Minimalism as Political Stance

I’ve learned too many things from my students in the past two weeks to get them all in one blog entry. It’ll take three at least.

Our three-and-a-half-hour Open Instrumentation Ensemble concert last night went splendidly. We played Glass’s Music in Fifths, Riley’s In C, Samuel Vriezen’s The Weather Riots, Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio, Rzewski’s Attica, and an electric guitar version of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla, plus three works written by students in the ensemble. I was truly dumbfounded by the massive student enthusiasm for this music – as though they’d been looking all their lives for music like this, and weren’t sure it existed. They are determined to continue the ensemble next semester in my absence. And I’m trying to figure out what needs it fulfilled for them.

For one thing, pieces like these allow for a wide range of proficiencies. We had, in this ensemble, both senior instrumentalists of considerable virtuosity and freshmen guitarists who could hardly read music and had never played notated music in an ensemble before. Both were challenged, neither got bored. Music in Fifths, with its interminably expanding patterns of 8th-notes on F G Ab Bb C, is difficult to play, but it is not particularly more difficult for beginners than it is for the more experienced. Its difficulties have to do with cognition, concentration, and endurance, not instrumental ability or musical insight. The inexperienced had more trouble at first getting Riley’s 53 melodies in their heads, but once that’s done, the challenges are pretty much the same for everyone.

More than that, though, I think this minimalist, process-based repertoire has a kind of performance density that younger musicians enjoy. Classical music is all about enslaving yourself to an inexorable continuity drawn out on the page. Jazz is certainly freer in a way, and Bard has a thriving jazz program – probably the healthiest part of our department at the moment – but there are certain students who find the jazz regimen too limiting. Our jazz students learn the bebop language forwards and backwards, and play Charlie Parker fluently before going into anything more experimental. It’s rigorous. Classical music and jazz both impose on the young musician a tremendous discipline undertaken for the goal of playing with consummate expertise a repertoire that – however sad to say – may ultimately seem a little old-fashioned, not terribly hip to most of their friends. The road is long and torturous, the rewards far away and, in social and economic terms, arguably dubious.

But minimalist music? Easier to master, and the result of a training more personal than professional. Highly developed expertise isn’t entirely an asset; I’ve heard student performances of In C that were way better than the one the New York Philharmonic gave at Merkin Hall a few years ago. More importantly, the performance mode is not so fraught with anxiety. Within In C and Attica, there’s room for individual performance decisions made on the spot. Miss a pattern in Music in Fifths? Drop out for a measure, and then plunge in again – not only does no one care, it adds variety to the texture. (We had one excessive moment in which we lost the entire guitar section, but the closing repetitions were dynamite.) The discipline is more quickly achieved, creativity encouraged, mistakes far less penalized.

And the rewards? In the short run, far higher, for the music is both exotic enough to impress friends with its hypnotic strangeness and groove-oriented enough to delight them. It’s music you can perform with the comfortable familiarity and leeway of pop, but with more intellectual heft and formal interest. The three student pieces were all based on In C-like techniques, yet achieved quite different textures and forms. In fact, it’s really a perfect performance repertoire for college-age musicians: you can get good at it fast, a little effort will make you really good, mistakes are rarely an issue, you can compose it without sweating over every note, little changes in rehearsal can make a big difference, and it’s mesmerizing to listen to. The reward/discipline ratio is through the roof.

OK, then, why do most of the classic pieces from this genre date from the 1960s and ’70s? I located a few scores from the 1980s, like Barbara Benary’s Sun on Snow, but they were more elaborate, and would have required more rehearsal time than we had. We composers mostly all retreated from this kind of aptly-named “new music” in the 1980s. Even I gave up writing freer, looser music like my Oil Man and Long Night of 1981 to return to more linear, strictly notated works like Baptism of 1983. In my own case, I always think of Feldman’s statement about why he abandoned graphic notation: “If the means were to be imprecise, the results must be terribly clear.” Leaving certain musical details to chance and performer discretion didn’t gratify my sense of composer vanity: I wanted to prove I could get every nuance in place and make it beautiful. Performances of my freer music were sometimes great, sometimes lousy, and I didn’t feel I had enough control. I don’t think that’s particularly true of Music in Fifths, however. I think, rather, that I hadn’t quite found processes that could be guaranteed to work well in performance.

