It was later, in April of 1987, by the way, that I wrote in the Village Voice that “some people consider [Feldman] the world’s greatest living composer.” He read it, and died in August.
It was later, in April of 1987, by the way, that I wrote in the Village Voice that “some people consider [Feldman] the world’s greatest living composer.” He read it, and died in August.
I have just received my own copy of the new book about Julius Eastman: Gay Guerrilla, edited by RenÃ©e Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach. I’m afraid my own contribution to it is a little perfunctory, probably containing nothing that you haven’t already read in my blog or in the liner notes to the New World CD. I had attempted to do some musical analysis and then found I was crowding someone else’s territory, and so retreated into my moment of fame as the author of Julius’s obituary. But RenÃ©e’s biographical chapter, which she gave a presentation on in October, is quite extraordinary. Most importantly, who would have believed, in 1990, that in twenty-five years there would be a book out about our brilliant friend who had disappeared so mysteriously?
I had mentioned that in October I attended a symposium about Julius in Philadelphia, but the ensuing weeks were too busy for me to write about it. Dustin Hurt, director of the organization Bowerbird, wants to present a festival of Julius’s music, as he has presented festivals devoted to Cage and Feldman in the past. But Julius is not someone you spring on an unsuspecting public unprepared: how do you warn a wide audience that you’re performing pieces with titles like Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Dirty Nigger, and that they are not what you might think at first? And so Dustin had the remarkable idea of bringing three of Julius’s friends – me, Mary Jane, and RenÃ©e – plus Eastman scholar Ryan Dohoney, together with about a dozen African-American artists and scholars from the Philadelphia area, to see, in short, how we should go about marketing a Julius festival without raising alarms and stoking resistance. The two days full of frank discussionÂ we shared were sharply enlightening. All the artists and scholars, almost none of whom had heard of Julius before, were enthusiastic and on board, but understandably wary about presentation. As one young woman said, “This is the first time I’ve ever sat in a room with white people casually using the word ‘nigger’ before, and it’s kind of creeping me out.” (So I switched to calling the pieces CN and EN.) We even had two BDSM experts ready to discuss, in detail, Julius’s role-playing activities in that underworld – which was starting to creep me out.
The upshot seems to be that the festival will go forward in a year or two, with plenty of mediation by community leaders in the area. It struck me, by the end, that Julius Eastman was a little parallel to Erik Satie, someone that the classical music world was never going to figure out how to deal with. And then I started thinking about all the other composers the classical music world doesn’t know how to deal with, and realized that one doesn’t have to be very much of a deviant to get the classical music world all befuddled.
I have never been one to post lists of what I’m listening to lately, for quite a number of reasons. One is that it would often be embarrassing. Right now I’m driving around listening to old Frank Sinatra records from the fifties. I feel like my music needs occasional infusions of vernacular music, specifically music that was tremendously popular at some point, music that people paid for because it was attractive and entertaining. I can supply the complicated cross-rhythms and microtonal voice-leading myself, but I need some DNA from the mainstream: a jaunty rhythm, even just a tempo, a surprising harmonic twist, a melodic quirk. A few minutes ago one of Nelson Riddle’s arrangements ended with a big brass cadence, and then immediately repeated the cadence in the strings, so quietly that it sounded like an echo, and I shouted, “Yes! I’m gonna doÂ that!” What a temptingly style-independent gesture.
In the early 1990s a meme made the rounds downtown that new music, in order to be authentic, must be based in the vernacular. I remonstrated, pointing out that there’s plenty of great music with no vernacular connections: Feldman, VarÃ¨se, Tenney, Xenakis. The only reason to ever say music must do something is so that the next day some genius will write a great piece that doesn’t do that. (“Must follows music only in the dictionary,” I wrote in the Voice.) But I am so lacking in the common touch myself, raised in such a rarefied atmosphere, so deficient in street smarts and folksyÂ charm, that I have to steal it from somewhere, and so little sound-shapes fromÂ Swing Era jazz, Waylon Jennings, Edith Piaf, Jimmy Buffett, even Strauss waltzes show up here and there in my music, probably unnoticed by anyone but me. I’m sure I have some bizarre blind spots in my appreciation of the world’s musics, but I’m no snob.
I have little to say, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to use a headline I’ve been holding in reserve for three decades. When I interviewed Pierre Boulez in Chicago in 1987, we touched on his notorious 1952 article “Schoenberg est mort,” and I asked him if someone would someday need to write an article “Boulez est mort.” He laughed, and said, “Maybe I should write it myself.” And then he lived another 28 years. A lot of his music that we studied closely back in the day I find forgettable, but, oddly, I was just thinking yesterday how much I love Pli selon pli, and that I should listen to it again.Â Rituel was a very influential work on me. AndÂ Repons I enjoyed hearing live, and had a blast reviewing the Chicago premiere.
The greater significance for me is that an entire generation is now dead, a generation around which I formed part of my musical personality in high school. Boulez, Stockhausen, Maderna, Pousseur, Ferrari, Ligeti, BarraquÃ©, Kagel, Zimmermann, Berio, Nono, Bussotti, Xenakis – I loved them, I explored them, I was inspired and mystified by them, I carried their vinyl Deutsche Grammophon and Wergo records to college with me; because I had already been seduced by Copland, Harris, Schuman, and Bernstein on one hand and Ives, Cage, and Feldman on the other, I could not totally succumb to them; because they spoke in dictatorial terms I developedÂ a genial oedipal hatred for them. As happens, now that they are all gone only the affectionate feelings remain. In grad school I analyzed every note of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, which I had never heard – and I knew it so well that when I finally listened to the recording, I cried. Today I wouldn’t recognize the piece in a blindfold test. I was astonished when Alex Ross reported that, late in life, Boulez admitted in an interview that, back in the serialist years, “We didn’t pay enough attention to how people listen.” It reminded me of a Morton Feldman quote, which I will paraphrase from memory: “Only in Europe do you have these revolutionaries who guillotine anyone and everyone who disagrees with them, and then change their minds.” All the same, I will listen to Pli selon pli this afternoon, and tonight I will drink to all of the great European masters of my youth, and to having outlived them.
UPDATE: As promised, I’m listening to Pli selon pli (1983 BBC Symphony recording). It’s pretty frickin’ fantastic.
UPDATE: Juhani Nuorvala informs me that Sylvano Bussotti is still with us – I’m glad to hear it. His continuing presence does not exert the psychic weight on me that Boulez’s did, and so everything else above still stands, but I’m sorry to have given an incorrect impression. As a friend said recently,Â “A blog is a blog is a blog. There has to be a different standard for informal writing and real-deal scholarship, otherwise no one would ever say anything.”
Having been unexpectedly drawn into writing here about grid-pulse postminimalism, I’ve decided to publish my most important article on the topic here, because the book it’s in is prohibitively expensive, and I need people to be able to refer to it to see exactly what I’m talking about. It’s from the Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, which I coedited with Pwyll Ap Sion and Keith Potter, and the succinct titleÂ of the article is “A Technically Definable Stream of Postminimalism, its Characteristics, and its Meaning.” In my introduction to the whole volume, I managed to name 32 minimalist composers; here I named 49 associated with grid-pulse postminimalism. This was a widespread movement, involving composers from Hawaii to Massachusetts and Florida to Seattle, plus several Europeans that I knew of.
One of the pieces highlighted here I’ve realized I’m remiss in not featuring more widelyÂ on this blog: Dan Becker’s Gridlock, which is practically the poster-boy piece for this movement. It’s the only piece I can think of whose title even alludes to the grid aspect of this music, and in the liner notes Dan talked about the idea of men thinking in grids while women’s concepts are more fluid (although I am struck by by the fact that 14 of my 49 – 29%, which is high for any classical idiom – are women, and their music is just as likely to be grid-based as the men’s). Written in 1994, Gridlock did not appear early in the style’s history, whose beginning I date to Duckworth’s and Lentz’s works of the late 1970s. But it expresses the purest crystallization of the style’s idea, and I’m temporarily putting a recording up here.
Also, since it fortuitously just appeared, here’s the latest disc of music by a central grid-pulse postminimalist composer, Paul Epstein’s Piano Music played by R. Andrew Lee.
And one other recording: “Alone in a Crowd,” the first track from Jeff Beal’s soundtrack for the movie Pollock, the only film soundtrack I know of which fits perfectly in the grid-pulse postminimalist aesthetic (and the only non-Glass soundtrack I own and listen to for pleasure). That’s a 50th composer. So you don’t know about grid-pulse postminimalism? You can now if you want to, 8000 words worth. And from now on when I refer to the topicÂ I’ll link here.
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A Technically Definable Stream of Postminimalism, its Characteristics, and its Meaning
By Kyle Gann
As scholars, we strive to efface ourselves in favor of the phenomena we study; as music historians, we shape history, but only after we let the data we take in shape us. Working as a music reviewer in the 1980s and â€˜90s, I became aware of a new repertoire of music whose stylistic commonalities were too striking to ignore. The music, mostly American in the concerts I heard, was overwhelmingly diatonic in its scales and harmonies. A grid of steady beats was almost always maintained, often throughout an entire work or movement without change of tempo. Dynamics tended to be monochrome or terraced, with little of the kind of expressive fluidity one associates with music of the Romantic or modernist eras. In its circumscribed materials and emotional staticness (which is not to say the music was unemotive, but rather that it tended to maintain one affect throughout), the music was analogous to certain genres of Baroque music, particularly German and Italian instrumental music of the late Baroque, though using a harmonic syntax that was in no way conventional. One of the most intriguing aspects of this repertoire was that it ranged in typology from highly structured to completely intuitive and every nuance in-between.
From the beginning it seemed clear that this music was on the most obvious level a collective response to the somewhat earlier style known as minimalism. The differences, however, were decisive. Many of the major minimalist works of the 1960s and â€˜70s, now too familiar to us to list here, seemed to embody a new performance paradigm. Minimalist works were often evening-length and suited to a listening mode more ambient and less formal than that of the standard classical music concert; audience members might lie down or sit on the floor, and could come and go as they pleased. Instrumentation for these works was often open and variable from one performance to another. The composers sometimes had their own ensembles dedicated to their works alone. The pieces were sometimes not set at a composed length, but could stretch on longer depending on the performance circumstances.
The subsequent repertoire that had imposed itself on my attention represented a return to the conventional classical-music concert paradigm. It was almost always written in standard notation, though with a minimum of expression markings. The duration of pieces returned to the conventional concert-music length of, say, five to 25 minutes. Most of the music was for chamber ensembles or solo instrument, occasionally involving electronic instruments such as guitar or synthesizer, but rarely with much emphasis on electronic timbres. However, certain aspects of minimalist music, in particular the phase-shifting found in Steve Reichâ€™s early music and the additive process of Philip Glassâ€™s early music, were often taken over as structural devices. In minimalist music, these devices are generally meant to be obvious to the listener; it is one of the primary changes wrought by this new repertoire that it used them in a more underlying, even occult manner. Minimalism, moreover, was not the only musical influence. Beneath a patina of stylistic homogeneity, the music made reference to a panoply of genres: Balinese gamelan, folk music, pop, jazz, 18th-century chamber music, Renaissance music, and even national anthems and specific tunes and pieces. It was a remarkably eclectic body of music, ironically so, beneath its seamlessly even surface.
The number of pieces I encountered as a music critic at concerts and on recording in the 1980s and â€˜90s that fit all of these criteria was too copious to ignore. Ubiquitous similarities made comparisons inescapable. It was as though an entire generation born in the 1940s and â€˜50s (and thus a little younger than the original minimalists) was writing chamber works that were conventionally classical in format, but with harmonies, processes, and textures inspired by the more unconventional minimalist works that poured from the Manhattan and San Francisco avant-gardes. No survey of 18th-century symphonies could have revealed more striking overlaps and consistencies of style and method.
A word was needed to encompass this far-flung musical language that so many composers were working in. The word postminimalism was floating around, especially among musicians in conversation. Critic John Rockwell was referring to post-minimalists in music in The New York Times at least by 1981 , and in 1982 he could start off a review by mentioning, â€œOne hears a good deal about post-Minimalism these days.â€ In 1983 he referred to John Adams as a Post-Minimalist, describing the idiom as â€œa steady rhythmic pulse and a shimmering adumbration of that pulse by the other instruments and voices.â€ Just prior to that article and in the same newspaper, Jon Pareles – reviewing composers David Friedman, James Irsay, Amy Reich, and others unknown to me – attempted a capsule definition of postminimalism as â€œusing repetition for texture rather than structure, and embracing sounds from jazz and the classics.â€ There is, indeed, a strong continuity between especially this latter definition and the usage I will propose here.
My own earliest use of the term postminimalism, at least in the Village Voice, was five years later on March 26, 1988, in an article mentioning composer Daniel Goode as an example. I made my first attempt at a full definition of the style on April 30, 1991, in a review of the Relache ensemble (perhaps the most important commissioning ensemble for this style of music) performing Janice Giteck, Mary Ellen Childs, and Lois Vierk. A week later critic Joshua Kosman applied the term to Paul Dresherâ€™s music in the San Francisco Chronicle, and he later used it to describe Steve Martland in 1994, and David Lang in 1995 and â€™96. Then, in his 1996 book Minimalists, K. Robert Schwarz mentions that the term post-minimalism had â€œbeen inventedâ€ (presumably by Rockwell, though he gives no citation) to describe the neoromantic postmodernism of John Adamsâ€™s music. At the end of that year, Keith Potter used the term postminimalism in The Independent in a review of the Icebreaker ensemble performing music of David Lang and Michael Gordon.
I supply the exact type-setting of the term in each case to bring out the curious coincidence that those (especially Rockwell) who used the term in these early years to describe John Adamsâ€™s music, and also the post-1980 music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, tended to spell it with a hyphen, post-minimalism (and often with a capital first M). Those who applied the term to younger composers who had not been among the original minimalists tended to use the non-hyphenated form. It is as though, on whatever conscious level, those who described the later music of previously minimalist composers separated the term into post-minimal, emphasizing the connotation of post as after; those who referred to a new style by younger composers applied to it the sleeker, more unified postminimal. From this tendency I will take license, then, for purposes of this article, to use un-hyphenated postminimalism to denote only the repertoire of music whose style characteristics I have described. Perhaps ultimately some further restricting term will be necessary: for instance, â€œgrid postminimalism,â€ referring to the musicâ€™s tendency to place every note on a 16th-note or 8th-note grid and to eschew expressive or expansive rhetorical models of any kind in favor of stepped contrasts (if any). No new musical term is ever introduced without controversy, and there are always those who protest that the mapping of a word to a variety of musical practices is never literal enough. This canâ€™t be helped. I may lack a precise term, but I can define the body of music I venture to write about here with the utmost specificity. I may have to beg the readerâ€™s indulgence for my circumscribed definition, but that the repertoire I describe was a widespread and clearly recognizable idiom of the 1980s and â€˜90s can be established by evidence too voluminous to contradict.
Despite the catalogue of similarities that will ensue, I would not want to give the impression that postminimal music was in any way conformist or derivative. Its paradigmatic conventions (due perhaps to whatever personal proclivities on the part of its creators, ranging from a desire to sit in chairs to an lack of interest in hallucinogenics) remained those of the concert hall. Within those conventions, a new musical language appeared in full bloom almost overnight. The valorization of idiosyncrasy has become so prevalent in the arts that we forget how much advantage can accrue from a large number of people speaking the same language. Differences between pieces sharing this language could be subtle and distinctive. Composers working on the same problems could learn from each other and push the languageâ€™s evolution to a new level. Listeners were freed from having to confront a new set of expectations from concert to concert and record to record. Continual innovation can be excitingly mind-opening, but development of a common language promotes depth in public discourse.
Not that any of this happened by conscious intention. The first pieces of music that used minimalist harmony and processes in an abbreviated and fully-notated format appeared in the late 1970s from composers who were unaware of each otherâ€™s work. I would count, among those pieces, William Duckworthâ€™s Time Curve Preludes (1978-9) and Southern Harmony (1980-81), Daniel Lentzâ€™s Wild Turkey and The Dream King (1983), Janice Giteckâ€™s Breathing Songs from a Turning Sky (1980), Ingram Marshallâ€™s Fog Tropes (1979/82) and Gradual Requiem (1979-81), Peter Genaâ€™s McKinley (1983), and Jonathan Kramerâ€™s Moments In and Out of Time (1981-3).
In addition to these, composers who have written notated music within postminimalismâ€™s diatonic harmonies and grid-like tempo constructs include (in alphabetical order) Thomas Albert, Beth Anderson, Eve Beglarian, Dan Becker, David Borden, Tim Brady, Neely Bruce, Gavin Bryars, Giancarlo Cardini, Mary Ellen Childs, Lawrence Crane, Paul Dresher, Paul Epstein, Graham Fitkin, myself, Peter Garland, Daniel Goode, Judd Greenstein, Jean Hasse, Melissa Hui, Dennis Kam, Guy Klucevsek, Joseph Koykkar, Jeremy Peyton Jones, David Lang, Paul Lansky, Elodie Lauten, Mary Jane Leach, Bunita Marcus, Steve Martland, Sasha Matson, John McGuire, Beata Moon, Maggi Payne, Belinda Reynolds, Stephen Scott, James Sellars, Howard Skempton, Bernadette Speach, Kevin Volans, Renske Vrolijk, Phil Winsor, Wes York, and many others. When this many artists have written music that can be similarly characterized in both technical and contextual terms, to refrain from applying a common terminology would seem like a perversely ideological nominalism. Admittedly, this is clearly a larger repertoire of music than can be even cursorily digested in an article such as this; I select my examples primarily based on relevance to certain generic technical points, as well as based on availability of scores and recordings.
I might add parenthetically that there is another repertoire of music, consisting of the 1940s music of John Cage and the later music of Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, and others, so similar to 1980s postminimalism that I have sometimes jocularly referred to it as â€œprotopostminimalist.â€ Examples would certainly include Cageâ€™s In a Landscape, Dream, and Three Pieces for Two Prepared Pianos, as well as Harrisonâ€™s Serenade for Harp, Koro Sutro, and quite a few other pieces. Since that music was written by composers whose styles were formed prior to the advent of minimalism, it would be misleading, I think, to attempt to include it within the postminimalist rubric. Those works themselves, moreover, were clearly among the several influences on the postminimalist movement.
As the term is used here, a piece of music can be understood as being only partly postminimalist, and there are phases in which we can sense a transitory state between minimalism to postminimalism and between postminimalism and something else. The former is especially clear in works which retain some of the strict processes associated with minimalism: most notably, phase-shifting and additive (or subtractive) process. (Jon Pareles used postminimalism in 1983 to connote â€œusing repetition for texture rather than structureâ€; likewise, we could also say that it uses phase-shifting and additive phrase-lengthening for structure rather than as audible process.) In addition to Piano Phase and Come Out, the phase-shifting tendency can also be traced to Henry Cowellâ€™s book New Musical Resources (1930), in which Cowell suggested basing works on a â€œharmony of links,â€ by which he denoted different rhythmic cycles running concurrently and going out of phase with each other.
As a seminal example, William Duckworthâ€™s Time Curve Preludes from 1978-79 exhibit, in their 24 movements, a stunning variety of postminimalist techniques, some more transitional than others. Prelude XI, for instance, is one of the examples closest to its minimalist roots. It consists of 15 successive melodies, with occasional rhythmic augmentations and pauses. The relation among the melodies is probably more obscure than any listener could analyze by ear, but it is noticeable on some level that all the melodies use the same pitches, and use them each the same number of times; the not-completely-diatonic pitch set aids this perception, since within the general E-minor mode there are two G-sharps per melody that change their position within each iteration.
Analysis reveals that the melodies result from one 16-note melody (itself based on the shape of the Dies Irae, one of the workâ€™s recurring references) going out of phase with itself. (In Example 1 the unchanging melody is given in the upper octave and the moving melody in the lower octave). Notice â€“ and this is a telling departure from minimalism, ultimately with major consequences â€“ that the process in not carried out with complete strictness. Within each pair of notes, sometimes the moving melody note appears first, sometimes the unmoving melodyâ€™s note, and the decisions were made intuitively with melodic and pianistic criteria in mind. And yet the piece is a clear expansion of the idea of Reichâ€™s Piano Phase, with different and less obvious effect.
Piano Phase also had a major impact on another composer, Paul Epstein (b. 1938), who wrote a 1986 Musical Quarterly article titled â€œPattern Structure and Process in Steve Reichâ€™s Piano Phase,â€ analyzing Reichâ€™s opus in great detail, and who subsequently based much of his own composing techniques on the insights involved. The first movement from his much later piano piece Interleavings (2002) is exactly like Duckworthâ€™s Prelude XI in principle. The movement is titled â€œ15 x 16,â€ and again it is an inscrutable melody that keeps coming back to all the same notes, and similar rhythm patterns, over and over again with some apparent underlying logic that the ear canâ€™t decode. Again, analysis reveals that the overall melody results from two other melodies, one 15 8th-notes long and the other 16, offset by a 16th-note (Example 2). Whereas Duckworthâ€™s Prelude XI phased a melody against itself, Epstein uses two different melodies for a more complex process.
In other Epstein works this idea is tremendously expanded. His Palindrome Variations (1995) for flute, cello, and piano, is entirely based on phase relations in one 12-note, palindromic melodic figure using only five pitches. Within the 6/4 meter this figure gets rotated to every possible position (Epstein calls the version that begins on the third 8th-note Rotation 3, that which starts on the 7th 8th-note R7, and so on), and at any given moment certain pitches are â€œfilteredâ€ out in a given instrument. It becomes audibly clear that the five pitches of that melodic figure are the only ones in the piece, and some underlying logical ordering seems apparent; the attraction of Epsteinâ€™s music, for me, is that it makes you think that if you could just listen hard enough you could figure out what the process is, so it irresistibly encourages very close listening. The range of textures and subsidiary figures he achieves with that one 12-note figure as source material is rather dazzling, and, in fact, the chamber version of Palidrome Variations is greatly reduced from a 22-minute version for synthesizer based on the same principle. I like to refer to Epstein as â€œthe Milton Babbitt of postminimalism,â€ due to the fanatical rigor of his structures.
From the works of Philip Glass postminimalism also inherited a tendency toward additive process, as well as subtractive process. Time Curve Prelude IX uses as its basis a pitch row taken from the bass line of Erik Satieâ€™s Vexations. The row appears first in half notes, then in double-dotted quarter-notes, then dotted quarters, then quarters tied to a 16th, and so on, speeding up geometrically with each repetition until it seems to disappear in a spiraling acceleration. Likewise, the Music for Piano No. 5 of Jonathan Kramer employs both additive process (more in the manner of Steve Reich, keeping the metric unit constant) and subtractive process. The piece opens in 11/16 meter, with only one note per measure, repeating over and over. A second note is added within the measure, then a third, and so on until a steady 11-note pattern is built up. Then, underneath a freer right-hand melody, Kramer begins subtracting notes from the ostinato, also shortening the meter to 10/16, 9/16, 8/16, and so on.
Dan Beckerâ€™s Gridlock for mixed ensemble (1994) is a virtual manifesto for postminimalist formalism. Becker mentions in the program note to the piece that he attempted to make a virtue of the â€œmaleâ€ tendency (though we will find that women composers do it too) to map out everything onto a grid. The entire piece is drawn from a 20-note sequence (given in Example 3) that roughly traces the circle of fifths. Then, in 16th notes, he additively creates a longer series by taking in series the groups of notes in an additive pattern based on the Fibonacci series: 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 â€“ and then starting over similarly on the second note, later on the third, and so on. The harmony, then, tends to cluster around one area in the circle of fifths for awhile before systematically progressing to another, and the accompanying lines pick notes out from the sequence, with accented rhythms resulting from where certain pitches fall in the 16th-note continuum.
[In case the system seems arcane, the note series is apportioned like so:
1 – 1 2
1 – 1 2 – 1 2 3
1 – 1 2 – 1 2 3 – 1 2 3 4 5
1 – 1 2 – 1 2 3 – 1 2 3 4 5 – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
and so on.]
My own works frequently use phase-shifting as an underlying principle. My orchestra piece Desert Song (2011, based on a 2006 piano composition) is grounded on an ostinato 83 beats long, interrupted by an orchestral tutti every 149 beats; certain foregrounded melodic elements recur at equally regular intervals. I had been interested in this type of structure ever since my piece for soprano and mixed ensemble Satie of 1975, in which lines went out of phase with each other within a C-major scale, with the additional structural principle (known to British bell-ringers as a â€œchange-ringingâ€ pattern) that pitch dyads within each phrase would be switched in the next phrase: ABCDEFG, BADCFEG, BDAFCGE, and so on. (I later learned that similar patterns were also used by Jon Gibson and Barbara Benary.)
While the minimalist roots of these strict-process pieces are quite evident, much, perhaps most, postminimalist music is not so highly structured. It is one of the features of the style that strict process and free composition can coexist in the same composerâ€™s output, and indeed within the same work; the Time Curve Preludes are a telling example. In Prelude No. VII we find a trace of additive process, but a freer overall structure. This languorous dance is made up of only three elements: a slowly arpeggiated bass line whose final dyad sometimes gets extended (A); a melody that here and there breaks the continuity (B); and a set of six chords that create an impression of bitonality by wandering conjunctly through scales from various keys, though the lower two lines are not actually diatonic (C) (Example 4). There is some inheritance from Glassâ€™s additive minimalism here in the systematic way the phrase lengths expand at first according to lengths proportional to the Fibonacci series, but even this structural element recedes as the B melody intrudes more and more.
Mary Jane Leachâ€™s Mountain Echoes (1987) is based on an evolving strict process. The music, written for eight female singers staged in two square configurations, opens with a single pitch echoing from singer to singer, from singer 1 to singer 8 and back again. Other pitches are introduced, and gradually new echoes start up on new beats, until, within each two-measure phrase, three pitch-echoes start with singer 1 and three more from singer 8 (Example 5). Other pitches, increasingly echoed, fill in the gaps between the main echo lines as they cross the texture. At maximum density in this process, all the pitches are echoed at a quarter-note delay. Gradually Leach begins omitting pitches until two different lines of echoes are moving in a double braid, from singer 1 to 3 to 5 to 7, and from singer 8 to 6 to 4 to 2. Step by step the melodic lines expand in length, and so do the echo distances, from 4 beats to 5 to 6 to 8. The entire pitch content remains on a seven-pitch, non-diatonic scale within one octave: F, Gb, Ab, A, Bb, C, Db, F. The process, taking eleven minutes, sounds deceptively strict and at certain moments repetitive, and is impossible to disentangle by ear, creating a sense of mystery.
For whatever reason, quotation of other music and styles is common in this vein of postminimalism; the styleâ€™s unvarying tempo and adaptability to any repertoire of harmonies seem to invite the abstracted, sometimes ironic or playful quotation of earlier tonal music. Leachâ€™s BruckstÃ¼ck (1989), for six female voices, slowly works its way though the opening harmonies (plus a few melodic motives) of the Adagio from Brucknerâ€™s Eighth Symphony â€“ assuming the singers perform their rhythms accurately, one might even pick that fact up from the pulsing of the opening multi-voice drone on Db. The music proceeds in rhythmic ostinatos which change every few measures, inflecting the pitches to move from, say, the opening Db minor triad to a German sixth chord to the unexpected (in both Bruckner and Leach) key of B major. The Time Curve Preludes are partly unified by the quotations that recur in various movements, including the Dies irae chant and the bass line of Erik Satieâ€™s Vexations, as well as references to bluegrass banjo style and the piano style (greatly abstracted) of Jerry Lee Hooker. Likewise, Belinda Reynoldsâ€™s Saraâ€™s Grace for orchestra (1999) is couched in a fully-notated and slightly restrained boogie-woogie style, and is largely based on the old hymn â€œAmazing Grace,â€ reworked into 4/4 meter from the original 3/4. Thomas Albertâ€™s A Maze with Grace of 1975 is another postminimalist piece based on the same hymn.
Eve Beglarianâ€™s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1994), for voice and mixed chamber ensemble, is a setting of texts of William Blake, including one of his â€œProverbs from Hellâ€: â€œYou never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.â€ Just before this text enters near the end, a four-note ostinato begins in the piano and bass and repeats 150 times: Eb-F-G-A. These are the first four notes of Bachâ€™s chorale â€œEs ist genug,â€ â€œIt is enough.â€ The piece smoothly segues, in its final measures, into a quotation of the entire chorale. A similarly scored piece, The Bus Driver Never Changed His Mind (2002) makes reference to the diminished seventh chords of Mahlerâ€™s Second Symphony â€“ because the text includes the words â€œKeep going,â€ used also by Luciano Berio in Sinfonia, which is based on the third movement of that symphony.
The most quotation-prone postminimalist is Daniel Lentz, whose music is wilder and more wide-ranging than that of any other composer mentioned here. Scored for female voice and orchestra with multiple electric keyboards and digital delay, his The Crack in the Bell (1986) is an extended setting of E.E. Cummingsâ€™s poem â€œnext to of course god America i.â€ On the lines â€œoh / say can you see by the dawn’s early my / country ’tis ofâ€¦â€, Lentz quotes, in the voice, the melodies of both the songs referred to. (Duckworth, in his Music in the Combat Zone of the same year, uses the same poem and does the same thing.) More unexpectedly, though, where Cummings mentions beauty (â€œwhy talk of beauty what could be more beaut- / iful than these heroic happy deadâ€) Lentz works two passages of pure Renaissance counterpoint into his bouncy, repeated-note texture (Example 6). Certain parts of the piece apply digital delay to the voice and keyboards, so that the repetition of phrases builds up to a texture thicker and more layered than the notes sung and played in the score.
Lentzâ€™s WolfMass (1986-7) is perhaps the biggest quotation bonanza in the postminimalist repertoire; the collage-like Credo contains bits of Machautâ€™s â€œMa fin est mon commencement,â€ the â€œBattle Hymn of the Republic,â€ â€œYankee Doodle,â€ â€œBattle Cry of Freedom,â€ â€œJohnny Comes Marching Home Again,â€ â€œOff We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder,â€ and â€œAmerica the Beautiful,â€ with many of the lyrics altered or replaced with the Latin mass text, all more or less smoothed into Lentzâ€™s trademark repeated-chord textures.
Limitation of Materials
Moving further along the continuum from the strict to the intuitive, we find postminimalist works devoid of any strict process but greatly limited in their materials. The fourth movement of Janice Giteckâ€™s Om Shanti, couched in a pelog gamelan scale and audibly indebted to gamelan music, revolves around a continuous melody in steady 8th-notes that runs through the piano and clarinet for almost the entire duration of the movement. The melodyâ€™s limitation to the notes E, F, G, B, and C creates an impression that the melody must be repeating or systematically permutative in some way, but it fact there is no repetition at all of any phrase longer than five notes, and no systematic transformation. Likewise, the accompanying stately, slower melodies on those notes in the voice, flute, and vibraphone come back over and over to the same motives, but without any â€œleft-brainâ€ arrangement, entirely intuitive.
What such works reveal as the essence of postminimalism is its reliance on a small, circumscribed set of materials. The second movement of Peter Garlandâ€™s Jornada del Muerto (1987) is an extreme case. The entire movement employs only five chords in the right hand, with no transpositions or octave displacements, plus the pitches B, D, and E in the left hand, usually as octaves, and in one section as single notes. No process or continuity device informs this music; it is entirely and intuitively melodic in conception, if chordal in execution. Yet despite its extreme paucity of material, this lovely five-minute movement goes through seven sections touching on four different textures and rhythmic styles, undulating between two tempos. Likewise, the first movement of Garlandâ€™s I Have Had to Learn the Simplest Things Last for piano and three percussionists (1993) goes through nine varied sections using only triads on B-flat, C, D, F, and G as its only harmonic material.
This aspect of postminimalism in particular is hardly limited to American works. Kevin Volansâ€™s Cicada for two pianos (1994) is a tour-de-force of limited materials. The two pianists alternate chords in each hand throughout, each chord almost always immediately echoed in the other piano. The entire piece takes place on a scale Bb, C, C#, D, E, F, G, A, with a low F as a bass drone and Bb heard as a tentative tonic. There are subtle exceptions: in m. 53, less than halfway through the piece, an Eb is introduced, and Bb is momentarily the lowest note; at four points, in m. 114 (just past the halfway point) and mm. 150, 155, and 174, the chords are interrupted by a single line of notes in mid-register. Top notes, perceived as the melody, are restricted to D, E, F, G, and A. The piece is not quite in a single tempo throughout, as the phrases weave subtly among tempos of 138, 126, 112, 108, 120, 96, and 132 to the quarter-note, a small repertoire of recurring tempos. The single-note sections are considerably slower. Many of the phrases, bound on each side by brief pauses of varying lengths, are repeated as many as eleven times. Dynamics range, by phrase, from ppp to mf, and in a couple of places are differentiated between right and left hands. There are no landmarks in this lovely 25-minute continuum, no way to form expectations except that the sonority with its undulating scalar melody, will continue, ever unpredictable in its details.
The Serbian postminimalist Vladimir Tosic has written a series of works â€“ Altus for baritone saxophone and piano (2001), Dual for flute and contrabass (1992), Varial for piano (1990), Voxal for piano and strings (1995) â€“ all based entirely on what might be called an â€œovertone scaleâ€ [or Lydian dominant] based on C: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B-flat, B. All four pieces remain within an uninflected 16th-note grid. Voxal, in particular, has the pianist play a moto perpetuo of up-and-down arpeggios over which the strings move limpidly among phrases that add and subtract pitches one at a time: GCD, GDF#, GBbF#, ABbF#, ABbE, ABE, CBE, CB, C, CD, and then repeating the progression. The Italian composer Giancarlo Cardini has written piano pieces that move among recurring harmonic or arpeggiation figures, often with a steadily flowing 8th- or 16th-note motion. His Lento Trascolorare dal Verde al Rosso in un Tralcio di Foglie Autunnali for piano (â€œSlow Change from Green to Red in a Bough of Autumn Leaves,â€ 1983) is based almost throughout on undulating alternations of 8th-notes with a slowly changing harmony, giving way to quarter-notes and finally half-notes at the end (Example 7).
Duckworthâ€™s music at times seems to use limitation of materials to explicitly mimic a strict background structure. Time Curve Prelude No. 15 takes place entirely within a non-diatonic seven-pitch scale: Eb, F, F# (or Gb), G, A, Bb, D. A sense of shifting tonality is created by switching back and forth between drone pitches Eb and D in the bass (stabilized by their fifths, Bb and A). When the drone is on Eb, the melody seems to be a Lydian scale with a major-minor ambiguity; when on D, it seems to be a quasi-Arabic scale with a flat second and major third. Given the Fibonacci structuring of many of the Preludes, and a free tendency toward subtractive rhythm at the end of the piece, one is tempted to assume that the drone pitches are outlining some predetermined structure, but analysis shows that this is not the case. Where some of the Preludes obscure a strict precompositional pattern, this one seems to point to a precompositional pattern that is in fact not there.
One could say something similar about Dan Beckerâ€™s Fade for flute, piano, vibraphone, and cello (2003). The piece starts in a diatonic scale with three sharps, moving by stages to two sharps, one sharp, and then after a chromatic transition, to five sharps. Repeated phrases create a sense of gradual process that turns out to be entirely illusory as the piece wends its slowly changing rhapsodic way. Slow transformation is the musicâ€™s modus operandi, but each transformation is eventually abandoned for a move in another direction.
Like Beckerâ€™s Gridlock, the title of Joseph Koykkarâ€™s Expressed in Units (1989) seems to imply the sense of composing within a grid. The first and last of three movements begin by reiterating melodic/harmonic figures in rhythmically unpredictable arrangements (a Stravinskian strategy as well as postminimalist). One by one, other figures are introduced, and take turns dominating the continuity. The opening figures of the first movement use only the pitches D, E, F, F#, G, G#, and A, with undulating shifts between F and F#, and G and G#, particularly prominent. The first eight pages of the second movement flow entirely within the scale D, F, G, A-flat, B, and C, with other pitches introduced in succeeding figures. The piece is a rather wild rhythmic ride, though loud figures are supplanted by quiet ones for a thoughtful overall shape.
Beth Anderson is an interesting case study, a composer of music so simple and mellifluous that someone unaware that she studied with Cage, Terry Riley, and Robert Ashley might not suspect minimalist influences. Her Piano Concerto (1997, with strings and percussion) uses a steady dotted-quarter beat throughout, in meters ranging up to 21/8 and 27/8. Flowing melodic figures and rhythmic ostinatos recur with an almost stream-of-consciousness insouciance, often with long periods of static harmony; the key signature is mostly two sharps, but some passages suggest A mixolydian mode more than D Major. One could almost suppose that the work was an early-20th-century British composition based on English folk song sources, a sign of how easily postminimalism can approach more naÃ¯ve earlier historical styles.
Andersonâ€™s breezy Net Work for piano (1982) is more process-oriented, but playfully unstrict. The opening spells out chords in a thirds-descending sequence on A, F, D, Bb, G, Eb, E, and back to A, after which a simple, syncopated theme arrives. The theme then appears in a succession of all of these keys, going through them twice with variations of meter and rhythm, and then modulating through the same keys again phrase by phrase. She also has a series of pieces called Swales, denoting a kind of meadow in which many different kinds of flowers grow, and marked by an almost stream-of-consciousness technique within very simple tonalities. Rosemary Swale (1986) for string quartet, for instance, is almost entirely within the A natural minor scale, with a few isolated patches of chromaticism.
Although Robert Ashleyâ€™s operas are hardly postminimalist, he often bases his works on a quasi-minimalist structure, and resorts to a classically postminimalist style in his late instrumental works. One such work is Outcome Inevitable (1991), scored for the Relache ensemble (flute, oboe, saxophone, bassoon, electronic keyboard, percussion, viola, and bass). The piece is grounded in an insistent repeating middle C in the bass, in constant 16th-notes. The structure is set by repeating rhythms tapped out softly on a bass drum in odd groupings; first a 7+10 pattern (counted in 16th-notes), then 3+3+3+3+5+3+5, and so on. Because the number of 16th-notes in each pattern is odd, the repetitions have to occur in multiples of 4 so that the section will end at the end of a measure. These rhythms create a seven-part structure, each part of which accompanies a solo by a different instrument:
The oboist doubles on English horn, the clarinetist on soprano sax, and the flutist on alto flute.
The melodic aspect of these solos is simple in concept, and beautiful to follow. Almost all of the melodies consist of rising scales interrupted by occasional leaps (or steps) downward to keep the line within a fairly narrow range. Each phrase consists of a number of 16th-notes (from 0 to 6) leading to a sustained note. The sustained notes last durations divisible by a dotted quarter note, from 1 to 7. The sustained notes are also accompanied by chords in the electric keyboard, and â€œshadowedâ€ by a note in the viola that starts in unison in the first section and moves a step further away in each section. Lasting 16 minutes, the piece is a lovely evocation of timelessness, drawn from a clear and endlessly elaborated idea, but quite unpredictable in its details.
Some of my own microtonal pieces use a limited repertoire of chords partly to keep the number of pitches from getting out of hand. Charing Cross (2007), for instance, for electronic instruments, uses only six chords on the 1st, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, and 17th harmonics of C. A simple, quasi-pop, eight-beat ostinato runs through the work, increasingly altered in rhythm by subtraction of beats.
In certain postminimalist pieces we hear the style begin to bleed into something else. The first 25 measures of Belinda Reynoldsâ€™s Cover (1996) certainly seem to be those of a postminimalist piece. Again, only six pitches are used â€“ E F# G A# B D# â€“ with E in the piano as a low drone note, and a certain obsessive reiteration of characteristic figures, particularly the competing fifths E-B and D#-A#. However, the music crescendoes to a sudden new chord at m. 26, and subsequently every few measures the music ups the energy by shifting to a new scale. There might be no reason to call this curvaceous, quasi-organic piece postminimalist except that, within each â€œmomentâ€ (to use the Stockhausenesque term), it tends to build up pitch sets and melodies additively, starting as an undulation of two notes and adding in others, almost like a memory of minimalism. Ultimately, Coverâ€˜s form is not postminimalist â€“ there are no more implied limitations on where the music could go than there are in Mozart (fewer, in fact) â€“ but its technique is. One of the advantages of defining postminimalism (or any style) in terms of its central idea is that we can treat the style itself as an ideal form, and talk about degrees to which a particular piece participates in that style. Just as Time Curve Preludes lies slightly on one side of postminimalism, coming from minimalism, Cover is a piece evolving from postminimalism and leaving it behind toward something else, but with its origins still much in evidence.
So insistent is this grid-rhythmed, diatonic, flat-dynamic paradigm in minimalist-influenced (but not conventionally minimalist) music in the quarter-century following 1978 that the observer and listener is tempted into a realist, as opposed to nominalist, position: that postminimalism, in this specific definition, was not simply a set of qualities drawn from a widespread coincidence of occurrences in a diversity of pieces, but virtually a self-contained paradigm inspired by minimalism in many minds, and which became instantiated in hundreds of different pieces. This is not in the least to imply that those pieces are identical in meaning or content, any more than a group of 18th-century symphonies are identical, but that some ideal style conception seems to have occurred to many minds in the same period of time.
As a critic I also noticed a difference between what I am calling postminimalism and another style, also with an inheritance from minimalism, that has been called totalism. Totalism is a more rhythmically complex style, and its harmonies are often more dissonant. In certain works and with certain composers, postminimalism and totalism can bleed into each other; in particular the music of John Luther Adams seems to straddle the two styles, and I myself have written examples of both genres. For me, postminimalism is distinguished by the feeling of a unified rhythmic grid in a consistent tempo, whereas totalism is characterized by a feeling of different tempos superimposed in layers. The music of John Luther Adams is often characterized by the diatonic pitch language of postminimalism with the tempo layering of totalism, though (unlike in the totalist music of Michael Gordon and Art Jarvinen, for instance) the temporal dissonance is not always perceptually obvious. In short, there is no real line separating postminimalism from totalism (just as there is no strict divide between minimalism and postminimalism), though most of the composers involved tend toward one style or the other.
What It All Means
So what, in this restricted definition Iâ€™ve given, does (â€œgridâ€) postminimalism mean? More precisely, what does it say about the world? What is implied in the act of limiting oneâ€™s materials and creating a structure that doesnâ€™t step outside its opening parameters? Why did this particular form of expression come to appeal to such a diverse group of composers in the 1980s?
First of all, postminimalism was an explicit acknowledgement that, as Stravinsky put it, â€œAll art is artificial.â€ (In certain areas of postminimalism, particularly among Dutch composers, the Stravinsky/minimalist influences seem inextricably mixed.) Throughout the Romantic and modernist eras in the history of music, the sonic means employed expanded in diversity and scope, and early minimalism, with its drones and tape loops, continued, in a sense, that expansion, if along a narrow plane. The phenomena minimalism asked us to attend to, such as slow phase-shifting, expanding form, and unintended resultant acoustic effects were genuinely new to composed music. Postminimalism, on the other hand, advanced no such claims. It constituted an equally radical and more arbitrary reduction of means, to a repertoire of harmonies and rhythms whose contingency, or arbitrariness, seemed all the more palpable in contrast to the former modernist abundance. The limitation of postminimalist music to a handful of chords, or a certain scale, and an unchanging tempo constitutes a negation of the common expectation that the music will evolve freely, that sudden inspirations will change its course, that it will move toward points of tension and release. The inspiration for the piece is perceived not as moment-to-moment, but as global, the materials of the work seemingly conceived as a whole rather than as a linear thought process.
A postminimalist piece seems self-contained, not pointing outward; the references to other music sometimes contained therein are cut off from their source, preserved in abstract notes but not in emotional content, like a fly preserved in amber. Itâ€™s as though the composer has made a small universe, the way a mathematician will set up a problem with only a few chosen variables in order to illustrate a larger point. Given the small number of variables, some sort of logic is almost necessarily evident to the listener; it is all the more ironic, then, that postminimalist music so often hides its logic just beneath the surface, creating a slight air of mystery within an otherwise fairly transparent musical environment. We are given only a circumscribed fragment of the musical universe to work with â€“ and even within that truncated segment there is more going on than our ears and minds can account for. This in itself is a metaphysical statement, and a very different one from that embodied in classic minimalism. The world, postminimalism seems to tell us, is understandable, but our perception is so limited that it (our perception) is easily overwhelmed by the interaction of even a few restricted elements and processes. Described this way, postminimalism is a denial of a kind of widespread musical realism, the conceit that music is a metaphor for consciousness, ever capable of self-renewal. It asserts that the part can stand for the whole, that in the behavior of a few restricted elements we can hear the behavior of music itself, and in a context all the clearer for its limitations. The listening process elicited suggests that, while we cannot understand reality in all its complexity, we can begin (at least) to make sense of the world in small bits. In this sense, postminimalism might be cited as an artistic analogue of the â€œordinary languageâ€ school of philosophy exemplified by John Wisdom, Stanley Cavell, Richard Fleming, and others.
Another, perhaps more practical, way to characterize postminimalism is negative: it was the exact antipodal opposite of serialism. Like the serialists, the postminimalists sought a consistent musical language, a cohesive syntax within which to compose. But where serialist syntax was abrupt, discontinuous, angular, arrhythmic, and opaque, postminimalist syntax is often precisely the opposite: smooth, linear, melodic, gently rhythmic, comprehensible (as to materials, if not always as to process). The postminimalist generation, most of them born in the 1940s or â€˜50s, had grown up studying serialism, and had internalized many of its values. Minimalism inspired them to seek a more audience-friendly music than serialism, but they still conceptualized music in terms familiar to them from 12-tone thought: as a language with rules meant to guarantee internal cohesiveness. (One might note, as contrasting recent compositional trends, both totalism and the â€œNew Romanticâ€ postmodernists like Bolcom and Rochberg, whose music throws the idea of cohesiveness to the winds.)
Additionally, or to put the same point in other words, postminimalismâ€™s style of hard, clean lines, often with a jumpy and/or propulsive rhythm, made a welcome contrast, in the early 1980s to serialismâ€™s cloudy and heavily nuanced textures, and without risking the sense of boredom that many listeners found in minimalism. It was simply an excitingly new style at the time.
Beyond that, postminimalist works offer a wide variety of expression, particularly depending on how strictly structured they are, and in what parameters. A postminimalist composer can intuitively write a piece with materials so limited that some background logical procedure seems evident; he or she can start out with a strict background structure and then obscure it with surface detail; or he or she may create a strict logical structure so nonlinear that while its presence can be intuited, it canâ€™t be analyzed by ear. Dan Becker, for instance, characterizes two approaches in his music: â€œ1. Pieces with a bunch of strict processes that I then â€˜interveneâ€™ in and try to ‘humanize’ by coloring and sculpting and adding directionality. 2. Pieces that are initially very intuitive, even improvisatory, where I then try and ‘inject’ some structural support by overlaying different (usually rhythmic) processes onto the music.â€
Highly structured postminimalist works, like those of Epstein and sometimes Duckworth, can seem like brain-teasers; they hide a half-evident logic just below the surface and dare the ear to parse it and start anticipating what might happen. In less highly structured postminimalist works the effect can be equally mystical, in a different direction. Creating a through-composed, intuitive structure with only three or five elements (as in Cicada, or Peter Garlandâ€™s works) evokes a kind of spiritual virtuosity. â€œLook what I can do,â€ it says, â€œlook how long I can sustain musical interest without needing to add anything; look how much variety is already possible with only the most modest means.â€ Once I asked La Monte Young why the five movements of his early string quartet On Remembering a Naiad all used the same material, and after a secondâ€™s reflection he responded, â€œContrast is for people who canâ€™t write music.â€ Postminimalism seems an extension of this cantankerous sentiment.
In fact, I think that postminimalism staked out a pleasant halfway position between minimalism and the repertoire of music encompassed by both serialism and chance techniques. In certain classic minimalist works (Come Out, Piano Phase, Music in Fifths), the analytical left brain could quickly figure out what was going on, and quit analyzing, as the right brain enjoyed the unexpected perceptions. In John Cageâ€™s change-composed music (Music of Changes, for instance) and certain complex serialist works (Le marteau sans maitre, Gruppen) either there were no phenomena that could be analyzed by the left brain at all, or the underlying structures were so complex that no aural analysis was possible without the aid of the score and some knowledge of the techniques involved. Moreover, in conventional classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, left brain and right-brain phenomena tended to go hand in hand, so that both sides of the brain were equally entertained.
In postminimalism, however, either the ear can tell that there is some underlying logic, or some underlying logic is suggested by the limitation of materials or gradual transformation; but either that logic is usually not entirely accessible to left-brain analysis, or turns out to be a deliberate illusion. The left brain remains involved, hoping (perhaps) to figure out the underlying pattern, but the ear is more often left with a sense of mystery, enjoying the opaque process without being able to pin very much down. Itâ€™s a pleasant listening mode, because without some left-brain involvement, many listeners will simply become bored (as many do, with serialist and chance-composed music); but the right brain, once well engaged, loses any sense of time, and becomes wrapped up in the energy or atmosphere. This is why it seems so significant that there are postminimalist works â€“ the Time Curve Preludes and Om Shanti are examples â€“ in which strictly structured movements jostle with intuitively written ones, and the ear canâ€™t tell which is which. There is no significant difference, postminimalism tells us, between intuition and arithmetic. Through different paths they come to the same result. This suggests that at the base of our intuition is a kind of arithmetic â€“ and perhaps vice versa.
Attempts to define the principles of this postminimalist repertoire begin to fall apart as we spiral outward to the periphery of the style. But I hope this overview has suggested that, for a time in the 1980s and â€˜90s, at least, a large number of composers became fascinated by a certain identifiable paradigm of compositional and listening patterns. I would also like to suggest that this enjoyable repertoire, so common on the concert stages of New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other cities during that period, has been greatly underrated and under-recognized, and is well worth considerable performance and study.
 John Rockwell, â€œNews of Music; 1982 Festival to Honor Cageâ€ in The New York Times, October 1, 1981, Section C, p. 24.
 John Rockwell, â€œAvant Garde: Johnson,â€ in The New York Times, June 13, 1982, Section 1, Part 2, p. 69.
 John Rockwell, â€œConcert: New Music of Californiaâ€ in The New York Times, June 6, 1983, Section C, p. 13.
 Jon Pareles, â€œMusic: Six at La Mamaâ€ in The New York Times, March 6, 1983, Section 1, Part 2, p. 64.
 Kyle Gann, , â€œA Tale of Two Sohosâ€ in the Village Voice, January 26, 1988 (Vol. XXXIII No. 4, p. 76).
 Kyle Gann, â€œEnough of Nothingâ€ in the Village Voice, April 30, 1991 (Vol. XXXVI No. 18, p. 82).
 Joshua Kosman, â€œâ€™Pioneerâ€™ Boldly Goes into Satireâ€ in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 1991, p. E3.
 Joshua Kosman, â€œSteve Martland â€“ Heady and Eclecticâ€ in the San Francisco Chronicle, October 16, 1994, Sunday Datebook, p. 42.
 Joshua Kosman, â€œâ€™Modern Paintersâ€™ a Bold Strokeâ€ in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 4, 1995, p. C1; â€œKronos Picks Up a Theater Creditâ€ in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1996, p. 31.
 K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), p. 170.
 Keith Potter, â€œClassical Music: Icebreaker; Queen Elizabeth Hall, SBC, London,â€ in The Independent, December 4, 1996, p. 23.
 Paul Epstein, â€œPattern Structure and Process in Steve Reichâ€™s â€˜Piano-Phaseâ€™â€ in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 4 (1986), pp. 494-502.
 E-mail to the author, August 12, 2011.
 Comment to the author, 1992.
I found something I liked yesterday in an interview with Robert Wilson:
He eschews â€œthe lieâ€ of naturalism on stage and sees artificiality as â€œmore honestâ€. Hence he was a perfect fit with Lady Gaga, herself a master of avant-garde showmanship.
It nudges me to write about something I’ve been intending to ever since the minimalism conference in Helsinki. Composer Matthew Whittall interviewed me onstage prior to the concert of my music. I forget what he had asked, and this bit I rescued from a Finnish Radio broadcast didn’t include the question, but hereÂ is about two minutes’ worth ofÂ what I found myself saying. (If you don’t want to listen, I summarize what I said below, so you won’t miss anything. I usually feel the same way.)
Now, keep in mind that when I said postminimalism, I meant the term not in whatever vague way people might use it in, but according to the precise definition I’ve developed in my books and scholarly articles, as having to do with the diatonic, steady-pulse music of William Duckworth, Paul A. Epstein, Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, Elodie Lauten, Dan Becker, Belinda Reynolds, Mary Ellen Childs, Mary Jane Leach, Wes York, Joseph Koykkar, and others. From now on I’m replacing it with the made-up term “grid-pulse postminimalism,” because postminimalism has come to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, and I can’t report on my scholarly research if I can’t refer specifically to that easily characterized repertoire. My new term is intentionally ungainly because I don’t want other people adopting it and distorting it beyond recognition. Miss that point, and you won’t have as clear an idea what I’m saying.
Matthew had started out asking me about quarter-tones, and I think we were bouncing off of the idea of just intonation being more natural than quarter-tones. Like Robert Wilson, I reflexively balk at the idea of anything we do in music being natural (non-artificial), and so I plunged into my own “naturalism is a lie” shtick. Twentieth century music lurched, in my view, from one simulacrumÂ of nature to another. Twelve-tone music was “natural” because it removed cultural associations from the relationships of the twelve pitches and created the basis for an allegedly organic form, the urpflanze. Then John Cage came along and declared chance more natural. Then Steve Reich made tape loops and phase-shifting look like the real natural phenomena. Then the spectralists analyzed natural wave forms and orchestrated them, so they were the ones really doing nature. Another attempted paradigm shift I left out in Helsinki was John Zorn’s, which was not exactly about nature: he claimed that music would have to be very fast and splintered from now on because kids were being raised on such fast video games that their minds no longer worked the same way.
Each case was an implied mandate, with a necessary paradigm shift in tow. One-upmanship reigned: “You based your music on what you thought was nature, but you didn’t dig deep enough, and my new paradigm goes to the heart of what music naturally is!” And the composition world flocks to these prophets. The underlying assumption is that you can’t simply write what you want to write, or what you find delightful – or you can, but no one need pay attention to you – you have to find the underlying logic, the new mandate on which history pivots. The whole mentality is buttressed by the sick classical-music neurosis that classical music is not a communal activity but a series of Great Men, and we’re always looking for the next savior who will take us deeper, some new Moses we can follow.
Although it’s something of a detour, I can hardly steer this argument around the rather obvious fact that the most acclaimed composer of my own generation, of course, is John Luther Adams, whose music is so closely bound to concepts of nature that it can hardly be discussed without bringing in Alaska, ocean waves, glaciers, northern lights, and so on. [UPDATE: I want to add that this seems like a detour because it’s not that John found a supposedly “natural” way to compose, but that he is depicting, or inspired by, nature, which is a very different thing.] I love John and his music dearly; I don’t think I’ll offend him by saying I don’t consider him a significantly better composer than the late Elodie Lauten, whose music is also very dear to me. They both exudeÂ an aura of musical spirituality, though Elodie’s music is far more melodic, subjective, personal, memorable in detail. That two composers so equivalent in talent, hard work, and achievement as John and Elodie, though, could come toÂ such vastly different levels of public recognitionÂ strongly suggests how much the new-music world privileges that impression of new nature-related paradigms.
Of course, it’s all fiction. My students never find anything natural-sounding about Webern. Cage’s chance works, some of which I consider wonderful, do not really replicate anyone’s experience of a walkÂ in the woods. What I notice most in spectral music is moments of Debussy, when the harmonic series chords (dominant ninths) come in. John’s use of the C-major scale to symbolize snow is clever and heart-warming, but the music wouldn’t have sounded different transposed up a half-step. They’re different ways to draw sound intoÂ metaphors for nature, for some objective process in the world, and they’re as good a starting point as any other musical device. But they aren’t inherently any better. Like any other point of musical inspiration, they can only be judged by the results.
One thing I liked about grid-pulse postminimalism in the 1980s is that it jumped off that train and quit trying to out-natural everyone else. It embraced its artificiality. There were no Great Men in the movement, no justifying teleology, no paradigmatic models (like Drumming, Structures, Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant), nothing relevant but what you could hear. Patterns like phase-shifting had been doggedly naturalistic in minimalism; the grid-pulse postminimalists appropriated them as decorative structures to be playfully arranged and discontinued where one wanted. There was no pretense of some objective force that had been harnessed, and to which we must all bow.
And I think that’s why grid-pulse postminimalism, despite the large number of composers involved in it for a couple of decades, despite the beauty and audience-friendliness of the music, never gained a true foothold in the new-music world. It forfeited any claim to objectivity. No one was threatened by it. As I wrote in my book American Music in the Twentieth CenturyÂ (1996) – Chapter 12 of which, titled “Postminimalism,” was entirely devoted to this important movement – “If Copland, Harris, Barber, and their ilk represented a first wave of American diatonic consonance, postminimalism is the second.” And yet today when I mention postminimalism in this blog, most people takeÂ the impression that I mean an entirely different body of music. After a quarter-century of being an expert on grid-pulse postminimalism, and writing about it frequently on this blog since 2003, it seems that even most of the people who read me have no idea what I’m referring to. One of the most fertile andÂ artistically successful movements in Downtown music has vanished down the memory hole (except that Paul Epstein has a new recording on Irritable Hedgehog, which is a nice development).
Many of my readers will have a suave rationale for why I’ve scoped this out all wrong. Some may well write in to say it’s because grid-pulse postminimalism wasn’t any good, but you won’t know about that because those comments will disappear. I’ve thought about this, and written about it from time to time, for almost thirty years. Yet I wouldn’t have brought it up again except for a recent experience I had.
In July and August I wrote a piece for three retuned Disklaviers called Orbital Resonance. Uncharacteristic for me, it’s an entirely abstract piece, with no melodies, no real reference to conventional harmonies, no hooks for the non-musician to hold onto. It sounds granitic and objective, like a piece that just happened. Plus, I had gotten the idea for the rhythmic cycles from the mathematics of planetary orbits, so I had some extramusical source in nature for why I was writing the way I was. As I was writing it, I kept thinking, “Hey, this is the kind of piece that composers will really like, a lot better than they usually like my music.” And sure enough, when I posted it, I got several times as many compliments from composers as I usually get. Composers who had never commented on my music before seemed awed.
I immediately followed Orbital Resonance with another piece for the same medium, Futility Row. Personally, I think Futility Row is a slightly better piece: more subtle overall harmonic structure, better pacing, better development of ideas across the length of the piece. But it wasn’t abstract. There are melodies, and a rhythmic ostinato, and a kind of slightly humorous Western Noir atmosphere. It’s a playful piece, purposely artificial, with no pretense of basis in nature. And I knew composers weren’t going to go for this one. I only got three compliments from composers (and those from people whose taste I particularly trust), though other people have liked it.
Now, I find it entirely significant that I can tell, while composing, that composers will like theÂ piece I’m writing, and when they’re not going to like it, and that it has nothing to do with the quality of the piece. If I were really careerist, I would sit down and write another dozen abstract pieces, pieces that sound more like they just happened than were composed, like Orbital Resonance. It’s a temptation. But I don’t think non-composers automatically prefer those abstract, organic, naturally-occurring-sounding pieces, and I take the long view: I’m trying to reach a widespread audience, not just fellow professionals.Â This is what I mean when I say, “I don’t write my music for other composers”; what other composers mean when they say it, I have no idea, but everyone says it. Unfortunately, composers run the new-music world, and it’s composers one has to impress to get heard.
What composers value in new music differsÂ from what most people would enjoy in it. They’re looking for a new paradigm, a new Moses, and they don’t want something that’s (as I was told at the ISCM conference in Vienna) “too much written for the audience.” They seem toÂ want something mystifying in its aura of objectivity. As a result they exalt composers like Schoenberg above someone like Poulenc, whose music I’d prefer any day; paradigm-setters such as Stockhausen and Boulez enter history, while those who write more beautiful music, like Maderna and Pousseur, fall by the wayside.Â In recent years the Times has made the extraordinary gesture of running thinkpieces by composers, and after each one, 90 percent of the comments are people talking about how lousy contemporary classical music is. I hear why they think so; I agree with them most of the time. I think the composing community keeps that rift alive by privileging attributes that are not necessarily virtues. They want to hear the illusion that someone has captured nature in sound. I, like Robert Wilson, am satisfied with the honesty of the artificial.
Liturgy’s new album, The Ark Work, winsÂ the number oneÂ “avant” album of 2015 over at Rolling Stone. They even mention John Luther Adams in the description. It is a remarkably original album, strongly compositional, and apparently controversial for ignoring some of the conventions of black metal.
I’ve found what I think is the best available music by Ethel Smyth: this recording of her Serenade in D (1890) and Double Concerto for Violin and Horn (1927). (Pardon the generic suffragette image on the CD cover, kind of a cheap shot.) Curiously, the Serenade marked her debut in the London music world, and the Double Concerto was one of her last works as she succumbed to deafness. Her Mass is magnificent, but liturgical works don’t leave as much room for personality. The Serenade is melodious and varied enough that I’d rather hear it than Brahms’s two works in that genre. The Double Concerto is remarkably delicate and memorable, and rather Holstian – though she was Holst’s senior by 16 years – and a stronger and better thought-out work than Holst’s Double Violin Concerto, to name an obvious comparison piece. Although I like that too. Holst and Walton have long been my favorite English composers, and Smyth now officially joins them. She deserves far more attention than she gets.
You know, continuing the thought from last post, my generation of composers (Downtowners at least) was the “no guilty pleasures” generation. For some reason I associate the phrase first with Anthony Coleman and a subsection of Downtown improvisers, but I remember the slogan becoming quite common circa 1990. “No guilty pleasures” meant that any music we liked, we were going to like openly and use as perfectly legitimate source material and models for our music, whether it was cartoon music, easy listening, C&W, space age bachelor pad music, or anything else. What do kids today think John Zorn playing Ennio Morricone (1986) was all about? Or Eugene Chadbourne doing avant-garde country and western at New Music America? Or John Oswald sampling Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson? Or Eve Beglarian appropriating disco songs? Even one of my microtonal tunes is a surreptitious C&W cover. And the young composers assume people my age will get our knickers in a knot just because they’re into film music? They have zero sense of history. I feel insulted on behalf of my entire generation. If they need us to be the old fogies telling them they can’t do that, we will not oblige. We already won that battle for them.
(Meanwhile, in my experience, those same young composers turn up their noses if we mix genres, say, use a trap set in a notated piece. They’re the ones with prohibitions.)
Please don’t read this unless you read me regularly. I had gotten my blog readership down to about 150, 200 hits a day, and the commenters are almost all regulars, and I’m comfortable with that, because I can’t explain my entire philosophy of life in every post. But for some inscrutable reason my recent anecdote about a student composer concert took off like wildfire, and was read by thousands of people. I always noticed, as a critic, that people have an amazing capacity to convince themselves, when they read something, that it says what they expect it to say rather than what it actually says. I could get bawled out for positive reviews and thanked for negative ones, and was frequently challenged to defend opinions I didn’t hold and had never uttered. It’s the strangest feeling. On top of that, one says things in a blog, inevitably, that, taken out of context by people who don’t follow your monthly monologue, are easily misconstrued.
And so after a concert of pieces that were mostly pretty similar in style, some colleagues made a big deal about how diverse the music was, and I reflected that their frame of reference for new music must be vastly narrower than mine, for them to think that. A friend suggested that the music was influenced by Hollywood; that hadn’t occurred to me, and I thought it interesting enough to report as an anecdote. So it subsequently whirls around the internet that I hate film music and consider it a terrible influence. In reality, I barely think about film music. Maybe ten percent of what I hear I like, ten percent I don’t, and the rest I don’t notice. I would certainly never generalize about it as a genre. You can look through my six books, my 3500-plus articles, and my 1500-plus blog posts, and you will not find a single general disparagement of film music, or Hollywood, nor any strong opinion expressed about it. When students say, “That sounds like film music,” I don’t even know what they mean. How does one “sound like film music”? But a friend of mine said the word “Hollywood” and I reported it, and suddenly I am the great hater of film music, and look down my nose at all young composers who imitate it. Imagine how much slush from your own subconscious you would have to pour into someone else’s 116-word blog post to decide that Kyle Gann is contemptuous of film music and its cheapening influence – after Kyle Gann has published more than four million words without ever expressing a general opinion on the subject. I have to think that all those people secretly consider film music a guilty pleasure, and so they’re constantly on the lookout for intellectuals who despise film music so they can complain about them. In short, I must have inadvertently touched a nerve.
Likewise, people crap all over me for complaining that postminimalist music is neglected, because the word is used, when used at all, in a very loose sense. I use it only in a very strict sense, and since I’ve written the major articles about it, I’ve decided that I know what I’m talking about. When I write for readerships outside this blog I make sure I define the term and the repertoire I intend for it specifically, but I can’t go through all that every time I use the word. Those who read me regularly know what I’m referring to. Also, I have lamented that musicologists neglect new music because they’re all doing gender studies – leading some to make fun of me as an old fogey who’s threatened by gender issues, when in fact I had been cheerleading for gender studies from the moment they started appearing. What I typically object to is everyone doing the same thing.
I did express an opinion that musical ideology, which is generally frowned upon these days, has a close association with musical diversity, which is considered an unalloyed blessing. I was praising diversity, which I thought would be uncontroversial, and lamenting its absence, while trying to rehabilitate ideology, which I consider not as horrible a thing as people today think. It may be an odd opinion – I’ve never run across it in anyone else’s writings – and so, being unexpected and not the kind of thing people say, no one picked up on it. People expect music professors to disdain film music and complain about their students, and I had written some sentences which, hastily read and without knowledge of my general principles, could be easily twisted into that caricature for a satisfying “Gotcha!” moment. And quite a few people did so, in comments here and elsewhere on the internet.
The human race is filled with individuals who simmer with resentment toward certain injustices they see in the world, and their sense of outrage is easily triggered by a sentence or two that appears to imply, or at least not to contradict, some nefarious opinion they’re on the lookout against. I’m not claiming that I’m an exception, but I do avoid commenting on other people’s web sites except to be supportive. Those who don’t know what I’m about are welcome to my books, but I would rather they ignore my blog.
UPDATE 12.23.15: I recalled today that I used to teach suspensions in Theory 1 with Randy Edelman’s film score for Gettysburg, in my own transcription, so I’m on record as not trying to shield them from the genre. I always liked giving the impression that music theory was something you might be able to make money with.</i>
The intrepid Kepler Quartet is trying to finish their recording of the complete string quartets of Ben Johnston. Ben’s health is failing rapidly, it seems, and the project has taken on a race-against-time quality. This is possibly the most ambitious string quartet project in history. They’ve got the 6th, 7th, and 8th quartets to go, and the 7th has a reputation as the most difficult quartet ever written: the third movement, based on a 183-pitch row in the viola with no repetitions, employs more than 1200 pitches to the octave:
I haven’t heard the Eighth Quartet either; the Sixth, a lovely, 12-tone, just-intonation work with more than sixty pitches in its row matrix, was issued on vinyl back in the early 1980s. The expense is a big issue, and so the Kepler has started a kickstarter page to help out. They need to raise $15,000 by New Year’s Eve, and are just over a third of the way there at this writing. Perhaps you can give the underground history of music a Christmas present and help bring this phenomenal effort to fruition.
Yesterday I attended a concert of music by student composers. None of the pieces were atonal. None were minimalist. None were postminimalist. None were spectralist. None were written according to any kind of system. All except one had big romantic gestures. Chords crashed down in the piano. If there was a cello, which there usually was, it came barreling up off the C-string into its highest register and then played harmonics. Everything was big, impassioned, virtuoso gestures. And before, during, and after the concert the faculty ran around congratulating themselves on how wonderfully diverse in style the students were.
I asked my savviest colleague what he thought the students were most influenced by. “Hollywood,” he replied.
UPDATE: After so many comments so quickly, let me parse what I think the above means somewhat. It’s an impressionist sketch, and exaggerates – but just slightly. When the students write the way the faculty teach them to, the faculty tend to be satisfied with the range of stylistic diversity – this is probably true everywhere. Minimalism is considered passÃ©. The students don’t know grid-pulse* postminimalism ever existed, because I am its only representative in academia. Spectralism is attractive to the older and more sophisticated (grad) students, but requires some technique. Fidelity to any kind of -ism or movement is seem as an anachronism anyway. Once you declare all ideology invalid, what metric is left but success? I think the students are very aware what kind of young composers are getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s generally the ones whose music makes a lot of noise and allows for expressive virtuosity. It’s a crowded field, yet if you get famous in it by age 30 you can do very well. Individualism will not help you toward that goal – if you’re different, it takes too many decades for people to figure out what you’re about. Being identified with a movement will not help. I got the impression here of a race toward one pinpointed goal, some students reaching it more effectively than others. (I suspect the faculty partly define the race, and that the ubiquity of film music can’t help but shape its direction.)
*Since, just as the masses use minimalism to mean Wagner, Ravel, and Gregorian chant, people now use postminimalist to mean whatever they want it to mean, I am introducing (as I’ve threatened to) the term grid-pulse postminimalism to refer to an important American movement of the 1980s and ’90s that I’ve spent decades documenting. It was a style of steady tempos, diatonic harmony, and occasional elements of quasi-minimalist process, and its notable practitioners include Paul Epstein, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, Peter Garland, Mary Jane Leach, Daniel Lentz, Mary Ellen Childs, and many others. The leading article on the style is my “A Technically Definable Stream of Postminimalism, Its Characteristics, and Its Meaning,” in The Ashgate Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music (Ashgate Press, 2013). Since I invented the term it means what I intend it to mean, and if you think it can mean something else, you are mistaken. Didn’t realize the Joisey crowd was here tonight, have to define everything.
UPDATE 2: Heavens, more than 1100 hits and so many responses!, to what I thought was a spur-of-the-moment throwaway post. While I have everyone’s attention let me underline one point, and not my main one; my main one was well stated by Stefan Hetzel in the comments, that even student works should have something individual about them that mattered strongly to the composer. The 1980s, with its fight amongst serialism, minimalism, and neoromanticism, is conceived by young composers today as having been a living hell. Today, when one is so bold as to mention postminimalism or any -ism except spectralism (because it’s European), everyone yells “Boo! Hiss!” and forces you to admit that no such distinctions are valid, music is only music, and we’re all individual, like snowflakes. Yet the existence of musical movements did chart out a realm of musical diversity, and drew contrasts among different philosophies of how music could or should operate. Take all that away, tell students that there are no differing philosophies, no schools of thought, and what is there left for them to do, except do their competitive utmost to become, by age thirty, the number-one purveyor of virtuosically emotive gestures, since that is the behavior rewarded by new-music performers and music critics? I realize that I am in a tiny, microscopic minority on this issue, and that there are likely no younger composers at all who agree with me. But I find the prevailing anti–ism, anti-movement consensus anti-intellectual and anti-art. I am a dinosaur, overdue for my extinction, no doubt, but at least you can’t accuse of me of groupthink. And we are seeing the erasure of all philosophical barriers result, I think, in an increasingly stultifying homogeneity – at just the time in which diversity is ideologically prized as being the highest good.