It’s About Time

Silence is conceivably the most minimalist musical element of all, and it would seem that after 4’33”, Cage could go no further. He believed that when sounds were liberated from the composer’s intent they were more interesting and meaningful. By 1961, with the publication of Silence, Cage was elevated to guru of the new avant-garde who considered that everything could or should be considered music. The goal of this unique conceptual, neo-dadaist movement was to imply sounds rather than to specify them; events are purposely ambiguous and attempt to create specific sonic or visual effects. The style, however, ignored Cage’s regulated (and ostensibly paradoxical) disciplines that he used to be non-volitional which he felt necessary to prevent the music from revealing itself as intention. Conceptualism in America, inspired by Cage, avoided emotional conflict and technical complexity destroying the final remnants and expectations of European commitments, and, once again, composers started from the basics.


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LaMonte Young
The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China:
27 seconds

In his early compositions, La Monte Young accepted, like most of the minimalists who followed him, the serial techniques taught at the time, and was strongly drawn to the music of Webern with its static qualities and sparse textures noticing that his music uses the same information repeated over and over again. He also preferred music of the Middle Ages and its use of stasis as an element of structure much like Eastern musical systems. His Five Small Pieces for String Quartet: On Remembering a Naiad (1956) is characteristic of Webern in its brevity and economy, but with the Trio for Strings (1958), he takes his interests in stasis to an extreme. It consists of slow, individual entrances of three notes (one for each instrument) that are sustained together, motionless for extremes durations. After a long silence, a new event is finally introduced beginning the next section. By 1960, Young moved to New York and quickly became involved in the avant-garde style or “happenings” of the time that was later termed the Fluxus movement. His collection of fifteen conceptual Compositions (1960) consisted mostly of brief, ambiguous verbal instructions: “This piece is little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean” (Composition 1960, #15). Other pieces from the early 1960’s are more prophetic, planting the seeds that would later become the American minimalist aesthetic: Composition 1960 No. 7, X for Henry Flynt (1960), and Death Chant (1961). Composition 1960 No. 7 contains only a single event, a perfect fifth (B-F#) “to be held for a very long time.” X for Henry Flynt (“x” meaning any integer) consists of a sound to be repeated “x” number of times every second. Through the long extension or continuously repetitive use of a single sound, Young hoped to make perceivable certain indirect acoustical effects. The longer the event, the more likely the listener will perceive, or imagine perceiving, great diversity or complexity thus becoming all-encompassing. Young liked to describe his enchantment with long, sustained sounds going back to his youth when he would listen to the wind blowing through the cabin in which he grew up or the hum of an outside power line. Death Chant is a simple, repeated diatonic melody sung in unison that begins as only a two-note figure, then gradually, by additive process, adds one new note with each repetition. This is similar in some respects to Frederic Rzewski‘s Les moutons de Panurge (1968) and Philip Glass‘s additive process as well.


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La Monte Young
Young’s Dorian Blues in G:
30 seconds

Young formed his own group in 1962 called the Theater of Eternal Music. This group gave performances of highly repetitive, drone-based music within a permanent environment that he called a Dream House in which pure or other non-equal tempered harmonies are always present: “a total environmental set of frequency structures in the media of sound and light.” The major works begun during this period include The Tortoise: His Dreams and Journeys (1964), a sustained drone-based piece involving instrumental or vocal elaboration emphasizing upper partials and pure intonation, and The Well-Tuned Piano (1964-), a still-evolving solo piano work lasting more than five hours in which repetitive rhythmic cycles appear and disappear without any underlying rhythmic structure, all in the service of exploiting the resonances of a unique 12-note just intonation scale devised by Young. In the past decade, Young formed an electric blues band, called the Forever Bad Blues Band, which expands a single twelve-bar blues phrase for several hours, suspending traditional expectations of time to further explore the subtleties of just intonation tuning.


