The Minimalist Alliance

As my co-director David McIntire so aptly said in his opening remarks to the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, minimalist music has always stressed community – not only in its unison-rhythmed, non-soloistic ensemble style, nor in its tendency to bring an audience together in a kind of mass ecstasy, but in the collective enthusiasm it kindles among its devotees. This was evident in the first conference in 2007, and became even more apparent last week in Kansas City. That group of us who attended both conferences – myself, David, Keith Potter, John Pymm, Pwyll ap Sion, Maarten Bierens, Tim Johnson – developed a deeper sense of camaraderie and common purpose. Those who regretted missing the first conference and loved this one filled us out into a larger circle. The excitement that followed Sarah Cahill’s fabulous recital, Charlemagne Palestine’s transcendent organ performance, and some of the more thought-provoking papers quickly communicated itself from person to person. Everyone seemed in an excellent mood all week, and in a more ebullient mood from day to day. The best minimalist music does not inspire cautious appraisal or cold analysis, but wide-eyed wonder. Those of us who love it found ourselves at home in Kansas City, and among kindred spirits.

I shouldn’t go too far in complimenting elements of a conference I helped plan, but I will make a few evaluative comments that hopefully won’t reflect on myself. Sarah’s elegantly flowing performance of Harold Budd’s Children on the Hill proved to my satisfaction that a transcription of the piece can be played in a spirit virtually indistinguishable from Budd’s own. I’ll post the recording as soon as I get it. She also reminded me of what a gorgeous piece Meredith Monk’s St. Petersburg Waltz is, and she introduced quite a few participants who hadn’t heard of it to Hans Otte’s scintillating The Book of Sounds, creating quite a stir for the piece. 

No quantity of listening to Charlemagne Palestine CDs could have prepared one for the mammoth presence of his organ performance Schlingen-Blängen, a piece he first played in 1965 but had never played in the U.S. before outside Los Angeles. (In fact he’d never visited the Midwest before.) As we entered Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, a perfect fifth was already ringing on the organ. Little by little Charlemagne added notes, held down with little wooden splints, and pulled out additional organ stops to thicken the roar of sound. Finally he plunged onto the keyboard with both forearms, and, with overtones at maximum ferment – pulled the plug. The sound died in a swooping glissando, came back on, and did so twice more, in a powerfully dramatic effect. There was an audible bass line running through much of the piece, and after the organ finally died away for the last time, Charlemagne rang a drone on the rim of a cognac glass and sang the bass line in falsetto – it was the final ostinato melody from Stravinsky’s Firebird, not recognizable as such in the melee of drones. Here are Scott Unrein’s photos of the church as it looked to us, with the organ in the background and Tom Johnson’s ghost arising from the time exposure:

Charlemagne1.jpg

and Scott’s portrait of Charlemagne in action:

Charlemagne2.jpg

Despite his recent book on Terry Riley’s In C, Robert Carl’s own music is not noticeably postminimalist, and so he may have seemed like an odd choice for keynote speaker, but he was pitch-perfect. He first dismissed the facile platitude that minimalism might have been nature’s way of clearing the decks from serialism and making it possible to return to the relative “normalcy” of orchestral music like that of John Adams; instead, he said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory after a hectic teaching week), the radicalness of early minimalism was no mere aberration but a continuing and essential feature of the style. He then went on, as only an outsider to the movement could have, to detail what he thought minimalism had contributed to early 21st-century music in terms of flow and transparency. It was a moving tribute, and I told Robert afterward how much better he does public sincerity than I do. 

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As I’ve said, I had hoped that the conference would bring about some potent distinctions between minimalism and postminimalism. Galen Brown’s brilliant paper “Process as Means and End in Minimalist and Postminimalist Music” achieved a climax in that respect, widely noted as such. For Galen, minimalist music cared about process as a means regardless of what the sonic result was; postminimalist music uses process only to the extent that it achieves the sound the composer hears in his head. It was an admirably clear formulation, and I haven’t yet found a loophole in it. That paper, along with two others by Kevin Lewis and Andy Bliss, provided a remarkably rounded view of David Lang’s aesthetic, showing how willing he is to derive materials from processes that the listener can’t necessarily hear, yet disrupts his own processes sporadically to make his music more human. Scott Unrein drew out the sensitive subjectivity in Jim Fox’s music, and introduced that name to many present. 

