‘Minimalism’ (What’s in a word?)
Since seeing Philip Glass at last year’s Brighton Festival, I’ve now done the double and seen the two totems American minimalist music... well, sort of. Out of this weekend-long celebration of Steve Reich’s Seventieth birthday, this out-of-towner was able to make the Sunday evening concert – and in fact, not all of that! Still, let’s think positive and focus on what I did catch...
I’ve often thought minimalism to be the wrong description for this type of music. The word leads people to picture something restricted and austere; like one of those chairs made to illustrate a geometrical concept, which win awards but no-one would want to sit in.
Conversely, I find Reich’s music sonorous, vibrant and (above all) joyous! It’s minimalist in the sense that restrictions enable. He builds things up from the simplest of melodic lines, often generated by quite rigorous processes, but his genius lies in the way he makes them intersect. The result is like one of those pictures, so popular a decade or two ago, where funny squiggles could turn into 3D dinosaurs if you looked at them right. Those dinosaurs never appeared to me, no matter how much I squinted, but the resonances in Reich’s music definitely do. Simply, the longer you listen, the more there is to hear.
Ironically, Michael Nyman, the man who coined the term ‘minimalism’, has said much the same thing: “much of the charm... has to do with perceptual phenomena that were not actually played, but resulted from subtleties in the phase-shifting process. In other words the music often does not sound as simple as it looks.”
Perhaps not too much should be read into ‘minimalism’ not being Reich’s own term, for it’s fairly common for artistic movements to be named by people outside of them. But for the above reason I find more apposite a term Reich has used, ‘metamusic.’ (Of course with the pioneer of this style passing Seventy, we are past the point of being stuck with the term. I’m just saying, is all...)
A constituent element of this is a rejection of instrumental hierarchy. With the whole emphasis on interaction, no one instrument ‘leads’, however briefly. Kyle Gann explains: “the minimalist concept of instrumentation is based on the idea of music being a ritual in which everyone participates equally, not on the classical European paradigm of the painter's palette in which each instrument adds its dash of colour where needed.”
There feels something indefinably urban-utopian about the results. If Gershwin’s music suggested a Roaring Twenties conception of the city – hand-crafted automobiles sounding tuneful horns as they paraded down elegant avenues – Reich’s is of a city yet to be built, composed not of traffic jams and exhaust fumes but a harmony of gliding electric cars, dancing round grid blocks. Those pulsing beats, as trademark to Reich as punchy funk is to James Brown or motorik is to Neu!, sound redolent of teeming streets, exuberant and free-flowing and yet seemingly part of some underlying harmonious structure.
Yet that’s seeing it on a macroscale. Think of it on a microscale, and what comes to mind is the workings of nature. After the recent Gauguin exhibition, I observed that Gauguin’s depiction of a savage nature was at odds with our more modern view of “a machine too sophisticated for us, an intricate set of interlocking systems whose micro-complexity we struggle to understand.” Reich’s music epitomises that hidden sophistication better than anything. The way simple processes throw up such beguilingly rich and complex results always recalls in my mind the system of morphogenesis, where simple cellular forms can multiply into astonishing variety.
The Three Eras of Reich
I have always thought of Reich’s career as forming three distinct eras. Perhaps more by luck than design, there was something that night to represent each of these. (A representation which doesn’t work at all if you try to fit it chronologically, but let’s go with it anyway...)
In his early years, Reich devised his music according to quite rigid processes - leading to it being rather literally dubbed as ‘process music’. Sometimes this was simply tape loops phasing according to a strict set of rules. If his detractors’ claim is correct that his music is nothing but austere mathematics (reminder – it isn’t), this is where it would be most accurate.
These were exemplified by the pared-down sound of So Percussion who mostly performed in the bar area between acts (making even the interval eventful). Spying a low stage, I hung around this waiting for them to set up. However, it seems even that was too muso-ish for these guys, who started up somewhere else completely. I finally heard them from a distance, and it sounded so repetitive that (as in all the jokes) I first figured it to be a malfunctioning machine! However, once I’d finally found them and started listening to their incessant tapping it started to throw up those intricate 3D shapes.
Though Reich only joined them for one piece (the only time he performed anything that night) these performances were also reminiscent of the way he started out - playing lofts and other non-standard spaces with a small ensemble, rather than releasing finished scores to armies of trained professionals.
From such beginnings Reich would become more of (for want of a better word) a composer. (Though he never moved as far from his roots as Glass.) However, it is in the interchange, the mid-period between these, that my favorite Reich resides. (An era roughly corresponding to the Seventies and some of the Eighties.) On the night my heart beat fastest to ’Double Sextet’; which was actually written in ’07, and was receiving its London premiere. (Though Reich has called it “the piece you’d expect me to have written twenty years ago.”)
It was performed by the ensemble who first commissioned it, eighth blackbird (who seem to prefer their name in that lower case). However, there was one change to the way it was written. Eighth blackbird were accompanied by the celebrated Bang on a Can, instrument for instrument, lined up on stage like reflections of each other. As Reich explains here, in a method familiar for him, he had written it to be played alongside a tape of itself. Though this change to doubling up did no harm, and the method was doubtless originally devised partly just to make logistics easier, this is worth looking into.
