Sunday, January 2, 2011

Slouching Toward Lachenmann: Björk’s Abyss

What Weill said in the twenties held true again:  "Once musicians obtained everything they had imagined in their most daring dreams, they started again from scratch.”
Alex Ross

It was like heaven itself had opened up to me and shown me not a vision of the future at all, but better than that, the beginning of the road to the future.  I had come into the world at the end of an old, complex, overweighted style groaning with European modernist baggage, and history offered me a chance to step onto the ground floor of a bold new enterprise.  I didn't even try to resist.
Kyle Gann

Alex Ross, that indispensable source for all things musical, reported that Björk once said, “Minimalism is my abyss!”  This came to me as something of a shock, as Björk had narrated a series for the BBC on that very thing.

But when I went back to watch the series, having read up a bit on who’s who, I realized she didn’t mention any of the minimalist “Big Three”:  Terry Riley, Steve Reich, or Philip Glass.  Without Björk to guide me, I was thrown back on my own devices and, in quintessential Gradgrind fashion, I set about listening to them all. 

I felt hopeful about my project, for, at the suggestion of John Metcalf, I’d picked up a CD by Steve Reich.  (I'd asked Metcalf about John Coolidge Adams, whose music I know and like.  Of Adams, Metcalf said, “John Adams is a very good composer, but I think Steve Reich is a more individual voice.”)

Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the CD I happened upon, is a masterpiece of exuberant rhythms and tones.  I put it right up there with The Beatles as Music to Jog By.  (I swear I cut my running time by a minute.)  One cautionary note:  you may find you keep jogging in your mind long after the music has stopped.

But as I listened, I kept thinking about Björk’s abyss.  Steve Reich seemed to be right up her alley, so what was it about? 

Time to venture further.  I bought a book called Talking Music, by another composer, William Duckworth, that included interviews with Riley, Reich, and Glass and another fellow, La Monte Young.  Even more than Riley, Young, often described as the Father of Minimalism, was a little too far out for me.  I thought I’d best save him for later and go next to Riley’s In C, which Metcalf had also suggested as a starting point.

I ended up being more interested in the idea of In C than in the fact.  The piece consists of fifty-three short phrases, and the musicians choose when to move from one to the next.  To keep everyone together, one musician has to play high C in a robotic pulse.  (No mean trick, as the length of the piece from beginning to end can be as long as several hours.  Repetitive stress syndrome, here we come.) 

While In C didn’t grab me the way Reich’s music did, I could understand it as a foundation on which a lot of other stuff was built.  But as I read more about Riley and Young and listened to some of their music, a sinking feeling crept up in me.  Could I finally be peering over the edge of Björk’s abyss?  Or if not hers, my own? 

The abyss yawned before me when I delved into the music of La Monte Young.  The instruction for his Composition 1960 # 10 is the Sol Lewitt-ish “Draw a straight line and follow it.”  Other compositions call for building a fire, releasing a butterfly, and feeding a piano.   Composition 1960 #7 consists of two notes, a B and an F-sharp, with the instruction, “To be held for a long time.”  Historical curiosities, for sure, but music?  I don’t know.

Of the Big Three (plus La Monte Young) I’d set myself to listen to, only one now remained:  Philip Glass.  You might be thinking I’d saved the best for last, but, to borrow a favorite line from the Family Historian:

Oh so not the case.

I’d known about Glass long before any of the others and had conceived an immediate dislike.  I remember getting an earful in the movie Koyaanisqatsi.  If I could have, I’d have hit the mute and let those fast-moving landscapes roll past on their own.

But hey, I discovered I shared a birthday with the guy, as well as an alma mater.  Besides, hadn’t there been things about John Cage, of whom I’d held a similarly dyspeptic view, that I’d learned to appreciate and even like?  So why not give Glass another try?

