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


Composers born in the 1940s (including the postminimalists) generally encountered minimalism in their mid- to late 20s. Those born in the 1950s were more likely to find out about it in college or soon after. And the 1950s generation was a very different generation. For one thing, they grew up with rock music virtually from infancy; it was in the air, they couldn’t escape its ubiquitous radio presence, and many of them performed in rock bands in high school. For another, they were the first generation to encounter, in the 1970s, world musics such as African, Indian, and Balinese taught in college as part of the curriculum.

And so this generation learned from rock that, with enough energy, one could appeal to a much larger audience than classical composers generally expected to. From African and Asian musics, they learned that the premises of European classical music were not God-given or sacrosanct; and they also learned that music could be much more rhythmically complex and exciting than most classical music is. And in minimalism they found a new, unformed language whose rhythmic style was surprisingly easy to reconcile with pop and world music idioms. It was almost a clean slate begging to be written on.

So while the ’50s generation admired minimalism’s clarity and accessibility, they saw no reason to limit themselves to pretty harmonies and diatonic scales as the postminimalists had done. (Truth be told, some of my generation’s composers picked up from rock a macho posture that disdained quiet and pretty sounds.) Likewise, they saw no reason to be limited to a steady eighth-note pulse, when Eastern musics offered such intriguing rhythmic complexities. On the contrary, minimalism seemed like the perfect stripped-down context in which rhythmic complexities could be performed and heard with a focus of attention that serialist music hadn’t provided.

The thought process went something like this: You listen to a minimalist piece, say Glass‘s Music in Twelve Parts or Reich‘s Octet. Well, that’s a nice piece; I could duplicate that. But first, why limit yourself to a major scale? You could use unusual scales or sustained dissonances, and the music would be just as followable. And why limit yourself to 8th-notes or 16th-notes when you’ve got the perfect stripped-down context to make three-against-five rhythms audible, or to shift back and forth between quarter-note and dotted-eighth-note beats? Why not add drums and electric guitars? And thus my generation began writing pieces that had the formal and textural clarity of minimalism, the energy of rock, the dissonance of modernism, and the rhythmic intricacy of Asian musics or even Cowell or Nancarrow. And for reasons detailed below, we started calling it totalism.

The first step was to fuse minimalism with rock, a step undertaken in 1977 by Rhys Chatham (b. 1952) in his Guitar Trio, a continuum of overtones drawn from electric guitars playing one pitch. Chatham’s experiments in rock continued, and soon after, Glenn Branca (b. 1949) began writing symphonies for groups of electric guitars.

The growth of rhythmic complexity came a little later, strangely enough only a year or so after postminimalism had gotten off the ground. Mikel Rouse (b. 1957) wrote a 12-tone piece for rock quartet in 1984 called Quick Thrust, full of layered rhythms in three-against-five-against-eight patterns. In 1983, Michael Gordon (b. 1956) wrote Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!, switching back and forth among quarter-note, dotted-eighth, and triplet-quarter beats. In the same year, my Mountain Spirit (I had been born in 1955) had five instruments playing rhythmic cycles of mutually prime beat-lengths, using beat-shifting patterns gathered from Zuni and Pueblo Indian musics. Ben Neill (b. 1957) used computers to set up simultaneous tracks in different tempos for his trumpet improvs.

More quietly, John Luther Adams (b. 1953) overlaid different phrase lengths in pieces like Dream of White on White (1992). Lois V Vierk (b. 1951), in pieces like Go Guitars (1981), started with minimalist gradual processes, but crescendoed them into a rock-music-like momentum. Diana Meckley (b. 1954) used fractals somehow to write string quartets (such as Strange Attractors, 1989) and brass quintets of competing rhythmic impulses. David First (b. 1953) performed well-tuned sets of drones with rhythmic beats whose patterns mirrored the pitch relationships. Joshua Fried (b. 1959) set up tape (or digital) loops of different lengths and triggered sounds from them as a performance art.

Meanwhile, Chatham and Branca also turned toward greater rhythmic complexity. Chatham’s An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (1989) built musical structures and even melodies from repeating unequal phrase lengths. Branca’s Sixth Symphony (1988) had electric guitar chords recurring at different tempos, and in his Tenth Symphony (1994, also for electric guitars) he pursued tempo canons à la Conlon Nancarrow.

I collected scores from all these people, and the unanimity in the types of rhythmic structures they were using – all unbeknownst to each other – was quite striking. I wrote an article documenting the fact, “Downtown Beats for the 1990s,” in Contemporary Music Review (Volume 10 Part 1, 1994). I didn’t presume to identify a new movement, but others did, and out of the realization that a new rhythmic language was emerging came the name totalism. If you find that pretentious, you might want to read a different view about labels and -isms.

