Minimal Music, Maximal Impact

Minimalism and the American Experimental Tradition

The times I visited Conlon Nancarrow—the reclusive composer of 51 rhythmically complex studies for player piano—in Mexico City, he’d occasionally take me to a new music concert at the University of Mexico. Not much of a musical philosopher, he had a pretty simple criterion for his musical tastes: if a piece was rhythmically complex he liked it, and if it was rhythmically simple he didn’t. Minimalist pieces he had no use for. And yet, Nancarrow’s music had a closer relationship to minimalism than he’d ever admit (there was no use arguing the point with him). Many of his tempo canons for player piano feature melodies going in and out of phase with themselves, which is exactly what happens in Reich‘s early phase pieces.

In fact, take Nancarrow’s Study No. 21, the famous “Canon X,” in which one voice starts slow and gradually speeds up while the other starts fast and slows down. The 51-note atonal row that governs all pitches in that piece is, by Nancarrow’s own admission, just an arbitrary prop for the tempo effect. Replace that row with some more limited pitch set, and you could get exactly the same effect in a minimalist context. Several of Nancarrow’s studies flirt with minimalism or minimalist-style processes in one element or another.

And this is the surprising historical twist to minimalism: although not a continuation of the American experimental tradition (so named by composer and scholar Peter Garland) of Ives, Cowell, Varèse, Rudhyar, Cage, and so on, it grafted onto that tradition with an ease no one would have expected in the 1960s. Cage was, of course, the pivot point: he had studied with Cowell and knew Cowell’s book, and it was his example and his writings that inspired Young. Yet I don’t think Young or Riley or anyone else was looking back to pre-WWII American music for inspiration. They thought they were starting from scratch. But perhaps they plugged into something deep in the American psyche, because they created an environment in which that experimental tradition could reemerge from the deluge of European composers and music that washed ashore before and during WWII.

Much of the rhythmic impetus of the American experimental tradition comes from Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources, written around 1919 though not published until 1930. Cage read that book and possibly took it to Europe with him; Nancarrow devoured it in 1939 before leaving for Mexico, and based his entire life’s work on it. In the rhythm section of the book, Cowell suggests having different “links,” or phrases of regular lengths, played simultaneously with phrases of some other length. He also details plans for having different but ratio-related tempos playing at the same time. Many of Cowell’s suggestions point to the possibility of phase-shifting, having regular rhythmic units go in and out of phase at the same time. And phase-shifting, of course, becomes the primary preoccupation of Reich’s work of the 1960s in Come Out, Piano Phase, Violin Phase, and It’s Gonna Rain.

More generally, Cowell’s remarks on rhythm opened up a whole new era in the structuring of music. Under their influence, Cage developed the idea of macro-/microcosmic rhythmic form, whereby a series of phrase lengths (such as 2 1/2 – 1 1/2 – 2 – 3 – 1/2 – 1 1/2 in his String Quartet of 1950) replicates the formal proportions of the work as a whole. Nancarrow applies this idea (which he also takes from the tala cycles of Indian music) to isorhythm, repeating a background rhythmic division over and over again. La Monte Young, influenced by Cage, stretches time into long spaces of immobility. (I have always found it significant — although Young insists it was only coincidence — that the opening sonority in Young’s groundbreaking Trio for Strings of 1958, the first minimalist piece, when timed out correctly lasts four minutes and 33 seconds.)

Jumping ahead, we find an even clearer application of Cowell’s “links” and phase-shifting phrases in postminimalist and totalist works such as William Duckworth‘s Time Curve Preludes, John Luther AdamsClouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, Mikel Rouse‘s Failing Kansas, and my own Time Does Not Exist. Duckworth, in his 1978-79 magnum opus, creates additive phrases whose lengths are based on the Fibonacci series. Adams pits different time scales against each other, so that a progression of string chords changing every 13 beats might accompany a harp gesture recurring every 6.8 beats, and violin melodies repeating every five beats. Sections of Failing Kansas are structured by having four-beat vocal phrases over a five-beat ostinato. Time Does Not Exist is based on recurring “links” going out of phase.

So while the simple, repeated-pattern early minimalist works may seem worlds removed from the innovative rhythmic structuring of Cowell and early Cage, minimalism’s use of repetition, additive process, and phase-shifting created a new basis for American music, defined not in terms of pitch and harmony as in European music, but in terms of rhythm and stretches of duration. And the younger postminimalist and totalist composers, working out minimalism’s premises to their logical conclusions, found themselves in territory in which Cowell’s, Cage’s, and Nancarrow’s ideas suddenly seemed very congenial again. And so the American experimental tradition, interrupted as it was by World War II and the insurgence of European serialism, found itself reorganizing again in the 1960s in the minimalist scene of Downtown Manhattan. If nothing in minimalism made that obvious, it became so around 1980 with the advent of postminimalism.

From Minimal Music, Maximal Impact
by Kyle Gann
© 2001 NewMusicBox