Minimalism started in San Francisco, mostly, and the Sixties scene in San Francisco specifically spawned both Steve Reich and Philip Glass, so it’s understandable that we often regard Minimalism as an American thing. But all kinds of interesting Minimalist music has come out of Europe, and some American Minimalism has come from composers with little or no Golden Gate connection.
Let me slip in the usual disclaimer about the musical term Minimalism, that everyone to whom it is applied renounces it, and every composer is different. If you can accept these asterisks, which apply to every shorthand term ever applied to any artists of any kind, then we can proceed to use the term Minimalism without wasting time belaboring its obvious limitations.
Minimalism is music created in repetitive structures (Philip Glass prefers this way of describing his music) so pieces can be built from comparatively small thematic ideas and chord changes can have enormous effect because there are so few of them. Steve Reich has spent his whole life creating listenable Minimalist pieces and Philip Glass has made a similar contribution despite edging farther away from the original concept in his more recent symphonies and concertos. The Minimalist masterpiece, however, is, in my own view, “Shaker Loops” by John Adams, who comes from a younger generation than Reich and Glass and is more often called a Post-Minimalist. Minimalist antecedents can be found in earlier music as far-ranging as Erik Satie, Anton Bruckner, and, as Peter Schickele actually demonstrated, the first prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”
It was a Brit, not an American, who first used Minimalism as a musical term, and that Brit was Michael Nyman (1944- ), himself a composer in classical music’s Minimalist neighborhood, and like Reich and Glass a composer who found it expedient to found his own ensemble to perform his own works. Nyman wrote the soundtrack to the notorious film “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” and the more mainstream film (I suppose every film is a more mainstream film) “The Piano,” which led to a concert piece, “The Piano Concerto.” His piece “Wheelbarrow Walk” is so catchy I once considered making it the theme of “Howard’s Day Off.” My favorite Nyman piece is “MGV,” which stands for “Musique a Grande Vitesse,” a play on the French “TGV,” or “Train a Grande Vitesse.” The piece was commissioned for the opening of the Chunnel. Nyman’s music tends to be loud, forceful and full of saxophones, so that even when his music on paper resembles Glass and Reich, to the ears it alludes more to jazz and rock.
Graham Fitkin (1963- ) is another non-American Minimalist whose recordings for the former Argo label, including “Loud” and “Mesh,” are fun to hear. His works, too, have a big band aroma. Chris Fitkin (brother?) wrote a lovely piece called Sextet that appeared on the original Argo album by Piano Circus. An ensemble formed to play Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos,” Piano Circus included Max Richter, who more recently got noticed for his recomposition of Vivaldi’s decomposition “The Four Seasons” and, still more lately, a deliberately dull piece designed for sleeping. I have trouble getting through it and remaining sentient, so the piece must be a great success.
Robert Moran (1937- ), a contemporary of Reich and Glass, collaborated with Glass on an opera, and composed a piece for an entire town in Pennsylvania, using factory whistles, church bells and car horns, coordinated by a radio station. Such a piece is more interesting to describe than to hear, but Moran’s “Lithuanian Spin” (Piano Circus again) is catchy while “Points of Departure” is perfection itself, one of the finest overture-length classical pieces of the late 20th century.
The Estonian composer Arvo Part (1935- ) became one of the most-performed living composers by writing meditative Minimalist pieces like the 1978 “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“Mirrors in the Mirror”) and, from the previous year, “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” my favorite Part piece. The entire work is based on a descending A minor scale, played for longer and longer note values, punctuated occasionally by a tubular bell on A. Various instruments, when they get to particular notes, stop descending and hold their note for the rest of the piece. The piece ends with a very loud A minor triad, and the bell on A, whose harmonics include C natural. If you hear the bell overtone, it’s as if the A minor becomes a distant A major. A minor chord changing to a major chord at the end of a phrase is called a Picardy Third; a famous example is “The Coventry Carol.”
Paul Honey (1963- ) composed excellent music for an awful movie, “Two Days, Nine Lives,” a 2001 film about rehab, resting meditatively on a couple of absorbing chord progressions.
John Adams (1947- ) and Michael Torke (1961- ) also figure into this program, showing what happened after the original Minimalist period. The 1988 Adams piece “Fearful Symmetries” shows how Adams went from Minimalist into something beyond it, influenced by jazz.
Torke’s “Purple,” from the 1987 album “Color Music,” and “The Yellow Pages” from 1985, show how Torke creates catchy but traditional classical music using very tiny ideas.
Minimalism was, and is, an important movement in classical music. It provided a rescue mechanism for finally getting composers away from non-musical serial composition, which occupied conservatories like a sit-in for three generations.
Minimalism forged diplomatic relations between classical music and both jazz and rock, providing a gateway back into the classics for people whose classical music education was confined to movies, commercials and Bugs Bunny cartoons.
It has been almost 70 years since Minimalism began and fresh music is still being composed that is indebted to it. When the Second Viennese School was this old it was moldering already. Schoenberg is dead, as Pierre Boulez said, and so is Pierre Boulez.
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