Minimal Music, Maximal Impact

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.

Written By

Kyle Gann


The public and critical perception seems to be that minimalism was a dead end. It produced four or five well-known composers who’ve kept writing in that style, but they have no followers, except perhaps a few shallow imitators. Minimalism was a flash in the pan, a firecracker mistaken for the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s over, move along, nothing else to look at, and music will now return to European neo-romantic norms.

Of course, were this so, it would be a bizarre scenario. Minimalism has been an extremely public, popular, highly visible movement. And yet there will be no further development of the style? No young composers have been tempted to put their own spin on it? When has such a thing ever happened in the history of music? I can easily prove that minimalism has kept evolving; I’d like to see a member of the critical or musicological opposition try to explain how such a movement could vanish without leaving influences behind.

Of course there are composers who try to act as though minimalism had never existed, but there are hundreds of others on whom the idiom had a dramatic impact. For many, it marked a turning point; it was sometimes almost a life raft, something tenable amidst the seeming and unrewarding dead ends of conceptualism, serialism, and neo-romanticism. It represented one of the only paths that didn’t ultimately lead backward into music’s past.

The first inkling I had that something new had begun to develop was at the New Music America festival in Minneapolis, 1980. Pianist Neely Bruce played William Duckworth‘s Time Curve Preludes, and I was nonplussed. Minimalist works were supposed to be long and structurally obvious. The Time Curve Preludes had the same kind of diatonic tonality and general repetitiveness as minimalism, but they were 24 short vignettes, and their brief, spiral forms were mysterious, not analyzable on first hearing. Several of them take minimalism’s 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 additive forms as a basis, but not in an obvious way. Fibonacci-numbered phrase lengths are thrown in, and medieval isorhythms, and Messiaen‘s concept of non-retrogradable rhythm, and bluegrass banjo-picking patterns, plus quotations from Satie‘s Vexations and the Dies irae chant, and even some linear acceleration borrowed from Nancarrow.

In short, The Time Curve Preludes were written by a composer who was listening to minimalism closely, but who was also listening to a lot of other things, and had no intention of submerging his individuality into minimalism’s motoric impersonality. And the piece established a number of precedents and typical characteristics for the style I call postminimalism: a reliance on minimalism’s steady beat, diatonic tonality, and even formal archetypes, but an inclusiveness bringing together ideas from a daunting array of musical sources. Within its smooth exterior, postminimalism is a big melting pot in which all the world’s musics swim together in unobtrusive harmony.

So I’ve often credited The Time Curve Preludes (written in 1978-79) as being the first postminimalist piece, or at least that 1980 performance as being the first important public unveiling. And right around 1980, a lot of composers born in the 1940s (Duckworth was born in 1943) suddenly came out with works that took a step or three past minimalism.

These composers didn’t know each other. Several of them have met because I introduced them. Postminimalism was a series of individual responses to minimalism, a grabbing of ideas that were “in the air.” It never formed a “scene” centered in New York or San Francisco or anywhere else, and the composers involved range in location from Maine to Mexico and from Florida to Hawaii. This is one reason postminimalism hasn’t been perceived as a movement, but if you listen to a lot of music by the composers I’m about to bring up, the impression of a unified style is remarkably vivid, especially considering that these people had never heard each other’s work.

For instance, Daniel Lentz (b. 1942), having developed his own style of minimalism independently of Glass and Reich, was neck and neck with Duckworth in turning it into something else. The earliest Lentz piece I know of that sounds more “post” than minimal is The Dream King (1983), but it seems to have been a gradual transition; I don’t know enough of his pre-1980 music to comment more specifically. Typical of the kinds of coincidences that postminimalism produced, Lentz and Duckworth each set the same e. e. cummings poem in very similar ways in 1986, in pieces called The Crack in the Bell (Lentz) and Music in the Combat Zone (Duckworth).

In 1980, Janice Giteck (b. 1946) wrote Breathing Songs from a Turning Sky, a work whose minimalist premises made room for Balinese, East European, and Indian musics all within a structure based on the Jewish Qabalah. Ingram Marshall (b. 1942), who had started out with Terry Riley-ish tape delay, wrote a filmy piece called Fog Tropes (1979, revised in ’82) which, along with his A Gradual Requiem (1979-81), became very popular and brought public attention to postminimalist sounds, although there wasn’t yet any recognition that a new movement was afoot. Peter Gena (b. 1947) used postminimalism as a vehicle for political music starting with his folk song-filled McKinley (1983).

