Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
“Simplify, Simplify, Simplify.”
—Henry David Thoreau
As a young composer in the late ’60s and ’70s, I came of age with minimalism. Terry Riley’s In C and Steve Reich’s Drumming and Music for Eighteen Musicians hit me like so many tons of bricks.
The rhythmic drive and bright consonance of this music felt like being let out of school from the sterile gray gridlock of most serial music. And the phase shifting, additive rhythmic processes and clearly audible structures of minimalism were as exciting as they were fascinating. This wasn’t eye-music that required a score to follow the composer’s logic. Here was composition you could actually hear!
Sometime around 1980 I began to lose interest in minimalism and much of what came to be called post-minimalism. (Although my interest in the music of La Monte Young began about that time and continues to this day.) All those mosaics of repeated cells began to feel like so many little rhythmic boxes. Those simple chord progressions didn’t sound quite so fresh anymore. And the gradual unfolding of audible linear processes started to seem like a narrative that was no longer quite so compelling. But the simplicity and sensuality of classic minimalism have stayed with me ever since as perennial touchstones for my own music.
The other movement that shaped my music early on was the American experimentalist tradition of Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney and others. In Feldman’s music I discovered a deeper sensuality of sound that I still aspire to. Following the lead of Partch and Harrison, I began to explore acoustically perfect tunings. In Tenney’s music I discovered an ideal of form in which an entire musical work is conceived and perceived as a single arresting sound. Inspired by Cowell and Nancarrow I brought multiple dimensions of tempo into my own music. And Cage’s practice of music as an integral part of the ecology of the world continues to resonate in my own life and work.
I guess this combination of influences – minimalism and experimentalism – makes me a totalist. But when people ask me what kind of music I compose, I usually tell them: “My music.” Then I go on to describe the sound of the music, the media I work with, my influences and the philosophical foundations of my work.
At this stage minimalism no longer feels like a vital force in my day to day musical life. Still the influence lingers at a deep level. If I had just two words to describe the qualities I value most in music they would probably be “simplicity” and “sensuality”. And early on I learned about both, powerfully, through minimalism.
How about you?
Has minimalism shaped the music you listen to, perform or compose?