76. Contemporary Voices, Part III – Beyond Minimalism
The third entry in my series CONTEMPORARY VOICES considers the music of composers who have contributed to or benefited from the radical transformation that occurred in minimalism after the mid-1970s. These composers have effectively gone beyond minimalism—beyond the original constructs and constraints of this musical movement to reshape the broader conventions of art music across the United States and around the world. The minimalists and their successors have thus created a new music quite different from that in the European mold, including the several recent developments I have discussed in my previous articles. Theirs is a music with as strong ties to rock, jazz, and Eastern traditions as the preceding Western classical tradition. Indeed, from the beginning, they have often exchanged ideas with popular and non-Western musicians. This exchange has helped foster the artistry many popular musicians have attained since the 1970s which will be the topic of my fourth and final article of the Contemporary Voices series.
The musical movement known as MINIMALISM began in the early 1960s with the innovative works of experimental composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Young’s interest was in long-sustained drones inspired by the meditative qualities of Eastern music, whereas Riley first brought to minimalism the energy and pulse which has been associated with the music ever since. What Riley had left to chance in his groundbreaking 1964 work In C, however, the next minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass intended to formalize moving forward. Over the next decade, Reich and Glass engineered the two definitive approaches to minimalism: while Reich typically overlaid identical materials and forced them further out of phase with each repetition, Glass gradually altered the construction of his short motives over the span of a piece. As early as 1974 and his immense Music in Twelve Parts, however, Glass had pronounced an end to minimalism. Soon Glass was writing opera, then concerti and symphonies too, as simultaneously Reich was reinvesting in melody, harmony, and counterpoint. In this transformation of minimalism, Reich and Glass were joined—perhaps even motivated—by a young composer named John Adams who was interested in bringing minimalist music to the orchestra.
Minimalism in its first decade had belonged to a small group of associates who wrote, performed, and consumed the new music. Reich had founded his own ensemble in 1966—plainly titled Steve Reich and Musicians—and Glass had followed suit in 1968 with his Philip Glass Ensemble. These groups, flexible in their instrumentation but possessing a distinctive amplified sound, were nearly rock bands or jazz combos in which their composers also played. Initially groups like these were the main proponents of minimalist music, eschewing classical music conventions whereby the composer had traditionally built their reputation through publications designed for general performance. When minimalism came to the concert hall in the late 1970s and 1980s, it not only found advocates there but also adjusted to the abilities of its new players. Much of the radicalism disappeared if not the repetitive structures or steady pulse which themselves were largely unknown to concert music previously. The bold tonality of these POST-MINIMALISMS also appealed to the average American concertgoer who had never really adjusted to Modernism or experimental music. Still there were ensembles and solo musicians who specialized in the music. The Kronos Quartet, a string quartet founded in 1973, and Bang on a Can, a more flexible ensemble which was established in 1987, could promote this music to devotees. Like Reich and Glass before them, Bang on a Can’s founders were composers—David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe—and they could use their ensemble as a performance vehicle for their own pieces.
Minimalism also found its way to Europe. Cornelius Cardew, a British experimental composer and former protégé to Karlheinz Stockhausen, staged the first European performance of In C in 1968. György Ligeti integrated aspects of minimalism into his ever-evolving idiom: indeed the second of his Three Pieces for two pianos (1976) is titled, “Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin is also there).” Most significantly though the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, a student of the eclectic Luciano Berio, fused the tight rhythms and repetitive procedures of minimalism with European dissonance, eschewing the potentially naïve tonality of the American minimalists. Like them, Andriessen then founded his own amplified ensembles—Orkest de Volharding in 1972 and Hoketus in 1976—tailored to the unique instrumentations and playing demands of his compositions. Karel Goeyvaerts is another European who has taken influence from the minimalists. All of these contemporary idioms, American and European, have aspects of minimalism at their foundations no matter how much they have progressed from these shared origins. Find below highlights from my recent listening, beginning with Andriessen and concluding with Adams.
LOUIS ANDRIESSEN (*1939): HOKETUS (1975-76). Hoketus is one of the key works by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Its unconventional instrumentation is in classic minimalist form consisting of two pianos, two electric pianos, two panpipes, two saxophones, two electric basses, and two percussionists. And, it was to perform this work that Andriessen established his ensemble of the same name. Like Reich’s phasing concept, the two halves of the ensemble gradually grow more separate from each other; indeed, the entire musical fabric seems to pull-apart in a way which far exceeds Reich as the piece nears its climax. The title suggests as much with its reference to the hocket—a medieval technique whereby a single melody is alternated between two or more instruments. The rich dissonances are fully European as is the appeal to the Western tradition despite its innovations. My recording is from the 2003 disc dedicated to Andriessen’s compositions and recorded by Bang on a Can under the title Gigantic Dancing Human Machine. This was a phrase Andriessen himself had used to describe Hoketus with its loud volume, rough timbres, and stunted-rhythmic groove.
