Postminimalism: Chapter One, Metaphorically Speaking

Someday someone will appear who has analyzed more minimalist-influenced music from the 1980s and ’90s than I have, and if that person feels that I have divided my era into categories inappropriately, I will be glad to listen to her argument. So far, I’ve gotten plenty of argument, but only from people who don’t come anywhere close to fitting that description.

There are several ways to characterize a style. One is to catalogue all relevant qualities associated with pieces associated with that style. I’ve done this for postminimalism elsewhere, and I have no intention of replicating that feat today. Another, less cautious tactic is to isolate a compositional aim that one perceives as the essence of a style. This has the disadvantage of marginalizing (or at least discategorizing) pieces that do not manifest that particular idea, for artistic styles, it seems to me, are rarely homogenous in their makeup. Nevertheless, if I had to point to one characteristic that strikes me as quintessential to postminimalism, it would be the impulse to write music freely and intuitively within a markedly circumscribed set of materials, outside of which the piece “knows in advance” it will not venture. For me, and reinforced by the contemporaneous writings of Steve Reich, minimalism’s essence was its quasi-objectivity, its linear movement from one point to another, along with its adherence to audible process or structure. Postminimalism at once became much more subjective, often even mysterious, imitating minimalism’s extreme limitation of resources but replacing the idea of linear, audible structure with that of a nuanced, intuitive musical language.

For instance: Several movements of Bill Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes (1978-79) fit this paradigm exactly. Not all of them, for Time Curve Preludes is something of a transitional work, and several movements preserve the idea of additive and subtractive process that I think of as continuing minimalist practice. Prelude No. 7 is a movement that strikes me as the postminimalist piece par excellence:


This languorous dance is made up of only three elements: a slowly arpeggiated bass line whose final dyad sometimes gets extended (A); a melody that here and there breaks the continuity (B); and a set of six chords that create an impression of bitonality by wandering conjunctly through scales from various keys, though the lower two lines are not actually diatonic (C):


There is some inheritance from minimalism here in the systematic way the phrase lengths expand at first according to lengths proportional to the Fibonacci series, but even this structural element recedes as the B melody intrudes more and more. You can listen to the movement here. I don’t think of the Time Curve Preludes as Bill’s best piece any more than I think of In C as Terry Riley’s best piece, but they are parallel in that they seem to be their respective composers’ most memorable pieces, the ones everyone knows, the ones whose perfectly clear intentions serve as a manifesto, of which their subsequent music works out the ramifications.

Even more restrictive in their materials are some of Peter Garland’s works. Here is an excerpt, mm. 19-23 (showing a transition between sections) from the second movement of his piano piece Jornada del Muerto (1987):


The entire movement employs only five chords in the right hand – given only as seen here, mind you, with no transpositions or octave displacements – plus the pitches B, D, and E in the left hand, usually as octaves, and in one section as single notes:


No process or continuity device informs this music; it is entirely and intuitively melodic in conception, if chordal in execution. Yet despite its extreme paucity of material, this lovely five-minute movement goes through seven sections touching on four different textures and rhythmic styles, undulating between two tempos. “I feel influenced,” Peter has said, “by American modernism from the ’20s, not the ’50s and ’60s. My take on modernism goes back to Cowell and Rudhyar.” Point taken: a line can be drawn from Garland’s use of only specific sonorities to the (vastly underrated) piano music of Rudhyar. Nevertheless, the conscious asceticism of his music is a far cry from Rudhyar’s employment of the entire piano as a mammoth sounding board, and it is worth noting that Peter studied at CalArts side by side with two other seminal postminimalists, Guy Klucevsek and John Luther Adams (all with Jim Tenney, who had his own postminimalist streak). In any case, the appearance of Jornada del Muerto in the late ’80s was exactly in keeping with the then-current postminimalist aesthetic. You can hear the second movement here.

