Notes on Minimalism (February, 2005)

I wrote program notes for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project‘s Minimalism concert in February, 2005, featuring Elena Ruehr’s Shimmer, Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3, Steve Reich’s Tehillim, and John Adams’s Common Tones in Simple Time.

The definition of the term “Minimalism” is hotly contested, and even more so amongst those accused of writing minimal music. This music is often repetitive, but sometimes it consists of a single chord pitch sustained at great length. So-called minimalist music is usually tonal, at least in the United States, but there is a strong showing of atonal minimalist music in Europe. Some argue that minimalist music started in the 1960’s in New York and California, but others trace it much farther back to the experimental works of John Cage in the 1950’s. The minimal pantheon of composers comprises several composers whose current output could not be defined as minimal even with the most radical working definition. How, then, can we discuss what comprises minimalism as a movement or school of thought?

One of the most important elements of this music is the pulse. Most of the early minimal masterpieces were unconducted, or were conducted from a keyboard instrument like Baroque chamber music. A pulse helps this kind of music keep together, and it turns music-making into a communal experience ““ pictures of the first performances of Philip Glass’s early works depict seven or eight musicians sitting in a circle, sitting at keyboards, various wind instruments, scraps of paper and cups of coffee. This is music written by a composer for his friends. The music repeats until a leader nods his head, at which point everybody agrees to proceed to the next line of the page. The same is true for Steve Reich’s early works, wherein repetition is ended by a single player incanting a series of notes from a vibraphone ““ a technique he borrows from West African drumming. Again, the communal experience and the shared pulse are at the heart of these works. Glass has said about this music: “What was radical wasn’t the language of the music but the way you were invited to hear it.” It is a sort of urban folk music that, for some, is as evocative of the 1960’s as Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan.

Like most important musical innovations, the minimalist music of the 1960’s and 70’s was vociferously rejected by many established composers. In that minimalism was, in part, a response to the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Milton Babbitt, and Pierre Boulez, there was very little mutual respect between composers working in lofts in SoHo and those working in the universities of New York and Paris. The negative reactions are too numerous to list here, but there are famous stories: the brilliantly cantankerous Ned Rorem has called Glass’s music “all style and no content,” a disgruntled concertgoer angrily rapped her high-heeled shoe against the stage during the premiere of Steve Reich’s Four Organs, a critic wrote that John Adams’s Nixon in China did for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger. What shocked critics and composers alike was that audiences were having positive reactions to this repetitive, sterile music. Minimalism, as a reactionary movement, is not unlike the Puritan movement in New England with its central idea of removing ornaments and irrelevant decoration from its most basic messages. And like most reactionary movements, it had internal resistance and development, like the 17th century factions offshooting to Rhode Island under the even more refined spiritual leadership of Roger Williams. It is significant that the first published piece in Glass’s catalogue is called 1+1 and does not even call for instruments (only an amplified table-top): this is an explicit and radical break from the elaborate matrices and cryptography of serial music. There was an immediate response: audiences were beginning to seek out these musical “˜happenings’ rather than attending traditional concerts with thorny (but character-building) twelve-tone programming.

Perhaps, then, the music is not as emotionally empty as some have argued. For a generation of audiences and musicians raised on the great symphonic works of the 19th century, it is true that the churning, hypnotic repetitions of minimalist music can seem pointless and content-less. The question, of course, is what defines content, and in turn, what that content is meant to do (if anything). An example: in Wagnerian composition, musical content consists of a collection of motives, harmonies and themes associated with certain characters, moods, or physical gestures. This content is then molded and sculpted along a dramatic arc, reaching a climax and resolving itself somehow. The great scene of Götterdämmerung wherein the world comes crashing down is a perfect example of music that is overflowing with this sort of content. However, a generation later, the idea of a large romantic expression of emotion can itself seem dated, trite, and melodramatic. In twelve-tone music, content is generated and manipulated through certain mathematical devices and can generously be compared to the elegance of complex sciences (the venerable Milton Babbitt, in a delicious anecdote, tells of sharing an office with Albert Einstein at Princeton). In the 50’s and 60’s, minimalist composers discovered that audiences could become emotionally engaged by listening to a gently repeating pattern, as if they were looking at the ocean or the sky for an extended period of time. This experience can be no less sublime than the tossing and turning of Wagner or Mahler. To this day, Steve Reich and Musicians (many of whom are the same from the loft concerts in the 60’s) make yearly world tours, and live performances by the Philip Glass Ensemble are attended like rock concerts. Even John Adams, who is a generation younger than Glass and Reich, has a following among young people and non-musicians.

