The Politics of Definition in New Music
Published online: 1 October 1989
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373952
We live in confusing times. In virtually every field of artistic endeavor, a plethora of stylistic/aesthetic "isms" abounds: almost daily, new media and art forms spring up, ranging from subsets and hybrids of performance to new technologies unimagined a few months before; increasingly rapid communications make artists aware of and responsive to developments in other cultures and disciplines. But instead of a coordination of these tendencies into a single thread (or even a tapestry), an object which might become a reference point for the culture, the production of artists seems to be increasingly personal, fragmented, mutable, and disposable. In this respect art may accurately mirror its environment, but it also rarely transcends it.
This essay is an attempt to understand the musical side of this problem, to aid us as creative musicians in confronting issues which lie beyond our day-to-day professional concerns. At the least, it may reveal some of the "invisible" forces that shape the agendas of competing artistic movements, and thus lower the barriers to more catholic thinking. Perhaps after all there are avenues for creative explorations among ideas that are thought to be mutually exclusive.
Of course, there already is a term which embraces the great multiplicity of art forms and movements existing today—namely, postmodernism. This is a convenient label, but also a vague and malleable one. All that it indicates is that among serious artists an era of orthodoxy has now passed, and that no set model has yet emerged to fill the vacuum. The previous postwar orthodoxy, modernism, was often hermetic and dictatorial, and after a long claustrophobic period the new absence of aesthetic constraints on artists has been tonic. Before, there was an almost puritanical emphasis on serious, utopian, self-consciously abstract art, which had drained much of the delight, charm, and sensuality from creation, alienating artists as well as audiences from their own work. So the declaration "modernism is dead," be it in a Michael Graves building, a Cindy Sherman photograph, or a John Adams symphony, has a liberating influence. Artists are once again free to explore their past (societal, aesthetic, and personal), to indulge their taste for pleasure, to at least temporarily ignore the question asked so often by both philistine and professional, "But is it art?" Much of this new art is eclectic in style and diverse in its goals. It can be uplifting or entertaining, and at times both. But does it manifest broader, deeper vision than its predecessor? Can it develop as a way of thinking, feeling, acting? Is postmodernism any more than just another mannerist phase in the cycles of art history? We may be a long way yet from any answer to these questions, but we concede the possibility of ever finding one unless we recognize those who use the term postmodernism most influentially, and the motives behind that use. Who controls the present definition, and why?
Even though he did not coin the actual word, one of the first descriptions of principles which were to become central to postmodernism came from a musician, the theorist and aesthetician Leonard Meyer, in his book Music, the Arts, and Ideas:
Originality is no longer tied to the discovery of means expressive of the artist's inner experience, but to the ordering of materials. . . . Since any style can constitute a basis for objective construction and for the presentation of principles of order, such views are not incompatible with the use of past art works as sources for materials, relational patterns, and syntactic procedures and norms. . . . Logically, all styles become equally available and viable.1
Meyer represented the rare case of an observer who set out to examine the relation of the arts to their culture in many realms and manifestations. He attempted to take a global view that mapped a course of general aesthetic development. He did not have an obvious axe to grind. Yet this does not seem to be the model for most critical commentary today on art, and in particular on music.
Why? The most apparent reason for a lack of really free-wheeling speculation is that most discussion of postmodernism in music occurs in cultural journalism, an area dominated by critics immersed in the day-to-day tangle of artistic evaluation. "Postmodernism" is a marvelous word, an open catch-all for any art which surprises expectations, satisfies a critic's special interest, or leapfrogs back to a past model, previously out of favor. More sinisterly, postmodernism seems a convenient justification for popular reaction to advanced or progressive art; at last, popular taste (the same taste which buys a mass product such as newspapers or magazines) has risen up to cow artists into producing more accessible art! And the creators themselves are not immune to this syndrome—the rush of "neo-" movements in all disciplines has become fashionable because post-modernism makes the old new, creates a revolution by overthrowing a previous revolution. (In politics, such a coup is usually called a counter-revolution and regarded as a reactionary event.) Of course, there are sensitive critics who try to stay clear of fashion, who attempt first of all to describe new works so as to make them better known; who advocate individual artists who might otherwise be squeezed out by competing cliques. There are even a few critics who are trying to create a new paradigm for evaluating music and for understanding the varied conceptual structures within which it is created.2 But such criticism is the exception rather than the rule, and as a result, most artists, and in particular composers, do not have many sensitive models to follow in shaping their own engagement to the culture. Cultural journalism's deadlines and its attendant aesthetic politics tend to rule the discourse. In short, musicians interested in their own culture (and their own field as an aesthetic object) have little voice and few champions. Instead, there seems to be a babel of journalistic voices more interested in publicity and promotion than in the revelation of anything fresh or enlightening about the current compositional scene.
