West Coast Minimalist Blues

I rarely pay public attention to reissues – I’ve been collecting records since 1967, after all, since the recorded birth of new music itself, and I got most of the music that interests me the first time around. But a new three-disc set reissued from the hip southern-California label Cold Blue has me so mesmerized I can hardly quit listening to it, and there was only one piece on it I’d heard before. In the 1980s, like a flash in the night, Cold Blue released seven 10-inch vinyl records epitomizing the then-state of California minimalism, and the only one I had ever gotten hold of was Peter Garland’s Matachin Dances. Now if you believe Peter Garland – and you should, because his lone-voice-in-the-wilderness alternative narrative of American music history is the underground conscience of our field (I once saw a hall full of musicologists leap to their feet and give Peter a thundering standing ovation for having harangued us all that we didn’t understand the real Henry Cowell) – if you believe Garland, minimalism was first of all a widespread, lovely, slow, pastoral, California movement that got hijacked, publicity-wise, by the energetic, steady-rhythm New York minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I’ve been guilty of pushing the mainstream narrative myself, though under Peter’s nagging guidance I’ve made sure that Harold Budd, James Tenney, Daniel Lentz, and other West-Coasters got their due. But this set, “The Complete 10-inch Series from Cold Blue” (CB0014) makes me realize that California minimalism was a broader and richer scene than most of us east of the Rockies ever knew.

The music that wows me most here is by composer and instrument-builder Chas Smith, a name that’s remained at the outer edge of my musical consciousness for years and has now moved into the center. Disc 3 has four of his pieces for pedal steel guitar (an underacknowledged instrument that only West Coasters – Sasha Matson, for instance – seem to have discovered) and 12-string dobro. Smith’s pieces are sparse in notes but lush in timbre, gorgeous, restful, and the longest one, Scircura, is a ravishing continuum on an ostinato in two rising triplets (B E G# B F# A#) that draws you in and hypnotizes you by playing with your rhythmic perceptions. Equally lovely, if less lush, are some piano pieces from the late 1970s by Michael Jon Fink: tonal, sparse, with a lonely Harold-Budd feel, and beautifully recorded. The ’70s were a time you could indulge simple yet completely counterintuitive gestures – as Fink does in Vocalise by having a cello and piano play the same slow, single-note melody in unison – with stunning effect.

Garland has surpassed his Matachin Dances in other, more ambitious chamber works – I especially recommend his Another Sunrise disc on Mode. But for years Matachin Dances was about the only Garland you could find (though there had been an early minimalist piece for the Blackearth Percussion Ensemble), and it is paradigmatic: a set of dances for two violins and gourd rattles in Garland’s trademark simple, but not at all trite, melodic style. Daniel Lentz, one of my favorite composers of – no, I’m not even going to qualify that – has his old After Images disc rereleased here. I’d never heard it, but a couple of pieces had reappeared on his extremely hard-to-find Rhizome Sketch disc, b. e. comings. Dreamy, breathy, dripping in arpeggios, Lentz’s music had already achieved postminimalism by 1977, when everyone else was still toeing the minimalist line. Two pieces by Rick Cox have an eerier feel, sliding glissandos through poignant guitar harmonies and whispering unintelligible text over mellow electronic effects.

The remaining disc I find worthwhile but not quite as listenable. Half of it is text pieces by Read Miller, hypnotic in a repetitively cadencing, Robert Ashley-esque kind of way if you enjoy listening to unaccompanied text. Then there’s Clay Music by the late Barney Childs, a set of sweet little pieces for ceramic instruments like ocarinas that seems like it might be charming in live performance, but is a little too intrusive/tedious on CD. Cold Blue, which discontinued production for some 15 years, has resumed and to its great credit is still recording newer music by the same people they used to, who remain curiously resistant to fame. I’ve always felt like I ended up on the wrong side of the Rockies, and that I was meant, by nature, to be a West Coast composer. And this gorgeous set of discs makes me feel, somehow – homesick.