The importance of John Adams’s contribution to (and subsequent departure from) so-called minimalism cannot be overstated. While he is clearly heavily influenced by Glass’s bubbling internal rhythms and Reich’s harmonies, there has always been something more expressive and outdoorsy about Adams’s music. One of the earliest pieces in his catalogue, Phrygian Gates (1977) for solo piano, demonstrates the contrast between his influences and his innovation: it starts simply, with pulses and repetition, but soon blossoms into an explosion in the bass register that has more to do with late Beethoven than Reich or Glass. Shaker Loops (1978) for string septet starts with mechanical-sounding music that, by the end of its 30-minute duration, has expanded into a churning, erotic music with the emotional weight of Mahler or Anton Bruckner. Adams, some say, reintroduced a more romantic idea of “content” into minimalist music. In the case of Shaker Loops, though, the content is one of the most primal and essential options: God. Adams’s project ““ implicit or explicit ““ is to call attention to the fact that respectful and religious content can be found in even the simplest musical devices. This itself represents a break from the simple and pure but rigid math of Glass’s early works, which brings to mind that Shakers and Quakers were themselves ecstatic offshoots of the Massachusetts Puritans. In this case, however, almost everybody followed Adams’s lead, and the work of both Reich and Glass began to explore the ecstatic possibilities of simplicity. Tehillim is therefore an even more important development in the minimalist movement, as Reich presents the chanting of the Psalms ““ one of the simplest and purest forms of worship ““ with twitchy and radiant fervency. We are all Rhode Islanders now.

ELENA RUEHR (b. 1963)

Elena Ruehr’s Shimmer takes many cues from Shaker Loops. From the onset, we hear a pulse that remains essentially constant throughout the piece’s ten minutes. The pulse outlines a ten-note series which itself suggests a continuous harmonic progression. Gradually, individual notes begin to be sustained by solo strings only to vanish into the pulsing texture again. Is this the outline of a melody? Or just the ear focusing on a detail in the fabric? Ruehr writes, “Shimmer uses imitative counterpoint as its basis. However, the harmony, rhythm, and form is structured using a cyclical ten-note series instead of traditional tonality.” One of the compositional advantages of using a cycle (which we will also see in the third movement of Glass’s Symphony No. 3) is that the music can move through different textures and still retain its continuity. Ruehr uses various techniques such as pizzicato, snap pizzicato, trills, and ornaments to vary the texture but retains the cycle at the heart of the piece. She continues, describing that “the piece starts with a four-part canon in mid-range, overlaid with two-part counterpoint in the treble and bass. Undergoing constant variation, the music finally culminates in an extended passage of five-voice counterpoint. After a brief recapitulation, it continues building to an energetic and percussive end.”

Ruehr’s work contains many of the fundamental characteristics of minimalist music ““ a steady pulse, a constant harmonic progression, a smooth, homophonic texture ““ and yet, it is expressive, powerful, and always interesting. Additionally, its repetition occurs on a larger, more structural level than found in “classical” minimalism. Can this piece be considered minimalist? I would propose that this music is decidedly post-minimal, demonstrating a solid grounding in the classical techniques of 1960’s minimalism, but pointing towards older music (Ruehr cites Vivaldi as an influence in Shimmer) as a gesture towards the future.

PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937)
Symphony No. 3

Just as Ruehr’s Shimmer glances back to the Baroque period, the very title of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3 remembers the Romantic past. Glass’s music in the 1960’s could not have been farther from a classical or romantic symphony, a form usually consisting of three or four movements with varying character with short pauses in between. Glass’s concert and stage works through the 1980’s resist traditionally classical forms, instead relying on quasi-Eastern techniques of large-scale repetitive structures and harmonic stability. Glass’s first footsteps in the symphonic language were, curiously, inspired by David Bowie and Brian Eno’s album Low (1977), resulting in Glass’s Low Symphony of 1992. Further efforts include his Heroes Symphony (1996), also based on Bowie and Eno, and the Symphony No. 2 (1994). Leonard Slatkin will premiere Glass’s seventh symphony in 2005 at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC ““ a radical change from the rag-tag ensemble of Farfisa organs, winds, and singers in New York City in 1967.