With that in mind, I proceeded to play Glass, clip after clip:  from the sound track for The Hours to Einstein on the Beach to the Violin Concerto to Études for the Piano.  The music was just a little too lugubrious for me.  After a few measures of each piece, I couldn’t help myself:  I’d hit the pause button and go in search of Björk.

Even though she had nothing to say on the subject, I took respite in the YouTube of Björk in full red feather regalia, slipping along the stage in bare feet as she sang Possibly Maybe, or prancing about in an acid yellow dress while Alasdair Malloy, the glass harmonica virtuoso, rang glasses to the strains of Violently Happy.

Sorry, Phil.  I know it’s me, not you.  But, hey, you’ve got plenty of listeners without me.  For now, it seems you are my musical abyss. 

There’s still hope, though.  As Kyle Gann will tell you, there’s plenty more out there than the Big Three plus La Monte, so I’ve got lots of exploring still to do.  In the meantime, I’m all right with Reich.

Postscript:  Since writing this post, I've continued to explore minimalism and found much to enjoy.  For some examples of what's out there, see the "Listening List" at the end of this post.  I've also heard the ensemble contemporaneous give an affecting performance of Glass's String Quartet No. 5.  I'm not ready to revise my overall view of Glass, but this piece, I'll have to admit, I liked.

Here's an appealing trailer for a CD of Reich's Music for 18 Musicians:

To find out more about the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble and their recordings, click here.

For a far more intelligent disquisition on minimalism, I recommend to readers the inestimable Kyle Gann.  Click here for a great place to start.  An interesting article on how to listen to minimalism can be found here.

The two initial quotations are from Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century, p. 516, and Kyle Gann, Minimal Music, Maximal Impact, The New Music Box, November 1, 2001.  The Björk quotation from Alex Ross appears in the chapter “Björk’s Saga” in Ross’s new book, Listen to This.

The photographs of the composers are from  The other three images are stills from YouTube videos of Björk tunes mentioned in this post that can be found here and here.

Listening List

Like any categorization, “minimalism” is deceptive and imprecise.  A narrow definition that many in the U.S. use seems to include little beyond the Big Three plus:  Riley, Reich, Glass, and Young.  In the subsequent generation, John Coolidge Adams is the one most people know here.  Minimalist music, however, is not confined to the States.  Some of the most beautiful works referred to as minimalist can be found abroad.

Joep Franssens
Old Songs, New Songs  (hear an excerpt below)

© Joep Franssens.  By kind permission of Joep Franssens.

(For a list of Franssens' CDs and to listen to more samples of his music, go to his website and click on discography.)

Chiel Meijering
Go where the angels are
Floating into space
She disappears in my dreams

The pieces by Meijering and Franssens listed above are part of the Minimal Piano Collection, Vol. XI-XX, a remarkable compendium of pieces for two to six pianos produced by Jeroen van Veen, which also includes John Metcalf’s terrific piece for six pianos, Never Odd or Even, played with verve and precision by van Veen himself.  

Steve Reich
New York Counterpoint
Vermont Counterpoint

(Both Counterpoints can be found on New Music Masters.) 
Double Sextet and 2x5
Music for 18 Musicians

Philip Glass
String Quartet No. 5

Terry Riley
Land’s End (from The Harp of New Albion, for a piano tuned in just intonation)
A Rainbow in Curved Air

John Coolidge Adams

Nixon in China 
The Wound Dresser (text sung by Hampson is from the poem The Wound-Dresser by Walt Whitman):

Henryk Górecki
Symphony No. 3 (Lentocantabile-semplice):

Arvo Pärt
Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten

Berliner Messe (Alleluia, Sanctus, Gloria):

Both pieces listed, as well as a host of other beautiful pieces by Pärt,
can be found here

John Tavener
The Protecting Veil
Song for Athene (performed by The Sixteen): 


Song for Athene, sung by The Sixteen, can be found here.  I haven’t yet been able to obtain the Tavener CD Ikon of Light, but the recommendation comes from Friko, a trusted source.