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Charlemagne Palestine
Strumming Music:
31 seconds

(Other composers who have explored this static drone-based approach to rhythm include one time Theater of Eternal Music-violinist and Young rival Tony Conrad and keyboardist Charlemagne Palestine. Pauline Oliveros, whose concept of “deep listening” shares much in common with Young’s aesthetic, also evolved her musical vocabulary from post-Cagean conceptualist roots.)


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Terry Riley
In C:
28 seconds

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By 1962, the fundamental characteristics of minimalism were in place: repetition and drastic reduction and simplification of means. Terry Riley, who played in Young’s Theater of the Eternal Music, became interested with repetition unlike Young who found his aesthetic in sustained sounds. Riley felt that the more he listened to continuously repeated notes the more they did not sound the same, and the new American psychedelic experiences were altering the concept of how time passes. The repetitive, minimalist trademark was first introduced by Riley in two pieces he made in 1963: Mescalin Mix and The Gift. In 1964, at the San Francisco Tape Center, Riley premiered the groundbreaking In C. This piece for an unspecified number or types of players, consists of fifty-three melodic fragments to be played in succession, each one repeated an unspecified number of times before advancing to the next whenever the performer wishes. The entrances are not synchronized among the performers. Added to this (supposedly at Steve Reich‘s suggestion who performed in the premiere) is an obsessively pulsating high C (typically played on a piano but suitable for any instrument capable of constantly repeating in that range). The combination of melodic phase effects and steady, continuous rhythm results in a hypnotic rapture.

Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band (1967) and A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968) are more jazz oriented works featuring improvisations by the composer on saxophones and keyboards that are electronically modified. Tape delay effects supply repetitive rhythmic pulses and canonic textures similar to In C. In 1970, Riley and Young began studying the Indian, kirana style of raga singing with Pandit Pran Nath. However, it was a while before Riley reappeared with works that exemplified his studies: Shri Camel (1980), an elaborate contrapuntal work for just-intonation organ altered by tape delay over repetitive ostinati; and Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets (1982), an improvisation on synthesizer imitating sitar and tabla sounds. His recent works still employ complex ostinati and just-intonation but their eclecticism opposes easy identification.


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Steve Reich
Piano Phase:
27 seconds

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Steve Reich’s own brand of minimalist music (he still disproves of the term) also stems from his experiments (and possibly his accidents) with tape loops. He discovered rhythmic and melodic effects occurring when two tape loops went slowly out of sync, “phasing” with each other because of a slight difference between the tape player speeds. The two significant pieces based on this phenomenon that established Reich’s style were It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). He was intrigued by the notion of a perceptible musical process in contrast to Cage’s indeterminate methods or the serialists’ procedures. In both cases, the operations and the sounding music have no audible connection. In order to assist the listener, a musical process should develop gradually over a long period of time without dramatic occurrences, and the experience of the musical process is impersonal but at the same time can be liberating as well. Reich applied the tape loop phase effects to acoustical instruments with Piano Phase (1967) and Violin Phase (1967) in which noticeable melodic or rhythmic patterns are created from the combination of two or more instruments. In order for the process to be recognized and effective, the instruments and the music must be identical, and the “mysteries” created by the phase are unintentional, acoustic by-products of the conceived process.

In 1970, Reich began his studies of West African drumming in Accra, Ghana. He found in the Ewe rhythmic drumming style a phasing process similar to his own. When he returned to New York after only five weeks, he began adapting the techniques he had learned. Reich was very clear on his belief that the mere imitation or appropriation of non-Western sounds was the simplest and most superficial approach to composition; he was not interested in sounding exotic. A composer, however, can study the rhythmic structure of non-Western music but continue to use Western performance traditions, the result being something wonderfully different. The outcome of his study and beliefs was Drumming (1971) which expanded and refined the phase technique of his earlier works while adding a new process in which melodic and rhythmic patterns are created by the gradual, non-linear build-up of replacing rests with drum beats (or visa versa). Each addition of a new attack (or the subtraction of an attack) creates a different rhythmic pattern. Drumming also marked a turning point for Reich in that it involves different instruments with contrasting timbres.

