Saturday, November 26, 2011


Kings Place in London presented a concert this week purporting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 'minimalism' and The Guardian has an article on it that manages to summarize a lot of the errors and misunderstandings about this musical style. First of all, 'minimalism' is not a term liked very much by many of the composers called minimalists--Steve Reich in particular, who prefers the term 'process music'. Let's lay out some historical perspective, which is missing from the article. We can see three major phases in music during the 20th century. First was the inheritance of the 19th century: large, harmonically complex works with rich colors such as the symphonies by Mahler, Nielsen, Sibelius and others. The early music of Schoenberg is in this category. But it was Schoenberg that also, along with his students Berg and Webern, broke with that tradition and founded a new one: Viennese serialism that replaced harmonic structures with atonal ones. Accompanying this was a changed approach to rhythm that was equally important but less discussed. Throughout the 19th century rhythms had become more ponderous and thick. The new atonal composers fragmented rhythm and suppressed a sense of regular pulse. Have a listen to this:

This kind of approach was predominant in the first half of the century and the jagged approach to rhythm increased:

Most listeners were not won over by this kind of music which left the door open for an entirely new approach which began in the 1960s. An early work is Terry Riley's In C, written in 1964:

What makes this such a revolutionary break are two elements: the fixed rhythmic pulse and the return to tonality, hence the title, In C. A few years later Philip Glass began to write similar music:

Coming from a slightly different angle was Steve Reich. With a background in both philosophy and percussion, his early pieces used tape loops:

What is going on here is that a short tape loop is duplicated and the different loops slowly drift away from one another--go out of phase. From this Reich developed the idea of 'phasing', doing the same thing in live performance:

This may seem a bit arid, but it is actually the first genuinely new rhythmic idea to appear in music in a very long time. The inspiration was probably equally due to the mechanism of tape loops and Reich's study of drumming in Ghana. He developed the idea in the large piece Drumming. Here is an excerpt:

The phasing was slowly phased out, but Reich added tonal harmony to the basic idea of pulse:

Melody even started coming back: listen to the lovely bebop-like flute tune starting around 2:14.

Despite what the article in the Guardian says, this really isn't about minimalism at all. What happened in the 1960s and 70s was similar to what happened around 1600: a well-established musical style started to become perceived as too structured, too remote from the kind of expression composers were looking for. So they tossed it out and went back to the fundamental elements of music. In their case they tossed out the complexities of late 16th century counterpoint such as this:

They replaced austere counterpoint with harmonic and expressive immediacy, as in this music:

The collection was even called "le nuove musiche". What is happening in both transitions is inspired by what I call the racinative impulse, the need from time to time to renew music by returning to the most basic fundamentals. I talk about that in this post.

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