Thursday, December 5, 2013

Minimalism in Music

A commentator asked me to write something about minimalism and within five minutes of starting to do some basic research I discovered several things that I previously didn't know! One is the use of the term "systems" music to refer to some minimalist techniques. Another is that both Steve Reich and Philip Glass were influenced by a street musician in New York known as "Moondog" or "the Viking of 6th Avenue"! Here is a photo:

Moondog recorded quite a lot of music. Here is a short sample:

Moondog reminds me of another eccentric American composer, the West Coast musician Harry Partch. Both led unconventional lives and invented their own musical instruments.

In the earliest stages of what came to be known as "minimalism" composers such as Terry Riley on the West Coast and Steve Reich on the East Coast experimented with tape delay and tape loops. Both of these techniques lead to the idea of repetition. The idea of returning to simplicity seems to have been the impetus to write music that was tonal, or at least tonally static. An early example is Terry Riley's In C dating from 1964. Here is just the first part of the original recording:

Steve Reich moved from overlapping tape loops to trying to reproduce some of the rhythmic effects with musicians. Here is Piano Phase dating from 1967. Just after the one minute mark you can hear one of the pianos "phasing" against the other. The effect is created by very slightly speeding up so the sixteenths "slip" or "phase" against one another until they come into phase again, but one sixteenth apart.

Philip Glass, who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, so had more of a traditional grounding, was very influenced by hearing Steve Reich's music and began to write his own minimal compositions. Here is the first part of Music in Fifths dating from 1969:

Both Steve Reich and Philip Glass have undergone such huge developments in their composition that it is probably no longer suitable to stick the label "minimalist" on their music. But the experience of paring music down to its most fundamental--minimal--parts and then rebuilding from there has probably given their music a special kind of energy. Steve Reich moved on to complex but repetitive ensemble pieces like his Music for 18 Musicians from 1976. Here is the first part:

Philip Glass has become enormously prolific, writing not only operas and film scores, but also concertos and symphonies. He has described himself as a classicist, though I don't recall where. Now here is an interesting connection: Dennis Russell Davies, the conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, commissioned Glass' Symphony No. 3. Here is the first movement:

So what is the connection? Dennis Russell Davies and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra are the artists who recorded the complete symphonies of Joseph Haydn that I am currently listening my way through!

After I finish with Haydn, I would really like to take a close look at the symphonies of Philip Glass. In the meantime, enjoy. Here is another movement from the Glass symphony:

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