Whither Us Minimalists?

[UPDATE BELOW] On October 12 the Third Annual Conference on Minimalist Music will open at the University of Leuven, Belgium, with my keynote address, “The Boredom of Eventfulness.” (Louis Andriessen will present the other keynote address on the 14th.)

One of the urgent topics during the conference, among us Society for Minimalist Music members, will be the proposed location for the Fourth Annual Conference, to take place in 2013. We agreed from the beginning to alternate conferences between Europe and America, but finding an American host institution has not been easy. To answer the obvious question first, Bard College where I teach is not an option. Bard is a rural college three miles away from a few small towns whose hotels fill up quickly. Transportation and housing for a sizable conference with high-profile evening performances would be logistical nightmares here. On top of that I haven’t a single ally here who gives a damn about minimalism, and no grad students. Funding is nonexistent and in competition with well-established music programs run by others. I would encounter resistance and skepticism at every step, while trying to solve insurmountable difficulties by myself. I can’t turn a conference here into a comfortable situation for the attendees.

Some of these problems are endemic to this field. Most of us American academics in the SfMM find ourselves the token minimalism-lovers in our departments. A few have said that their musicology departments might be interested; almost everyone says that the composers in their departments would be unalterably opposed. The academic composition community still sees this 50-year-old movement as a threat and an embarrassment. UMKC, where the second conference was held, was a unique situation, with several passionate/young and sympathetic/old professors, eager and talented grad students, and an unbelievably supportive and knowledgeable Dean of the School of Music, plus a comfortable urban environment in which zipping among restaurants, hotels, and the university was fairly easy. Duplicating all that elsewhere is a daunting prospect. Naturally, it would be optimum for organizational continuity to use a school where one of our SfMM members is on faculty, but this is proving difficult. The University of Washington and Indiana University have both been strongly considered, but with reservations from the relevant faculty. I’m wondering if there’s some scholar out there who would love to be involved, or some department where minimalism is taken seriously, but whose faculty haven’t become involved with the conference yet.

I must say, the first two conferences have been among the most exciting experiences of my life, and I wouldn’t say anything remotely similar about any other conference I’ve ever attended. The scholarship is exciting and new, developing rapidly. Major composers and performers are easily available as star guests. The music has been fantastic – hearing Charlemagne Palestine live at UMKC changed a lot of lives. This is a tremendously energetic venture surging in an era of economic uncertainty against a headwind of idiotic academic prejudices. I hope that someone in a sympathetic department might read this and become interested in laying the groundwork for future involvement. If so, please speak up.

UPDATE: Wow, my heart is absolutely warmed by the interest expressed so far (and I’ve had a few serious private offers). Of course, what we need is someone at the institution willing to take it on; the SfMM isn’t in a position to administrate from afar. I’m thrilled to hear of so many spots where minimalism has taken root in academia. And there’s no reason not to start looking ahead to 2017 as well.



  1. says

    Damn. That’s a huge shame, Kyle. Hope it works out. Obviously, you would be best to avoid my alma mater, the U of Chicago, but perhaps Northwestern is more enlightened?

    KG replies: Good god, Northwestern denied tenure to my composition teacher for bringing minimalism into the classroom, and since then has become more and more conservative, as far as I can tell. That’s the last place on earth I’d hope for.

  2. Nac says

    Have you considered good old Northwestern? I only ask to avoid making a redundant request; I don’t have much sway as an undergrad, but I see no harm in my writing to a professor or the dean to ask if they’d consider hosting, unless the SfMM has already done so.

    Ha, I’m just wondering now who’d need more convincing, you or the school. I know NU doesn’t inspire the warmest of feelings in you, but we gave John L Adams a hundred thousand bucks last year, one of the comp professors has added a course on minimalism and our radio station plays Niblock… Too little too late, I suppose, but perhaps you could think of returning to your alma mater as an act of revenge? There really are a number of students and professors here who’d be pretty happy to see this conference, I think.

    KG replies: Happy to hear it – but I’ll need to be convinced.

  3. Allan J. Cronin says

    Mills College would seem to be a logical choice for a minimalist conference. They have a long tradition sympathetic to minimalist composers and current faculty who appear to quite sympathetic to the music. I’m sure that this place must have crossed your mind.

    KG replies: Love to hear from someone there.