Like Duckworth’s, Janice Giteck’s music is widely heterogenous in its sources of inspiration, but each movement blends those sources into a seamless fusion. The fourth movement of her Om Shanti (1986) draws inspiration from Indonesian gamelan music, and its melody, sung wordlessly by the soprano and doubled in various other instruments, runs along a pelog scale, F G B C E:


The piece is pervaded by a single line of 8th-notes running without interruption through the piano left hand and clarinet, all on those five pitches E F G B C, without ever repeating, like an endlessly flowing river that is never the same twice. In addition, the pitch A appears in the voice melody and its doublings, but only in the upper register and at moments of maximum intensity. At various points the melody is punctuated, as shown above, by one or two notes in the upper piano and crotales, always on the ambiguously unresolving pitch F, rendered even more unsettling by a bass note B in the cello (whose C string gets tuned down to B in the third movement, but that’s another story). The movement, which you can hear here, is a masterpiece of intuitive intensification of melody, texture, and even harmony within an invariant limited scale.

Merely five pitches also suffice for the nine-minute length and formal complexity of Paul Epstein’s Palindrome Variations (1995): G A Bb C D. The most formalist of them all, and a purveyor of note-by-note intricacy, Epstein could be called the Webern or Babbitt of postminimalism, the extremist in search of a purely musical logic. His 1986 Musical Quarterly article “Pattern Structure and Process in Steve Reich’s Piano Phase” gives almost more insight into his own composing impulses than it does into its ostensive topic; he is fascinated by note combinations that result from permutational patterns. All the same, Palindrome Variations is not (as some Epstein pieces are) a work composed by linear process. What’s interesting about Epstein is that the musical units with which he works intuitively are not notes, chords, or even phrases, strictly speaking, but notational units resulting from the interplay of meter and repetition. Here, the 6-beat phrase of the first two measures (repeated in the second one) is rotated within the measure afterward, so that in m. 3 the pattern starts on the third beat, in m. 4 on the fourth, in m. 5 on the sixth, m. 2 on the second, and so on:


Of course, in so uniform a texture, the meter isn’t felt as a unit, and so the effect is a constant unpredictable juggling of the same elements over and over. By a nonlinear process of note substitutions, the texture gradually transforms into a canon in which all instruments are playing the same motive but out of sync; then there are canonic solos for the flute and cello, and with inexplicable logic the piece moves to a conclusion foreshadowed by a dominant preparation and a convincingly logical, almost Bartokian, closing move to unison melody, all without any perceived breaks in Epstein’s tightly wound motivic flow. You can hear all that here. I think of Epstein as music’s answer to an op artist like Bridget Riley, whose superficially strict procedures result in wildly expressive visual surprises; similarly, Epstein’s rigorous attention to geometric detail creates conundrums for the ear. I doubt anyone can deny that, like Babbitt within the 12-tone world, he sets a certain edge beyond which postminimalism can go no further.

The first 25 measures of Belinda Reynolds’s Cover (1996) certainly seem to be those of a postminimalist piece. Again, only six pitches are used – E F# G A# B D# – with E in the piano as a low drone note, and a certain obsessive reiteration of characteristic figures, particularly the competing fifths E-B and D#-A# (repeat sign not in the original, but mm. 3 and 4 are identical to 1 and 2):


