Minimalism is, according to some, ‘The most influential musical movement of the 20th century’. Whether or not this is a little hyperbolical, minimalism does certainly deserve real recognition and exploration, and Kings Place hence merits a great deal of praise for putting on the three-day ‘50 Years of Minimalism’ festival, curated by Igor Toronyi-Lalic and led on the stage by pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. Friday’s middle concert, ‘Europeans & Experimentalists’, presented an intriguing, diverse range of minimalist, quasi-minimalist or sort-of-minimal music which certainly succeeded in showing the breadth of minimalism’s scope in recent decades.

Katia and Marielle Labèque, © Umberto Nicoletti
Katia and Marielle Labèque,
© Umberto Nicoletti

If there was a conceptual weakness to the concert, it was that the huge diversity of its material detracted somewhat from the sense of narrative (or at least consistency) that I had expected from a ‘curated’ and historically focused event. The composers featured ranged from canonic, first-wave minimalists Philip Glass and La Monte Young, to the newly emerging composers Massimo Pupillo, David Chalmin and Nicola Tescari (who all also performed, as part of the band). Additionally featured, slightly perplexingly, were John Cage and Erik Satie. While all this diversity made for an entertainingly varied evening, precisely what was meant by ‘minimalism’ required more unpacking than it was given.

Even the two most established minimalists featured were represented by utterly contrasting works: Glass’s One Plus One is a pretty rhythmic study, which was played by Raphaël Séguinier on a piano lid, while Young’s The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys is about the densest, least compromising composition imaginable. A gradual and incomprehensible buzz of electronics, the piece was apparently initially meant to emulate the sound of Young’s fish tank. The organisers deserve credit for programming this work, and it did help to contextualise the concert – as it seems to be Young, more than any other early minimalist, that Pupillo, Chalmin and Tescari have taken as primary influence.

Overall, though, the concert was both a celebration of the diversity of minimalism and a (presumably unwitting) problematisation of the term. The ridiculous gulf between the compositions by Glass and Young did show how broad the ‘movement’ was, even from the beginning – but what was broadness in the sixties ended up seeming like a flat dichotomy this Friday. The dense noise collages of Pupillo, Chalmin and Tescari bore no similarity to the delicate miniatures of Howard Skempton, mostly played by Marielle Labèque (Images and Postlude) and Matthew Barley (Six Figures) – or indeed to the ecstatic simplicity of Arvo Pärt, represented tonight with Hymn to a Great City, sensitively played by the Labèques.

The concert also featured a work by John Cage. A programme note claimed that ‘Minimalism came about partly in order to overthrow what was happening on the European and experimental scene’ – meaning the post-war avant-gardism of Pierre Boulez and associates, and the work of Cage. The thesis was that ‘Tonight we see how minimalism conquered its enemies’ – but actually the Cage piece, Four3 (1991), was plainly the most beautiful and compelling performance of the evening, despite not being at all well connected to minimalism.

Written for one or two pianos (two here), sine wave and twelve rainsticks, this is Cage at his most mystic, somehow fashioning a work with the conviction of a philosophical pronouncement out of these bafflingly disparate forces. The sine wave and the constant steady shimmer of rainsticks were two opposed versions of purity – a sonic one and a natural one – mediated by the pianos’ meandering intermittent melodies. The programme note’s justification of this selection – that ‘Cage’s late number pieces ... see a sort of rapprochement between chance and minimalism’ – is polemical at best, but while I am not convinced by the curatorial reasoning, I am also very grateful to have had the opportunity to hear Four3 performed so beautifully live.

The concert’s other high point was the opening piece, first-generation minimalist James Tenney’s Postal Piece no. 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. Tenney’s piece is essentially an extremely slow crescendo played on a gong. Over a long time, a rich and multi-layered sound emerges. Played with amazing control by Raphaël Séguinier, this was a fantastic way to open the concert, an immersive and enthralling listening experience, a kind of zen palate-cleanser.

For the moments of excellence such as this, the concert was a success. Containing such a mixture of approaches to minimalism – and to music generally – it was perhaps inevitable that there would be some hits and some misses. But while conceptually the concert could have benefited from a firmer sense of direction, the few gems it threw out, as well as the great performances (especially from the Labèques, Séguinier, and Barley), made for a fascinating if slightly frustrating evening.