  1. " Alex Ross, that indispensable source for all things musical, reported that Björk once said, “Minimalism is my abyss!” This came to me as something of a shock, as Björk had narrated a series for the BBC on that very thing. "

    I was thinking this very same thing only last week. uncanny!

  2. Beaut post but I keep imagining Glass in red leather! I'm a long time fan and give you much crefit for persistence!

  3. I choose my minimalist music with great care. I am nowhere near as far advanced on the path as you are, being a dedicated stick in the mud and fan of 'old' European music as well as plainchant and late medieval music. Sorry, AND a huge fan of opera.

    If you can bear to go back that far try "The Sixteen's" cd "The Flowering of Genius" some time.

    Actually, just try "The Sixteen", they do some wonderful Arvo Part songs too.

    And no, I don't get commission, I just love their music.

  4. Thanks so much for your enthusiasm and support for contemporaneous! We really appreciate the mentions and complements! The Glass String Quartet is certainly a very special piece among his body of work, and probably my favorite of his pieces. It is uniquely moving and affective.

    We play a lot of post-minimalist music with contemporaneous, like Jesse Brown's "Through the Motions," which I think offers more of a way in for listeners than most minimalist music. There is a lot of great stuff going on in that arena.

    We play Terry Riley's "In C" twice a year with contemporaneous, each time along with another piece for indeterminate instrumentation and/or duration. We always invite everyone to participate in "In C" because we believe that the best way to experience it is to play it. Even if you can't read music, you can play the repeated C's to keep everybody together, or keep the beat on a drum. It is a fantastic experience that really takes you on a journey. We also play it in a different place every time because we find that the sound of the piece is really impaced by the environment. To experience "In C" first hand, come join us on the beautiful Blithewood Lawn at Bard College at 5:00 pm on April 26!

  5. Thank you all for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

    Tenon_Saw: So glad you enjoyed the post!

    Derek Piotr: Got a good chuckle out of your comment, and I certainly enjoyed learning a bit about you and listening to some of your sound compositions. Fascinating stuff!

    Von: Glass in red leather, yes indeed. There must certainly be a song in there somewhere, what do you think? Perhaps by Björk?

    Friko: Thank you again for the terrific recommendations. From what I’ve heard of The Sixteen so far, “The Flowering of Genius” is bound to make for brilliant listening. One of the first pieces I heard of theirs was plainchant, and it’s stunning. As a side-note: I wonder whether some minimalist compositions may not borrow from plainchant pretty directly—I’m thinking, for one, of the use of drones. This certainly struck me more than once as I prowled around in the music. In any event, rest assured that I’ve no hesitation going back that far and commend others to try it out as well!

    David: Interesting that you note Jesse Brown’s “Through the Motions.” (For anyone wanting to have a listen to this lovely piece, it’s at the end of the “Only Connect!” post in both audio and video forms, the latter played by contemporaneous.)

    While I certainly don’t have a firm grasp of these categories, my understanding is that “post-minimalist” music uses minimalist elements, but not exclusively, and it makes a lot of sense that such pieces offer more of a way in for the listener. This listener can definitely confirm “Through the Motions” as a good example of that. From the first hearing, I thought it a particularly beautiful piece. I come back to it with pleasure every time—and the great part is it’s not the only beautiful piece by him. I do hope we’ll see a CD from Jesse Brown before too long. He definitely has a big fan in me.

    As for “In C,” you do indeed make it sound like fun! Interesting, too, your remark about how the sound of the piece is affected by the environment in which it is played—that makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you for expanding our musical horizons, and I wish for you, and for all of us, another great year of music-making by contemporaneous!

  6. Another fine, thoughtful post on some fine, thoughtful music.

    Everything's a matter of taste, of course.  I personally like Reich slightly less and Glass a great deal more than it seems you do.  Not that there's anything wrong with that!