However, the music crescendoes to a sudden new chord at m. 26, and subsequently every few measures the music ups the energy by shifting to a new scale. There might be no reason to call this curvaceous, quasi-organic piece postminimalist except that, within each “moment” (to use the Stockhausenesque term), it tends to build up pitch sets and melodies additively, starting as an undulation of two notes and adding in others, almost like a memory of minimalism. Ultimately, Cover‘s form is not postminimalist – there are no more implied limitations on where the music could go than there are in Mozart – but its technique is. One of the advantages of defining postminimalism (or any style) in terms of its central idea is that we can treat the style itself as an ideal form, and talk about degrees to which a particular piece participates in that style. Just as Time Curve Preludes lies slightly on one side of postminimalism, coming from minimalism, Cover is a piece evolving from postminimalism and leaving it behind toward something else, but with its origins still much in evidence. You can hear the entire ten-minute work here.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now, don’t write in and tell me you don’t like these pieces. Who cares if you like these pieces? Do I care if you like these pieces? Do I, Kyle Gann, personally give a shit whether you like these pieces? No. No, my friend. I do not. What I care about is that you acknowledge that these pieces by different composers with very different creative personalities share several very clear stylistic characteristics – that they, in effect, define a style. What we name that style, I do not care. If everyone wants to call it Charlie, we can call it Charlie. But I have called it postminimalism, because that word was already in use in the early ’80s but floating around loose without any specific definition. (Rob Schwarz applied the word to John Adams and Meredith Monk in his Minimalists book of 1996. But I have trouble finding important differences in method between Meredith and the true minimalists, while composers of the “neoromanticism with minimalist elements” style that Adams represents were vastly outnumbered in the ’80s by the postminimalists who fit my definition. There are many more of them today.) And it is clear that these composers were all reacting to minimalism, but that minimalism was not their only influence. They defined, among them, a soundworld quite different from minimalism, one of brevity rather than attention-challenging length and stasis, one of intuitive lyricism and mysticism rather than obvious structure and worship of “natural” processes.

Nor – to preclude the kind of silly clichés that some composers bring to these discussions – is postminimalism a “club” that anyone ever decided to join. Not one of these composers ever sat down and said, “I’m going to write a postminimalist piece,” and it would be surprising if anyone (aside from myself) ever has. Anyone who thinks there could be a “doctrinaire” postminimalist doesn’t understand. The style is accompanied by no ideology. Nor was postminimalism even a “scene.” Duckworth and Giteck were unaware of each other until I introduced them. I doubt Peter Garland has crossed paths with Belinda Reynolds to this day. Minimalism unleashed a set, or several sets, of potentialities into the ether, and, in the way that great minds so often think alike, several dozen composers pulled new musical solutions out of the air that happened to have a lot in common. The grouping of these composers into a postminimalist style is not a fact of composition, but a fact of musicology. It is the perception of the first person to study all this music – and I have hundreds more examples where these came from, don’t even get me started on my John Luther Adams file – that commonalities among a certain body of pieces constitute a style. That perception will stand (and has already been widely quoted in the literature) until it is replaced by a more compelling perception, as perhaps will happen someday. This remains true even despite the music world’s refusal to deal with this music as a repertoire, after the vogue it enjoyed temporarily among the New Music America crowd in the mid-1980s.

I wonder if that indifference is perhaps due to postminimalism’s generally formalist concerns, its fascination with pattern and texture, at a time when the music world had become totally disenchanted with formalism. The widespread abandonment of serialism around 1988 (the year it seemed to me that disgust with the 12-tone idea reached a tipping point) inspired a near-universal move toward social relevance and widespread appropriation of pop and world-music elements, a conviction that music should refer to the world and not only to its own processes. Totalism, the other big movement that branched off from minimalism, throve much better in the post-serial milieu, as evident in the more visible careers of the Bang on a Can composers. In many respects, postminimalism was an answer to serialism far more than minimalism was. The postminimalists, like the serialists, worked at creating self-sufficient and self-consistent musical languages, in this case a language in which the reduction of musical elements made musical logic apparent. The attitude was almost, “Let’s do formalism over again and get it right this time, not anxious and apocalyptic and opaque like the serialists, but transparent and lyrical and pleasant.”

By 1990, however, formalism of any kind was a hard sell. Justifiably tired of music that begged for technical analysis, the world wanted big, messy Julian Schnabels of music, not clean, pristine Bridget Rileys. It was, and remains, difficult to argue for music so focused on its own musical processes, no matter how pleasant to the ear. In fact, postminimalism’s very pleasantness works against it: in the macho music world that John Zorn ushered in and the faux-blue-collar Bang-on-a-Canners have continued, postminimalism has never seemed kickass enough, its archetypes too feminine and conciliatory. (Kickass, kickass, kickass… I remember with perverse pleasure how ridiculously frequently that word came to everyone’s lips in the New York scene of the late ’80s, as though they had suffered some dire threat to their collective masculinity, and how easy it was to make fun of.) But pendulums swing, fashions change, and at some point the music world will remember that notes themselves can be made into patterns fascinating to listen to for their own sake. When that time arrives, the beautiful, varied, surprising postminimalist repertoire will be here to be rediscovered.