  4. Sheila says

    I’d like to suggest my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. As a percussionist, I definitely played and learned to love minimalism in my time there. There are of course some faculty members that I can imagine would object, but I can think of more that would be interested. As far as logistics go, I’m not sure how large this is but UMass hosted the International Trumpet Guild convention in 2007 and it seemed to go well.

  5. Marcus Maroney says

    Yale School of Music? Surely David Lang and Martin Bresnick wouldn’t oppose.

    Or bring it down to University of Houston – we’d love to have you. The Mitchell Center (http://www.mitchellcenterforarts.org/) is always looking for exciting projects, and recent guests have included Michael Gordon, DBR, Philip Glass. This season includes Bill Ryan with Todd Reynolds and some of the Bang on a Can all-stars. Karen Farber is the director (713.743.1978 – klfarber@central.uh.edu).

  6. Christopher Walker says

    University of North Texas.

    You would have performers more than willing to go after the music, and a very receptive faculty.

    I mean we had the best of time having Julia Wolfe on campus for lectures, lessons, and a performance earlier this Spring.

    Plus the town has the awesome inferstructure and amenities for such (we host a lot of conferences and festivals).

    It would be great.

  7. says

    Addendum: of course, the biggest problem with UC in general is the currently dire budgetary situation. That said, UCSC sports several sympathetic faculty members, an interdisciplinary bent with the new center for Digital Arts and New Media, as well as a number of graduate students who would be interested and eager to help, myself included.

  8. says

    1. You have at least one ally at Bard with John Halle.

    2. I don’t know if University of San Diego has the resources necessary for a conference like that, but tenured professor Christopher Adler would be very sympathetic to your cause. I wouldn’t rule out San Diego State University (Joseph Waters). I never thought I’d see the day when Philip Glass could safely visit the campus of UC San Diego, but that happened last year. Steve Reich is supposed to come next. There are faculty there (Steven Schick, Charles Curtis [Young specialist], Rand Steiger, Aleck Karis) who would be very supportive, but I imagine other faculty would push back against that idea. I’d go to Chris Adler first.

    3. UCLA? Robert Fink is chair of the Musicology Dept. (In general, don’t you find musicologists take Minimalism far more seriously than composition and performance faculty in US academia?)

    4. CalArts

    5. Cincinnati Conservatory of Music? (Michael Fiday would be sympathetic to your cause)

    Good luck!

    KG replies: All good ideas. I’d like to hear someone from one of those institutions willing to take it on (and I have heard privately from one). John Halle is a good colleague, though he’s in the Conservatory, an entity more separate from the music department than an outsider could imagine, and I don’t know whether local politics would allow his involvement.

    • says

      I’m glad someone mentioned UCLA — there would be no ideological problem at all having the conference here, and a posse of interested fzculty and grad students ready to pitch in (I am genuinely shocked that this is still a problem at other North American universities.) The nice thing about LA, of course, is that we could try to get some local synergy going, and maybe a joint sponsorship between UCLA, CalArts, and USC could spread the work around.

      As someone on this thread noted, money is always an issue, especially at a big public institution during a budget crisis. But we have our ways…

      (More on this in Leuven, over 9.4% beer…?)

      KG replies: Can’t do beer anymore, I’m afraid – too many carbs – but I’ll have a single-malt scotch. Looking forward to it.

    • says

      San Diego State must have hepped up since I was there – but then, it was 1980. I was rabbitting on about my fondness for minimalism and my professor replied, ‘Minimal music is for minimal minds’, and something about avoiding ‘Xeroxed arpeggios’.

      Hope to see people at Leuven – I’ll be in the little room chatting about 1970s music at Redlands and LA; Chris Hobbs (Experimental Music Catalogue founder) will be playing Terry Jennings. Few Xeroxed arpeggios, though….

      • says


        Joe Waters’ credo is that contemporary music should speak to its listeners. Check out his ensemble SWARMIUS, which puts that idea into practice. Not minimalism, I know, but–

        SDSU was hit pretty hard by the state budget crisis, though, and that might affect their potential to host a conference like this.

  9. Ryan Fellhauer says

    I know the University of North Texas’ professors (I am a student there) would support minimalism, all around. Big college too, used to hosting tons of events. There is a lot of interest in it here.

    KG replies: Fun idea, having it in my old stomping grounds. Even my mother could come!

  10. says

    Kyle, let me second here what Nac said: you might be avoiding a Boogie Man that no longer exists. Northwestern students and faculty are both very sympathetic toward Minimalism. That said, maybe we could investigate the possibility of a partnership between your conference and Columbia College Chicago.