From symphony orchestras to Phil Spector’s multi-tracking techniques, doubling up instrumentation is traditionally used for power, to get the sound ganging up on your ears. I don’t believe that’s at all what interests Reich. He’s more concerned with the way the reflection is never perfect, things are never quite in phase, perhaps so marginally that its barely perceptible to your ear. The result is a sound which shimmers rather than is solid.
Spencer Grady at the BBC has called ’Double Sextet’ “arguably one of Reich’s finest works” and the piece won at Pulitzer prize. Though ’You Are (variations)’ was actually written a year earlier, it was more representative of Reich’s later sound and couldn’t quite compete. This may be down to the much fuller instrumentation, with both the Britten Sinfonia and Synergy Vocals pitching in. It may even be significant that the number of players increased with each successive ‘era’, working against Reich’s ability to do more with less.
And, though ’You Are (Variations)’ is hardly a poetic or expansive name, it goes against the defiantly flatly descriptive names of earlier pieces, such as ’Drumming’ or ’Clapping Music.’ But of course to call a Reich piece lesser than its fellows is to praise with faint damning, it would have been a highlight of any other night.
The afore-mentioned Kyle Gann, himself a post-minimalist composer, has written good pieces on both minimalism and postminimalism that even a music theory ignoramus like me can follow.
Here’s an excerpt from ’Clapping Music’ in Austin and the opening to ’Double Sextet’ performed in Moscow. (Further parts are clickable.)
...and as for that influence...
This event was described as “a weekend long marathon of pioneering music, as Steve Reich is joined by some of today’s most visionary artists to explore his influence on generations of composers and musicians.” My one-shot attendance left me missing (among many others) Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo and Battles’ Tyondai Braxton.
However, overall I felt a little ambiguous over this plan. After recently lamenting the narrowness of Richard Thompson’s audience, I was pleasantly surprised to see the diversity for Reich – from long grey beards to trendy T-shirts. This perhaps reflected the range of Reich's influence, from 'serious composers' to popular music. However, I wonder if his influence has been broader than deep, and if it’s not the type of influence that lends itself well to this sort of tribute.
After the Stones, a space opened up for bands who sounded like the Stones. (Especially as the Stones themselves got progressively worse at this task.) After Reich, a space opened up – but it wasn’t at all for people who sounded like him. The Guardian ran a companion feature to this event, inviting composers and musicians to describe his influence on them. Though praising Reich, Owen Pallett assessed this as “little, or none... I derive most of my inspiration from musicians whose ideas are not fully formed... Reich's music is complete: nothing can be added to it.”
...in which case the tendency is either to slavishly imitate or chop into pieces, the easier to steal them. The programme notes by Tim Rutherford-Jones are rightly disparaging about the Orb’s sampling of Reich, with his “intricate polyrhythms... locked to a 4/4 beat.” It’s like when a Hollywood film takes a Shakespeare plotline because they think it will give them gravitas – they haven’t really taken anything at all.
Reich’s actual influence lies in a different, less definable dimension. He led us, at least in the West, to break down the tradition and see music in a different way. As
Ironically, when Owen Pallett actually performed, rather than an positive association all I could hear was the “little or none” of Reich’s influence. His rather pretty-pretty symphonic pop came over like a crossed wavelength - like being made to listen to a random hour of Radio 2, before you were permitted your Radio 3 programme.
As a founder member of Bang on a Can (who have frequently performed Reich pieces) and a self-described ‘post-minimalist’ composer, you may have expected Julia Wolfe to fall into the merely imitative camp. In fact her piece was both a fitting counterpoint to Reich and genuinely enthralling in its own right.
’Cruel Sister’ is derived from an old murder ballad, popularised by Pentangle, though it takes not one note from the original. Where Reich is serene, shimmering and hides its activity under outward calm, this was agitated, dynamic and full of tonal variety. If Wolfe hadn’t told us beforehand death came by drowning, we would have guessed the piece to be based around the power of the sea. The strings undulated menacingly, swelling up into great bursts before falling away again into low throbs. Force lurked around the piece, which always suggested at a power greater than it was displaying. (Like the way a good horror film will steep you in an atmosphere of menace, more important than anything it shows you.)
You might even be able to claim it as neo-classical; in a highly un-Reichean development it has distinct movements! (Which I’m as loathe to give away as I would the plot of a film or novel.) However it never quite fell back into the Debussy era of emulating the sound of the sea; instead its force is evoked, like an expressive but abstract drawing.
Her own website may be able to put it better than me: “Wolfe's music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. In the words of the Wall Street Journal, Wolfe has "long inhabited a terrain of [her] own, a place where classical forms are recharged by the repetitive patterns of minimalism and the driving energy of rock."
(You can click through to hear the second part. And be sure to check out ’Fuel’ while you’re there.)
Alas, lack of tonal harmony in both the train and tube system, combined with needing to be in work the next morning, drove your humble scribe into leaving before either Clogs or Max Richter had performed. They sounded, I would imagine, something like this...