Revisionist History of a Term

Yesterday, after almost polishing off my article on postminimalism for The Ashgate Companion to Minimalist Music, I posted a description of my LexisNexis search for the origins of the musical use of the term postminimalism. Perhaps you read it before it disappeared. I traced the term back to a Jon Pareles review of March, 1983, and added some references by Joshua Kosman, K. Robert Schwarz, and Keith Potter. Then the inexhaustible Galen Brown wrote in to tell me about some earlier references I had missed. He was right. But then I noticed, in the list he sent, that all of his new references were for post-minimalist and post-minimalism - with a hyphen. This about doubled the references for the period I was looking at, 1980-1996 (and LexisNexis seems to only go back to 1980, so data earlier than that remains in doubt). I started to add updates to the blog post correcting it for Galen’s new info, but I needed one for about every other sentence, and it was a potential mess. Ridiculous. I’d screwed up. So I just took the post down, sending Galen thanks and a promise to rewrite it.

But then I did my own search for hyphenated post-minimalism, and it was very interesting what came up. The bulk of the early hyphenated references, going back to 1981 (and who knows if any further?), were from Times critic John Rockwell. He tended to use the term either as a non-specific vague category, or to refer to the post-1976-or-some-other-point outputs of Reich and Glass, as well as the more flamboyant music of John Adams. Schwarz, whose reference was from his book Minimalists, and thus not from LexisNexis, also applied it to Adams, and also used the hyphenated form. (A couple of morons like Donal Henahan employed the hyphenated form sarcastically, and without having the vaguest idea what they were talking about.) The critics who used the non-hyphenated form, Pareles, Kosman, Potter, and myself, used it in articles about younger, then-less-famous composers writing in a style rather markedly different from minimalism. Search post-hyphen-minimalism (often typeset post-Minimalism with a capital M), and you find articles about Reich, Glass, Adams, maybe Andriessen; search postminimalism, and you find articles on Paul Dresher, Steve Martland, David Lang, Janice Giteck, Rocco diPietro. There’s a little bleed-over, and it’s not always possible to know whether the decision to hyphenate is editorial, but the consistency is sufficiently compelling. In a couple of cases, the same critic will use the hyphen for Reich or Adams, and abandon it for anyone younger. So there seems to be a palpable critical tradition for using post-hyphen-minimalism to distinguish the 1980s music of Glass, Reich, and Adams from their more repetitive 1970s music, and using postminimalism straight up as a style pioneered by younger composers who were never minimalists to begin with. In a sense I had been right all along: Pareles presciently identified the unhyphenated form of the style, and I was the second, in 1988, to refer to it in print. And that distinction will prove very useful to my article.

(I will add that I’ve always been leery of the tendency to draw some big, ripping distinction between the early and late styles of Glass and Reich. Every composer develops as he goes through his career, of course, but these two have changed far less than most composers do, and I’ve never been able to find some major dividing line that’s supposed to separate out the radical early Reich and Glass from the allegedly more palatable later stuff. In Reich’s case, the scores to his recent Sextet and Double Sextet look so similar to those for Six Pianos, Music for 18 Musicians, and Tehillim that I can’t see that much territory has been traversed in-between. And in Glass’s case, any distinction between early and late seems dwarfed by the eternal gulf between his orchestral music and his far more rhythmically interesting music for his own ensemble. The use of post-hyphen-minimalist in the articles mentioned above seems less a firm distinction than a deferential gesture to famous composers who hate the term minimalism, made by critics who want to keep getting permission to interview them. Anyone who can give me a hard-and-fast criterion for post-hyphen-minimalism that will work for every Glass/Reich piece is welcome to try.)


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  1. richard says

    Hi Kyle, long time no see. For what it’s worth, I use the words hard minimalism and soft minimalism to distinguish
    early Glass and his orchestral work.

  2. says

    Hi Kyle. I don’t use the hyphen for anyone, but that’s just me. I think it’s hard to come up with a truly objective dividiing line for Glass, but to me, he started to move away from a lot of strict repetition not too long after Satyagraha and Koyaanisqatsi. We all evolve, to be sure. But I’ve always preferred his earlier music, but probably because edgier stuff is just my taste. Regarding Reich, his music is certainly easier for me to see as a series of developments from his early work-probably everything he writes is related to either Come Out or Drumming in some way-but his music lately has tended to be closer to his earlier Sextet, Desert Music and Different Trains. In some cases, same chords even (compare The Four Sections to Three Movements and to The Desert Music, for example).

    Personally, I never even had come across the term “postminimalism” until you applied it several years ago to my own music. So thanks!

    KG replies: I’m still looking for a Glass piece without a lot of strict repetition in it. Not that I mind repetition, but I never see any significant style change.

  3. says

    This sounds like something that could be more interesting from a linguistic point of view rather than from a musical one. From what little I know of linguistics, studying the terms outside of their literal meanings (while the meanings of the root words are important) can reveal interesting information about how memes grow and evolve – and sometimes die.

  4. says

    Hi Kyle,

    Just wondering if you know when the Ashgate Companion to Minimal Music is due to be published/released? Am very much looking forward to reading it.

    KG replies: 2013, I’m afraid. Lots of editing involved, starting this week.

  5. joseph says

    fwiw, the hyphen after the post denotes a temporary compound, which is typical of a such a word when it’s new. then after it gets more and/or generally accepted (or someone gets sick of reaching for the hyphen key), the word begins to be spelled “solid.”

    I know this as an editor who in 1980 was editing one of the very first anthologies on the idea (and use) of the Post-Modern in the visual arts–at that time barely current in architecture [C. Jencks in only 2nd ed.] and, as Lawrence Alloway pointed out, it was being adopted from lit crit–and for that slim volume I decided to go with each author’s version of post-Modern, Post-Modern, or Postmodern.

    Oh the wonders of punctuation [yes, there is a point to it] and capitalization.

    Look forward to savoring your essay on the idea of Postminimalism, whatever its typgraphic guise.