Friday, August 17, 2012

An Introduction to Musical Minimalism

I remember hearing a Minimalist piece for the first time. I was sitting in the parking lot of Churchill Heights Elementary School in Scarborough more than 30 years ago. It had started to play while I was driving and I decided to listen to the end (in order to know what it was in those pre-internet days) which made me late for my class. The piece was In C by Terry Riley played by a saxophonist using a tape loop. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before.

The movement arose in New York in the 1960s at which point it was experimental music, outside the mainstream of contemporary academic music. The music was pretty austere at first. In its purest form, in which certain predetermined procedures are executed and allowed to run their course, it is called Process Music. In that way Process Music is somewhat akin to Serialism, although the controlled elements are much different as is the musical result.

Over time, composers who are identified as Minimalists have personalized the stylistic traits and content of the music. Different composers who employ minimalistic techniques as the primary organizing principal now produce very diverse pieces.

If the first of these recordings engages you, come back to this posting and listen to the others later so you don’t get listening fatigue. Each composition is worthy of fresh ears.

Here is a recording of Terry Riley’s pioneering In C. The piece is written for undeterminate musicians and is of indeterminate length although it tends to last about 30 minutes. This is somewhat shorter.

Steve Reich’s Double Sextet won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2009. It’s a lot more approachable than some of his earlier music.


I had the good fortune to attend a performance of Philip Glass's third “opera,” Akhnaten, at the English National in 1983. I’d already seen Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (which is accompanied by a Glass score, or perhaps the other way around) a couple of times so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I was gobsmacked! It was, absent any conventional narrative, utterly entrancing.

Here is the very well know piano solo piece that opens Glassworks, a chamber piece. He wrote it specifically to make his music more accessible to a general audience. He also collaborated with David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and Suzanne Vega on Songs from Liquid Days which featured Linda Ronstadt on vocals.

This brings us to John Adams. I've been listening to A Guide to Strange Places, which I really enjoy. His 1978 chamber piece (later arranged for string orchestra) “Shaker Loops” was a turning point in his compositional style. Each part repeats (loops) but each part has a different “period” i.e. length so the way they sound together is constantly changing. His opera “Nixon in China” seems to be entering the standard repertoire. Here’s the recording of his best known orchestral piece “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”

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