    To your comments and recommendations, I'll add these random items:

    Among Glass's works, I would recommend you track down his Symphony No. 3.  I'm partial to Marin Alsop's recording with the Bournemouth Symphony.  No. 3 is all strings, and to my mind it is the unacknowledged Minimalist twin of Beethoven's 7th: the dance rhythms are there, as is the pure sad loveliness of the slow movement.

    For me, Reich's 'Music for 18 Musicians' is his high water mark.  Glad to see you endorsing the Grand Valley version, which I think is every bit as good as Reich's original recording.

    You know Grand Valley's "In C Remixed" project, I hope?  I am, I admit, a sucker for a good "In C."  The remarkable thing about Terry Riley is how almost nothing after "In C" resembles it at all.  To the items you mention, I would add his pieces for classical guitar, collectively titled "The Book of Abbeyouzud," a number of which have been recorded by David Tanenbaum (accompanied on some by Terry's son Gyan Riley, who is a pretty extraordinary guitarist himself).

    I read posts such as this one, and I am left to wonder why any of us do anything with our lives other than listening to all the genuinely good music in the world. Silly me.

  7. Thanks for another great post - I particularly liked New Music Ensemble's trailer of "Reich's Music for 18 Musicians." It certainly looked like the piece became a "lifestyle" for those musicians.

  8. Thanks for putting this together. I've bookmarked this so I can come back.

    You may find this interesting:

    It's Robert Fripp/King Crimson playing a Glass-like composition.

  9. Dear Raining Acorns,
    WOW - first: what you do you're doing thoroughly! Thanks for the insights (and I have to admid again, I'm not very versed in music, other than Son and Husband). Though I have very good ears - like a bat, and you can very easily torture me with sounds.
    This being said: it is impressive what you write! It reminds me of a thesis I once had to write about Poets of Expressionism: I learned a lot, I worked a lot - I think I understand them now much better - but I never came to love them. And I fear those minimalists might suffer the same fate... Though I have to admit that I love Japanese minimalism in art and even in their dance and music - so maybe it really is a question of how deep (and knowledgeable) one tries to undestand that kind of music.

  10. George: You are an incredible guide to contemporary music! There are, as always, so many interesting threads to follow in what you’ve written. I’m particularly struck by your comparison between the Glass piece and Beethoven’s 7th. Ah, my list of “must listens” grows ever longer!

    Carol-Ann: I’m so glad you enjoyed that video! I was taken with it the moment I first saw it. As David said of playing “In C,” this also struck me as “a fantastic experience that really takes you on a journey.” Fun to be able to ride along with them for a while.

    Mark: Thank you for stopping by! I’m listening to King Crimson from your YouTube link as I write. Another gap filled in my education. Interesting to note about them, that Wikipedia doesn’t mention minimalism, but it sure sounds like it to me!

    Britta: Poets of Expressionism must have been a fascinating topic, no matter what the ultimate verdict. I took a quick look, and see that I know none of poets mentioned—another whole world to explore! As for minimalism, as you note, there are exceptions to every rule. As I dig further, I do keep finding music that I definitely enjoy, as you appear to have found with Japanese minimalism. Beyond the more widely known pieces I’ve already mentioned, I think particularly of Jesse Brown’s “Through the Motions” and Joep Franssens’s “Old Songs, New Songs.”

  11. I love Arvo Part. And I while have never much liked Glass, I do v much enjoy his collaboration with Suso ("Music from the Screens"). Bjork, though, never gets old, which I'd venture to say is due to dense, layered compositions in which one finds something new with each listen. Perhaps the opposite of minimalism.

  12. RA, thanks again for an interesting post. Lots of new (to me) names to read up on and listen to - another whole area of music that I have not been exposed to all that much. Your style makes it very accessible though~

  13. Just another thank you for your lovely comments. I thought you might enjoy this seashore topic. It is rather time consuming,leaving very little free time to visit other blogs. I hope my enthusiasm continues throughout the year.


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