And so we still have no firm definition of postmodernism in music, except that it is more stylistically eclectic than its predecessor, modernism. But perhaps we should take a different approach to this issue. In music, during the last twenty years, there seems to have been a great battle played out between two conflicting styles: the modernist style, personified by composers steeped in the legacy of Schoenberg's serial method, and an experimentalist style, most notably embodied first in the aleatoric music of John Cage and more recently in the repetitive, harmonically static style called minimalism. By now, each of these movements has passed its prime, and only a handful of composers still write in either of these "classic" modes. In fact, the confrontation is easing, and the two movements have begun to interpenetrate and spawn some interesting new hybrids. But the way most composers view one another is still determined by the old combative tone. "Academic" and "experimental" composers still see one another as enemies, and pass this suspicion on to their students and disciples. The discourse of aesthetic development is ruled by an antiquated and confrontational paradigm. Thus, we need to look first at the assumptions behihd both modernism and minimalism in music, so as to better understand how their interaction might give rise to new forces, forces free from prejudice, and that may allow a grafting of seemingly antithetical elements into new art. This examination can give us the perspective to see the aesthetic politics which control the process of definition for what it is, and allow us to make our own judgements and create, free from ignorant acceptance of some party line.
Iannis Xenakis gave a lecture in Chicago, describing his sound-architecture installation, the Polytope. Projecting a slide of a large, tent-like structure of gleaming red polymer, stretched out over the plaza in front of the Pompidou Center, he described its interior batteries of lasers, loudspeaker banks, and strobe lights. Pointing to the picture, he said, "Here you see many people going in . . . and a few coming out."
WHAT HAPPENED TO MODERNISM?
Of course, modernism never entirely died. How could it, when one of its basic tenets—the continual improvement of society via scientific and technological change—is still overwhelmingly vital in our age? But this ignores a subtlety in the definition itself: in fact there are two types of modernism, which I shall call "scientific" and "aesthetic," and they are often confused. Scientific modernism is the ideology which drives our present technocratic institutions; it is a communal activity, organized into vast social units, devoted in both capitalist and socialist systems to a larger (if not higher) good. On the other hand, aesthetic modernism is based on an exaltation of the idiosyncratic, personal vision.3 Artists of all sorts have become ever more individualized in this century, not just in content but also in technique. By now these differences, which were once real but subtle (compare, for example, two Madonnas by Fra Fillipo Lippi and Botticelli) have become blatant. Now, when one enters a museum of modern art, one can easily distinguish between the dream shapes of Miro and the dream boxes of Joseph Cornell from a distance, before one actually arrives at the art works. Personality has become art. The ideal of aesthetic "substance" has yielded its primacy to the presentation of the creator and his/her creative process in the aesthetic object.
In music there is a further paradox. Just as composers' work has become highly individuated (or said another way, stylistically fragmented), the musical organizations necessary to present those visions to their fullest (i.e. symphony, opera, etc.) have become most stratified, socially organized, and mass-culture conscious. Thus, in most cases of concert music, the individual creator and institutional presenter are at loggerheads, the former demanding presentation of his/her work precisely because it is "individual" in nature (the ruling imperative of the artistic world), the latter rejecting that work for precisely the same reason, as he/she instead conceives of art as a meeting place which affirms communal order, eschews individuality, and mirrors the increasingly anonymous nature of our society. Is it any wonder that most composers and orchestras distrust each other so? Each has been taught a different role and set of values, yet they use the same words, unaware that each is working from diametrically opposite definitions. Each believes in a "tradition" which is anathema to the other. Each sees the other as essentially treacherous.