Symphony No. 3 was, however, written for a good friend and longtime collaborator of Glass, Dennis Russell Davies, the conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. The symphony begins with an extended movement almost entirely focused on a single pitch (c). The music pulls away and ventures into dark, sometimes ominous terrain only to jump back to the central note. The second movement begins with a long line with strong accents outlining a constantly shifting beat. This line continues for almost the entire movement, but is interrupted by a delicate texture of plucked strings about two minutes before the end of the movement. Glass weaves an ornamented, exotic line over these gentle plucked strings and brings the movement to a quiet conclusion.

The third movement of the symphony is a chaconne ““ a repeated chord progression that builds through layers rather than through development. The piece starts with cellos and violas, and each time the chords recycle, Glass adds another group of instruments playing slightly different rhythms, creating a highly dynamic series of chords whose textures are constantly undulating. About three minutes in, a solo violin plays a lyrical line several octaves above the churning chords. This line is then supported with another solo violin trilling below it, and then a third joins to play a serpentine collection of scales and broken octaves. The texture grows more and more ornate and elaborate until it fades out with a repeated chord and a trilling violin. The conclusion of the symphony ““ the shortest of the four movements ““ revisits the exotic line from the end of the second movement but presents it rhythmically and aggressively. A pair of scales ““ one ascending and another descending ““ ushers the movement to a quiet end.

STEVE REICH (b. 1936)

Steve Reich’s 1981 Tehillim (“Psalms”) is one of the best examples of the emotional possibilities in post-minimal music. Unlike in his earlier works, there is no repetition of short phrases in Tehillim. Rather, the work is constructed around long melodies that repeat in their entirety, and are subjected to traditional processes such as canon and augmentation (lengthening) at each repetition. This is not a stylistic revolution in Reich’s work, however. He writes, “I use repetition as a technique when that is where my musical intuition leads me, but I follow that musical intuition wherever it leads.” In Tehillim, it is the texts themselves that guide Reich’s intuition, and as a result, the work is an incredibly sensitive setting of four psalms as well as a powerful piece of music for orchestra. It also marks a spiritual turning point in Reich’s development, as it uses the techniques he honed in the radical music of the 1960’s and 70’s to focus the listener’s attention on God.

The instrumentation itself is informed by the texts as well as by Reich’s personal aesthetic, which is distinct from all other minimal music of the 1970’s and 80’s. The six percussionists are asked to play tuned tambourines without jingles, which are an ancient instrument mentioned in Psalm 150, as well as crotales (small tuned metal discs appearing as “well-tuned cymbals” in the bible), small shakers and rattles, and hand-clapping. These percussive elements form the rhythmic backbone of the work: the pulse that continues from the first note until the end. In addition to the four singers and six percussionists, Reich adds two electric organs, strings, piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, and two clarinets. The string instruments are to be played without vibrato ““ a technique Reich takes from Early Music to give his string chords a sharp, precise buzz, and the voices, when singing without vibrato, should be reminiscent of vocal music of the pre-baroque era. This combination of non-repetitive vocal lines, a percussive heartbeat and early music performance style, writes Reich, “marks this music as unique by introducing a basic musical element that one does not find in earlier Western practice including the music of this century. Tehillim may thus be heard as traditional and new at the same time.”

The work begins with solo drumming and clapping as a voice sings in Hebrew: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” About a minute in, a second voice joins the first, in canon. The voices continue to enter one by one, and are joined by pointed chords in the strings. Suddenly, all four voices are in canon, and are accompanied by Reich’s signature endurance test for the maraca player, which also appears in the austere Four Organs and the more decadent Music for Eighteen Musicians. It’s an ecstatic moment: insistent 16th notes in the maraca, 8th notes pattering in the winds, organs and voices, and glacially slow harmonies in the strings and low winds. The effect is at once fast, athletic, slow, and monumental. Reich prolongs this texture for several minutes, until it dwindles down to solo voice and clarinet over drums and strings, repeating the original melody.

