In the second of a four-part series, Peter Reynolds looks at different strands in contemporary music with a focus on composers in the immediate here and now. This week he writes about five composers who have, in different ways, attracted the label “minimalist”.
It was the composer Michael Nyman who applied the word “minimalism” to a movement that started in the United States in the late 1950s. Arising out of the music of La Monte Young, it hit the headlines with Terry Riley’s epoch-making In C in 1963. Even the title was shocking; what, after the great modernist adventures, could be more retrogressive than returning to C major? In the mid 1960s both Philip Glass and Steve Reich followed on with a new kind of music rooted in tonality, but producing a bold new soundworld.
Minimalist music is a tapestry of small, repetitive patterns, gradually metamorphosing into one another. Using the simplest musical ideas, its unceasing rhythmic repetition paradoxically creates stasis. There are no climaxes, build-ups of tension or release, no emotional catharsis.
Pure minimalism had largely disappeared by the mid 80s, but a generation looking, in a world of complexity, for simplicity and clarity developed their own minimalist approach: Arvo Pärt’s stripped-back liturgical music became known as Holy Minimalism and Howard Skempton’s pared-down music creates simple yet ambiguous miniatures. Today the effects of minimalism are all about us, from film and television through to jazz, world and pop music in all its different guises.
Baltimore-born composer Philip Glass is synonymous with “minimalism”: Beguiling and trance-like, his music reflects late 1960s New York where, along with composer Steve Reich, Glass’ earliest characteristic pieces were written and performed. Classics include his operas Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1979), based on the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, though to film scores, such as Koyaanisqatsi, the CD Glassworks or the popular Violin Concerto. Glass’ next big commission is based on Kafka’s The Trial, for Music Theatre Wales next year.
Massachusetts-born John Adams grew up in a house where there was no distinction between Mozart, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Stravinsky, and the idea of all kinds of music co-existing is central to his music. His Grand Pianola Music (1982) is a heady mix of minimalism with gospel, marches, Beethoven and 19th-century romanticism. Audiences and critics howled in protest, but Adams had found his own authentic voice. He went on to use President Nixon as the subject for his first opera (Nixon in China, 1987) and sees his music as incorporating everything he’s ever heard in the past. He likes to point to James Joyce or Thomas Mann as artists no-one takes to task for filtering historical materials.
Louis Andriessen led a generation who took politics and music with equal seriousness, fighting against the Dutch status quo, disrupting concerts at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and setting up their own groups in opposition. Andriessen was attracted to simple repeating tonal patterns and to the rhythmic power and the strength of brass, winds, percussion and electric instruments, creating an exhilarating mix of violent aggressive energy. “I wanted to be surrounded by musicians who... liked the same films, read the same papers, we had the same dreams”. Key pieces include De Volharding (“Perseverance”), which caused a riot at its 1972 première, and De Staat, based on Plato’s Republic.
In 1960s Estonia, Arvo Pärt searched for a new kind of music far removed from the “children’s games” of the avant-garde. A silence, lasting some five or six years, followed and then, in 1976, Pärt composed the small but crucial piano piece Für Alina, establishing in his later tintinnabuli style. In Tabula Rasa (1977), Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1979), Fratres (1980) and the monumental St John Passion (1982), he discovered a unique voice, contemporary yet reaching far back into the past, to plainsong itself. Critics didn’t know how to respond, contemptuously labelling it “Holy Minimalism”, but Pärt reached out to a new public eager to engage with its timeless purity in a fast moving global world.
Howard Skempton’s music is minimal rather than minimalist. His earlier scores last only a minute or two, scarcely covering even a page, almost frighteningly devoid of actual notes. Yet they have a quiet compelling quality unlike anything else in music. One commentator described them as, “elegant, British, civilised, with a touch of anarchy … a gentleman in a bowler hat, with a briefcase – and sandals”. More recently Skempton has embraced a larger timescale, starting with his orchestral Lento in 1991 and, in 2010, his unforgettable viola concerto Only the Sound Remains, 35 minutes long, yet retaining the detachment and economy of a delicate Japanese haiku.
This article was amended on 05/01/2017