Classical Music in the USA – 8 – Minimalism versus “difficult” music


“Nighthawks,” 1942, by Edward Hopper.

The biggest factors driving classical music since the 1960s are population and mass media.

The U.S. population has tripled since the start of the Baby Boom. It affects everything, but because precisely because it is all around us every day, we often don’t think about it. So let me spell it out: there have never been so many conservatories, so many concerts, or so many aspiring composers. Mozart grew up in Salzberg when it was a village, and achieved fame in Vienna when it was smaller than Honolulu is today. He didn’t need a publicity agent for his skills to become widely known. Today is otherwise. There could be a dozen Mozarts in New York we will never hear. To stand out, composers try ever-weirder things.


Mass media multiplied as population grew and technology advanced. Most people who consider this, focus on the possibility that a genius in Mongolia can become world famous. It is a fair point, but another effect is that the whole of music becomes readily available to any budding composer, whether in Ulan Bator or Los Angeles.

Another key factor in the 1960s was a negative, the petering out of a former factor.

Before the 20th century, classical music followed a describable path, always advancing, with no complexities greater than the occasional warring factions – the Brahms camp and the Wagner camp, for example – and the periodic infusion of music from new places – Dvorak’s Bohemian sensibilities, or whatever Villa-Lobos got from the Amazon jungle. The long trudge down the dead-end of serial and other atonal composition happened in part because Schoenberg, Boulez and the like persuaded themselves that music constantly progressed and never profitably circled back.

The assumption Schoenberg so confidently made was that if listeners didn’t like his atonal and 12-tone music it was because they did not like it yet, but would, in time, as their ears grew. This is a surprisingly old-fashioned idea, pushed by Wagner, dating back to the Viennese reaction to Beethoven. “Your quartet did not please,” a friend told the ailing composer. “It will,” Beethoven allegedly replied. Meaning, it will eventually. But in 1965 Pierre Boulez’s “Le Marteau sans maître” was 10 years old, and Schoenberg’s first forays into atonality were more than half a century old and most of us still didn’t like it. A generation of conservatory professors had retired on pensions and the public still didn’t like the serial methods they spend a lifetime teaching.

Because the concept of continuous advance still gave covering fire, however, it was necessary for something new to come along. Then serial composition wuld no longer be the latest thing, and would no longer be immune from attack.

That something new was Minimalism, which returned to tonality while focusing on very simple ideas being repeated with tiny changes, focusing the mind in a different way. There had been simple music before – the first prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” – and there had been repetitive music before – Bruckner symphonies come to mind – but Minimalism was a new form of simplicity. It was even controversial, which gave critics something to write about. As Tom Wolfe suggested in his monograph “The Painted Word,” the acceptance of new art is affected by what people write about it, and more fundamentally whether they write about it.

la-monte-young terry-riley

La Monte Young (1935- ) and Terry Riley (1935- ) were the pioneers of Minimalism. Coincidentally, each has faded into obscurity, seemingly content to quietly explore their unusual space in music. It is probably fair to say most classical music fans don’t know if they are still alive (they are).

La Monte Young composed a number of pieces in which little or nothing happens, including one that consisted entirely of the instruction to release a butterfly into a room. Ironically, given that I have just blamed the concept of continuous progress for art music’s long serial detour, one of Young’s works, from 1960, consists of the instruction, “Draw a straight line and follow it.”

Terry Riley. who was briefly part of La Monte Young’s performing group, composed a very simple quartet in C major, also in 1960, and a six-piano piece in 1964 called “In C” which, at the suggestion of Steve Reich, then part of Riley’s performing group, had a continuous pulse of middle C to help the musicians keep together. This is considered the first Minimalist piece, retrospectively, based on how Minimalism would evolve.


Steve Reich (1936- ) and Philip Glass 1937- ) were to become the two stars of the Minimalist movement. They met at Juilliard, played in ensembles performing Riley’s music, had a moving company together in San Francisco. Later when they grew apart they pursued different kinds of Minimalism, but both found secure places in the repertory and both still compose.

