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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 last.fm. The other three images are stills from YouTube videos of Björk tunes mentioned in this post that can be found here and here.
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.
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.)
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.
New York Counterpoint
(Both Counterpoints can be found on New Music Masters.)
Double Sextet and 2x5
Music for 18 Musicians
String Quartet No. 5
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):
Symphony No. 3 (Lento—cantabile-semplice):
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.
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.