The humble and subservient arpeggio, which had always been one of music’s essential building blocks as the staging posts around which melodies were constructed and as the filigree of Classical passagework, found itself in the foreground of modern composition during the mid-1960s. It was as if a minor triad could fulfil Andy Warhol’s decree that, in New York City, everyone could bask in their 15 minutes of fame.
As Warhol plastered the walls of downtown galleries with looping images of Campbell’s tomato soup cans and the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe, the earliest pieces of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, performed in equivalent gallery spaces, or if not in lofts – no concert hall would have been foolhardy enough to give these arpeggio-fixated reprobates a gig – built apparently comparable structures with sound. Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych of 1962 comprised 50 repeats of the same epochal image, bright blond yellow on the left, and on the right a phased disintegration of a black-and-white version that faded towards nothing.
‘This music was as far removed from Brahms or Bruckner as Warhol’s work was from Rembrandt’s The Night Watch’
Reich’s 1965 piece for tape It’s Gonna Rain opened with an equally potent sonic image: the voice of Brother Walter, a black preacher, proclaiming the words ‘It’s gonna rain!’ which smudge into harmonic potash as Reich runs the recording on two tape recorders that are moved out of phase. Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans was deliberately non-painterly – the same soup can depicted 32 times, the desired uniformity of each canvas secured by mechanical screen-printing. In Glass’s Music in Contrary Motion (1969), a basic melodic hook was added to with each repetition scratching a similar structural itch. The aesthetic disjoint between Warhol’s view of painting and those schooled in the European grand tradition could not have been starker. And these pioneering pieces of minimalist music kept European tradition at a comparable distance: this music was as far removed from Brahms or Bruckner as Warhol’s work was from Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.
Analogies drawn between this puzzling new music that, in the mid-1960s, had yet to acquire the envelope term ‘minimalism’, and the work of Andy Warhol, was one way that commentators of the time attempted to make sense of Glass, Reich and their compadres. When, 20 years later, second-generation minimalist John Adams premiered his opera Nixon in China at Houston Grand Opera, the critic of The New York Times, Donal Henahan, told his readers that ‘Mr Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger’ – which was not meant to be read as a compliment. Fast food was homogenised and insipid, culinary pornography manufactured for the purposes of instant gastro-satisfaction. By making art out of soup cans, Warhol had abandoned the idealism of abstract expressionist painters like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning. The aesthetics of advertising had made an unwelcome incursion into the solemnity of the gallery space – and minimalist composition, too, propped up by nakedly tonal chord sequences and arpeggios, had signed a comparable Faustian pact; a dubious sell-out of purist modernist aesthetics.
But Henahan’s sniffy attitude towards minimalism was not shared by his New York Times colleague John Rockwell who, in 1983, wrote an utterly joyful account of encountering Music in Changing Parts, as performed by Philip Glass and His Musicians, in a downtown loft space. ‘The music danced and pulsed with a special life, its motoric rhythms, burbling, highly amplified figurations and mournful sustained notes booming out through the huge black windows and filling up the bleak industrial neighbourhood.’ Rockwell describes spontaneous dancing in the streets as the music leaked out of those huge windows – ‘And across the street, silhouetted high up in a window, a lone saxophone player improvised a silent accompaniment like some faded postcard of 1950s Greenwich Village Bohemia. It was a good night to be in New York City.’
Five decades on from its first stirrings – and a full 50 years after a nervous Steve Reich supervised the first performance of It’s Gonna Rain – when the unfolding story of minimalism can often feel like a done deal, those controversies are worth revisiting. History is written by the victors, and there’s no doubt that the minimalist composers consider themselves to have triumphed; where the modernism of Stockhausen, Boulez and Nono had alienated genuine music-lovers, the progress and audience credibility of Western classical music had been rescued by minimalists’ determination to show atonality the red card. Perched somewhere between classical respectability and mass popular culture – Glass’s 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach cracked the Metropolitan Opera, then he collaborated with Patti Smith, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, while Reich would get down with the kids from Radiohead – minimalism was ideally placed to deal with the challenges and responsibilities dodged by introverted, self-serving Euro-modernism.
The inner life of music, though, is hopefully more nuanced, and this official, cannily spun history of minimalism represents only a minimal part of the whole story. Minimalism enjoys superb PR. Robert Hurwitz, President of Nonesuch Records, the record label of Glass, Reich and Adams, used the booklet-notes he wrote for his 10-disc anthology ‘The John Adams Earbox’ to outline how he repositioned the one-time house label of Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and George Crumb towards a label that preached the minimalist credo. The problem with Carter’s music was ‘a huge gap between what the music was supposed to be saying, and my gut response to listening to it.’