Reich, born in New York, played piano and drums, but got his Cornell college degree in philosophy, writing his thesis on Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said, “How small a thought it takes to fill a while life.” That would become the entire text of Reich’s 2005 piece “Proverb.” Reich continues to find interesting new ways to produce good music from overlapping ideas of uneven length.

Glass was born in Baltimore, where his father had a record store. He also studied music and philosophy, at the University of Chicago, and studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. But when he worked with Ravi Shankar he changed his whole view of modern music, and this led him to “repetitive structures,” the term he uses in preference to Minimalism.

Glass and Reich worked together until 1971 before breaking off their relationship, each forming his own ensemble to perform his own works. Four decades later they are each still at work. Glass has in recent years been composing symphonies, concertos and etudes, still using repetitive structures to a large degree. Reich has done a series of fascinating works, usually with the “Counterpoint” in the title, in which a musician or an ensemble plays live against tapes made earlier.

Two other composers from an earlier generation epitomize some other things that were going on in the 1960s and 70s.


John Cage (1912-1992) and Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) are not customarily paired together as I am doing here, and I don’t know if they ever met. Cage was important, without leaving behind much music that is enjoyable to hear – he was more an idea man, and Schoenberg called him not a composer but an inventor (like Cage’s father, as Schoenberg may have known) – while Hovhaness left behind a great deal of perfectly listenable music without being important except, perhaps, as an exemplar of what ethnic music can be in the classical zone.

Cage is fun to read about, if not fun to listen to. He famously “composed,” in 1952, a “piece” called 4’33”, in which one or more “performers” do nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. The “music” is whatever you happen to hear in the hall while they are doing nothing. Cage experimented with indeterminacy by writing lots of music based on throwing dice. He invented the “prepared piano,” in which objects are placed on the strings so that the keyboard becomes an instrument that makes weird percussion sounds. It is a mere convenience, an invention, and an excellent way to ruin a perfectly good piano.

Hovhaness, son of a chemistry professor at Tufts University, was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian, but changed his name in his twenties to play down his Armenian ethnicity. Never comfortable with that, he changed his mind later, re-adopting an Armenian identity that belied his Boston upbringing, burning his early music, and dedicating his life to writing music with Armenian influences. Essentially he restarted his composing life in the 1940s. Hovhaness composed more than 1,000 works, so evaluating him is difficult. The best of his work has an interesting sound because of his use of unusual scales, easily understood with “Western ears” while still sounding exotic. His best-known work, “Mysterious Mountain,” dates from 1955, but he composed dozens of symphonies well into the 1990s.

Minimalism and world music were hardly all that was going on in the second half of the 20th century.


Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) was a rancher’s son – the family name came from Switzerland but the Brubecks also had Native American roots – who learned piano an early age and went to conservatory, studying under Darius Milhaud. The Dave Brubeck Quartet revolutionized jazz, but Brubeck also composed music and by the end of his long life had produced nocturnes, etudes, a string quartet and orchestral versions of some works originally conceived for the jazz quartet.


Charles Mingus (1922-1979), part black, part white, part Native American and part Chinese, was a bebop bassist but also played piano and left behind a great deal of sheet music combining some of his work under the title, “Epitaph.” Most of it can be described as orchestrated jazz, with spaces for solos. He was also a skilled photographer. And he wrote the best titled of all autobiographies: “Beneath the Underdog.”


Peter Schickele (1935- ) has composed “serious” classical music as well as what he writes for his many PDQ Bach albums and performances. But his other music is also witty, and I would argue that the PDQ Bach works are collectively as important as they are funny. John Cage was an inventor masquerading as a composer, but Schickele is a critic whose compositions are his theses. Careful study of his works, after you’re done laughing, is a good way to learn about other composers’ weaknesses.


John Corigliano (1938- ), whose father was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, studied composition with Paul Creston. His music is highly variable and sometimes highly dissonant, but his score to the film “The Red Violin” is a masterpiece, and his flute concerto “Pied Piper Fantasy” is excellent. Written for James Galway, it ends with the soloist playing a simple melody on the pipe and walking out of the theater. Another movement is called “Rats.”


