than a hollow buzz word. Composers have taken what they want and need from it, and moved on from there. A few composers have reacted by calling their music "Maximalist." Younger composers, like Boston’s own Michael Gandolfi incorporate elements of Minimalism in their unique style. In a work commissioned by the Boston and Atlanta Symphonies, Gandolfi’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” uses repetition in a manner similar to what Baroque composers did to articulate a pulse and set a clear harmonic rhythm. It is a monumental work, in sixteen movements grouped in three parts, lasting nearly seventy minutes. Clearly the application of Minimalist techniques has made an impact, and there are some striking examples of positive results in American music of the past few years.

But perhaps the seeds for Minimalism in music go back farther into music history. If you take for example the first prelude (C major) from Book I of JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the arppegiated chords bear a striking resemblance to the surface patterns of any keyboard work by Philip Glass. But there is so much more to Bach, and I suspect that his music will be long lasting and survive when labels such as Minimalism and Maximalism have been forgotten. From this perspective, repetitive patterns, pulsating rhythms, and the subjugation of melody is nothing new. Nineteenth century orchestral music is full of orchestral devices that predate and inspire Minimalist works written today. The list of early examples is lengthy. In this sense, music is coming full-circle again.

Like I said, labels are misleading.