As a result, composers have three choices. They can (1) withdraw and make their own art in isolation, either through electronic realizations, solo performance, or the creation of a performing group consecrated to their music exclusively, (2) embrace earlier stylistic norms that are understandable to the audience and orchestra, giving up on the modernist ideal of individuality, or (3) establish a network of rival institutions, a modernist support system that creates its own demand for the already existent supply of new music.
Perhaps the most visible attempt to create such a rival institution based on classic modernist ideology is IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), Pierre Boulez's research/performance institute in Paris. Here, the computer is regarded as the single most influential technological development in contemporary music, and it is being cultivated as an instrument to the near exclusion of all other aspects of recent musical innovation (such as research in notation, extended performance techniques, derivations of musical forms and processes from scientific or natural phenomena). Boulez, while he has mellowed considerably in his pronouncements concerning music of the past (in part because of his extensive conducting experience), still speaks of musical development as though it were a straight line. For him, a return to previous musical styles is unthinkable, and a new music is justifiable only if it embraces new technology as an integral part of its structure.
Yet there is an irony implicit here, for it seems that the commitment of IRCAM to the computer as tool, while lavish in funding and promotion, has been severely circumscribed. The best pieces to come from "l'école IRCAMienne," such as York Höller's Resonance, Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plangos Vivos Vocos, and Boulez's own Répons, have used the computer solely as a source for sound synthesis, as a tool for the creation of spectacular timbres which enlarge the "sonorous space" originally defined by acoustic instruments. Most of these pieces maintain the old electronic music tradition of preserving the synthesized sounds on tape, and/or using the computer as a real-time processing device which effects changes more on a timbral plane than on a wider compositional field. In Répons, for example, the overall sonic impact comes as much from the exceptionally clear amplification of the six computer-processed instruments as from the actual timbral modification of the sounds, most of which sound like traditional frequency-modulated tones fed through a digital delay box. Only in the final "computer-cadenza" at the conclusion of the 1986 incarnation of the piece, does the processing seem to actually develop and transform motivic material fed it from the soloists, so as to create a result that is genuinely greater than its initial input.
In truth, there has been much less evident research occurring at IRCAM in interactive and algorithmic composition (where the computer is accorded more choice in the compositional process) than in the homemade studios of such American composers as Ron Kuivila, Laurie Spiegel, and David Behrman, whose efforts are often more conceptually complex than those of their Paris counterparts. At IRCAM large chunks of computer memory have been consecrated exclusively to the demanding task of real-time synthesis of complex, "realistic" timbres. While spectacular, the most sophisticated interactive developments are almost all related to performance alone, including programs which allow a computer to sense tempo shifts in a player and adjust its accompaniment accordingly.
I must emphasize that there is nothing wrong with this. Such research is inherently valuable, and the results are creating a new fund of sounds and instruments which are contributing to the great redefinition of the sonic palette available to composers, a shift similar to the development of the wind and brass sections of our present orchestra in the early nineteenth century. The critical point, however, is that an institution such as IRCAM is less a bastion of the modernist ethic than it presents itself to be. Or better said, while it proclaims the continuance of aesthetic modernism, IRCAM has instead become far more subservient to the norms of scientific modernism. Its greatest accomplishment so far seems to be the creation of new (albeit intelligent) instruments; it is in effect a factory for digital Stradivarii. There seems to be a deliberate reluctance to explore the computer's capacity to make decisions on its own, to develop a new compositional logic, a new conception of the creative act. The score still reigns supreme as the field on which a composer formulates his/her ideas; even if they are conceived directly at the terminal, these ideas are still under the strict control of the composer, control that conforms to the traditional idea of the composer's role, control which mirrors the tight administrative hand Boulez personally maintains over his Institute.
