Minimalism: Hey, DJ

Modern minimalist composers find an audience beyond academia

NOT A TYPICAL success story: A middle-aged Polish composer, all but unknown in the West, writes a stately, prayerful fifty-minute symphony in three slow movements that, fifteen years after its premiere, takes off like a pop hit. Likely or not, it’s happened. An Elektra Nonesuch recording of Henryk Mikolaj Górecki‘s Symphony No. 3, subtitled the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, has been number one on both European and American classical charts for most of the year, and — for one brief, giddy moment — it rose to an incredible number six on the British pop charts.

And, although the Górecki (goor-ET-skee) symphony clearly appeals to listeners with widely divergent tastes — rockers, new-agers, symphony aficionados — it is in no way a “crossover” work like Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio or the Andrew Lloyd Webber Requiem. On the contrary, it is a profound and deeply serious composition by one of Eastern Europe’s leading composers, a work that seems to have derived, in equal measure, from Gregorian chants, Polish folk music, Richard Wagner, Olivier Messiaen, and the minimalists, all the while maintaining its own grave, mantric, haunting individuality.

An increasing number of composers are turning away from communicating solely with their colleagues in the academic ivory tower and concentrating on rebuilding a general audience for contemporary music. The word “minimalist” is a helpful but controversial one; indeed, one of the few things the composers discussed here would agree upon is that they are not minimalists, no matter what the critics might call them. But it’s become the accepted term for a style of nondissonant concert music and opera built upon steady drones or repetitions that evolve slowly over an extended period of time — or, if you like, shorthand for a strain of what used to be called “serious” music that has achieved genuine popularity.

Minimalism. The name was appropriated from an influential, determinedly reductive movement in the visual arts that flourished in the ’60s and 70s in lower Manhattan (where a lot of these composers first found their audience). It crossed over into art-rock pretty quickly — you’ve heard forms of minimalism in the viola drones of the Velvet Underground, the steady electronic chugga-chugga of synth-pop, and the tape-loop fantasies of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. It all started with Terry Riley, whose In C is generally considered the seminal minimalist work. In C (first and best recording available on Sony Classics) dates from 1964, and it still sounds spartan and radical. Scored for any ensemble large or small, and improvised to a degree that is unusual in this music (performances last anywhere from forty-five to ninety minutes), In C is basically a grouping of fifty-three riffs reiterated incessantly against a steady eight-note piano pulse that binds them together. It is a tremendously important work — and relatively “simple,” compared to what came later — but it is not an easy one (detractors have compared it to Chinese water torture). An essential purchase — but only once you’re acclimated.

Instead, to get a sense of how diverse, richly layered, and deeply sensual this music became in the decade and a half following In C, pick up Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) on ECM: a succession of shimmering, ethereal aural colors propelled by a steady pulse, both hypnotic and swinging. Reich would get grander still (The Desert Music is scored for a gigantic orchestra and chorus), but I prefer his pieces for smaller groups: Drumming (1971), Octet (1979), and especially Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973), which just might be the most ravishingly beautiful American composition of the 70s. (There are two recordings of Drumming and Music for Mallet Instruments currently available; Reich prefers those on Elektra Nonesuch, while I like the lush, warm sound of the earlier Deutsche Grammophon discs.)

Reich and Philip Glass were once dubbed the “Bobbsey Twins of minimalism.” It was never a fair comment: The two composers differed enormously in their goals and techniques. They were once close friends, however — living in the same New York neighborhood, playing in each other’s ensembles, sharing their work. A fierce rivalry ensued in the 70s, just as both men were entering their first fame. Today they hardly speak to one another.

For the past decade Glass has been the most popular, the best paid, and the most debated American composer of his time, and inevitably there has been a considerable backlash against him. He has written an enormous amount of music — he churns it out with the facility of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter — and not all of it is on the same level.

Certain pieces can be recommended without hesitation: Above all, the magnificent new Elektra Nonesuch recording of Einstein on the Beach (1976), a monumental collaboration with theatrical visionary Robert Wilson that — no exaggeration — redefined opera. Five hours long, without intermission, without any sort of linear plot, it was a mind-splitting study in sensory overload.

After you’ve gotten used to Einstein, pick up the video of the film Koyaanisqatsi (1983) to encounter music and image united in perfect symbiosis (the score on Island sounds fine by itself too). Akhnaten (1983, Sony Classics) is a somber meditation on a doomed civilization. And Satyagraha (1980), an opera about Gandhi that is probably Glass’s masterpiece, suffers from a gimmicky, reverb-heavy recording on Sony, but the music is worth it.

A younger composer, John Adams, has attracted an enormous amount of publicity for his operas Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), both written with the poet Alice Goodman and available from Elektra Nonesuch. Some critics consider these great works a true cross-fertilization of minimalism and the classical tradition. I find them eclectic catalogues of musical idioms that never quite become anything on their own. For my money, Adams’s best piece is an early and highly dramatic work called ‘Shaker Loops’ (1977) for seven solo strings (available from New Albion) that was later orchestrated to good effect and issued by Philips Records.

If Adams sometimes seems derivative and overly referential, Meredith Monk‘s work — as dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, singer, and composer — cannot be compared to that of anybody else. Stark chords repeat again and again; singers howl and cavort, shouting syllables that sound chirpy and chantlike in turn. My favorite of her works is an eerie and multifaceted ensemble piece called ‘Tablet’ for four women’s voices, recorder, and piano, available from the German Wergo label.

Most of these composers are American. The so-called holy minimalists, the best of whom are Eastern European, must be considered a breed apart. Their work may be seen as a direct response to the state-sponsored atheism that, until recently, prevailed in their homelands. The holy minimalists have even been compared to writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, with his critique of materialism and his emphasis on the elevated and spiritual.

Górecki is a holy minimalist. So, unquestionably, is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who has affirmed his agreement with J.S. Bach that the purpose of all music is to glorify God; bearded, gaunt, with a mystic gleam in his eye, he even looks like a medieval monk. Pärt’s albums are on ECM; the best of them, Tabula Rasa, contains performances by Keith Jarrett, violinist Gidon Kremer, and the cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This is very spare, pure music, distilled to essence without a wasted gesture.

There’s more to Górecki than his hit Third Symphony; galvanized listeners will want to investigate the magisterial, almost frighteningly intense Beatus Vir (1979) for bass, choir, and orchestra (Argo) and the two string quartets (Elektra Nonesuch) played by the lively but not always polished Kronos Quartet. And the Olympia label has a more idiomatic and moving version of the Symphony No. 3 than the Nonesuch best-seller, one that was recorded in Poland with Stefania Woytowicz, the soprano who performed in the work’s world premiere.

Many other composers are working along lines similar to the ones mentioned above; John Schaefer’s New Sounds program, heard throughout the country on public radio, provides a good weekly sampler. Another show, Music From the Hearts of Space, is aimed specifically at a new-age audience, but some of this minimalist work gets played there too. In contrast to most new-age music, however, the best minimalist works inspire a quickening of one’s attention and a growing appreciation for the myriad twisting details in what may have initially seemed a sonic stasis.

© Tim PageDetails, January 1994

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