Metametrics: Origins 3

Probably no one but me gives a damn whether John Luther Adams’s music is postminimalist or totalist. As far as the specific terms go, I don’t give a damn either. But when I started surveying, in the 1980s, all the music that passed through New York (and, via recording, the rest of the country as well), I couldn’t help but notice that, among composers who were continuing and developing the minimalist aesthetic, there were two groups of qualities that almost always went together. The composers whose music was based on a steady beat virtually throughout, usually an 8th- or 16-th note pulse, also tended to use diatonic tonality, quasi-minimalist structures like additive process or permutation, mostly quiet dynamics, and acoustic timbres augmented by the occasional synthesizer. Those who used competing tempos, either simultaneously or interlocked somehow, tended to use more dissonant sonorities, more global large-scale rhythmic structures, mostly loud dynamics, and amplified or electric instruments such as guitars. For the former I appropriated the already-current but undefined word postminimalism; for the other the word totalism was provided. The distinction between the two styles was so striking and consistent that it would have seemed capriciously anti-intellectual, an act of scholarly irresponsibility, to have neglected to articulate my observations. Yet, judging from the comments I’ve received in subsequent years, the vast majority of musicians wish I had done exactly that: leave my musicological data on the ground where I found it.

Very few composers wrote music that combined different qualities from those two styles, but one major one who did was John Luther Adams. More often than not his tonality is diatonic, using a seven-note scale (often the “white” notes) with no pitch ever given precedence. Yet some of his pieces, like Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing and his piano cluster piece Among Red Mountains, have proved that he is just as happy to use the entire chromatic spectrum and a maximum of dissonance. His music for pitched instruments is almost always soft; his percussion music is mostly fortissimo. Nominally, his music falls square in the totalist camp because it almost always layers different tempos together. But some of John’s implied tempos are very slow, giving a new pulse only every 10 or 15 seconds, so that the effect seems more postminimalist, without the gear-shifting surface complexity you find in much totalist music. Even when he has 4-against-5-against-6-against-7 in each measure, the effect – achieved pianissimo with mallet percussion, celeste, and harp – is not so much one of tempo contrasts as of indistinct clouds of notes. No other composer from the minimalist tradition so resists being pulled into one definition or the other.

Dream in White on White (1992) has been surpassed in its ambitions by many of John’s works, but it became a prototype for one side of his ouput, and was a watershed in his development. Scored for string quartet, harp, and string orchestra, the piece opens with the string orchestra playing seven-note chords, changing to a new one every 2 and 2/3 measures. The solo quartet enters with chords changing every two measures, for a slow 3:4 rhythm. The harp then enters in four-note phrases in quintuplets, a new phrase every 1 and 3/5 measures. Thus the phrase rhythm is 20:15:12 by duration, or 3:4:5 by tempo, coming back in phase every 8 measures. At measure 53, the string quartet launches into what is marked as the “Lost Chorales,” outlining out-of-phase 4- and 5-beat loops between the two violins versus viola and cello. You can see those relationships, against the recurring harp and string orchestra pulses, in this example:


The next section has plucked notes in the quartet and harp outlining faster 3:4:5 rhythms in each measure, over a chord periodicity of 1 and 1/3 measures in the orchestra:


The chorales return, the string orchestra’s tempo increases, but in a final section the original tempo relationships resume.

You can hear Dream in White on White here. The work’s template has become the basis for at least two much larger works by Adams (and two of my favorites), Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing and In the White Silence. In the White Silence is in fact a magnificent expansion of Dream in White on White, stretched out to 75 minutes and with lovely solo lines for the quartet members. Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing achieves much denser clouds using mallet percussion and the entire chromatic scale. In each of these a large-scale process, implicit in Dream in White on White, is carried out more rigorously: an slow, stepped expansion of melodic intervals from 2nds through 3rds, 4ths, and on up to 7ths. (I kid John that when I start hearing tritones in his music, I know the piece is half over.) More aggressive aspects of totalism appear in John’s drum music, which hammers out more obvious intricacies at a more virtuoso tempo; but that’s for another day.


  1. says

    Nice bit of history and analysis, Kyle. The MP3 is also much appreciated—I was not familiar with this piece.
    I wonder why the totalism movement, as it was, no longer is considered particularly active. You had mentioned that the composers who fall under that rubric moved on to different endeavors. But was totalism an intermediate step, then, and if so, to what?