UPDATE: My little tirade above earned me a very funny comparison with Milton Babbitt via Darcy James Argue. Part of what’s funny is that the Babbitt paragraph he quotes is one I happen to have always agreed with. Babbitt’s a smart man, and not wrong all the time.

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  1. Dan Schmidt says

    A lot of great music here I was unaware of, thanks. One emendation: E/F/G/B/C is the pelog scale, not slendro.
    KG replies: I have never in my life mentioned a gamelan scale without someone telling me it was the wrong one. But slendro scales are five pitches and pelog seven, no? And they are tuned differently, from one gamelan to another?

  2. says

    Not to be a pedantic nudge or anything, but Peter Garland and Belinda Reynolds were on Kalvos & Damien together in ’99:
    (see 10/23 and 10/30)
    However, if you didn’t know their music and only heard this interview, you’d probably think they came from entirely separate musical worlds.
    KG replies: Wow – as Morton Feldman once said in a parallel context, “*That’s musicology!” Thanks for the info.

  3. says

    Great music, Kyle, most of which I also had not heard previously. I’m particularly taken with Janice Gitek’s piece, and was struck by the run of uninterrupted eighth notes in the clarinet. As someone who gets occasional skeptical looks from some wind players every now and then for writing continuous lines for winds, I’m curious if Janice Giteck doubled the clarinet part, expected circular breathing, or figured the clarinet might drop out every now and then (assuming it isn’t Jon Gibson playing).
    KG replies: I dunno. I’m seeing her next month, I’ll ask. But the clarinet part has no rests, from beginning to end. I’ve got a student who plays trombone really well, and he never writes rests in his own part. Heck, he played Music in Fifths, and almost never dropped out.

  4. says

    Fantastic, passionate post.

    Someday, many years from now, I will have the perfect opportunity to say “Do I care if you like these pieces? Do I, Rob Deemer, personally give a shit whether you like these pieces? No. No, my friend. I do not.”

    I will have that opportunity…and I will think of saying it 5 minutes after that opportunity has past.
    KG replies: Well, it seems like every time I write about postminimalist music, someone writes in to tell me people don’t listen to it because it isn’t any good. I was trying to pre-empt such comments, which I don’t post anyway.

  5. Dan Schmidt says

    Slendro is the “standard pentatonic” C-D-E-G-A scale.
    Pelog indeed has seven notes in theory, but generally only five are used in any given piece (similarly to how we pick seven out of twelve notes to generate a Western scale), the usual selection being approximately C#-D-E-G#-A. The wikipedia page on pelog has more details. And yeah, the exact tuning differs from gamelan to gamelan.
    KG replies: I researched several pages on gamelan scales, including Wikipedia, before writing. I’ll change it, but when someone else writes to tell me it’s wrong again, I’ll refer them to you. I wish writers on the subject would express the scales more clearly.

  6. says

    Thanks for the link, Kyle, and thanks above all for being a good sport about it.
    KG replies: You think that I’m cranky comes as news to me at this point?

  7. Dan Schmidt says

    When someone else writes to tell me it’s wrong again, I’ll refer them to you.

    I happily accept that responsibility.

    Balinese composers are just starting (again? not sure) to write pieces that use all seven notes of the pelog scale. It actually requires special instruments since most gamelans have keys only for a five-note subset. If you are interested in seven-note pelog music, I highly recommend the CD by
    Cudamani, which has a couple of (really great) experimental seven-tone works as well as some traditional five-tone pieces.

