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Minimal music, maximum impact

With time, minimalist composition has come to be associated with only a handful of names. But as this new collection shows, the innovators behind this often-overlooked genre include some lesser known figures
November 26, 2023
On Minimalism: Documenting a Musical Movement
Kerry O’Brien and William Robin (RRP: £30)

I’ve often thought that the history of minimalist composition has itself been shaped like a minimalist composition, with hazy and uncertain beginnings that gather impetus over the long haul, to the point where repeating, oscillating patterns flood the brain. The version of minimalism’s history told in the UK during the late 1980s—when I came of musical age—was pegged around three pivotal figures: Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, the last of whom had already jumped ship to write music that willingly embraced neoromanticism, jazz and pop. Those in the know might also have told you about Terry Riley—whose 1964 composition In C properly set the whole minimalist revolution in motion—and about La Monte Young, whose austere early scores and ideas about non-standard tunings rebounded into the early thinking of the Velvet Underground.

The rationale behind this new minimalist reader, with pieces collected, edited and introduced by two American musicologists, is to serve up a broader overview of the music and its impact. Kerry O’Brien and William Robin are concerned as much with defining the minimalist impulse as with settled ideas of minimalism as musical genre. Reich, Glass, Adams, Riley and Young are all central, but their stories are digested as parts of a more balanced diet of minimalism.

I started reading this book, as it happens, on the day I took my daughter to John Lewis in Oxford to buy her first iPad. Travelling up the escalator to the computer department, my ears were filled with those repeating, oscillating patterns I just mentioned, served up by the store’s sound system and obviously inspired by classic Reich pieces such as Music for Eighteen Musicians or Drumming, but here reduced to ear-wormy soundbites that sounded more like the zombie shopping-mall music of George Romero’s Dawn of The Dead.

Even before that shopping trip, I’d noticed how much of my two children’s screentime on YouTube or on television is dominated by music that explicitly, or sometimes unknowingly, references minimalism. For people of my generation, who grew up during the 1970s, the prevailing soundtrack referenced big-band jazz and synth pop. For earlier generations, it was the pomp and ceremony of 1950s Hollywood film scores. But today the dominant soundtrack relates to minimalism—and as soon as you realise that, you’ll find it impossible not to hear traces of Glass and Reich popping up everywhere, in film scores, pop songs and background jingles.

With minimalism now feeling as ubiquitous as iPhones and iPads, O’Brien and Robin are at pains to stress the music’s roots in American postwar counterculture. An early work of Riley’s, which he titled Mescalin Mix, gave notice that the early minimalists—before the term minimalism even existed—were often hippies and social dropouts. Another hoary perceived wisdom in the history of minimalist composition—that Riley, Reich et al devised their music in direct opposition to the European academic 12-tone composition which, some history books insist, was dominating American music departments at the time—suggests a clash of culture as much as of sound. European modernist composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, were characterised as stuffed-shirt bureaucrats, inspired more by theory than by sound. Riley and Reich were, in contrast, hip to modern jazz, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Reich studied 12-tone music by day, but was stimulated more by hearing Miles Davis and John Coltrane play jazz clubs by night; La Monte Young was a childhood friend of Eric Dolphy, the genius saxophonist who later worked with Coltrane and bassist and composer Charles Mingus.

Meanwhile, Glass was distancing himself from Europe by immersing himself in Indian classical music, in particular its modular rhythmic structures, ideas that clarified in his mind’s ear when he assisted Ravi Shankar on a film score in 1966. Wafting through the meditative loops we have come to associate with early minimalist classics–Riley’s In C, Reich’s Four Organs and Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts—you can practically smell the odour of substances being smoked. European modernists apparently took no drugs at all, modern jazz musicians took heroin to speed things up—while the minimalists smoked dope to slow perception down.

Where this hippy nirvana ends is predictable enough: with Glass’s smash-hit opera Einstein on the Beach selling out the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and with Reich’s beautifully—dare I say “classically”?—proportioned Music for 18 Musicians receiving its premiere at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan. These onetime modernist mutineers had started to write “proper” music, which would be respectfully reviewed, recorded and published, becoming new stars of American composition who were suddenly spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Which is where O’Brien and Robin leave the story hanging at the end of the first part of their book. Their determination to broaden the narrative notwithstanding, their use of minimalism as a battering ram against European modernism, which comes as standard in most accounts of minimalism, is a recurring theme. The evils of academic “complexity” are swept aside by a “welcome” return to rhythm and meter. Being the sort of listener who appreciates 1950s Stockhausen—Kontakte or Gruppen—for similar reasons to Riley’s In C, such naked tribalism saddens me. Both Stockhausen and Riley opened up new ritual spaces in which a fresh sort of musical experience—one that has nothing to do with the classical archetype as typified by Mozart or Schumann—could unfold. Neither composer concerned himself with emoting, or with pegging their compositions around a narrative; rather, they took an objectified view of musical material. Gruppen and In C trace the process of what happens when very defined groups of notes are set in motion and then made to behave in accordance with a set of carefully preordained rules. (And, for the record, I strongly suspect that Stockhausen was no stranger to the delights of mind-altering substances.)

“Process” turns out to be a key word, both historically and technically. Before the term “minimalism” became part of the musical lexicon, early Glass, Riley and Reich works were often termed “process pieces”, and O’Brien and Robin reprint in full Reich’s 1968 milestone essay “Music as a Gradual Process” in which he argued in favour of music that was about nothing other than its own unwinding: “pieces of music that are, literally, processes”. Riding romantic climaxes, reconciling symphonic tension, or working towards a conclusion was not the goal. Minimalist pieces didn’t end; once the process had worked itself out, they simply stopped. 