The reader will probably notice that so far I have avoided any specific definition of modernism. It is usually presumed that its products, at least, are easier to spot and categorize than those of postmodernism. While the former is focused and missionary in its zeal, the latter is a movement without a center. Yet, as we see with IRCAM, modernism is itself confused about its origins, goals, and relation to society. Aesthetic modernism in this era is in fact far less comprehensive and radical in its implications than it might imagine itself to be. If, for example, we compare the work of IRCAM with the experiments in the sonic and visual arts of such as the Italian Futurists and the Russian Suprematists/Constructivists early in the century, the contemporary work pales in comparison to the vision and vigor of its antecedent. At the start of the twentieth century, there was an enormous faith in the new, a belief that the past was irrelevant and should be discarded, a commitment to transcendence through technology and immersion in the moment of modern life. By isolating itself from any roots, this movement inevitably restricted its field of inquiry: if it could only look forward, then even its most recent production belonged to the past and could not be repeated or built upon. This "utopian modernism" inevitably created demands for novelty which would exhaust any talent (even such protean artists as Picasso and Stravinsky turned to neo-classicism by the 1920s), but in its brief flowering, in the work of such artists as Russolo, Varèse, Rodchenko, and Malevitch, it created a magnificent legacy that testifies to a belief in the potential of both the individual and society in this century. In fact, when this movement flickered and died, crushed by the oppressive reality of two world wars, genocide, totalitarianism, and potential nuclear war, the postwar modernism which replaced it now seems to have been just an early form of "postmodernism."
This point deserves some detailed explanation. In music, the development of total serialism (the organization of all musical parameters along lines derived from Schoenberg's twelve-tone method) was heralded as the newest, most progressive manifestation of the modernist aesthetic. And yet, this movement now seems reactive rather than progressive; alienated by the tendencies of European society which led to the catastrophe of the war years, young artists set out to create a new style which was based not so much on a utopian vision of the future as on a complete denial of the past. Total serialism, while "constructed," was not primarily involved with construction, or building anew. Instead, its techniques and attitudes were involved with avoidance of the past. In fact, its deliberately flat, intricate surface was as much a denial of early twentieth-century expressionism as of the Romantic vocabulary. In this sense, it denied its early modernist forbears. It was as though a child had repressed some scene of primal horror, and instead constructed elaborate games both to delight its intellect and structure its day-to-day life. This aspect of total serialism was ignored at the time because so much was said about its elaborate technique, creating a sort of smokescreen. If, for instance, one examines Die Riehe, the official "diary" of the movement, one finds wonderfully complex, quasi-scientific articles which describe in great detail the new techniques developing out of technological innovation, such as Stockhausen's articles about spatial and electronic music. From the tone of such articles, it seems that the serial composers of the 1950s had willingly abdicated a position of poet/priest/philosopher, and instead adopted that of the engineer (and a solipsistic one at that, creating objects useful only within the confines of their pre-defined rules). A similar development occurred in postwar architecture, where the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus were co-opted to create a faceless corporate style which both denied individuality and exalted a power structure hardly amenable to the vision of an open, socialist, egalitarian society. The tone of discourse had changed, become limited. The future was now a zone restricted to the denial of the immediate past, rather than a field for progressive experiment. No longer was there the passionate exploration of the art's potential that one finds in the writings and creative work of a Kandinsky or Schoenberg.
When we become aware of such a technocratic tone in recent (or late) modernism, we can view a phenomenon such as IRCAM with new eyes. The elements of such an institution which mirror the "spirit of the age" are often less aesthetic than social. In its quasi-corporate organization, its orientation toward research, its stripped-down, high-tech appearance, and its emphasis on massive projects involving large forces of specialized personnel and equipment, IRCAM attempts to justify itself through its similarity to even more successful late twentieth-century institutions, such as NASA and IBM. Good can always come from such an institution, but we can't expect miracles, much less miraculous art. In such a state-sponsored avant-garde, modernism has both triumphed and killed itself off. Without the radical idealism that created it, recent modernism becomes just another part of our increasingly complex social organization, so enmeshed in the web as to have little perspective on the whole.
