Sometimes it seemed as though the sun would never set on Dawn. At nearly three hours long, it made for a blockbuster opening to the '50 Years of Minimalism' festival. Thankfully, the Labèque sisters, a rock ensemble, electronic keyboard and the obligatory tape machine on stage were brilliant company for the whole, overlong affair.

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

Minimalism is the movement that brought us Terry Riley, John Cage, Colin McPhee, Steve Martland, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich – to name but a few. When it started we had just a few American composers radically departing from harmonic and linear structure, but today minimalism is an instantly recognisable musical style; it is often used in soundtracks, among which we can include those by Phillip Glass and Ludovico Einaudi. Minimalism’s trademarks include looping, phasing and repeated motifs. As a genre it set out a new manifesto in which the economy and concentration of sound patterns were at the core of the music. The first of three concerts at Kings Place in as many days to celebrate the genre, focusing on its genesis and surprising diversity.

We started where we were to end, with music by Terry Riley, one of Minimalism’s fathers. The staging was theatrical, placing the tape player centre-stage, its two rotating discs spot-lit. Riley’s Mescalin Mix for tape, composed in 1961, loops everyday and electronic noise into a hypnotic distorted soundscape. Its structure is loosely cyclical, gaining and losing layers of intermittent sound – across both synthetic and natural noise-patterns. An immersive beginning to the evening, and well placed to heighten the contrast with the Erik Satie work that came next.

Chronologically speaking, Satie was the earliest composer on the programme. His earlier works embody the musical spirit of the post-revolutionary avant-garde at the end of the nineteenth-century. These three, written between 1891 and 1915, were crafted in bare but evocative tumbles of rhythm and melody that defy the excess of later Romanticism. Katia Labèque presided masterfully over the piano, as she did all evening. She was particularly strong in the first piece, Le fils des étoiles, in which urgent note-clusters gave way into a stream of pensive yet restless figures.

Satie’s music hung over William Duckworth’s Preludes VII and II. Their sparseness and gentle momentum proved unsatisfying, although their importance in moving towards a new, more flexible minimalism cannot be doubted. The Labèque sisters injected their customary finesse but only muted passion into their piano playing, as they did in Erik Satie’s Gnossienne no.4 and John Cage’s Experiences no.1. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth, and this piece showed the influence that Indonesian and Indian modality and harmonic structures had on him and consequently his musical heirs.

It was a neat piece of programming to insert this before the Maurice Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye and Colin McPhee’s Balinese Gamelan Music. Both draw on Javanese and Balinese Gamelan styles, bringing a freshness and oriental mystique to the programme. Next for a complete contrast; the enigmatic turn of Massimo Pupillo and Nicola Tescari’s works for piano and rock ensemble could not have been more different to Satie’s bare piano solos. The overtones emanating from the electric bass guitar was extremely effective, producing a distinct, rough edge. The audience returned from the interval to La Monte Young’s 283 is for Henry Flynt, a piece which destroyed the warm atmosphere that these contemporary works had created. 283 incited mixed reactions. The pianist must repeat a very loud sound 283 times; a series of massive, crashing chord clusters resulted in the effect of attack by repetition. The spectrum of harmonics that built up was striking, but this is a piece for the bravest of musical constitutions only.

The concert then lost its momentum, but Steve Reich’s Piano Phase reminded us why Reich has become so ubiquitous and retains such a following. This ‘Phase’ exemplified why the metamorphosing technique has such a mesmeric effect. Katia Labeque and Nicola Tescari on pianos were finely attuned to one another as their gently overlapping, repeating rhythms ran seamlessly towards a tight end flourish.

The finale was Terry Riley’s In C, for an ensemble of 21 instrumental and vocal performers. The scattish, wordless vocal layers were a little too flaky, but the pile-up of drones was solid and fluid. It was far too long, and the voices of the singers were often irksome and unsupported. But the piece displayed its remarkable elasticity, expanding and contracting seamlessly all the way to an, multi-textured bank of sound that pulsed its way to an invigorating finale. The end of this concert was not the end of the story; two evenings of European and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ minimalist composers (the latter including Brian Eno and Radiohead) followed. Like it or loathe it, it’s high time that more attention was shone on this boldest, most maverick of contemporary music genres.