And I regret that. The ’60s and ’70s were an era of tremendous liberalism, and I think that all that minimalist music (to use an imprecise term for the body of process-oriented works for variable ensembles) was an expression of our political inclinations. We were disenchanted with expertise. The experts all seemed to be wrong. We were inclusive. We were writing music for Everyman. We (or our immediate predecessors) came up with a music that made newcomers feel comfortable playing it. Soured on elitist self-aggrandizement, we were in a mood to be generous to performers and listeners both. The music was accessible, striking, attractive, rhythmic. It gave, in Steve Reich’s words, “everyone within earshot a feeling of ecstasy.” And part of that ecstasy surely came from the sense of freedom and personal responsibility of players who were being allowed to make their own decisions without undue fear of mistakes.

So why didn’t we continue? Why didn’t this new genre, with so much to offer, become a new tradition? Times changed. The credentialism of the 1980s, and the renewed competition for jobs, brought back an elitist sense of professionalism. Some of us became successful enough that virtuosos were interested in performing our music, so goodbye Everyman. But I remain convinced that there were worthwhile political convictions expressed in the very cellular structure of that music, and the continuing student (and public) enthusiasm for it seems evidence of that. I may write a piece for the students’ ensemble myself, and I’m going to try to see if I can’t return somewhat to my liberal, ’70s, open-instrumentation, process-oriented roots and see if it’s possible to channel that populist energy in a new century.


  1. says

    There’s a quote from Christopher Small’s book “Music-Society-Education” which I keep nearby and is relevant to Kyle’s experience. Small is talking about a gamelan performance, but the relevance is clear: “Each individual iinstrumental part, in itself, makes no great demands on the player; the skill lies in the integration of each part into the whole, the precise timing of the beater stroke, the interaction of two instruments which may share the same melodic line – all demanding communal rather than individual virtuosity, social rather than individualistic skills.” — that last phrase has shaped just about every endeavor I’ve undertaken, and continues to inspire almost all of my projects.
    Best to all, …
    Dan B. —
    Common Sense Composers’ Collective

  2. r says

    Thanks, Kyle, you got me thinking. So I’m writing a piece for my middle school band using some of these “old” techniques.

  3. says

    Kyle, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I have some live tapes of Glass’s ensemble where it is clear that some of the wind and vocal performers drop out from time to time to catch their breath. And it’s fine—the idea isn’t that all these patterns be 100% perfect. It’s like the imperfections in Turkish rugs that Feldman admired; the lack of mechanical repetition is what makes the music human.

  4. Peter says

    Kyle —
    Your explanation of what so-called minimalist composers in the 60s and 70s were doing, and why, is a lot more compelling to me than the sociological explanations for the rise of minimalism offered by Robert Fink in his recent book (“Repeating Ourselves”, 2005, UCal Press). Although his arguments are ingenious and his observations sometimes insightful, his naive views on advertising would be laughed off-the-stage by anyone with any commercial experience.

  5. Michael Wittmann says

    Hi, Kyle,

    Thank you for posting this. I often wonder why my radio show so often ends up playing 70s music. I think you’ve nailed it – the attitude of Everyman is easier to find in those raw sounds. Just to make the point as a consumer of music: The 70s recordings of Einstein on the Beach or Music in 12 Parts or Music for 18 Musicians are fundamentally different from the 90s recordings – again, I bring up production techniques (as opposed to composing techniques) to illustrate the overall consistency of what you describe. The recordings are “punk,” in a DIY, raw, less processed sense. They happen. They aren’t clean. And you don’t have Glass praising the virtuosity of his ensemble (like in the 90s), you just have him going “hot damn! I’ve got a record!”

    In yet another artistic area, I have begun reading Varnadoes history of abstract art since 1950, “Picutures of Nothing.” Beyond the little joy that Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merle Cunningham were an inseparable quad in the late 50s, it shows many other parallels with what you describe. Perhaps we are too close to the original moments to understand the times well enough, but the “Reagen Revolution” really did seem to usher in a deeper conservatism that pushed aside the liberalism of the 60s and 70s.

    I honestly look forward to newer pieces, in the vein you describe, be they for middle school band (how I would have loved to play something like that in our high school saxophone quartet!) or more expert student ensembles or someone like the Tin Hat Trio or Ethel. The infrastructure for New Process music exists. It just has to be tapped. And then I’ll do my damnedest to promote it here in little old Maine…

  6. Jon Szanto says

    To Dan Becker: thanks for the quote – while I only played in a gamelan for 2 years, that is *exactly* how I felt about the experience, and why it has remained a valuable part of my life as a musician. And so very apropos to Kyle’s material.
    Which leads to …
    To Kyle: thanks again for your synthesis and reportage on these matters, and for reminding me how lucky I was to be at a formative age in the 70’s.
    I’ve said it before, but again: your students are SO lucky!