If you gathered from all this that totalism has much to do with rhythmic complexity, have a cigar. In short, totalism is a style of great rhythmic complexity in a kind of harmonically limited, postminimalist context. But it’s a particular kind of rhythmic complexity. The serialism of Babbitt, Boulez, Ferneyhough, and others had given us a wispy, fragmented rhythmic complexity in which no background beat was ever audible. Totalism rejected that, and found it much more interesting to be able to hear different tempos, or different rhythmic patterns, articulated by steady beats and going on at the same time. So, totalism is a style of great beat-related rhythmic complexity in a kind of harmonically limited, postminimalist context. The rhythmic complexity can come from different tempos going on at once, repeating loops of different lengths, unsynchronized rhythmic cycles, shifts among beats of diverse durations, and so on.

But where does the “total” in totalism come from? It works on different levels, which is what’s so nice about it. Part of it is that there’s something for everyone: the high-energy beats and simple harmonies can appeal to the general public, while sophisticated musicians can enjoy an underlying rhythmic complexity that the lay listener might not even perceive (sort of like a pop-influenced, African drum-based music, actually). The totalists believe in having your cake and eating it too, music that appeals to the body and brain at the same time.

Embedded in the term, though, is a more esoteric meaning that refers obliquely to the total serialism of the 1950s which structured all elements of music by rows ordered from the 12-pitch scale. Quite a few of the totalists (Adams, Rouse, Neill, and myself most explicitly, perhaps) went back to Henry Cowell’s ideas for structuring rhythm in his book New Musical Resources. Cowell suggested different phrase lengths, different meters, and different tempos at once related by the natural number series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…) by analogy with the harmonic series. Working with the harmonic series rather than the 12-pitch equal-tempered scale gave Cowell, and thus the totalists, a more organic way to apply the same methods to rhythm as to pitch. Perhaps the cleanest demonstration came in First’s works like Jade Screen Test Dreams of Renting Wings (1993), in which percussionists played beats in the same number relationships that the synthesizers and winds were playing pitches (frequencies). My Homage to Cowell for keyboard sampler (1994) actually duplicated the number-based polyrhythms of Cowell’s Rhythmicon, reduced to a totalist essence of drumbeats. And so totalism showed that the total organization of ’50s serialism could be replaced by a more organic total structure involving parallel systems for rhythm and pitch.

That’s part of totalism’s public perception problem, that it involves a deep underground theoretical argument that audiences can’t be expected to pick up or care about. But it’s easy enough to hear totalism’s gear-shifting rhythmic complexity, marked by articulated tempos and beats. Its harmonies might be extremely consonant, extremely dissonant, or anything in-between: my generation lost patience with our elders’ fights about the consonance/dissonance issue. But the harmonies in a totalist piece do tend to be limited, few in number, recurring in minimalist fashion no matter how dissonant. And totalism continues the minimalist/postminimalist tradition of ensemble writing in which everyone’s playing almost all the time.

Where postminimalism was a geographically far-flung movement whose practitioners didn’t know each other, totalism has been more of a localized phenomenon on the New York scene – with the major exception of Art Jarvinen out in Los Angeles. The totalists aren’t as concerned with stylistic consistency as the postminimalists, with the result that the style isn’t nearly as homogenous or recognizable. The totalists have also made a large contribution in an area in which the postminimalists are conspicuously absent: opera and music theater. Most notably, there are Mikel Rouse’s many operas, including Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland, The End of Cinematics, and his film-opera Funding; David First’s The Manhattan Book of the Dead; John Luther Adams’ Earth and the Great Weather. And I might be so immodest as to mention my own Custer and Sitting Bull (1999), on the strength of the fact that The Kitchen in New York gave it a four-night run in December of 2000.

Totalism is a smaller movement than postminimalism, though about as large in personnel and repertoire as minimalism itself, and you will find a discography here. The movement doesn’t necessarily represent the ultimate culmination of minimalism. I feel that minimalism, just like early Baroque opera and the Rococo symphony, might possibly represent the beginning of a new era that will take another 150 years to explore. The difference is, we no longer live in a singular, mainstream-oriented culture anymore, and minimalism and its offshoots have stiff competition from art-DJs, free improvisers, neo-romantics, interactive electronics, and a rainbow of possible styles of creativity that looks immense even if you leave pop and world musics out of account.

I once, in an article, fantasized about a sentence that might appear in some music history book of the late 21st century: “Our current musical language arose in the 1960s and 1970s. In its nascent, simplistic state, it was at first mistaken for a full-blown style in itself, and was termed ‘Minimalism’….”

Perhaps that sentence will never appear. We don’t know what direction our culture is headed in, especially in the last couple of months. But let it stand recorded that minimalism represented, for hundreds of composers, a refreshing breath of air coming out of the murk of 20th-century pretentiousness and academicism and opaque complexity. And let it further be recorded that a group of late-20th and early-21st-century composers known as the totalists showed that minimalism was not as simple as it sounded, and that it was an idiom capable of immense development and rhythmic excitement, and capable of absorbing musical influences from around the world.

From Minimal Music, Maximal Impact