In Robert Maycock’s uncomfortably laudatory Glass: A Portrait (Sanctuary: 2002), you wait for the inevitable assault on European Modernism and, by page 60, you’re rolling with the punches. Messiaen’s Catholicism, apparently, gave his modernist instincts some soul (and ‘Gershwin-like directness’), while the dreams of Boulez and Stockhausen ‘became corrupted’. And a regrettable false dichotomy opens up, which has solidified into the dominant narrative. Last year Howard Goodall’s BBC television documentary The Story of Music came to the same conclusion: modernism bad, minimalism good.
Hints that there might be more to minimalism than this mundane pop history came when I interviewed the pianist, composer and improviser Frederic Rzewski in 2002. During the mid-1960s, Rzewski toured with the Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti and minimalism was a key obsession: ‘except the term “minimalism” hadn’t yet evolved and it was simply another strand of the avant-garde. We performed music by Giuseppe Chiari, who was a master, but never became a cultural icon like Philip Glass. The success of Górecki in the early 1990s opened the door for people to appreciate music by Morton Feldman and Howard Skempton. And yet Chiari remains unfamiliar.’ Rzewski concluded with the thought that Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars became rich and famous. But what had happened to Chiari – and Thomas Schmitt, Terry Jennings and Eric Anderson? ‘They were major figures involved in the minimalist movement who have since disappeared from view.’
But what hope Chiari when the official minimalist yarn doesn’t know quite where to place two composers who were present right from the start as community organisers and catalysts of big ideas – Terry Riley and La Monte Young? Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain had its first airing, not in New York as is often assumed, but at the San Francisco Tape Music Center at 321 Divisadero on January 27, 1965. Reich has recalled being anxious and depressed about his piece, which he fully expected would be thoroughly disliked before disappearing without trace.
Twelve weeks earlier, on November 4, 1964, Reich had been involved in the premiere of another composition that dealt with repeating modules of melody. Terry Riley’s In C feels today like the unruly country cousin of the minimalism that would eventually turn up in New York. Riley handed his musicians 53 melodic fragments arranged on a single sheet of paper which they worked through in sequence, repeating each module at will as they zoned inside the unfolding heterophony of sound, using their instinct to guide them towards moving forwards through the piece. Reich came up with the smart idea of having one musician set the pulse by repeating top C on a keyboard, a role he fulfilled in the first performance. Meanwhile, musicians including the saxophonist Jon Gibson, then a disciple of John Coltrane, and Pauline Oliveros (accordion) and Morton Subotnick (clarinet), who would later become known for their work with electronics, listened and felt their way through Riley’s piece – ensemble music functioning in a way utterly alien to Western concert music.
But Riley, 80 this year, had no reason to organise his music after any European model. California born, a student of the Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, an admirer of John Cage and John Coltrane, Riley’s relationship to the idea of a notated score, and the sounds he wanted that score to generate, was necessarily very different. For Riley, notation was not just about reading. He expected his musicians to internalise his melodic modules to the extent that they could not only hear, but feel them. Essentially, they took ownership from Riley, In C building from their sensitive ensemble - listening as a network of overlapping conversations was triggered – questions and answers, no one allowed to dominate the floor or press their point of view too assertively.
Riley’s point of compositional departure was his realisation that Indian music and Coltrane’s modally anchored jazz, as stylistically distinct as they were, shared one common characteristic: cosmic rhythmic energy flowed over relatively static harmony. His friend La Monte Young – who as a college student had befriended Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy – became Riley’s sounding board; but Young’s own extraordinary path through music was already under way. Having flirted with 12-tone technique and the conceptual, anti-art message of Fluxus (including works requiring a pianist to push his instrument through a wall and, elsewhere, to step inside the genitals of a whale), in 1960 Young’s Composition 1960 Number 7 suggested a future. By instinct Young was a distiller and simplifier who had already created a proto-minimalism with his 1958 Trio for Strings, which slowed down to a crawl, and isolated, corners of 12-tone rows. But the score of Composition 1960 Number 7 showed a B natural and an F sharp suspended on the stave, with the simple instruction: ‘To be held for a very long time’.
And this is the moment, surely, that the minimalist seed was planted. That apparently simple instruction, though, was not as simple as it seemed. The perfect fifth encapsulated the most fundamental of all intervallic relationships – that between the tonic root and the dominant fifth – but how should that interval be tuned and, once sounded, what should you do next? Riley and Young came to a mutual understanding that equal-tempered tuning was an unpleasant and unnecessary evil: just intonation was their tuning system of choice and much of the music they created during this period – the drones, the leisurely repetitions, the shamanistic intensity of colliding patterns – explore Riley’s idea that ‘Western music is fast because it’s not in tune’. Composition 1960 Number 7 feels like the start of minimalism because all points – from Cage’s 4'33", to Coltrane’s modes and Indian drones – pass through. It was the brave new sound of tomorrow.