Wendy Carlos (1939- ), an early collaborator with Robert Moog, recorded “Switched-On Bach,” but Carlos also composed original music, including “Country Lane” and “Timesteps,” both of which were intended for, but not used in, the soundtrack of the film “A Clockwork Orange.” “Country Lane” bests every classical composer who sought fresh ways to do “Dies Irae.”


Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was an influential rock musician from his first album, “Freak Out!” in 1964. Born in Baltimore, his childhood was spent there, in Florida and in California, where he played guitar in a rock band in San Diego. Zappa was self-taught, listening to classical music and jazz, and while his rock albums were considered subversive for their vulgarity and their political messages, what was really subversive about Zappa was the way he exposed his fans to modern jazz and modern classical music. Near the end of his life – prostate cancer claimed him at 52 – his instrumental music was entering the classical repertory, and since his death several jazz and classical groups have recorded Zappa works. Zappa was a fan of the Synclavier and said that in general synthesizers allowed him to write complicated music and have all the notes played as and where intented. Zappa said his favorite composer was Edgard Varese, whom he studied after reading that Varese wrote the ugliest music ever written.


Chick Corea (1941- ) grew up in Boston, son of a Dixieland band leader, and learned piano and drums. A Juilliard dropout, he was part of the jazz world from the 1960s, playing with Miles Davis. After experimenting with free jazz he formed the band “Return to Forever” in the 1970s. More recently he has composed a piano concerto and made a concerto of his fusion piece “Spain.”


John Adams (1947- ) might wind up being the most important composer of the latter 20th century. He wrote the Minimalist masterpiece, “Shaker Loops,” for string sextet, and later for string orchestra, and the symphony “Harmonielehre,” the choral symphony “Harmonium,” the overture “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” the opera “Nixon in China” and a piece derived from it called “The Chairman Dances.” A less successful opera, “Death of Klinghofer,” was followed by a succession of works with less immediate impact, but I won’t be surprised if works like “Chamber of Symphony,” “Son of Chamber Symphony,” and “John’s Book of Alleged Dances” survive in the repertory. “Scheherazade II” depicts the modern Arab woman repressed by the not-so-modern fundamentalist Muslim man. Adams composes for synthesizer from time to time and put out an album of synth works called “Hoodoo Zephyr.”

Christopher Rouse New York 2007

Christopher Rouse (1949- ) is another product of Baltimore, a relative of James Rouse, who developed the planned community of Columbia, Md. His first symphony premiered in 1988. My favorite Rouse piece s “Bump, the finale of his 1985 symphony “Phantasmata.” His own favorite composition is his Requiem. Rouse is a “difficult” composer, noisy and dissonant, and perhaps his music will not endure as a result, but he strikes me as one of the more successful composers at following dissonance with interesting results.

I have left out the names of many other Americans composers writing serial or otherwise difficult music in the latter 20th century, including some who could win Pulitzer Prizes but could not win over audiences.


Mark Isham (1951- ) is here to represent Chip Davis and Mason Williams and all the other composers who have done lighter music in the space where classical, jazz, country and rock meet. His Windham Hill recordings fit in the same space. Minimalism made New Age music possible by affirming the validity of tonal music and simple music in the minds of musical trend setters. Without meaning to diss the best of it, I suggest that Fresh Aire, New Age, Claude Bolling, and smooth jazz collectively are a replacement for a prevous generation’s “elevator music.” We babyboomers vowed never to listen to elevator music, but what we listen to instead is Kenny G and the “Fresh Aire” albums, whose main creator Chip Davis refers to as “Renaissance Rock.”


Michael Torke (1961- ) is the main competitor to John Adams if we’re handicapping which composers of the 1960-2000 period will be well-remembered centuries from now. Born in Milwaukee and coming late to classical music, he has composed a remarkable series of short ballet pieces, written in a unique style that is traditionally tonal yet based on very tiny melodic ideas, so it’s Minimalist, and not, all at once. Five of the best, composed from 1984 to 1988, are collected as “Color Music,” yet the overall quality of his works is high. His recent Concerto for Orchestra is especially striking because it retains interest despite using a four-note idea which never leaves the home key.

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