Wheels Turning

I’m beginning to wonder whether there is any discernible theoretical difference between Cage’s “gamut” technique of the 1940s, by which he precompositionally limited what sonorities he would have available, and what I’ve been calling postminimalism all these years. I’ve been tempted all along to refer to Cage’s pieces like The Seasons and In a Landscape and the 1950 String Quartet (and even Feldman’s 1951 string quartet Structures) as “protopostminimalist,” but now I’m beginning to question what purpose the “proto-” serves. If there is a difference, it’s that the postminimalist limitations of Bill Duckworth’s music, and Janice Giteck’s, and John Luther Adams’s, tend to fall within a system, or a scale, or a logical set of rhythms deployed over a certain range, while Cage selected the elements of his gamuts for maximum disjunction and diversity. But that’s a tenuous disctinction, and when you get to a totalist work like, say, Michael Gordon’s Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not! or Mikel Rouse’s “Tennessee Gold,” even that falls apart. Could one, I’m thinking, draw a line extending from Satie through Cage and Feldman – skipping over or around both serialism and minimalism – to the postminimalists, showing the rise of a new way of thinking about music, as a nonsyntactic play among discrete sonic objects? 


  1. says

    I’m new to minimalism, much less post-minimalism (and I eagerly await post-post-minimalism), so what I’m wondering is why one would compose music with limitations like that. Limitations exist all the time in music, but they arise as noticed ways of achieving a beautiful sound rather than as theoretical curiosities. Is this music composed in this way the kind of thing that a listener would truly enjoy listening to, or is it more of an experimentation within a certain music community for the purposes of testing new boundaries?
    KG replies: Well, it’s my favorite music in the world, though perhaps I’m the only one. You’ll have to listen to it for yourself to find whether you like it. If you suspect that the composers are just carrying out an ideological program without caring how it sounds, the answer is definitely no, a thousand times no. Limitation of sonorities aids in creating the identity of a piece, and allows the composer to create meaning without relying on syntax analogous to the tonal system. It can also be a kind of second-order composing, working with more evolved sonorities instead of individual notes, which can get kind of tiring.

  2. says

    . . . in which the minimalists are (rightly) seen as the serialists’ heirs! All that systematizing. (“I distrust systematizers, and avoid them” — Nietzsche.) (Nothing against either the serialists or the minimalists — I listen to and love their music too.) (And too much can be made of the serialists’ systematizing; and the minimalists’ systematizing is not all that significant anyway, but it seems suddenly more significant in light of your proposed lineaging [if you’ll forgive the solecism].)
    Question: Why not include Debussy and Varese in the line of nonsyntactic composers of discrete sonic objects? Seems to me they would belong there — if I remember right, Virgil Thomson described Cage as an heir of Debussy in this regard.
    KG replies: Mmmmmmmm.
    Hm. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.
    I see what you’re saying. There is a tendency in Varése to return to certain note complexes, but unless there’s something about his music I’ve missed, I think of it as having a center to which it returns, but from which it can and does go anywhere it wants, without any sense of limitations. And while there’s a connection between Debussy and Satie, I hear Debussy’s sense of form and tonality as being similarly unlimited, completely analogous to Romantic syntax though a little different. Perhaps a case could be made for them, but I, myself, couldn’t make it.

  3. says

    Ah, I see — I was forgetting the element of, you know, minimalism! I can see how, in this lineaging, lack of limitations would be disqualifying. I was focusing on the fact of handling discrete sonic objects, not the manner of handling them. Despite the “sonic object” connection, Debussy and Varese both remain showy and demonstrative, which is a distinctly different approach to the sonics than that founded by Satie.
    Got it. (I think.)

  4. Daniel Wolf says

    In ’79, Lou Harrison put it to me this way: “we were the gamut composers, John (Cage) and I got it from Henry (Cowell), Cowell from Charles Seeger, and later we discovered that Virgil (Thomson) and (Alan) Hovhaness were doing it, too. Virgil, of course, got it from Satie and Milhaud.”*
    While I’m not altogether sure that (a) Seeger’s contribution was of more than sharing the term “gamut” with a young Henry Cowell, (b)whether Thomson really fits into this group, and (c) it should be noted that Harrison was simultaneously composing with the exact opposite of the gamut, in the form of “interval controls” — an idea independent of, predating, and more musically applied than Carter’s similar method –, I still find Harrison’s observation to be very instructive.
    (Much of this topic is considered in an forthcoming article of mine on Cage as music analyst).
    KG replies: Thanks for the great quote. Well argued.

  5. says

    KG: Thanks. Have you got any recommendations to start with? The concepts sound interesting but it’s music so I can hardly evaluate them without something to listen to :)
    KG replies: Some good starting places are Bill Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes, Janice Giteck’s Om Shanti, John Luther Adams’s The White Silence, Peter Garland’s Another Sunrise – or almost anything by these composers.

  6. says

    Cage’s Dream, a Satie-esque piece from 1948 is a good bridge in this respect. On the one hand, the six pitches make up a phrygian scale. On the other hand, you could think of those six pitches as a (small) gamut that get run through every possibly combinatory possibility.
    It’s a little hard to hear it that way because the gamut is not, as you say, his typically diverse and disjunctive set of sounds, but if for some reason he was limited in this piece to using a traditional piano (it was a Cunningham dance piece written for a small recital in Missouri, I believe, so there might have been a logistical concern), I wouldn’t be surprised if the phrygian-ness is accidental, and that his main strategy had been to explore what happens with a very limited gamut.
    speculation, of course!

