American minimalism

American minimalism

The great paradox of minimalist music: that it could in fact equally be called maximalist. Get to know American minimalisms great composers in this year’s Ultima programme in this article.

More than fifty years ago, three of the composers featured in this year’s Ultima festival were all members of a group that is surely one of the most influential in the post-war era. For such a significant ensemble, it’s surprisingly also one of the least documented. Beginning around 1964 in downtown New York, the Theatre of Eternal Music explored drones, microtones and extended performance durations, in work that occasionally resembled Indian classical music. Of its floating membership, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Tony Conrad and Terry Jennings developed reputations as avant garde composers; Young’s wife Marian Zazeela created extraordinary light shows; young Welshman John Cale shortly afterwards joined Lou Reed to form the Velvet Underground; and the enigmatic Angus Maclise made several cult recordings and disappeared on the hippy trail in Asia. These facts alone make the Theatre of Eternal Music undeniably one of the most influential groups in post-war music - feeding into rock, composition, world music, trance, and avant garde music, as well as electronic music and visual art.  





In the America of the early 1960s, minimalist music grew up at the same time as similar tendencies in the visual arts. The connections are even more tangible: the most famous of all musical minimalists, Philip Glass, worked as an assistant to Richard Serra, collaborated with painter Sol LeWitt and premiered one of his first works in the studio of light sculptor Donald Judd. Minimalism’s main quality is to be non-representational, anti-narrative. By focusing on the internal processes of music, listeners’ attention is placed on a sense of being in the moment, following the music’s gradual transformations, subtle phase shifts and steady pulses, with no clear goal in view. Its apparent simplicity and sense of being in the moment means its origins can be traced back to the aleatory chance operations of John Cage, while his friend and contemporary, Morton Feldman, crafted a different sort of sparse, spacious, gently repetitive music that prefigured the 60s generation and was often associated with the abstract expressionists of the period such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Philip Guston.  

Thinking about Feldman leads us to the great paradox of minimalist music: that it could in fact equally be called maximalist. A piece like the one performed at Ultima, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, or the ethereal four hour long String Quartet No. 2, require superhuman concentration from both performers and audiences – which is highly rewarded. As one critic has put it, you don’t listen to pieces like this so much as live through them.

La Monte Young’s early instructional ‘scores’ in association with the Fluxus art group opened up spaces of activity and creativity that were potentially infinite: ‘Draw a straight line and follow it’. The Theatre of Eternal Music’s pieces, bearing elaborate titles such as Map of 49’s Dream: The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Light-Years Tracery (which is itself only one section of a longer work entitle The Tortoise His Dreams and Journeys), unfolded over long, unfixed time scales. At their most extreme, Young and Zazeela performed a work lasting six years, between 1979–85, at their Dream House cultural space in Manhattan. 

Young remains a controversial figure in modern music; his work is seldom performed and he has ben criticised for keeping a vast archive of recorded work – featuring a group that operated collectively – out of the public domain. The most vocal critic has been his former colleague Tony Conrad, who followed his own path into avant garde structural film making, experimentations with hypnotic image and sound, and – following a brief but fascinating encounter with Krautrock band Faust – into the world of academia. In the 1990s, frustrated with La Monte Young’s refusal to release or give credit for archive material, Conrad began to record his own drone compositions for violin from three decades earlier with the Theatre of Eternal Music, and released them on CD under the provocative title of Early Minimalism. This document altered the history of minimalism and Conrad gave it a challenging, politicised spin when he accused Young, via another record called Slapping Pythagoras, of adopting a dictatorial position comparable to the unacceptable restrictions on musical freedom imposed by equal temperament in the 17th century.  

Meanwhile Terry Riley pursued his own path in the mid-60s using a combination of tape loops, saxophones and alternative tuning systems, especially just intonation. Composed in 1964, In C is often cited as the first major work of minimalism even tough Riley has disowned the term. It’s certainly one of the most accessible and frequently performed and recorded – everyone from Riley’s own ensemble to Damon Albarn & Africa Express and Adrian Utley from the band Portishead have created their own unique versions.

The score of In C is only one page long, consisting of a menu of 53 short musical phrases, and is designed for any number of performers (typically around 25 to 30), using any combination of instruments. Performers can play the individual elements in repeating patterns, beginning at different times, allowing the music’s atomic structure to constantly shift and rearrange it self. This construction, radical for the early 60s, immediately indicates that In C is a community-based project, requiring a high level of cooperation and interdependence from all the participants. Musicians must listen to each other and respond sympathetically, renegotiating the relationship of the individual to the larger body. A conductor can have very little say in this process: it’s an illustration of self-governance, grass-roots democracy in action.

Steve Reich was a friend and occasional collaborator with Riley in San Francisco before moving to New York in the late 1960s. He too adopted tape loops in some of his earliest recorded pieces such as Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain. Here the repeated rhythms and cadence of speech is converted, over multiple hearings, into musical phrases. Reich has returned to this technique in later works, including Different Trains for string quartet or string orchestra. It’s another highlight in the minimalist canon, and the product of Reich’s developing interest in his Jewish heritage. Using several interview transcripts with various individuals alive in the mid-20th century, Different Trains begins with depictions of the golden age of steam travel, and becomes progressively darker and more urgent as the trans-continental railroads are replaced by the death trains heading to Nazi concentration camps. If minimalism began as a totally abstract ideal, Reich has found a way of restoring signification and relevance into the format.  

Rob Young

Until the festival launch in September we’ll be presenting features to help you pick out the undercurrents flowing through the line-up. 
For a more in depth look at the minimalism at this year’s festival, see our feature here.