MINIMALISM

THE WORD “MINIMAL” SEEMS TO HAVE BECOME OF COMMON USE IN OUR EVERYDAY LANGUAGE, REFERRING TO A PLETHORA OF DIFFERENT FIELDS OF HUMAN ACTIVITY, AS IF IT WAS A LONG KNOWN DEFINITION OF CERTAIN ASPECTS OF MUSIC, ARCHITECTURE, DESIGN. FEW KNOW THAT THIS WORD WAS FIRST APPLIED TO THE WORK OF YOUNG AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL MUSICIANS, INVOLVED IN THE PULSING UNDERGROUND ART SCENE IN THE MID 20TH CENTURY.

 

Composer LaMonte Young is regarded as the “father” of this movement. He studied music with Leonard Stein (assistant of Schönberg during his UCLA teaching period), learning the 12-tone technique; he attended summer courses in Darmstadt under Karlheinz Stockhausen and got in touch with John Cage; he studied electronic music with Richard Maxfield in New York from 1960. Here he became involved with the newborn Fluxus movement and arranged some concerts at Yoko Ono’s loft, giving music a short and immediate form, such as the Japanese 5-7-5 syllables poetry (haiku). Young was always interested in the oriental approach towards music and since his early days he had studied Indian classic works and the Japanese Gagaku.

 

The same year he started to add to his compositions indications about different actions that the performer was supposed to do, such as building a fire or releasing a butterfly in the room. The favorite one of Young himself, who said this is a directive that guided his life and work since those early days, is “draw a straight line and follow it”. Rather than conventional musical compositions these works seem more to be acts of concept art, pieces built around a single event, not necessarily of a musical nature. Young used this kind of language in order to introduce a different point of view from the one that considered music only human-like or human-for; he wanted people to start thinking of music as an independent being and also to let its performative act be something where anything could happen, since music, as part of the world, was just as subject to the rules of indeterminacy and chaos as everything else. Young takes Cage’s idea of aleatoric music (musical compositions where the performer has a certain freedom of action) and takes it to its extreme consequences.

The term “minimalism” was first used during this same period and, according to Young, “minimal” was “music that employed minimal materials”. The “Compositions” of 1960 perfectly reflect this idea. The following works, which began with the ideation of the “Dream House” (a place where lights and sound perpetually rise from the people living and playing there), seem to walk a different way, heading more towards the primitive power of sound as a life source (as the Indian sacred Vedas affirm) and as a living being than towards aseptic conceptual activity. The first “Dream House” was Young’s New York loft where he and his wife (lighting design artist Marian Zazeela with whom he still works) were joined by other musicians, such as Tony Conrad, John Cale (who would later become guitarist of The Velvet Underground), John Hassell and Terry Riley. They played drone tones of extended duration and used many different kinds of instruments, such as Indian Tamboura, viola, saxophones, bowed guitars and also made large use of vocals. Some of these works, which can also be heard under the name of “Inside the Dream Syndicate”, testify to the evolution of Young’s work, where scientific and deterministic forms of music are somehow bridged with the most free-form and random ones. During the following years the Dream House project grew bigger and a dedicated place was built in order to experience music, considered in all its aspects as a living being. The composition had an indefinite duration and was based on a constant sound (made of one or more tones); the experience of the listener would change depending on where, when and how he moved in the house, this way he becomes the symbol of this ongoing process, as he can participate in creating the sound for himself: music is no longer “prisoner” of the music makers, it has been restored as a primary force involved in a relationship of mutual influence with all the other living beings inside a certain space. This “Theater of Eternal Music” gave birth to some of the longest installations in art history: Young and Zazeela lived in the house from 1966 to 1970 and, later on, from 1979 to 1985 the performance was given uninterruptedly for six years at the Harrison Street Gallery in New York.