  8. mclaren says

    Great stuff. The discussion of parallels twixt visual art movements (op art, etc.) and post-atonal musical movements proved especially fascinating.
    Minimalism and post-minimalism along with totalism all seem to involve emergent order of some sort. This was a theme that also erupted during the 80s and 90s from mathematics and the sciences, as witness Wolfram’s work on Type IV cellular automata and Per Bak’s work on self-organized criticality.
    A certain zeitgeist seems to have spread its languorous perfume in the 80s and 90s around systems made of small bits loosely connected that produced complex organized wholes from apparently disparate and deceptively simple parts. Some of this emergent-order “luft von anderen Planeten” may have bobbed to the surface in music as minimalism and later as postminimalism and totalism, some of it might have surfaced musically as algorithmic fractal composition of the kind Bruno DeGazio and Warren Burt and Laurie Spiegel and others produced. Assuming the whole notion isn’t an ignorant delusion on my part, that is.
    I wonder if one could relate minimalism to postminimalism to totalism as surface synergies getting progressively pushed to deeper levels? Viz., overt surface melodic motifs (Reich) -> deeper Fibonacci-pattern motifs (Duckworth) -> still deeper polyrhythmic patterns (Gordon). That’s probably too simplistic.
    In any case, a wonderful essay.
    KG replies: Thanks, Brian fascinating response.

  9. says

    Hey Kyle,
    I agree with pretty much all of this, but I’m interested in pushing you a little on where you draw your boundary between Minimalism proper and “postminimalism.”
    Minimalism is concerned, as you say, with audible structure. For Reich and Glass, it’s things like phasing and additive and subtractive processes. For a piece like “In C” it’s the more conceptual process of working democratically through a set of procedures. For drone pieces a big part of the “process” is stasis. That these processes are linear is crucial, since part of the psycho-aesthetic effect is supposed to be predictability, and linearity generates predictability.
    With postminimalism, as you say, linear process or structure either gets dropped or gets absorbed into the piece to the extent that it’s not audible, so while the limitations on the materials mean we know what neighborhood we’re going to be in for the next couple of minutes, we don’t know what street we’re going to be on.
    So far, I think what I’m saying is just another way of saying what you’re saying — I bother to spell it out in order to make sure I’m not building on a misunderstood foundation.
    The question, then, is this: how do you distinguish between strict processes which are intended to be directly experienced by the listener and strict processes which work behind the scenes to enforce long-term evolution or homogeneity while not resulting in surface-level predictability?
    “Different Trains”, for instance, seems clearly postminimalist, even though Reich is generally referred to only as a Minimalist. The “process” is only the derivation of pitches from the speech, and since from segment to segment we don’t know what the speech will be we can’t predict. Within the segments, Reich is strict about the doubling of the voices, and uses a very limited set of musical cells for accompaniment, but the arrangement of those cells is irregular and non-systematic–apparently instinctual.
    But if we rewind back to “Music for 18 Musicians,” which is generally considered Minimalist and which predates “Time Curve,” we see some similar things. For starters, the open aspect of the score has to do with breath lengths, as I recall. This is a structuring process, but not one that’s perceptible or important to the audience. Next, consider the 11 chord cycle that structures the whole work. I doubt any but the most well-trained listener is capable of perceiving that structure — I certainly can’t. Again, it seems like a control structure rather than a surface perception structure. Certain harmonic moves seem familiar when they happen due to the over-arching structure, but I don’t have the sense that I’m “supposed” to expect and anticipate the next move as part of the key aesthetic experience. He also breaks the “rules” of his harmonic structure on several occasions, taking the harmony where he instinctively wants it to go rather than where the structure dictates.
    Of course surface-level audible process remains, predominantly in the forms of extreme repetition and “replacing rests with notes.” The repetition “process” sets up a bed in which the changes are the points of interest, and the “replacing rests with notes” process focuses the listener’s attention on both the melody line and the process of deriving the melody line at the same time. Part of the genius of “Music for 18 Musicians,” for me anyway, is the way in which Reich uses both the surface level structures to make the moment-to-moment music interesting and the internal control structures to make the piece work organically and contain a lot more variety while remaining fairly static over the long-term. Usually I would say that M18 is “Minimalist” but a lot of what it does is postminimalist as well. In fact, so little of the meat of the piece is driven by deliberately audible process or structure that it seems almost trivially minimalist. If instead of making his melodies with the “replacing rests with notes” process” he had used some other inscrutible process that still resulted in a certain feeling of stasis, it would be a lot like “Palindrome Variations” — ordered and semi-static, but not in a way that pins the aesthetics to direct perception of the processes and structures involved.
    The issue of scale remains — M18 is a lot more static for a heckuva lot longer than “The Time Curve Preludes,” but is scale a sufficient criterion for assignment to one category or the other?
    I probably haven’t heard 1/100th of the amount of minimalist-influenced music of the 80s and 90s that you have, or of the actual Minimalism that you have, so perhaps I can’t see the forest for the trees here.
    KG replies: Nah, I think you’re right. You have the advantage on me that you’ve analyzed M18, and while I recently bought the score, I haven’t gotten around to it because I’m always tempted toward less famous composers. Reich explicitly felt he had left minimalism behind by 1980, and perhaps M18 isn’t too early to look for that. In terms of our naive experience, we want to think of M18 as minimalist because it is so static and long, and postminimalist pieces (or at least movements), almost by logical necessity, tend to be under ten minutes and more conventionally melodic. I do think of postminimalist music as *never* using strict processes, but what if you think there’s no strict process and you analyze the score, and, behold, there is, but you couldn’t hear it? It’s a flimsy reed to base a firm distinction on, as is length, as you point out. There are pieces I think of as classically minimalist and classically postminimalist, but there’s no need to shoehorn every piece into one theoretical category or the other. Paul Epstein, one of the few other people who’s theorized about this, thinks minimalism should invariably refer to strict process, so that even In C isn’t minimalist.
    Thanks for extending the dialogue. I will soon take a look at M18 with an eye towards its divergences from classic minimalism, which I know are there.

