Is minimalism still relevant? Randall Woolf



Randall Woolf

What has minimalism meant to me? First of all, because of minimalism, I have the feeling of continuity with an older generation of composers. I find the older American minimalists (Reich, Glass, Riley, and M. Monk) to be the musical parents that the other older composers never were. They seem so much like my composing friends as people and me. They look like us, hear like us, and want the same things for music’s future. They have always been, in my experience, with few exceptions, more kind, generous, and real than the other available musical elders.

As to the music itself, what it has meant to me has always been a changing thing, much like a minimalist piece itself: to the superficial listener, it is always the same, but in reality, it always moves, grows and changes. At first, I hated minimalism. It was the opposite of what I was looking for in a new music, or so I thought. But as I examined and re-examined the sounds that I could not get out of my head, I began to see my values and myself in them. What I first saw as a slap in tradition’s face gradually came to seem the truest extension of the classical music tradition that meant so much to me. What seemed to me so anti-audience, so unfeeling and modernistic was revealed by experience to be a music capable of truly moving listeners, and bringing them back into caring about new classical music. And somehow it took me quite a while to see minimalism as the harvesting of great elements and ideas from rock music and recent jazz.

So I became a fan of minimalism. I saw its circle of influence spread out to include more and more of my composing friends. The term went from being an accusation to being a rallying cry. And as each new composer found a new way to build on it, the depth and scope of the original minimalist composers seemed greater and greater. Did they see their early works as a foundation for a whole new wave of music-making, performance, and audience-building? As ideas from minimalism found their way into my own music, it seemed a relief, a shelter, a degree of assumption that I could make. And that is where my trouble with it began again.

By now, I am good and sick of minimalism in my own music. I have not at all lost interest in the early minimalists…rather, I have moved them in my mind to the shelf of total classics, to be studied and loved forever. I find myself somewhat less interested in minimalism in the works of my peers. It seems so automatic now, a club to be joined, easily-won beauty that loses value every day. But in my own music, I dread falling back into its obvious procedures, the predictable flow of minor surprises, and the directionless kineticism. I hunt in the music of Johann Bach, John Cale, Ligeti, Tom Petty, downtown illbient DJ’s, anywhere and everywhere to find fuel to reach escape velocity from that beautiful vortex of minimalism. But just as Bach and Mozart are inescapable in the music of Wagner and Schumann, music that on the surface seems to rebel strongly against them, I still find that the music I make these days leads back to the first minimalists, in the end.