1964 saw the creation of two of the most important of Young’s works: “The Tortoise his Dreams and Journeys” (together with the Eternal Music Ensemble) and his piano masterpiece “The Well Tuned Piano”, a five-hour performance on a piano tuned to just intonation (an intonation system based on exact arithmetical intervals between the tones and not on the tempered intervals, which are the basis for the common western musical system). This is probably the composition in which the idea of music as a living organism is best expressed: the performer plays the notes of the score, but soon he has to adapt to the unwanted changes introduced by the particular intonation of the piano, and this goes on endlessly throughout the whole playing session. The player is constantly running after the instrument, and the music grows out of a continuous exchange between the two. In this sense the piece is almost like a living being that grows little by little, from the first quiet steps to stormy crescendos of raga-like hypnosis. The 5 discs (one hour each) album The Well-Tuned Piano attests to five performances of this idea.

During the second half of the Sixties Young worked on the theoretical book “The Two Systems of Eleven Categories” in order to state and provide the basis for his method of composition and from the Seventies he started studying traditional Indian Raga chanting under the great vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. This greatly affected his work and the continued refinement of the instrumentation used in the Dream House. He started to combine drones of Indian Tamboura with those of sine waves, in a technological complementary embrace whose aim was to capture the listener in a boundless sound experience.

According to some critics, Young is the only “true minimalist”, since he has always put together elements of jazz, aleatory composition, electronic, serialism and indian classical music - in order not to create a “style” of music but to let music be perceived as a psycho-acoustic phenomenon with an existence of its own. It is the fault of western civilization having made music conform to human existence only - and this is something that goes against the essence of music itself. This is why his work is so radical and sometimes aimed to crush all the musical notions we carry (mostly because of our education and cultural beliefs). Young partly restored the primitive powers of sound, bringing to our “modern” age the hypnotic and trance qualities typical of uncivilized environments, where sound is as real and as alive as any other member of the world.

 

Despite the recognized importance of his work, Young has paid the price for his total devotion to radical music by being marginalized: only few recordings of pieces by him have been released and public performances have also been very rare. It was not his duty to bring the new music to the large public, but of the other musicians that followed his pioneering steps. The first one of them we can think of is Terry Riley, who was one of Young’s disciples in the early days of the Dream House. Since the Fifties he has been interested in tape loop manipulations and explored the electronic possibilities in one of his early masterpieces “A Rainbow in Curved Air”. In the early Sixties he wrote what is regarded as his greatest work, “In C” (in whose first representation in 1964 the young Steve Reich was involved): based on a serial-repetitive structure applied to common instruments the piece consists of separate modules, each containing a different musical pattern in the key of C. One performer beats a steady pulse of Cs on the piano to keep tempo, while the others perform these musical modules following a few guidelines. During the whole decade of the Sixties he also gave “All-night concerts”, full sunset-to-sunrise musical evenings in which he used to play harmonium organ and tape-delayed saxophone. As Young did, he undertook years of learning from Indian Raga teacher Pandit Pran Nath, who he still regards as his greatest Master. He wrote 13 string quartets and also orchestral pieces, he kept a long time association with the Kronos Quartet and he never stopped giving concerts and teaching, both as a keyboardist and as a Raga singer. In 1986 he published a work for solo just tuned piano, “The Harp of the new Albion” in the notes of which he refers to La Monte Young as his mentor.

 