Jonathan Kramer (b. 1942), initially a 12-tone composer, stripped down to minimalistically small pitch sets in the ’70s, and by Moments In and Out of Time (1981-83), was writing postminimalist orchestral music – severely limited in tonality but by no means repetitious. Elodie Lauten (b. 1950) greatly freed up the rhythmic limitations of minimalism in her Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory (1984), and in 1987 she wrote an important postminimalist opera, The Death of Don Juan. Paul Epstein (b. 1938), greatly influenced by Tom Johnson, has used many algorithmic systems in a postminimalist context; one of his first postminimalist pieces is the lovely Chamber Music: Three Songs from Home.

I can’t begin to do justice to the number of postminimalist composers out there: Beth Anderson, Peter Garland, Paul Dresher, Mary Jane Leach, Stephen Scott, Mary Ellen Childs, David Borden, Guy Klucevsek, Neely Bruce, Jean Hasse, Phil Winsor, Beata Moon, John McGuire, Paul Lansky, Joseph Koykkar, Maggi Payne, Dennis Kam, Jeremy Peyton Jones, James Sellars, Thomas Albert, Sasha Matson, Wes York. Some of my own pieces are postminimalist in style, especially those influenced by Duckworth, including my Private Dances for piano, “Last Chance” Sonata for clarinet and piano, and New World Coming for solo bassoon with trio.

All of these composers (not meaning to include myself) have developed their own personal styles, and yet all can still be roughly characterized in common terms. Postminimalist music tends to be tonal, mostly consonant (or at least never tensely dissonant), and based on a steady pulse. The music rarely strays from conventionally musical sounds, although many of the composers use synthesizers. Postminimalist composers tend to work in shorter forms than the minimalists, 15 minutes rather than 75 or 120, and with more frequent textural variety. Their preferred medium is often the mixed chamber ensemble pioneered by Glass and Reich, though without the minimalist habit of ensemble unison. Like most Baroque works, the music does not tend to change mood or momentum within a movement. The music may be beautiful, emotive, mysterious, eclectic; but mercurial and full of contrast it is not.

Another way to characterize the postminimalist idiom is negative: it is the exact antipodal opposite of serialism. Like the serialists, the postminimalists have tended to seek 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 precisely the opposite: smooth, linear, melodic, gently rhythmic, comprehensible. Born in the 1940s, the postminimalist generation grew up studying serialism, and 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.

And lest you suspect that the postminimalists relinquished their individuality to work in an impersonal common style, note that one of the idiom’s most worthwhile features is the room it gives for a variety of personal expression. Within the movement, Duckworth is the perfectionist, the purveyor of a Mozartean melodic logic. Giteck is postminimalism’s Pauline Oliveros, composer of deeply spiritual works that reach out to the universe through a wide array of world styles. Lentz couches the most common harmonies in the craziest forms, with a mischievously schizophrenic sense of continuity. Beth Anderson’s music has a gentle, joyful, almost neoclassic lyricism. Marshall’s music is nostalgic and cloudy, in contrast to postminimalism’s usual clear-cut lines. And on and on.

By the 1990s, the postminimalists had achieved a repertoire of enchanting music quite different from anything the minimalists had done. Besides those listed above, some of the best works are Duckworth’s Southern Harmony (1980-81), a choral cycle based on shaped-note hymns; his Imaginary Dances (1985/88) for piano; Giteck’s Om Shanti (1986), a Sanskrit-language prayer for AIDS patients buried in Balinese textures; Lentz’s Apologetica (1992-95), his hour-long homage to native peoples; Lauten’s Tronik Involutions for overdubbed synthesizer (1993); almost anything by Beth Anderson but especially her Piano Concerto and Rosemary Swale; John McGuire’s A Cappella for voice and electronics; Dresher’s Double Ikat for trio (1988-90); Leach’s Mountain Echoes (1987) and other sensitive works for women’s chorus; Scott’s Minerva’s Web (1985) for bowed piano; Childs’s Carte Blanche for ensemble (1991); Borden’s mammoth cycle The Continuing Story of Counterpoint (1976-87); Klucevsek’s gentle Viavy Rose Variations (1989) based on melodies from Madagascar. The postminimalist discography I’ve provided offers more than a hundred discs to help you get acquainted with the style.

I hope and think that these are enough examples to strongly suggest that postminimalism is an important and widespread style within the American musical spectrum. Like all styles, it reached a point of maximum crystallization, probably in the late 1980s, and the composers involved may predictably become less and less similar in their methods and tastes every day. Their music, though, constitutes a crucial second step in the stream of which minimalism was the first. Personally, I feel that postminimalism is one of the most important bodies of music America has produced, a second wave of accessible yet original works parallel to the Copland/Schuman/Harris crowd earlier in the century. By sticking to minimalism rather than moving forward into its successor style, critics and audiences alike have missed the boat. There are dozens of postminimalist works that I’d rather hear than any of the famous minimalist pieces.

Of course, postminimalism was only one range of possible responses to minimalism. Another movement, among younger composers, came hard on its heels, and some people have called it totalism.

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