I’m disappointed that we didn’t get any of composer Paul Epstein’s music on the concerts, but his paper gave an absorbing account of the compositional structures he’s derived in the technique called “interleaving” that he took from Reich’s Piano Phase, which he’s developed into a surprisingly wide-ranging postminimalist technique. A paraphrase of his paper could make an entire chapter in this Music After Minimalism book I’m allegedly working on. Sumanth Gopinath and Gretchen Horlacher offered analyses of, respectively, Reich’s Different Trains and Tehillim that made me realize that my listening to Reich has become one-dimensional, as though I only hear what I’ve already come to expect. Sumanth in particular drew resemblances to tropes from various popular musics, and made me hear the music anew.

As for Dennis Johnson’s November, which Sarah and I gave the world re-premiere of, our rendition took four and a half hours, switching pianists every hour. The experience showed me a few things I still want to refine in my version of the piece. Luckily Sarah got the more melodic sections and made them heavenly. I realized that my own rusty piano technique was barely adequate even at November‘s leisurely tempo, but afterward Neely Bruce – a dynamite pianist himself – described my playing to me in detail in a way that made me feel good about it. I certainly loved doing it, and it’s the first time since the mid-1980s that I’ve performed, in a professional setting, anyone’s music except my own. Several conference participants had to leave to catch planes during the interim, but the 19 who managed to hang on to the end gave us a standing ovation, which in my case I took more as a compliment to my hard work and endurance than to my pianism. (Photo by Robert Carl) 

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I got home Tuesday at 1 AM and faced an eager Renaissance counterpoint class nine hours later. My luggage followed on Wednesday afternoon.

Per our group deliberations, the Third International Conference on Minimalist Music will take place – [drum roll, please] – in mid-October of 2011 at the University of Leuven in Belgium, a medieval university town 15 minutes from Brussels by train, under the leadership of Maarten Bierens. I already can’t wait. There was copious discussion of what institution in the U.S. might pick up the Fourth conference in 2013, but the story in every case was the same: at each representative’s school we considered, the musicology faculty would welcome the opportunity, but the resident composition professors would shout it down. That UMKC showed us such hospitality has made it one of the handful of schools I now recommend my student composers to consider for graduate studies. Musicology is the field through which minimalism is making its way into academia, and it is remarkable how many young minimalist-oriented composers, several of them in attendance in Kansas City, are getting their degrees in musicology as a way of bypassing the hidebound stodginess of the academic composing world. This conference is a confederacy of (mostly) young composers and musicologists allied to break the grip of modernism’s stranglehold on American academic composition departments. Our success in that venture is only a matter of time. God bless the musicologists for their exuberantly erudite support.

UPDATE: Pardon me, but I like this photo of me, by Robert Carl, explaining November:

NovemberKyle.jpg

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Comments

  1. Luk Vaes says

    very interesting point you make at the end, there, K. Are there really no composition departments yet with (post-)minimalist composers?
    He, and welcome to Belgium in 2011!
    KG replies: Well, there might be some, but they’re not taking an interest in the minimalism conference. See comment below.