KAREL GOEYVAERTS (1923-1993): LITANIE V FOR HARPSICHORD & TAPE (1982). This Belgian composer is possibly the least-known name on this list. Yet Goeyvaerts was in Darmstadt at the inception of integral serialism—some even argue this was his innovation—and after 1975 he was one of the few composers legitimately interested in merging minimalism with serial practices. Each of his Five Litanies, composed from 1979 to 1982, is for a different instrument or combination of instruments. I find his Litanie V for harpsichord and tape the most compelling. It undergoes several transformations in its thirty-minute span, so that unlike the music of the American minimalists or Hoketus there is not a single unfolding process but instead many successive ones. Albeit this makes it more conventional as does the lack of amplification even if the very concept of fusing serialism and minimalism was—and remains—radical.
STEVE REICH (*1936): ELECTRIC COUNTERPOINT (1987). Steve Reich collaborated with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny for this fascinating composition. Like other works in Reich’s Counterpoint series, Electric Counterpoint features a soloist backed by multiple pre-recorded tracks of the same instrument. In other words, Metheny is accompanied by another nine tracks for electric guitar and electric bass which he previously recorded. I find this an interesting concept on disc where the distinction between “live” and “recorded” tracks is diminished, so that the impression is an intricately-textured work emanating from a super-guitar. Additionally, the concept reexamines Reich’s phasing technique through the lens of a solo composition. Played live, however, I would be concerned about the lines not intertwining properly and the live musician becoming overwhelmed by the invisible copies. The backing tracks are fully-notated though, so that a guitar ensemble can also play this piece.
STEVE REICH (*1936): DIFFERENT TRAINS (1988). Different Trains is Reich’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It signaled his newfound interest in his Jewish heritage, and deeper subjects generally, in a move away from the abstract sonic experiments of his earlier career. Different Trains also found him modeling his instrumental melodies after recorded speech—a major innovation for Reich. The Kronos Quartet plays amid taped interviews and train sounds in the original recording. While I have enjoyed this piece and find its innovations significant, I also feel that Reich has cheapened his accomplishments here by repeating the same ideas in following pieces. WTC 9/11, his belated response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, is virtually the same piece although written two decades later in 2010. Reich’s instrumental works have also become too predictable structurally—the ones I have heard all seem to follow an identical fast-slow-fast movement scheme.
PHILIP GLASS (*1937): VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1 (1987). This is perhaps my favorite work by Glass and one which I have known for several years. For whatever reason it reminds me of the Mendelssohn Concerto likely because it is emotionally-powerful but feels lightly-scored. The soloist leads the ensemble but does not dominate it either. Although both the soloist and ensemble lines utilize repetitive structures, there is something freer and more melodic about the soloist part. The last movement is a classic example of the “woodblock finale” of so much post-minimalist music. Its insistent pulsing not only keeps pace, it also—perhaps inadvertently—gives such pieces a distinctive timbre previously unknown to the concert hall.
PHILIP GLASS (*1937): SYMPHONY NO. 2 (1994). Glass began his symphony cycle in 1992 and has now produced ten symphonies with more on the way. Conductor and long-time associate Dennis Russell Davies has been essential to this cycle. He commissioned the initial symphonies, telling Glass, “I’m not going to let you be one of those opera composers who never write a symphony,” and he has also given many of their premieres. Symphony No. 2, like the Violin Concerto, was not a new work for me. I’ve included it here because it’s essential listening as far as post-minimalism is concerned. The idiom is unmistakably Glass with its repetitive structures and how those structures gradually evolve over time. The opening is mysterious and only grows more so in the second movement which flows unbroken from the first. This is the heart of the piece, and there is something magical about this movement which transports the listener further inward. The third and final movement initially comes across as urgent and panic-stricken, but after several heralding brass fanfares the mood becomes exuberant and celebratory. This emotional journey recommends it well to the symphonic conception of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the lineage of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and the rest.
PAUL LANSKY (*1944): THREADS (2005). Paul Lansky studied with Milton Babbitt, and he brings this composer's same precision and complexity to music which sounds quite different. Specifically, this piece for four percussionists is tonal and rhythmic even if Lansky himself stands apart from the minimalist movement. Lansky worked almost exclusively in electronic music for thirty years. Precision paid-off in those works but also contributes to the almost mechanical texture here. Only in the last ten years or so has he decided to explore traditional, acoustic instruments. In his liner notes, he seemed particularly enthused by the chance to work with percussion ensembles. Also interesting to note is the movement layout in Threads which Lansky says he modeled after a Bach cantata with its exchange of arias, recitatives, and choruses.