After a short drum and maraca transition, the second text begins with two voices and clarinets in two-part harmony. This second section of Tehillim gives the singers occasional rests, trading their melodies with the English horn and the clarinet. About two minutes in, a high voice joins the other two and fully articulates the highest range of the soprano on the word tov (“good”). The next short section consists of incessant drumming, clapping, and maracas placed over eight long chords in the strings. When the voices rejoin them, the vocal lines have become longer, and smooth melismas make the texture more lush and flexible. The second section ends with the only full pause in Tehillim, after which the drumming and clapping is replaced with marimbas and vibraphones similarly pulsing. Reich writes: “This third text is not only the first slow movement I have composed since my student days but also the most chromatic music I have ever composed.” An important example of 20th century word-painting occurs in this movement on the word ee-kaysh (“perverse”), when Reich employs the tritone: the age-old “bad” interval used since the beginning of notated music to represent wickedness, the Devil, or any sort of perversion.

The fourth and final movement of Tehillim brings all the elements of the first three movements together: the canonical complexity of the first movement, the polyphony of the second, and the rich mallet textures of the third. The text of the fourth movement is taken from Psalm 150 and is one of the most musical passages in the book of Psalms. Reich matches the text by using the ensemble in its entirety, and adding the brilliant shimmer of the crotales (the “well-tuned cymbals” of the text). The coda, on the single word “Halleluyah” is, in effect, a recapitulation of all the techniques of the entire work, reinforcing the last line of the psalm: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Halleluyah!” The young American conductor Alan Pierson and his Alarm Will Sound ensemble has recently released a disc on Canteloupe records featuring new recordings of both Tehillim and The Desert Music ““ both large-scale choral works by Reich. It is an important landmark for this music that a young ensemble would record and actively perform such a complex and difficult work, and should indicate the lasting power and generational relevance of Reich’s work.

JOHN ADAMS (b. 1947)
Common Tones in Simple Time

One of the defining characteristics of the early stages of the minimalist movement is simple, descriptive titles. Works like Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts and Music in Similar Motion, Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians and Music for a Large Ensemble focus the attention on the music itself rather than on a programmatic agenda (as might be the case with evocatively-titled 20th century works like Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending or Jean Sibelius’s Finlandia). At first, Adams’s Common Tones in Simple Time (1980) appears to be the same sort of sterile, descriptive title. However, Adams has written that this piece is like “a pastorale with pulse” ““ a non-melodic and non-programmatic work, certainly, but not one entirely dissociated with images. Michael Steinberg, writing in 1986 when the work was played in its current form in San Francisco likens the experience to “flying or gliding over a landscape of gently changing colors and textures.”

The piece is constructed as a series of harmonies blending into one another through notes that are shared by the two chords (the “common tones” of the title). Each harmony has its own textural identity: some are highly defined, pointillistic mallet and oboe textures, with insect-like outbursts, and others are liquid and shimmering: vibraphone and string glissandi hovering above oscillating trumpets. The transitions between these textures are slow, elegant, and almost imperceptible until they have already happened. There is one texture that is constant, however, made up of two pianos playing the same material one 16th-note apart. This is a live version of a digital-delay effect, giving Adams’s landscape an electric glow, and yet, looking back on Adams’s work, we can see that image of the two grand pianos is one of the cornerstones in the emotional content of his music. They reappear in outrageous, erotic glory in Grand Pianola Music (1981) and again in a more vernacular, West Coast setting in his 1996 Hallelujah Junction.

Taking a hint from Reich, Adams’s early music is at once very fast and very slow. There is a 16th-note pulse that carries throughout Common Tones in Simple Time, and yet, from a harmonic standpoint, the piece barely moves at all. To extend Steinberg’s notion further, Common Tones in Simple Time is an experience in foreground and background: objects close to the listener appear in vivid detail, shimmering and moving quickly, whereas the landscape in the distance changes extremely slowly and monumentally. This illusion is best heard about fifteen minutes into the piece, when the vibraphone and harps begin to pulse incessantly and are soon joined by high strings. This busy motion soon gives way to a foggy glimpse of Bb major in the lowest registers of the orchestra. All at once, the foreground activity of flute, string harmonics, and piercing oboes is overshadowed by a mountainous shift from Bb-major down to A-major, as executed by brass and pianos. Adams then reinforces this harmony with a cascade of quickly moving bells, flutes, piccolos, and slowly glistening strings. This is a distinctly American music: the music of the cross-country road trip, the slowly changing landscape above the quickly moving pavement.

Copyright 2004 Nico Muhly

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