  2. says

    Thanks very much for the reports Kyle – great to be able to follow the conference through your eyes.
    I wanted to comment that I think it is short sighted to maintain that minimalism is unwelcome in university composition programs and that the only solution is to study musicology. First of all, sincere study of musicology will require a great deal of time doing things other than composing, which I think is not a healthy path for someone who wishes to primarily be a creator. Surely that is that path towards being an “academic composer”.
    What about Yale, Princeton, CalArts, Michigan (I could go on but these are some of the best ones). I would argue that modernist composers are unlikely to be found there, and those who wish to pursue some form of minimalism would be quite welcome, if their accomplishments rise to the level that would encourage Bresnick/Lansky/Daugherty etc. to admit them.
    I mean no disrespect to UMKC (I admire their program!) or to the profession of musicology. But I think a gifted minimalist who wishes to pursue an advanced degree has far more choices available then you claim.
    Thank you again for your wonderful blog.
    KG replies: I know that’s true of a couple of places you mention, but none of them sent anyone to the conference. I only speak for those who were there and involved. I’m trying to get a kid into Yale now. But the point is not so much where they can study as where they can get a job afterwards. All these dozens of minimalist composers can’t count on getting jobs at the five or six schools that are sympathetic. After all, I haven’t. I didn’t invent this thing about composers getting musicology degrees, I’m just telling you what I see. This “unhealthy path” you describe of being a musicologist and composer is, after all, my life.

  3. billy says

    I have to say, the highlight of the conference was definitely when Charlemagne locked eyes with me and proclaimed “I AM THE FIREBIRD.”

  4. says

    This sounds like a wonderful conference. Are there plans to publish the papers and/or to broadcast the concert recordings (optimistically hoping there are some)?
    KG replies: As I keep saying, I’ll alert you to every recording and paper we can make public, and we’re trying to do as much as we can.

  5. says

    “The best minimalist music does not inspire cautious appraisal or cold analysis, but wide-eyed wonder.”
    Right. On.
    Wish I could have been there. Maybe next year.

  6. says

    I too am confused by the sentiment about “the grip of modernism’s stranglehold on American academic composition departments.” My feeling has always been in the other direction; that the dominant trend in musical faculty hiring was towards Post-Minimalists. Maybe the issue here is the definitions of Modernism or Post-Minimalism. If Modernism is everything “other” than Post-Minimalism then it would make sense that most institutions would have faculty whose music is aligned with Modernism. But who represents the points along a spectrum of modernism? Cage, Kagel, Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbit, Lachenmann, Sciarrino? If those are valid examples, the range of possible composition methods is vast. And who represents the range of possibilities for Post-minimalism? Is it as diverse as that? My experience and understanding of these two “genres” is that one includes many names and styles and the other is a more specific style. And, at no institution with which I have been involved, has post-minimalism been “shouted down.”
    Perhaps a more important question is, wouldn’t getting “shouted down” by “stodgy” institutions be a goal of innovative music making? I understand that the academic institution is the safe space for contemporary music making in America and so an inclusive atmosphere where every “ism” is accepted is ideal. However, I don’t see minimalism as excluded and, furthermore, I see it thriving outside the institution. Just within my circle of awareness, I see SO Percussion, Matt McBane (Build), Bang on a Can, Real Quiet, and numerous other groups doing incredible work without the institution as their primary venue or resource.
    Perhaps none of these groups or individuals likes the label of Post-minimalism. That’s another feature of academic inclusion, though. Categorization, genre-labeling, and divisive campiness.
    As far as getting jobs goes, I would be very interested to see real statistics about the number of jobs going to modernists over minimalists.
    Anyway, I look forward to hearing about the Belgian edition of this conference in 2011. Congrats to all for the hard work that went into this!
    KG replies: You’re attempting to refute a large array of general assertions that I didn’t make. Of course postminimalist music has support outside academia – no one said it doesn’t. One of the perception problems is that people – like you, apparently – think that minimalism and postminimalism cover only a handful of composers and a small stylistic range. It is, indeed, as vast as the range represented by the composers you list. The point is that many composers, especially those associated with academia, harbor a special hatred for minimalism, and many of us can attest to this. A few years ago when I wrote a history of minimalism for New Music Box, the site was so deluged with hate mail from composers that Frank Oteri made a public plea for tolerance and moderation. A student who began a tutorial on minimalism with me yesterday reported that the other music teachers she informed about it were disgusted and didn’t want to hear about it. It’s a fact. Maybe your circumstances have been atypical.
    Here’s a principle to keep in mind: in my experience, almost all composers claim that they never discriminate on the basis of style, that they like any kind of music as long as it’s good. But by strange coincidence, every individual minimalist piece they hear turns out to be no good. You can’t always take people at their word, without observing their behavior.