‘Minimalism, as Rzewski implies, was a modernism too’
In New York, the city of Charles Mingus, Elliott Carter, Deborah Harry and Bob Dylan – who all wanted to intensify music, to pack musical structure with more event and polarities of emotion – Steve Reich and Philip Glass were pedalling this new music that, to those looking in from the outside, fused Wagnerian length with the plainness of Eric Satie. Reich’s Four Organs – one chord gradually increased over a 30-minute duration – caused a Rite of Spring-style fracas at Carnegie Hall in 1973, while Glass’s first recording of Music in Twelve Parts, made in 1975, is a whole sound world away from slick and polished later recordings. The ensemble barely keeps to the equal-tempered straight and narrow. Saxophones and keyboards churn and wail; structural points of demarcation are pointier and brutally cut. This performance satisfies the same constructivist, cerebral pleasures as Stockhausen’s Gruppen or Boulez’s Structures. Minimalism, as Rzewski implies, was a modernism too.
And what of those composers Rzewski mentioned? The neglect of Terry Jennings feels especially inexplicable and unjust. A childhood friend of La Monte Young, a Jennings piece is typically understated, serene as it plays coy games with tonality. The music of Howard Skempton and Laurence Crane is much indebted. Giuseppe Chiari, always on the conceptual margins of minimalism, kept faith in his ideas of music existing in a hinterland between sound and speech, vocal inflection being altered by carefully choreographed movements of the body.
At some point in time, the tendency to strip musical ideas back to minimal means turned into Minimalism: the genre. Reich and Glass, and later Adams, like to be liked and the backstory of awkward tuning systems and the orgiastic counterpoint of In C become quietly abandoned as minimalism reigns supreme. Personally, disillusionment set in when Reich’s The Four Sections appeared on Nonesuch in 1990 and the project of transferring Reich’s ideas onto an orchestral canvas (the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas) made little sense. Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians reconfigured the relationship between harmony and structure. Tiny motivic ideas were made to swim in big ponds. Suddenly a music existed that questioned the certainties of going to a concert hall to hear perfectly formed 20-minute pieces. The sound of Reich’s ensemble – singers vocalising through microphones, the bebop rhythmic bounce of mallets against marimbas and glockenspiel – was lost within the weight of a mass of instruments designed to carry another sort of music.
Minimalism began to appear where you least expected it – in The Netherlands, where Louis Andriessen’s music, derived independently of Reich and Glass, becomes known as ‘Dutch minimalism’, while ‘holy minimalism’, the devotional music of Tavener, Górecki and Pärt, becomes a commercial goer. We’re all minimalists now.
The pulsating tonal shimmer of John Adams’s orchestral music becomes the default soundworld of a whole generation of post-minimalist composers: Joseph Schwantner, Michael Torke, Carter Pann. A minimalist orthodoxy becomes as discernable as those suffocating post-serial tendencies that Reich and Glass are said to have rebelled against in the 1960s. The next generation of minimalist composers have themselves now reached comfortable middle-age. Bang On A Can, which began in 1987 when three New York composers – Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, then in their twenties – presented a marathon concert of new music inside a downtown art gallery in New York City that kicked off at two in the afternoon and finished 12 hours later, is the most direct descendant of the pioneering work of Reich and Glass.
Bang On A Can sounds like the name of a fabled rock album that somehow history never got around to recording. Wolfe once told me, ‘Early minimalist pieces developed over a slow trajectory and I sometimes think we took that idea and condensed it, perhaps re-energising Reich and Glass’s ideas about rhythm with the grooves we’d heard on Jimi Hendrix or Earth, Wind and Fire records.’ But it’s often forgotten that, before ‘minimalism’ became all invasive, ‘process music’ was the preferred term with which to identify the characteristic traits of Glass and Reich. Bang On A Can composers reinvestigated the processes of minimalism and found something fresh therein.
But minimalism has also become another way of doing music, another set of rules to be followed – a contemporary sound there for the taking. Is there another 15 minutes of fame left to be plucked from the air? Will the humble and subservient arpeggio live to fight another day? Masterworks produced during the 1960s and ’70s were restorative and optimistic – the stuff of sound cloud dreams – and the composerly instinct to investigate process, to put the theoretically rigorous together with the sensuously immediate, is the overriding legacy of the minimalist ideal. The music is wonderful; the lessons just as important.
Philip Glass org Dorothy Pixley-Rothschild vn
(Orange Mountain Music)
This was our first sighting of Glass on record, indeed this was the first-ever all-Glass concert.
Riley and musicians
Cut in New York in 1968, this first recording of In C remains striking in its exhilarating, trippy rawness.
Steve Reich and His Musicians
Reich’s Four Organs remains, depending on your point of view, his most fascinatingly didactic — or utterly infuriating — score.
Bang On A Can All-Stars
To celebrate the All-Stars’ 25th anniversary, here’s music by the post-Reich and Glass generation: Lang, Gordon, Wolfe et al.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Gramophone.