When we examine the larger historical framework of modernism, it becomes increasingly apparent that the period 1860-1920 was one of the greatest flowerings of Western culture. The industrial revolution reached its peak; the foundations of modern technology were laid with the invention of the automobile, airplane, and telephone; Romantic art culminated in a series of grand monuments, especially in literature (the novel) and music (the symphony and opera); theories of psychoanalysis, evolution, Marxism, relativity, and quantum mechanics were all formulated. In the arts in particular, there emerged out of late Romanticism fresh modes of seeing and experiencing reality based on actual processes of objective perception (Impressionism) and subjective sensation (Expressionism). All these movements were united by a faith in the future, a hunger for innovation, and a grand desire to interact with the culture at large, no matter how much controversy might be generated as a result. In this sense, it seems an error to draw an artificial line between composers such as Debussy, Mahler, and Scriabin on one side, and Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Ives on the other. Whether or not all art over that time span can be called "modern," it does seem that there was a common belief in some sort of aesthetic or social progress which motivated artists. Even the early twentieth-century expressionists, who felt they were unmasking a new, often nightmarish region of the human psyche, nevertheless offered no evidence that they considered their art to be less than an advance over the old modes of expression. The ideal of progress was maintained until the aesthetic of neo-classicism arrived with such practitioners as Picasso and Stravinsky. At this point there began a profound questioning of art's role and purpose in society, its ability to express values, and its relation to social progress and the past.
Thus, it seems that if we are to look at the legacies of modernism, it would be better to view the fin-de-siècle period and early twentieth century as more of a cohesive unit, a crucible out of which a whole range of aesthetic tendencies was forged and loosed upon culture, tendencies that continue to develop in all directions in our age—a type of expanding stylistic universe. In this way, we can identify a phenomenon that affects a variety of different artistic movements and trace it to a common source. And one such legacy that cuts across stylistic barriers even today, creating a great, often unacknowledged challenge for contemporary artists, is the ideal of creative obsession.
It seems a general trend of our era that as composers attain a certain stature, they begin to create works of increasing scale and length. For example, Pierre Boulez's Répons is now nearly an hour long, and shows little sign of reaching a conclusion soon; at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Philip Glass, after starting with film and dance scores of more modest scope (if not length), has moved to the production of operas laden with all the physical trappings of the grand tradition, even if his music remains steadfastly stripped of the trademark gestures of bel canto and verismo. Yet in each case, increased size cannot always be equated with increased quality, for many of these works contain structures that their materials simply cannot sustain. The music is repetitive, massive in sonority and texture, moving to large climaxes that often seem bombastic. Indeed, the size of these works seems an index less of the real musical demands of the material than of the composer's ambition. Here is a legacy that comes from the turn of the century: as tonality became more and more expanded in both its pitch and time range (via the development of chromaticism), composers created ever more lengthy, sustained works. And, as the nineteenth century ended, the visionary faith that drove such composers as Ives and Scriabin to their grandest experiments (such as the former's Universe Symphony and the latter's Universal Action) fueled the idea that the composer should create a "cosmic" work as his/her ultimate goal.
It seems that now, after years of Webernian brevity, composers—minimalist, modernist, and in-between—want to recapture that spirit of grandeur which seized fin-de-siècle artists. But there is a problem—the materials they use, whether highly dissonant or reductionist modal, usually do not lend themselves to majestic musical architectures. Both languages lack the sophisticated set of hierarchic structural relations and perceptual expectations possessed by late Romantic tonal music, where functionality (though strained) is still present. Tonality did allow for the passage of time to be perceived on multiple levels: surface progressions and major key areas could each reflect on the other across different strata of the music. In the case of newer pitch languages, however, the music was reduced to a single surface level, either chromatically complex or modally simple. In either case there was not enough contrast and differentiation to justify the temporal length; repetition either became literal or non-existent, in either case depriving the music of an opportunity to create comparisons within itself at different reference points in its development (as in the return of thematic material in a different key). The music had lost its depth; it was stretched increasingly thin over its span.
Further, this obsession with making monuments is in one sense a conditioned reaction to the sad state of the making of art music in this country, where a young composer must prove him/herself with chamber music over a period of years before he/she is given a chance at the orchestra. This is enormously unfair on two counts: (1) if it is performed, the orchestral piece is usually done just once, and (2) skill with orchestral writing comes only with practice, something very different from the demands of chamber music (and which one should learn early).