    KG replies: I’m not avoiding Northwestern, they sometimes seem to be avoiding me: in particular they had a recent faculty member who has attacked me on several occasions, but he left.

  11. Robin Cox says

    As a member of the theory/comp faculty at Cal State Univ. Long Beach (The Bob Cole Conservatory of Music), I can say we would be VERY interested in this (I already floated this in an email to the dept. chair (composer Carolyn Bremer) and got back an enthusiastic response immediately. Your concern of faculty or institutional resistance to the topic would be nonexistent, zero. There’s also a pathway by which the musicology program would be interested, as well as the major performing arts center on campus. Plus, the school is a music major program of 500 in metro LA. There would obviously be many logistical hurdles to cross, but shoot me an email if I should further pursue this or if you have questions to ask.

    KG replies: Thanks, Robin, I’ll float the idea at Leuven. And you have your own performance group there, right? What we most need is someone (hopefully plural) at the institution willing to take it on, so we’ll be in touch.

    • Robin Cox says

      The easy part would be the people on this end, the hard part would be the costs and logistics, but there’s plenty of time to get this started up the chain of command. And yes, would love to have my ensemble involved in something like this, plus would be happy to help pursue others in the area.

      • Robin Cox says

        Also received this very supportive response from the Cal State Long Beach vice chair/head of musicology. -Robin

        Begin forwarded message:

        Yes! And further, I would love to be a significant part of this, in
        particular if it can be in February of 2013. Fall of 2013 is also an
        excellent option. I am always looking for a collaborative partner for
        the local AMS winter meeting (I will still be president then). We can
        host it here at CSULB and apply for all sorts of support. Also, it is
        time for us to be contenders in all areas.

    • says

      Well, they had more useful things to say. By the way, having taken a non-academic route, I’m surprised to hear that Minimalism is still scorned in academia; it’s not as if it’s some newfangled fad. What’s that about?

      I’ve been puzzling over the fact that repetition has become so associated with Minimalism, since there are other techniques that lie within the aesthetic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Cheers!

      KG replies: It varies considerably by school, and I’m sure things are worst on the East Coast, though I hear stories about the West Coast as well. The Midwestern schools, now as when you and I attended one decades ago, are generally more open-minded. Much of the prejudice is covert: a professor’ll claim to be entirely open-minded, but a kid writes a minimalist piece and it’s denied performance due to “insufficient dynamic markings.” Or a professor will tell his students that they can’t write a piece with a steady beat because it’s “unsophisticated” to do so. They’ve learned not to show their hands. And we do hear from SfMM members that they’d love to host the conference, but would face stiff disapproval from the composition faculty – almost never the musicology faculty. As soon as all that ceases to be true I will jubilantly report the fact.

      At these conferences I’m the one standing around reminding everyone that not all minimalism is repetitive. The musicologists do tend toward Reich, Glass, and Adams, but we’ve racked up an impressive number of Niblock scholars as well.

      • says

        Yes, even way back then, Glass and Palestine were invited to mold our young minds. But these are more conservative times…

        KG replies: Really? I agree in principle, but I didn’t get to hear any Palestine until the mid-’90s, because he wasn’t playing and there were no recordings. If you heard him then, I’m impressed.

        • says

          He did a sort of drone installation in a chapel, and showed up now and then to sing with it. He also gave a talk — assisted, of course, by a monkey puppet. I’m glad I got to hear him.

  12. says


    I noticed the “wither” slip too, but I thought you were making a pun in support of your thesis about minimalism’s lack of same in the academy…


    KG replies: I’m not that clever. And as I get older, my impeccable spelling is leaving me.

  13. says

    Probably not for 2013, but beyond….Bowling Green and the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music may be in a position to assist. Always keep us in mind for this sort of thing, we still thrive on “stiff disapproval.”


    KG replies: I keep having you guys in the back of my mind.

  14. says

    any reason why it has to be in either the US or Europe? host it here in Australia (Kyle, you’ll remember the MiniMax festival of post-minimalism in Brisbane back in 2002). you could speak to any number of motivated figures at various institutions, like Robert Davidson at University of Queensland or Matthew Hindson at the Sydney Conservatorium. and if there are concert elements i’m sure a good deal of it will be recorded by our station ABC Classic FM.