  7. says

    Oops — sorry to hear about your luggage!
    But congratulations to you and the other conference organizers on creating an event that was enjoyed by the academics in this field, and also, through the concerts, reached out into the community and gave the less initiated the opportunity to introduce themselves — or further immerse themselves — in this music. Well done.

  8. Ernest Ambrus says

    Congratulations on the conference!
    “Here’s a principle to keep in mind: in my experience, almost all composers claim that they never discriminate on the basis of style, that they like any kind of music as long as it’s good. But by strange coincidence, every individual minimalist piece they hear turns out to be no good. You can’t always take people at their word, without observing their behavior.”
    I was always curious about what a student could do if their professors genuinely dislike the music they create. It seems like a giant imposition on the student to alter his style just to fit his or her teacher’s expectation of good music. Is this at least expected of the student in so far as the course is concerned?
    I don’t want to seem like I think this is the norm, but there has to have been overzealous teachers who try to discourage them into writing more traditional pieces, right?
    KG replies: The answer to that needs its own blog entry. I’ll try tomorrow.

  9. says

    Boy, it’s a good thing I know that everything you say on the internet is wrong (Wrong, I tell you!) or I might let those nice things you said about me go to my head :)
    Seriously, though, the conference was fabulous, and I’m really glad you liked my paper. I’m almost done with my own post-conference roundup for S21, so I’ll save most of my thoughts for that.
    KG replies: Galen, I’ve always thought you and I think much alike. You need a shrink.

  10. Paul A. Epstein says

    It was quite simply the finest conference I’ve ever been to, Kyle. What you and the UMKC folks were able to bring together – excellent to exquisite performances of important (mostly seldom-heard) works along with an impressive collection of thought-provoking papers – was absolutely outstanding. Toss in the cameraderie that you describe so accurately, top it off with some memorable barbecue, and you have an event that will not soon be equalled.
    KG replies: I’ll say “hear, hear!” to that, since the UMKC guys deserve the bulk of the credit.

  11. says

    This is a wonderful blog post, Kyle. In the last two photos, that hideous wall sculpture behind the piano is especially prominent. One local composer conjectured that it’s meant to represent a giant vagina, but if so, what’s with those creepy tentacles? Nonetheless, great photos, and it was a privilege performing November with you.
    KG replies: Vaginas don’t have creepy tentacles? That’s nice to know. Yeah, I don’t know what that thing was, but it kind of looks like my halo in the last photo. The privilege was all mine.

  12. says

    I think I thought it was supposed to be a brain, with the tentacles representing thoughts or something, but I don’t have a picture that shows the whole thing to check, and the vagina hypothesis is certainly much more interesting.
    The Vagina Hypothesis would also make an excellent band name or album title.

  13. Paul A. Epstein says

    Are you saying it’s not a representation of your digestive system after spending too much time at Arthur Bryant’s?

  14. mclaren says

    Galen Brown’s keynote address appears to be available as a pdf on Sequenza21 here.
    Brown’s paper makes clear a fascinating implicit link twixt serialism and early minimalism. In both cases, process appears to play a primary role. For psychoacoustic and cognitive neuropsychology reasons, however, the process in early minimialism proves perceptible, while in serialism it doesn’t.
    KG replies: It was a great paper, but not a keynote address. Our keynote speakers were Tom Johnson and Robert Carl.

  15. mclaren says

    Goddamn google is playing games with search again. Now apparently you can’t get the actual URL from “copy link address,” only the absurdly long google search string. And copying & pasting the shortened URL from the google listing doesn’t work at all.
    20,000 of the world’ best programmers, and THIS is the best google can manage? What a bunch of pathetic clueless clowns.
    Here’s a URL that should work, the previous URL is (predictably, due to google’s gross incompetence) 404.
    Galen Brown’s 2009 minimalism keynote speech.