We said young Steve Reich was involved in the first performances of Riley’s “In C”and this experience pushed this musician to investigate for himself the perspectives of tape works and musical shiftings. His first remarkable pieces such as “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” were made by using tape recorders only, cutting fragments of speeches and sermons and making them go slowly out of sync, in order to obtain a collage of rhythms and tones which overwhelmed the words they were generated from. The same principle was firstly transferred to classical musical instruments in “Piano Phase” (1967), where two pianos play a game of shifted phases starting from a unison twelve-note melodic figure and that was performed the same year in some art galleries of New York. In the early seventies he went to Ghana to study with the master drummer Gideon Alorowoyie and also studied Balinese Gamelan back in the US. Drums and percussions had always been important to Reich since his first personal musical experiences as a jazz drummer; this background, together with his new studies in African music joined in the creative process which led to the realization of the 90 minute piece “Drumming” (1971) and to perform which he formed his ensemble “Steve Reich and Musicians” that still remains active. In 1974 he began composing one of his masterpieces: “Music for 18 Musicians”, based on a cycle of eleven chords introduced by “Pulses” at the beginning and then explored by single “Sections I-XI” of music pieces based on the initial chords, which finally return at the end of the piece. The larger number of musicians involved amplified the psycho-acoustic effects and the melodic movements that were missing in his first works. Towards the end of the decade Reich began being more involved with his own Jewish origins and discovered in the Bible something he had never known - the technique of “cantillation” which, as he states “consists of taking pre-existing melodic patterns and stringing them together to form a longer melody in the service of a holy text. If you take away the text, you’re left with the idea of putting together small motives to make longer melodies” and that were to play an important role in his music from that moment on. The last part of his career was even more influenced by his Jewish background and a partial return to more classical forms of music, as in Tehillim (1981). The Grammy Award winning piece of 1988 “Different Trains” is also based on the Jewish question since it compares, with the use of strings and tape sounds, his traveling as a child by train from New York to California and the one of the Jews being deported through Europe. Most recent works include the opera “The Cave”, made together with his wife (video artist Beryl Korot) and string piece “Double Sextet” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2009.

 

Before making a living out of music Steve Reich did, as he said, “all kinds of odd jobs” and one of these was in a moving company with another young musician who would become very important in recent history: Philip Glass. Born in Baltimore he had been studying music since he was a child and after his first works and results (winner of the BMI Student Composer Award) in 1964 he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger; here he came in touch with an artistic world crossed by radical changes, such as the music of John Cage and the films of Jean-Luc Godard. He wrote a score for a staging of Samuel Beckett’s comedy “Play” and then he met Indian sitar-guru Ravi Shankar, who was to greatly influence his vision of music (especially in the use of repetitive structures, a typical aspect of Indian music). Before returning to the US in 1967 he spent some time in Northern India where he came in touch with Tibetan refugees and became interested in Buddhism. In New York (after seeing a performance of Reich’s “Piano Phase”) he himself adopted a more basic approach and started giving performances of his works (“Strung Out”, “How Wow”) in art galleries. With his next works he returned to a more classical and complex style and parted from Reich. His concentrated working effort of this period produced one of his masterpieces, “Music in Twelve Parts” (1971-1974) which developed in a cycle of composition summing up all his experiences and marking the end, as he later said, of his experience in minimalism, since its last part was a twelve tone theme which he refers to as “the end of minimalism”. His work then took a new direction, which was developed in his first opera “Einstein on the Beach” written in collaboration with Robert Wilson and aimed to combine harmonic progression with the rhythmic structure Glass had been focusing on during the previous years. This opera was quite successful and was followed by more works for theater and for the first ones destined for films and TV, such as “North Star” for a documentary by Francois de Menil and by the “Fourth Series” (1977-1979) in which he almost totally parted from the style of his first period. In 1980 he premiered his opera “Satyagraha” based on excerpts of the life of Gandhi, Tagore and Luther King, that eventually was a new turning point in Glass’s work since it was his first score for symphony orchestra since 1963. During the Eighties he wrote for operas, “Akhnaten” being the most remarkable one, which represents a “first extension out of a triadic harmonic language”, that is an experiment in polytonality as if to create an optical illusion. Another remarkable work of the period is the film score for “Mishima: a life in four chapters” in which he starts to develop his own unique way of film scoring, an activity that was to have considerable importance in his later works: he went on to win a Golden Globe for the one written for “The Truman Show” in 1999 and a BAFTA Award for “The Hours” in 2002. He also received three Academy Awards nominations (“Kundun”, “The Hours”, “Notes on a scandal”).

 

The older Glass grew the more he distanced himself from his first radical ideas, and he began writing extensively for symphonic orchestras and chamber ensembles. His production is far too extensive to be recalled here, but what we aim to point out is that with his changing approach to music he went far from what were the ideas of LaMonte Young and his radical approach to sound as a living being, and here our analysis must end. We are not judging the quality of the works but the difference of approach beneath them, and between Young and Glass there seems to spread a huge distance which may be covered with the world “minimalism”.

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