Minimal Music, Maximal Impact
Without any doubt whatever, the most important musico-historical event of my lifetime has been the advent of minimalism. Like most composers of my generation, I have drawn musical ideas from many sources: non-Western cultures (Native American, in my case), microtonality, the American experimental tradition, Mozart, American vernacular musics, the Darmstadt avant-garde, and on and on and on. Most of those ideas, though, have been welcomed into my music in the context of minimalism’s revival of simplicity and audible structure; in fact, I could have never integrated some of those ideas had minimalism not provided an open enough framework. If you’re writing in a Babbitt-derived serialist style, for example, it’s difficult to work in elements of Japanese Gagaku no matter how-the-hell-impressed you are.
Minimalism hit me in my teens like a bolt of fate. About 1972 (I was 16), Steve Achternacht on radio station WRR-FM in Dallas played Terry Riley’s In C on the air. I was in the habit of recording anything 20th-century listed in the program guide – in fact, anything by a composer I hadn’t heard of. I was heavily into Ives and Varèse and Elliott Carter and Cage and Babbitt and Stockhausen, and my obsession was musical complexity. Whether structured or random, it didn’t matter. Then Terry Riley’s janglingly repetitive octave C’s started up (which we learned years later had been Steve Reich’s suggestion to hold the piece together), and I didn’t know how to react. This was crazy. All that pulsating repetition gave me a headache, every time I listened. But I kept listening anyway, and wore that tape down to a thin ribbon without any idea whether I liked it or not.
Next I went off to college (Oberlin Conservatory), where we young composers gloried in analyzing Webern, Berio, and Boulez. I was writing music of unremitting dissonance, crashing sevenths and ninths all over the place, simultaneous layers of activity, tone rows and chance processes all washing around in one big incomprehensible soup. Steve Reich’s ensemble actually came to Oberlin that year (spring of 1974) and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t go: some older composers told me he was making boring music, just playing the same thing over and over again. And I believed them.
That summer, 1974, Reich’s Deutsche Grammophon three-record set came out: Drumming, Six Pianos, and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. Almost the same week, in a curious old record store in Austin that’s no longer there, I ran across the old Chatham Square recording of Philip Glass’s Music in Changing Parts. I kicked myself for missing that Reich concert. 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.
In January of 1976 I formed a short-lived group called the Realtime Ensemble and gave the Dallas premieres of Music in Fifths, Piano Phase, and In C, along with my own minimalist works (my first was called Satie’s Dream, a 1975 “white-note” piece with no sharps or flats) and those of my friends. Ever since, I’ve been working out the implications I found in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. A few years ago I interviewed Glass and told him I was still trying to rewrite the Bed Scene from Einstein. He replied, “So am I.”
What was it about the brazenly simple early minimalist style that seduced hundreds of complexity-loving proto- or postserialists like myself to strip down to a handful of pitches? Well, postserialism, as I saw it, was all about subtlety: the echo of a pitch cell, the gradual transformation of register, underlying rhythmic repetitions and retrogrades. But in serialism’s complicated musical contexts, you couldn’t hear any of that subtlety. We’d fill our scores with hundreds of great little devices, we thought, but they would disappear in performance, wasted, lost, overwhelmed. It was kind of painfully obvious that we were writing music not to be heard and loved, but only to be analyzed by future music students like ourselves.
Suddenly, in Drumming and Piano Phase and Music in Fifths, we could hear the type of effects we’d been seeking, blown up to an audible scale. In the phased repetitions of Reich’s Come Out, you heard speech become melody – a startlingly clear effect after lots of dubious ’60s experimentation with musical speech. In In C, we found melodic ideas echoing back and forth in random arrangements. In Glass’s Music In Fifths, we found bracingly irregular rhythms that, thanks to the minimalist melodic process, were not only playable but hearable. A lot of what serialists had aimed for in a vague, abstract way was now obtainable in a repetitive, audible, playable, feelable new set of processes.
And at the same time, music had become open once again to make one’s personal mark. The big, omnidissonant, ultracomplex style we had all been writing in was so impersonal, so unchanged from one work and one composer to another. Now, the slightest change of a tonality, a different scale, a different set of rhythmic values, made all the difference in the world. No one I knew thought Piano Phase was the be-all and end-all of music, but it was a starting point, something even I, young as I was, might take, develop, and improve upon.
So astounded was I that I expected all the world to take part in that revolution with me. And if the advent of minimalism was the great event of my life, the big disillusionment was the gradual realization that minimalism was never going to receive universal approval. Despite having produced the most publicly popular new works of the last third of the 20th century, minimalism remains controversial, damned in academic and intellectual circles. The fact that I like the music, am influenced by it as a composer, and teach it keeps me marginalized in academic circles. Even where minimalism has gained grudging acceptance by classical musicians, the idea that there are musical styles that have grown from minimalism is considered heresy. Forty-one years after La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No. 7, 37 years after Terry Riley’s In C, 27 years after Reich’s Deutsche Grammophon set, 25 years after the premiere of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, the classical music and academic establishments are still chopping away at the tree of minimalism. But that tree has deep roots, and it grows more quickly than anyone imagines. It won’t be chopped down.
After all, minimalism is not an isolated, aberrational phenomenon. It has important historical parallels from the past. It fits in, in interesting and unexpected ways, with the American Experimental Tradition that started with Henry Cowell and Charles Ives and continued through Varèse, Partch, Cage, Nancarrow, and others. Minimalism does not consist merely of the outputs of four famous composers – originally in the 1960s there were dozens of composers involved in a feverish, irascible exercise of group creativity. Nor has minimalism been a dead end: at least two important movements in American music have arisen from it, which I call Postminimalism and Totalism. Accept it or not, minimalism’s impact on American music has been powerful, and will continue to be so for many decades.
This article was a winner of a 2002 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award
- Minimalism Defined
- The Original Minimalists – A Cast of Dozens
- Historical Parallels
- Minimalism and the American Experimental Tradition
- A Discography of Rare Minimalism, Postminimalism, and Totalism
- A Minimalist Bibliography
- And, for those who object to discussing music in terms of -isms, a special addendum:
In Praise of Labels