  7. says

    I see what you’re saying, but I think you’re too hung up on the “-isms”. Logically, you cannot have something be proto-post-anything if you discount what the “anything” is, as in the statement below:
    “Could one … draw a line extending from Satie through Cage and Feldman – skipping over or around both serialism and minimalism – to the postminimalists, showing the rise of a new way of thinking about music, as a nonsyntactic play among discrete sonic objects?”
    Unless, of course, you are trying to remove the semantic meanings in a satirical analogue to the “nonsyntactic play” that you write of.
    I would contend that this thought of “discrete sonic object” preoccupied one Richard Wagner. Indeed, his use of nonfunctional harmonic structures within a functional context brought emphasis to this very notion, did it not? THEY become the object of focus, just as individual sonic structures become the object of our focus in, what you term, Morton Feldman’s “protopostminimalist” music, but what I would have the audacity to call “New York School” music, because I don’t believe we can shoehorn him — or even Cage, for that matter — into any one particular movement.
    KG replies: You misunderstand. I don’t give a damn about the “-isms,” but they’re a convenient shorthand for the continuity of the effect.

  8. Walter says

    “If there is a difference, it’s that the postminimalist limitations of Bill Duckworth’s music, and Janice Giteck’s, and John Luther Adams’s, tend to fall within a system, or a scale, or a logical set of rhythms deployed over a certain range, while Cage selected the elements of his gamuts for maximum disjunction and diversity. But that’s a tenuous disctinction…”
    I’m reluctant to post any comment on any blog, but I’m genuinely interested in how you find this a ‘tenuous’ distinction – that is, if you’re implying it’s anything other than essential. I think perhaps what’s being looked over here is the actual discretizing of musical objects, objects which for the composers above, excluding Cage, were not found as such, so to speak. I believe Cage’s methods, if nothing else, furthered the greater objective approach to musical events. Utter objectivity is an essential aspect of Cage’s work – I’m interested in what you said on this blog earlier about the social and cultural limitations of Cage’s circle, counter to the apparent open inclusiveness of the ideas therein – and I think apropos that objectivity, the means are not as significant as the end. This is not the case with postminimal composers, in that they are not meaning to discretize but unify – or at least more so the latter than the former – and thus, whether consciously or not, their means are much more ‘on display’ and essential to the work. Now, I supect that this is maybe the inverse of the conventional may of talking about these groups – Cage is ‘all about the ideas, not the sound’, Postminimalists are ‘about the sound’, and the ensuing variations – which is I why I think it’s significant to stress that Cage affected the way in which musical materials themselves are discretized, sonically, and not so much that he affected the ‘pre-compositional’ procedures of composers thereafter. Anyway, I’m interested to hear your response.
    KG replies: I consider it a tenuous distinction because Cage wasn’t entirely consistent. The gamut in the String Quartet is quite diverse, but if Dream and In a Landscape had been written by someone else in the 1980s, I wouldn’t hesitate to call them postminimalist. I’m not sure what you mean about Cage being about the ideas rather than the sound – it certainly seems counterintuitive – but I’d be willing to hear more.

  9. Walter says

    I meant that it seems the stereotypical way of talking about Cage is that he’s a ‘thinker’ more than a ‘composer’ – I would agree – and that it is less important to him that we listen to his works, in the sense of sitting down with recordings and scores, as it is we consider his ideas – about listening in particular. My point counter to this stereotype is that the sounds – more so the temporal delineations of those sounds – has had more of an effect on music thereafter than the philosophy, that he helped to create an actual catalogue of objectified musical events that wouldn’t have been attentively listened to before, and thus enabled a means of compositional communication that is – or can be – quite apart from his philisophical intentions. I’m paraphrasing from something I believe was said by Glenn Gould, and that reveals my obvious bias away from minimalist, postminimalist, or as you say, protopostminimalist music. That said, I suppose I’ll just get to my next main point/question, which, disregarding that it may seem like just an attempt at an obvious anachronistic highlight, I think is very important:
    Is it even appropriate, assuming there is some only tenuous theoretical distinction between Cage’s “protopostminimalism” and “postminimalism” proper, to be considering what you’re calling postminimalism as such? That is, isn’t this question inversely weakening the conception of postminimalism as an actual -ism? This is a contention I’ve held myself for some time, having little to do with an inherent bias for modernist intransigence and more to do with actual serious consideration of the problem, but I like the way you’ve brought it up in this post.
    This may seem like a perversion of what you’ve said, but I feel that there really is an anachronistic deficiency in the thinking of most so-called postminimal music that is indicative of a deep regression. Considering the avant connotations of the -ism, this is surely a serious claim. So, in short, stressing that I mean this as a serious and not derisive question:
    Does postminimalism really exist?
    KG replies: Well, certainly it did in the sense that a lot of the composers involved were consciously influenced by minimalism. As a composer myself, I’ve never been in favor of excising composers’ intentions from the musicological picture. Whether purely stylistic markers can separate that music off from some of its similar predecessors is a different question.