  7. Paul H. Muller says

    If minimalism was the answer to 400 years of reinforcing tonality with increasingly sophisticated harmonic progressions and dynamics, maybe it will always be the answer to any form whose complexity outruns its ability to communicate.

  8. says

    I’m both intrigued and little surprised to hear that a student ensemble has been organized specifically to play this music. It seems as thought there may be a slowly gathering zeitgeist in this direction. I’m a member of the group Ne(x)tworks in NYC, a group committed to learning and playing some of the repertoire Kyle brought to his students, leaning more toward the 50’s NY School and the European music influenced by their work (Cardew, Stockhausen, etc.). We’re also developing our own “open” works as well as other contemporaries doing the same. We also performed our own “realization” of Eastman’s Stay On It at Issue Project Room in June.

    The communal and non-hierarchical aspects inherent to making this music have everything to do with our interest in performing and researching it. In addition, though, I like to inform my own interpretations from a more global view of how society is organizing around digital culture presently, and particularly the type of thinking and transactional perception experienced “online.” I gather from some colleagues that young musicologists are digging deeper into Postmodern critical writings (Lyotard, Foucalt, etc.), looking more closely at how musical output can be analyzed in this way. To me, a number of Cage’s works, such as the transparency pieces (Variations II, etc.), resemble structural manifestations that possess an anarchic inner logic and encourage the sort of “intertextual” relationships that are hallmarks of Postmodern theory. It’s my opinion that “hypertextuality” is having a broadening effect on how performers and audience interact with these open scores. Their ears are able to adapt quickly to the seeming chaos because their everyday experience has an inherent non-linearity.
    I might not be saying anything novel here, but I hope to develop my thoughts further into a more cogent argument. To that end, I’m researching by reading things like Umberto Eco’s admittedly Euro-centric “The Open Work”, James Saunders short essay “Modular Music”, and look forward to the imminent publication of George Lewis’ AACM book.

  9. mclaren says

    David Toub makes an excellent point — the imperfections are crucial to the musical effectiveness of minimalism. If the reiterated notes and phrases were repeated exactly with no variations in dynamics or articulation or timing, as acomputer would reproduce ’em, the music would entirely lose its effectiveness. For me a great deal of minimalism’s values involves dilating your sense of time so that you focus in on the microscopic and involuntary changes in articulation and dynamics as the phrases and notes get repeated.
    In fact, the Japanese have a term — “wabi sabi,” which means “the imperfection that produces perfection.” Japanese artisans often deliberately introduce flaws into their work in order to break the sterile spell of simple perfection and improve the artifact they’re creating. Something of the same sort goes on as a natural outgrowth of reiteration in minimalism, and also as a consequence of the difficulty of following the score (as noted).
    In examining why minimalism fell out of favor, we shouldn’t forget the vast technological changes that swept through music in the 1980s. The fall of 1984 sent shockwaves through the entire process of musical performance when MIDI equipped synths finally arrived. MIDI computer-based sequencers (on the Commodore 64, the Apple ][+ and the Mac a year later) combined with digital synths like the DX7 and, earlier, in 1980, the advent of fully polyphonic synths (the Prophet 5) allowed single individuals with a small amount of money to produce vastly complex ensemble compositions. That had been possible prior to 1984 only for the ultrawelthy who could afford $10,000 for a Moog modular synth and another $10,000 for a multitrack 16-track open reel tape recorder…plus the $200 per reel of 2-inch multitrack tape.
    The fascination with synthesizers and MIDI that led to home computer music probably pushed minimalism out of the limelight, but something else happpened too. The mechanical computer-generated repetition of sequences of notes and phrases also started to give repetition itself a bad name. For the first time, you could exactly literally repeat a musical phrases with perfect metonomic timing and exactly uniform dynamics and perfectly 12-equal intonation…and the result wasn’t pretty, from a musical standpoint. As discussion on Sequenza 21 has noted, getting rid of the “mechanical” feeling produced by MIDI renditions of music is still a big issue. You have to wonder if that tincture of the mechanical leaked over to taint the entirely different-sounding and different-feeling human-produced repetition of minimalism…
    KG replies: Good point about MIDI’s impact on minimalism, Brian. Never seen it articulated before.