The University of Wales’ First International Festival of Music and Minimalism is chock-a-block with such intriguing developments that I feel I should be live-blogging it, but under the circumstances it would be intrusive. Conference directors Pwyll ap Sion and Tristian Evans had planned for a one-day conference, but were overrun with so many interested parties – even ones willing to find and fund their way to this lovely out-of-the-way burg – that they expanded to three days. No trendy kneejerk revisionism here. Keynote speaker Keith Potter, England’s premiere minimalism expert, set just the right tone by pronouncing upfront that despite the cultural emphasis on Riley, Reich, Glass, and Adams, there were many more than four minimalists, and a tremendous variety in the movement. And with the exception of yours truly, the first day’s speakers focused very hard indeed on the-music-formerly-known-as-minimalism, and, here in Wales, still so known. Maarten Beirens surprised everyone with protominimalist music from 1952 by the Belgian composer Karel Goyvaerts (1923-93), who had also just invented European serialism. Ann Glazer Niren treated us to ne’er-before-heard recordings of Terry Riley’s String Quartet of 1960 and String Trio of 1961, and William Lake analyzed In C with scrupulous thoroughness. Evan Jones gave us an encyclopedic tour of early Glass chord progressions – Mad Rush, Einstein, Modern Love Waltz, Another Look at Harmony, up through String Quartet No. 4 – and showed how Glass achieves strange tonal puns via incommensurable hamonic shifts with oddly-placed pivot tones. Jones called this “diatonic drift”; not a term I’ve heard Glass use, but I have heard him talk about this exact phenomenon, and it was good to see a real theorist tackle it detail. Even the fluffiest minimalism taken very seriously here.
So, so far, even if the composer names are old hat, the music has been indisputably hardcore. True to habit, the musicologists have taken the era up from its most exotic edge, and are examining its history piece by piece. That’s why the pop revisionsist view of Adams, Andriessen, and Gorecki as the quintessential minimalists is doomed; ultimately, critics listen to the musicologists, and the latter, taking no scrap of paper for granted, are getting it right. Of course, we do have a session on John Adams tomorrow (chaired by myself), and – what I’m looking forward to most – Sunday morning a session on postminimalism and totalism. David McIntire, a composer with whom I’ve corresponded regularly, is offering a paper: “Terminology and Meaning in a Post-Minimalist Style: The Case of Totalism.” Brazil’s Dmitri Cervo follows with “Minimalism and Post-minimalism: Necessary Distinctions.” And I had dinner with Marija Masnikosa from Belgrade, who did her
master’s doctoral thesis on Serbian postminimalism, using my American music book as a primary reference. D’ya hear that? Serbian postminimalism. American music departments are still digging their toes in the hot sand trying to decide whether to allow Glass and Reich into the canon, and the Serbs have already sprung ahead to tackle the next movement. What the hell is wrong with American musical academia? Why did I have to come 3800 miles to this hard-to-reach outpost in Wales to hear diehard minimalism scholars nonchalantly express opinions, as though they were the merest common sense, that I get attacked for expressing at home? Why can Britain, Serbia, and Brazil embrace postminimalism and totalism, while U.S. musicians remain squeamish about “-isms”?
Whatever the reason, it’s a breath of fresh air being here among tough-minded, analytical academics who all think minimalist music is really, really neat. We were treated to a piano duo concert by Kate Ryder and David Appleton, who started off with Colin McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music of 1936, a protominimalist essay if ever there was one, and included, among more predictable fare, Glass’s extremely obscure In Again, Our Again of 1968, Gavin Bryars’s My First Homage, and John Adams’s keyboard-smashing Hallelujah Junction. And as you can see below, there’s nothing minimal about our post-conference get-togethers.
Back table: Keith Potter, David McIntire, and my own graying eminence; front table, Jelena Novak, Marija Masnikosa, and fine Serbian minimalist composer Vladimir Tosic.