  10. says

    To give credit where it’s due, a significant chunk of my analysis of “Music for 18 Musicians” is derived from Bob Fink’s book _Repeating Ourselves_. He outlines the deviations from the “correct” harmonies and illustrates “replacing rests with notes.”
    There’s another fun piece of historical evidence that M18 represents a liminal stage between Minimalism and post-minimalism: Tom Johnson uses his review of an early version of it to formalize his complaint about “the decline of minimalism.” His final paragraph says: “Over everything is a pall of lushness, which seems closer to Ravel or Mahler than to ‘Come Out’ or ‘Music for Pieces of Wood.’ But if that sounds like I’m demeaning the work, and it probably does, let me say once again that I’m not questioning the actual merit of the music. Reich is a careful worker with a good ear and a strong mind, and he never does shoddy work, especially when he spends two years working up to a piece, as he did in this case. I’m merely reacting to the sharp stylistic change he’s going through, and wondering whether I like the idea of going back to some kind of romanticism, and feeling a little sorry that the era of New York minimalism has come to such an abrupt end.”
    Johnson could always be wrong in his analysis, but it seems significant that the primary chronicler of the development of Minimalism felt like a major shift was underway at that moment. Either way, I bet he’s the only person every to use the phrase “a pall of lushness” :)
    KG replies: Galen, you’re a natural-born composer-musicologist. You catch details and connections. Keep it up.

  11. says

    This is an outstanding post, Kyle. It’s very clear and elucidates distinctions in a concise manner.
    The comments have been very informative, too.

  12. says

    Great post, Grant!
    Appropos mclaren’s comment: There also seemed to be something in the air in and around New York in the 40s and 50s, which affected both the now-called New York School of composers and certain mathematicians. The Cagean-Wolfean idea of starting with a discrete collection of sounds and then finding different ways to combine them is very similar to the idea behind category theory, a branch of math which focuses on the relationships between (mathematical) objects, rather than on the objects themselves. Category theory was a development of mathematicians primarily working in NYC, upstate NY, Chicago and eastern Canada.