The past new becomes the present old. And the present old… becomes older still. Over half a century has elapsed since minimalist music as we now know it was first heard, treading inexorably over a landscape that – at least in American serious music – it has conquered utterly and largely unchallenged.

John Adams © Vern Evans
John Adams
© Vern Evans

If, according to Fukuyama, liberal democracy has simultaneously become the ending and focal point of all future political yearning and possibility, then American musical minimalism is surely its aural equivalent and ongoing soundtrack. Vanquishing not only competing stylistic idioms, it has managed to purge even itself, with Terry Riley and La Monte Young, its early pioneers, now largely relegated to its margins. Philip Glass and John Adams (and to a somewhat lesser extent Steve Reich) have emerged triumphant instead as the exemplars and veritable bywords for a style now heavily sweetened and made palatable to a wide audience with heaping doses of late Romanticism, Copland and even John Williams, not to mention the occasional timely (and potentially lucrative) reference to pop culture, or political hot topic of the moment.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s program of Adams and Glass last week, with the former on the podium as guest conductor, reaffirmed these composers as doyens not only of mainstream minimalism, but of the American musical establishment.

Adams’ glib program notes on his Grand Pianola Music, the second piece on the program, spoke of his delight in the co-habitation of “duelling pianos, cooing sirens, Valhalla brass, thwacking bass drums, gospel triads, and a Niagara of cascading flat keys” as they urge the twin pianos at the heart of this score (Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham, each playing with remarkable precision and lustrous voicing) “on to their final ecstasy.” Yet does this seeming homage to music past, guided by an aesthetic more Muzak than minimalism, not conceal a more cynical motive; a poison pen denunciation and obituary masquerading as perfumed love letter?

Or what to make of Glass’ Symphony no. 12, an unrelievedly grim-faced opus, receiving its world premiere? Nicknamed “The Lodger” after an eponymous David Bowie album, the work is a misfire that does no favors to either the minimalist master nor the pop icon. A ramshackle suite beset by a number of time-worn tics and gestures by now well familiar to Glass fans (and detractors), the work nearly collapsed under the weight of its own gloomy portentousness.

While the Los Angeles Philharmonic dispatched the score with its typical suavity and control (with Joseph Pereira erupting brilliantly in the symphony’s important timpani parts), the performance by Angélique Kidjo of the work’s Sprechstimme-like vocal solo part was often rhythmically unstable, insecure in pitch, or plain ill at ease. She was a sailor overboard tossing about in the boundless grey of a Glass ocean, with Captain Adams occasionally attempting a rescue from the podium.

In some respects, the Tumblebird Contrails of Berkeley-born composer Gabriella Smith was the best thing on the program. Essentially a 12-minute crescendo overlapped with pre-recorded sounds of seagulls and crashing waves, it was pleasant enough, but left no lasting impression.

It wasn’t that long ago when composers rebelled against the Big Bad Wolf of musical modernity, accusing its presumably porcine adherents of being self-interested ivory tower academics who composed their music solely for the benefit of other academics. Serialism aside, have things truly changed at all for the better in the intervening decades? Has there been a massive comeback for the popular demand for classical and contemporary music? Does the average, uninformed, non-musician listener really want or need new music by Smith, Adams or Glass? One is tempted to agree with Adorno when he wrote in 1955 that the “absolute boundary of historical tone-space of Western music has evidently been reached.” Sixty-three years later we stand witness to the multitudinous and contradictory strands of classical music’s rowdy development converging onto an endless horizon point of minimalism, its rhythmic ostinati and waves of arpeggios the inevitable background to our exhausted post-history.

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