In the aftermath of mainstream hits such as Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, you perceive a parting of the waves. The cottage-industry atmosphere of early gigs—the singer Joan La Barbara remembers walking to the Bowery, climbing up 10 flights of stairs, past heavy metal doors and guard dogs, to find an audience of 15 people zoning into an early Philip Glass performance—became slick and professional, with pieces that followed suit. Reich’s 1987 The Four Sections, a disastrous attempt to cloak a conventional symphony orchestra in minimalist principles, and Glass’s off-the-peg film scores suggested that they had entered a flabby middle-aged comfort zone. A degree of protectionist intolerance, the same mindset they had once accused academic 12-tone composers of back in the day, had also set in. When I interviewed Reich in 2010, he said, “Brahms is a great composer… but I don’t want to hear a note of it, not now, not later, not ever. Same thing for Mahler, Wagner, Sibelius. If it all disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t even know.”

These founding fathers might have gone off the creative boil, but how was that minimalist impulse doing? You might come to this book for Reich, Glass and Riley, but it’s definitely worth staying for O’Brien and Robin’s inspiring accounts of musicians, many not achieving anything like mainstream success, who delight in keeping the minimalist instinct pure. I use the term “founding fathers” advisedly, because accounts of minimalist composition have hitherto been almost exclusively white and male. The authors give notice early on that their route through the story will take other pathways by opening with a 1987 piece by the poet and critic Amiri Baraka that speaks of Miles Davis’s “penchant for minimalism”. Davis’s most famous album, Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959, ditched the high-pace fervour associated with bebop in favour of improvising over glacial drone-like patterns. Later we read the British writer David Toop, in his 2018 article “Black Minimalism”, outlining a troubling history of deep unease within minimalist circles at the idea that black musicians had anything useful to add, which often led to their wilful exclusion.

Since Toop’s article was first published in the Wire, the dial has undoubtedly shifted. The emergence of the composer, singer and pianist Julius Eastman as a musician of significance, rescued from the history books, coincided almost to the day with the rise of Donald Trump—the spirit and message of his music seemingly acting as a corrective. In a predominantly white new music scene, Eastman was black, gay and proud. He was a jobbing musician who variously played in jazz, rock and disco outfits, while also singing in Baroque oratorios and premieres of new work, sometimes under the baton of Pierre Boulez. Although undoubtedly intrigued by the likes of Glass and Reich, Eastman’s own raison d’être for working with coiling arpeggios in his own compositions was to torpedo their progress through in-the-moment improvisation. When Eastman died in 1990, homeless on the streets of New York City after being evicted from his apartment, he was promptly airbrushed out of existence. His experience was not unique. Eastman’s friend Arthur Russell, a cellist and composer who once dated Allen Ginsberg, suffered a similar silencing.

Female composers on the scene—Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Catherine Christer Hennix, Annea Lockwood—were also kept at arm’s length. Eastman played on two of Monk’s earliest and greatest 1980s albums, Dolmen Music and Turtle Dreams, which, despite being released on high-ranking new music label ECM, are rarely considered on a par with totemic moments such as In C or Music for 18 Musicians. I progressed through a university music degree that had Glass, Riley and Reich on the syllabus—where John Adams was spoken of as a composer whose romanticised minimalism was a good thing, no question—without Monk ever being mentioned. Her music, often slighter in scale, inhabits another world from mainstream minimalism’s streamlined cleanliness. A folksy joy, fuelled by whimsy, occasionally busts out into nonsense humour that Spike Milligan would have been proud to call his own. Monk also reinvented the whole idea of what singing can be. As she explains in the book, in connection to Dolmen Music, her unique repertoire of vocal slides, whoops of delight, throaty growls and angelic chirrups were developed through trial-and-error, inching towards the vocal technique required to express her music; she didn’t acquire a technique first from which she constructed a music. “I have developed a vocabulary and a style designed to utilize as wide a range of vocal sound as possible,” she explains.

Further examples cited in the book of musicians using minimal resources and material to snare extended ranges of sound would include Catherine Christer Hennix’s (whose death was reported this week) obsession with letting tiny micro-adjustments of tuning play out over vast timespans, Annea Lockwood’s ambitious multimedia projects, the bruising guitar noise of Rhys Chatham, and the finespun textures of Ellen Fullman’s self-invented string instruments. If the rascally unpredictability of this more conceptual vision of minimalism has resisted the commercial world entirely, never yielding the dollars that could be squeezed out of Reich and Glass, O’Brien and Robin’s prodigious anthologising makes space for it all.

Everything you could want to know about minimalism—from its pre-history to its pioneering go-getters piecing together a music that had yet to solidify into a genre—is surveyed and assessed. But the book also moves beyond our understanding of minimalism as “genre” to remind us that minimalist sounds have attained ubiquitous functionality, like the corporate harnessing of melodic loops that I heard travelling up the escalator at John Lewis. Music, I would hope, has a duty to aspire to more than this functionality and intelligent sonic design. O’Brien and Robin issue a clarion reminder that, beyond the merely functional, the minimalist impulse maintains an active lunatic fringe—a place where composers continue to worry at convention and pose questions about what music can be, and what it is composers do.