DAVID LANG (*1957): THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL PASSION (2007). Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music, David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion is also influenced by Bach, namely his St. Matthew Passion. It is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, and here it is a young girl who suffers and dies as a result of child labor and her inescapable poverty. My recording was made by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices who also gave its premiere. More than Bach, the work reminds me of other works recorded by Hillier particularly, the music of medieval composer Pérotin and contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt whose music I discussed in Part One. It has the tight rhythms of minimalism and especially Lansky but places these in a traditional choral context. There is a delicacy about the music which suits the protagonist and her frigid environs well.
MICHAEL GORDON (*1956): REWRITING BEETHOVEN’S SEVENTH SYMPHONY (2006). In four movements like the original by Beethoven, each movement in Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony builds on a single idea from its corresponding movement. The Beethoven quotes give a tonal anchor to Gordon’s new music, but do not prevent Gordon from creating a remarkably original and well-constructed composition of his own. Gordon composed this piece for the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, his birthplace. Despite its radical alterations, it was evidently well-received.
JULIA WOLFE (*1958): ANTHRACITE FIELDS (2014). Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music, Anthracite Fields is an oratorio for chorus and chamber ensemble about the plight of Pennsylvanian coal miners. This work hasn’t really won me over yet, but it has definitely made an impression. I find that there is a certain triviality about the musical material of this piece which doesn’t suit the grave nature of the social issue it attempts to address. The reliance on popular music cheapens the overall effort, although I enjoy the added timbre of the electric guitar if not the straight-tone singing of the activist in the third movement. I feel that the catalog of names in the first movement amounts to only a stock device here—used to much better effect by Adams in his On the Transmigration of Souls. Oddly, Breaker Boys, the second movement, which is arguably the tackiest of all with its pattycakes opening and rock interlude is also my favorite movement just because these “effects” are so jarring. Still I’m interested in hearing more by Wolfe as this is the first piece I’ve heard by her, but here at least there seems to be more show than substance.
JOHN ADAMS (*1947): THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER (1991). Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, John Adams was wrapped-up in minimalist ideas—phasing, amplification, straight-tone singing, driving pulses, and high energy. Yet, he was very much interested in giving them a symphonic context, and by that I mean not only transplanting minimalist music to the orchestra but also giving these attributes space to flourish and develop within a broader Western idiom. His first opera, Nixon in China (1987), is very much in this vein; it adds a political context too, although the situation is treated lightly and with humor. The Death of Klinghoffer, his second opera, is eminently more serious and the musical idiom also adjusts. The minimalist attributes have sublimated into something much grander, more tied to orchestral, operatic, and choral traditions than openly concerned with “the new.” The plot of this opera deals with the hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of a cruise ship bound for Israel and transporting Israeli passengers. Its American premiere sparked controversy and nearly derailed Adams’s career when its creators were blamed for siding with the terrorists. The production by Penny Woolcock, which I recently watched on DVD, is stressful at times but I think the music deserves to be heard. The opera also conveys an important message that there are two sides to the story—the Israeli and the Palestinian—and both deserve to be heard. Certainly in the Woolcock production this is accomplished without justifying terrorism or murder through the dual choruses at the outset which set forth each perspective.
JOHN ADAMS (*1947): ABSOLUTE JEST (2012). This recent work by Adams has little left of minimalism in it. Perhaps only its brazen tonality and bright colors can be traced to this movement the origins of which are now half a century in the past. Instead Adams has embraced the American vernacular—imagery and subject matter which live in the public consciousness of our nation. In Absolute Jest, Beethoven is the model and, specifically, the scherzos of his late quartets and Ninth Symphony which are quoted and varied by Adams. The work is for string quartet and orchestra, an unusual combination, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet the intended soloists. The San Francisco Symphony and their director Michael Tilson Thomas, with whom Adams has enjoyed a professional relationship since the 1980s, commissioned and premiered the work; indeed Tilson Thomas has been the same sort of advocate to Adams as Davies has been to Glass. I struggled with this work initially but it has now become one of my favorite discoveries of this recent listening. Take a few minutes to watch the trailer video here!
LEARN MORE! Paul Griffiths’ Modern Music and After offers insight on Andriessen and Adams, but has little to say on the other composers or broader transformation. I recommend visiting the websites of Bang on a Can, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams where there is a lot of good information. Glass has also released an autobiography, Words Without Music, last April which is now available in paperback. Check back soon for Part Four of my series: Artistry and the Popular Genres!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson will remain active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. Jackson has in fact written program notes for many of central Louisiana’s key music presenters, including the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, Arts Council of Central Louisiana, and Northwestern State University. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. Jackson has followed classical music around the world, including trips to Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival and the BachFest Leipzig in Germany. As a composer, he has worked to integrate a modern vocabulary into established classical forms in ways that are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. His four-movement Suite for solo guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 and has also been aired on public radio. In fall 2016, Jackson will begin graduate studies at the University of Louisville with the ultimate goal of earning his doctorate in musicology. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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