Nervous as I get when I’m in charge of something, the minimalism colloquium I directed at Bard last weekend was nevertheless a continual pleasure. Eight of us musicologists got together to air the more-or-less-completed torsos of our chapters for the Ashgate Companion to Minimalist Music. The Brits (Keith Potter, Pwyll Ap Sion, John Pymm) were the energy behind this, and it seems a rather British way of doing things; I’d never been through such a process before. But we do want to make sure that the different chapters balance each other well, and that every aspect gets covered. We meet with the European contributors in Birmingham in a few weeks. We’ve already found that some of the people mining Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain for political resonance will have to find another example, or else truth in advertising will require that we retitle the book the Ashgate Companion to It’s Gonna Rain. For some reason, that piece is an unsuspected mother lode of semiotic treasures. Emphasis on Reich, Glass, and Riley is pretty overwhelming, and I realized in mid-paper that we have no one slated to cover Harold Budd, which would be an unforgivable omission. For some of my California composer friends, he was the Alpha Minimalist, and from afar he was a tremendous influence on me as well. A history of minimalism without him would be laughably incomplete.
Interesting insights arose. Jonathan Bernard wrote about minimalist influences on pop music (the reverse would be an equally worthwhile topic), and he pointed out that almost all of his examples were instrumental; because, he said, once you put vocals over a minimalist-sounding track, it ceases to sound minimalist. David First, who was in attendance because I had brought him in to punctuate the proceedings with a concert, murmured, “Same with minimalism.” David and I had already talked about his feeling that the distinguishing feature of minimalism is that you’re listening to a background, and that the moment you add a distinct foreground element, the impression of minimalism vanishes. This fits hand in hand, I think, with my own formulation that minimalism separates out and dissociates left brain and right brain aspects of music, leaving the left brain somewhat at sea because of the resulting lack of time-orientation. (I mentioned to Bill Duckworth the next day that David had said minimalism was all background, and he responded, “But there’s a transient middle-ground.” I’ll have to think about all this.) There are certainly different repertoires covered by different emphases of the word minimalist, which Keith Potter sums up by separating the “radical” minimalism of La Monte Young and Phill Niblock from the “conservative” minimalism of post-1975 Glass and Reich; it occurred to me to call these the “raw” and “cooked” forms. Wide as the cultural applications may ultimately be, there are those of us who still want our minimalism raw and difficult, and I had picked David to get that point across, which his growling music, pulsing in acoustic beats rather than notated meters, certainly did.
One more quote I can’t resist repeating came from Rebecca Eaton’s paper. She had compiled an exhaustive history of film music by the major minimalist composers, and cited a critic who wrote that minimalist music, once considered weirdly experimental, had by now become a kind of “spray-on gravitas” for Oscar-seeking films.
The occasion also confirmed what’s been dawning on me for a while: that, in general, musicologists are a lot more fun to hang out with than composers. Each composer sees most of the others as his or her competitors for the same small list of gigs and honors. I find these days that most composers come out of grad school with a long list in their heads of what composers aren’t supposed to do in a piece of music, and they use those don’ts to disqualify other composers, if possible, from serious consideration. When I walk into a room of composers I’ve come to expect to encounter a certain veil of resistance and disapproval. Musicologists, by contrast, are all in this together. When one publishes a book on Michael Nyman, it doesn’t step on the toes of the one who’s writing a book on Gavin Bryars, but rather provides welcome information. We’re all contributing to the same edifice of knowledge, and no one is expecting personal immortality to be the reward. As reluctant as many composers are to consider me a composer, the musicologists have unhesitatingly embraced me as one of them, even though all my degrees are in composition. No one tells me, “That’s not really serious musicology.” And I’m not the only one who feels this way; some of our minimalism mavens (David McIntire, Pwyll Ap Sion, David Dies) are also composers, and I’ve noted here before that I meet more and more young composers getting their graduate degrees in musicology. It’s a happier and more open-minded field. The realization is changing the direction of my career. Five years ago I’d determined not to write any more books and to concentrate only on my music, but I’ve since decided to keep musicologizing, simply because I like hanging out with those guys.