  2. godoggo says

    As somebody coming out of jazz, I feel that this stuff is still restricted by the limitations of notated music – that is, it’s limited to fractions. It has seemed to me that to accurately notate, say, a Joe Henderson sax solo (or, for that matter, traditional African music, about which I don’t know too much), you’d probably have to use calculus or something. Of course, that would be an impractical way to go about it. I’ve noticed 5 common non-fractional rhythmic techniques in my favorite kind of music. Here they are: 1) playing “ahead of the beat”, 2) playing “behind the beat”, 3) speeding up over the pulse (I like that word better than “beat,” but for the 1st 2 I was using the standard terms) 4) slowing down over the pulse 5) “jazz eighth notes” (falling somewhere between standard eight note pairs and triplet quarter note/eighth note pairs). These are used in combination with each other, and also with playing a different tempo from the main pulse. The main pulse is not played, but felt internally by the musicians (which is why I don’t like the word “beat”, and the purpose is to swing, without which, it don’t mean a thing.
    It would be simple enough to invent a shorthand for this, of course: 5 or 6 symbols, maybe in conjunction with numbers to indicate intensity (say, how far ahead of the beat). The reason no such symbols are used, I think, is that the techniques are overwhelmingly used in the improvised portion of a jazz performance; transcriptions of improvisations are not an end in themselves, but tools for improving one’s skills as a harmonic/melodic improvisor – rhythm is learned with the ears, not the eyes, and LPs or CDs have been more than accurate tools for recording rhythmic ideas – therefore there’s little need for extreme accuracy of rhythmic notation (I think of a performance/Q&A that I saw in Taipei’s Sun Yat Sen Hall, given by the members of the all-star big band that was backing of B.B. Kind and Ray Charles on tour there; and audience member walked up to the microphone and asked “How do you decide who plays behind the beat and who plays ahead of the beat,” to which B.B., apparently not realizing that the poor guy was probably most interested in practicing his English, rolled his eyes and said something like, “Man, you should have all that stuff worked out before you even get on the plane”.
    Anyways, the point is, although improvising musicians haven’t bothered coming up with a notation system for this stuff, I should think that someone with a great interest in notated rhythm might want to. Just a suggestion.
    KG replies: Yeah jazz is great stuff. But for us, doing it through the notation, thus creating cognitive dissonances between the sound and what we know is happening because we wrote it that way, is the whole point.

  3. says

    Your question is a good one, David: “…was totalism an intermediate step, then, and if so, to what?”

    Kyle will certainly have a broader perspective on this. I can only speak to my own work. Now in my 50s I continue to follow it into new terrain. I’m as active as ever composing for human musicians. But recently Ive also been creating sound and light environments.

    In both media (instrumental music and installations) rhythm and line have all but disappeared. Multiple layers of time remain as a prevalent feature of all my work. But the tempos now are even slower, the layers less sharply defined…more like streams that become rivers that become oceans of time.

    I’m certainly not a musicologist, but it seems to me that totalism wasnt (or isnt) so much a movement as a convergence.

    Living in relative isolation in Alaska I didnt realize that my music had so much in common with a broader group of composers until sometime after the moment of greatest convergence had passed.

    It took years of patient explanation from Kyle before I finally came to appreciate the full implications of totalism and postminimalism. Reading his post about Dream In White On White helps me understand more clearly how those elements converged in my own music.

    Its a rare experience for a composer to learn about his own work from reading someone elses thoughts about it. But, then, Kyle is a rare musical thinker.

  4. says

    Great post Kyle, great music JL Adams! I immediately went and ordered some CDs.
    Godoggo: what you write interests me. For some years now, I’ve been using notations for relatively free acc en ritard over given stretches of time, in varying ways. However for those pieces I did give up on writing scores, using loose parts with stopwatch coordination instead of fixed parts and conducting. This worked for my particular formal and stylistic concerns but wouldn’t probably work for everybody.
    The most interesting question I find in notation is how you can use it to challenge a performer, also when you’re giving them certain kinds of freedom. How can you make compositional use of somebody’s freedom as a musician, without getting into some kind of loose ‘anything goes’?

  5. Julian Day says

    The first thing I did after reading this post was to email New World and order as many John Luther Adams discs as I could! Great stuff.
    Regarding ‘where to now from totalism’ ..
    In terms of the development of classic Totalists, I can only really speak for Michael Gordon who, besides yourself, Kyle, is the only one I’ve met and whose recent works I’ve followed. But in terms of the movement’s broader influence I wonder if you’ll find that, like minimalism before it, it was merely the beginning of a much larger artistic movement?
    Again like classic first-wave minimalism, totalism was so geographically centred around New York City that I imagine it has taken some time to make an impact on artists outside of that scene. I only found out about it a couple of years ago when I discovered some of your writing, Kyle, on the internet.
    Totalist artists have only slowly perforated the music scene here in Australia, but this seems to have picked up in momentum recently. Mikel Rouse is performing here in Sydney in a few months’ time; various Bang On A Canners have come and gone in recent years; Rhys Chatham’s works have now been sporadically staged about the place; Kyle, you made your way to Brisbane 3 years ago for the MiniMax festival of post-minimalism; over the last two years I’ve played a fair share of Vierk, Rouse, Gordon, etc on my national radio show.
    I wonder if in coming years you’ll find some kind of totalist influence hitting these less predictable areas such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand ??