Minimal Music, Maximal Impact
Minimalism hit me in my teens like a bolt of fate. About 1972 (I was 16), Steve Achternacht on radio station WRR-FM in Dallas played Terry Riley’s In C on the air. His janglingly repetitive octave C’s started up (which we learned years later had been Steve Reich’s suggestion to hold the piece together), and I didn’t know how to react. This was crazy. All that pulsating repetition gave me a headache, every time I listened. But I kept listening anyway.
The Original Minimalists – A Cast of Dozens
At first—for those of us living outside New York City, anyway—minimalism seemed to be summed up in the names Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. I soon found out about La Monte Young, the movement’s so-called “Granddaddy,” and I looked everywhere for his music, never hearing a note until 1987, when (due to a drop in his funding) he went public with new performances and a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano. Gradually through the 1990s, scholarship and critical writings have revealed that early minimalism was originally a far-flung movement involving both coasts, and a large cast of characters – a much feistier, more complex, more varied movement than ever appeared from its public face.
For – rather ironically – Reich and Glass were actually sort of the Johnnie-come-latelies of the movement. According to the well-known Glass/Reich image, minimalism is a pretty, soothing style, but its origins were more often deafeningly loud and noisy, pushing the limits of audience tolerance. Also, Glass’s and Reich’s music uses the normal equal-tempered tuning of conventional instruments, but a lot of early minimalism was microtonal and very harmonically innovative.
To see minimalism as it originally saw itself, we have to look at a large number of figures who seem obscure today, and some who have been pretty much forgotten altogether. There seems, in fact, almost to have been a curse on minimalism, in that so many of its innovative early figures either died or dropped out of music. Let’s look first at the 1960s New York scene around Young and his ensemble Theater of Eternal Music:
In 1960, electronic pioneer Richard Maxfield, along with Young, co-curated the early Fluxus concerts at Yoko Ono‘s loft: the first Downtown concerts. Maxfield made a number of mesmerizing, though gritty, electronic minimalist pieces, a few of which have made it to commercial recording. He blew his mind on drugs, however, and ended his life by jumping out of a window at 42.
Terry Jennings was a child prodigy, a saxophonist and composer of some of the first extremely long instrumental works, a couple of which were published in La Monte Young’s groundbreaking Anthology of 1961. Brilliant but never well-adjusted, Jennings was killed at 41 in a drug deal gone sour.
Angus MacLise was the drummer for Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, a reputedly phenomenal percussionist who could make drums sound like various nuances of falling rain or water. He traveled to Kathmandu and died there, apparently from drug-related problems, in 1979.
Tony Conrad was the violinist in the Theater of Eternal Music who introduced drones and mathematically pure tunings into minimalism; La Monte Young credits him with having taught him how to specify pitches as fractions in relation to a drone. Conrad and John Cale (below) had a big rift with Young in the 1970s over whether the Theater of Eternal Music work was collaborative improvisation or whether the works had been composed in a traditional sense by Young. This led to copyright disputes and threats of litigation that have kept that music out of public access for decades now. In response, Conrad got out of music and made groundbreaking structuralist films, the best known being an abstract alternation of black and white frames called Flicker. Starting in the late 1980s, he has made a dramatic comeback through a series on recordings called Early Minimalism on the Table of the Elements label (see discography).
Charlemagne Palestine once rivaled Young as being the most dynamic and compelling early minimalist figure, a legend for giving night-long performances frenetically strumming pianos and organs. However, like Conrad he disappeared into the visual art world and also moved to Holland. For two decades he was a lost legend, his music unknown and almost forgotten, until the Barooni and New Tone CD labels began releasing some of his early (and more recent) performances in the mid-1990s (see discography).
Dennis Johnson was a friend of Young’s who wrote lengthy piano works which, as Young acknowledges, anticipated and influenced Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. However, Johnson couldn’t stomach the dirty and dangerous world of the music business, and turned his number interests toward computer science.
John Cale played viola in the Theater of Eternal Music, but veered off into rock, and did a nice business with a little group called the Velvet Underground. During the ’60s he was practicing with Young in the afternoon and with the Velvet Underground at night. In early discs like The Velvet Underground and Nico you can hear, especially in the song “Venus in Furs,” the influence of Young’s drones on the history of rock.
In addition, there were a lot of other minimalists who have contributed their own streams of influence, nuancing the eventual history of the field in ways that have hardly been noticed publicly:
Pauline Oliveros has delved into many musical fields including free improvisation and conceptual music, but her early drone pieces, especially the electronic sine-tone pieces like I of IV (1966) and accordion-and-voice pieces like Horse Sings from Cloud (1977), made signal contributions to minimalism’s direction.
Phill Niblock has been one of minimalism’s most potent underground influences and remains so today. Not musically trained, he has worked out his compositions of long, slowly changing drones in terms of exact pitch frequencies, developing a tendency toward often amazing acoustic effects of gradual dissonance and mind-bendingly slow resolution.
Harold Budd is the minimalist whose influence was confined to the West Coast, where it was intense. He has written perhaps the prettiest minimalist music, though often with a dark edge. Disdaining the avant-garde world, he has veered toward popular music and has had more recognition there, collaborating with groups like the Cocteau Twins.
Julius Eastman was another of the unlucky minimalists. He made quite a few amazing minimalist-based works, some of them for multiple pianos, and often with titles or programs that pushed his gay and African-American agendas. Dogged by poverty and drug problems, he passed away alone and unnoticed in a Buffalo hospital at the age of 49.
Tom Johnson is probably the only composer who has ever called himself a minimalist. His music tends to be rigorous in its logic, working out mathematically strict patterns. “I want to find the music, not make it,” he has often said, although he has also written hilarious satires like his Four-Note Opera and joyous religious works like his Bonhoeffer Oratorium.
Barbara Benary is a minimalist greatly influenced by Indonesian gamelan music; an interest in geometric patterns and permutational processes is evident in her gamelan pieces such as Sleeping Braid (1979).
Jon Gibson, saxophonist and flutist, is the only musician to have worked with all four of the “main minimalists” – Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass. His early works made their own contribution to minimalism, somewhat like Tom Johnson’s, by working out strict patterns among pitches such as traditional change-ringing permutations.
Meredith Monk would not want to be included in this list, and has always denied that her music is minimalist. However, she has certainly built many works along minimalist principles of repetition and additive structure, and was innovative in this area as early as 1966, the same time as Reich’s early works. To not include her would be to deny her rightful historical place as a musical pioneer, though it may be emphasized that her most minimalist works tend to be freely expressive, not hard-edged and motoric like those of Glass and Reich.
This is a widely varied group of artistic personalities. Hopefully the list makes clear that minimalism is not just a four-person movement, nor an easily circumscribed style. What is clear is the sequence of creative events that brought it to public recognition. La Monte Young wrote the first slow, unchanging works in the late 1950s, starting with his Trio for Strings of 1958. Terry Riley has always acknowledged Young’s influence, and added the element of repetition starting in 1963 with his tape works Mescalin Mix and The Gift. Steve Reich performed in Riley’s In C in 1964, and made his own first minimalist work, It’s Gonna Rain, in 1965. Philip Glass, in turn, played with Reich’s earliest ensemble, and took a minimalist turn in his Strung Out of 1967.
Subsequently, Young argued with Conrad and Cale about the Theater of Eternal Music and tied up that music in litigation. Young, independently funded until 1987, stayed out of public view. Riley bailed out of a meteoric rise by not recording a note during the ’70s, and his music since then has followed a baffling progression of styles. Most of the other minimalists either left music or died young. No wonder, when the smoke cleared, that Reich and Glass appeared to be the only minimalists left standing. But the movement has a richer and more diverse history and repertoire than those two figures alone could suggest.