After steady development and increased confidence in his style with works such as Six Pianos and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, both completed in 1973, Reich began work on Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), which remains one of his most popular and most ambitious pieces. The influence of Balinese gamelan that Reich studied in Seattle in 1973 is evident but not essential and reflects his interests in richer textures, timbral shift, and modulation by way of ambiguous harmonic sequences. Rhythmically, the music retains the incessant surface rhythms and repetitive aspects that classified his earlier works, but there is a move away from audible process. A new technique is introduced involving pulsed durations established by the breathing of the wind and vocal performers.


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Steve Reich
Different Trains:
27 seconds

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By 1981, Reich continued his explorations of speech-melody and vocal inflections that resulted in a new approach to rhythm characterizing his more recent works. Tehillim (1981) is an incredibly difficult work in which no two simultaneous measures are metrically similar; the rhythms and melodic contours are based on Hebrew cantillation of psalm texts. Different Trains (1988) for string quartet and tape uses short, recorded segments of spoken text (along with other sound effects) whose contours and rhythms are imitated in the instrumental parts. This new path led to much of his work of the past decade: The Cave (1990-93), City Life (1994-95), and Hindenburg (1998).

Like many composers, Philip Glass had a rather conventional education studying music at Juilliard and philosophy and mathematics at the University of Chicago. In 1964, Glass, whose music then was in a Francophile manner, took the next traditional step, like Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson, traveling to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger who by then was in her late-seventies. Instead of taking a traditional approach to composition, like Boulanger’s previous students, Glass became increasingly interested in non-Western music which had a profound effect on his compositional approach. While still in Paris, in 1965, Glass transcribed sitar and tabla music by Ravi Shankar, learning the rhythmic principles of Indian tala in which periods are constructed by an additive process of small rhythmic units. He began adapting this additive process to his own music first concentrating almost exclusively on small rhythmic patterns and limited melodic fragments played in unison or doubled at the octave.


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Philip Glass
Music With Changing Parts:
30 seconds

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In New York, Glass occasionally performed with Reich’s group, but around 1968, he began his own ensemble that at times included such notable composer-performers as Rzewski, Joan La Barbara, James Tenney, and Richard Teitelbaum. With this new crew, Glass’s music underwent a steady and recognizable development. His additive process works from that time (such as Music in Fifths [1969], Music in Contrary Motion [1969] and Music with Changing Parts [1970]) achieve an exhilarating amount of rhythmic complexity as repeated fragments create intricate accent patterns. This constant stylistic development culminated in the massive, four hour long Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74) in which elements moving in contrary motion display a further degree of rhythmic independence, encouraging listeners to concentrate on time and a process of gradual unfolding with no assumptions of purpose or goals. His music differs from Reich’s audible process in that there are more abrupt, discretionary changes not necessarily related to a conceived system.


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Philip Glass
Symphony No. 2:
31 seconds

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Since the mid-1970’s Glass has concentrated mostly on works for the stage beginning with Einstein on the Beach (1975), and in the process, has significantly revitalized opera as a viable contemporary genre. Einstein, in collaboration with director Robert Wilson, was an attempt at an opera that would serve as a medium for extreme lenghtenings of time, an extension and remodeling of operatic customs into a ritualistic musical theater. From the 1980’s, beginning with the operas Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1983) and beyond, Glass’s music has become noticeably different from his earlier music employing a rich technique of polytonality, lyrical vocal writing, conventional orchestration, and slow, subtle rhythmic cycles.

La Monte Young’s music continues to explore a pure minimalist aesthetic, but the recent music of Glass, Reich, Riley and their lesser-known contemporaries and disciples hardly fit the description although their approach to time and rhythm has clearly evolved from their earlier, more austere works. What began as a strict approach to regular pulse, equally modernistic in dogma yet antithetical to the rhythmic attitudes of both the adherents of serialism and indeterminacy, has flourished into a highly malleable approach to composition that has had a profound and continuing impact on musicians of the past three decades.

From It’s About Time
by Matthew Tierney
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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