Is it surprising, then, that after years of denial, composers should greedily embrace a gargantuan aesthetic, as though to make up for lost time? And yet, is it not also a shame that composers cannot learn from the example set by Stravinksy, who in his last two decades created a remarkable music based on rigor, conciseness, and an intensely playful spirit? The brevity of his music bespeaks modesty, rather than preciousness or sloth. A few examples of this attitude in contemporary music spring to mind: the increasingly witty and absurd piano music of Babbitt; the jewel-like vocal theatre pieces and re-orchestrations of Berio; the open, mellow, slightly jazzy string quartets of Terry Riley. Not all of these works are "great" music, but neither do they try to force themselves on us, the listeners. By quietly presenting their own character, they respect the audience; rather than a lack of ambition, we hear in them a lack of desperation and obsessions, something which may be more essential to their survival than an overactive ambition based on the cult of artistic personality.
Perhaps what we need is a redefinition of ambition in music. Could it result from the carefulness with which a composer scrutinizes his or her work, aesthetic, and position in society, instead of the usual emphasis on size, virtuosity, and originality? Can the spirit of invention, a grand legacy of modernism, be directed to such goals as collaboration, multicultural synthesis, and pure play? If so, the liberation of expressive means discovered at the beginning of this century will have found a second wind, a new point of contact with global society. If not, "modernism" is probably destined to decay into yet another form of mannerism, collapsing under the weight of its incessant demand for both innovation and individuality.
While still in college, I went to attend a lecture by Philip Glass. The music school apparently would have nothing to do with the event, and so it was sponsored by the art department. Glass, casually attired in jeans, sat at a small electric organ in a dusty lecture hall and played selections from a work then in progress entitled Einstein on the Beach. I already knew some of his work, so the music itself was not a shock; I was somewhat stunned, however, when a young woman at the beginning came on stage and introduced Glass in a manner I had never heard at any composition seminar, "And now, the great Phil Glass!"
No serious musical movement has gained more credibility and popularity in its explicit challenge to modernism than minimalism. Minimalism has made it. The word appears everywhere—in criticism, program notes (where composers proclaim or disclaim their allegiance), in the discussion and questions of people who "usually don't follow music." If we judge the acceptance of its label in general discourse as the measure of an aesthetic's success, then minimalism has triumphed; even today, by contrast, serialism is a term which needs to be carefully defined and explained before most listeners can even grasp the basic concept. Minimalism, on the other hand, seems self-evident, and its connection to the music under its banner is close. Here is music stripped of academic and intellectual pretense, a new simplicity which gets to the "heart" of artistic inspiration once again . . . or so it is claimed.
In fact, minimalism as a definition is by now played out, since most of today's music under the label bears little relation to the term's strict meaning. As an aesthetic term minimalism does not even originate in music—like so many twentieth-century movements (modernism, expressionism, impressionism, conceptualism), it comes from the visual arts, in this case the color-field paintings and bare-boned sculpture of the 1960s and early 70s. (Perhaps this connection to the aesthetic issues of the visual arts is one reason why minimalism in music has found a wider and more diverse audience than other musical avant-gardes.) When I first encountered this music in the 1970s, minimalism had not even become the catchword for the movement—instead, "process music" was in vogue and actually described the early work of Steve Reich and Philip Glass far more accurately.
But the term is not going to evaporate; we are still in need of some sort of working definition. To find it, we must trace the origins of the movement. Despite the fact that Reich and Glass are its acknowledged stars, the actual "fathers" of minimalism are two other composers—Terry Riley and Lamonte Young, both now in their fifties. It is in these two that we see the twin founts of minimalism: repetition and simplicity. Riley's In C is the great landmark, the "Sacre" of minimalism, a work whose score is only one page, yet which can last hours (and which rarely lasts less than one). Riley's spaced-out, quasi-improvisatory sound opened up a new time-world for younger composers. Suddenly music did not have to change on every beat; it could linger on a moment, contemplate it. This meditative aspect of the music was not surprising, as both Riley and Young came from the West and reached prominence in California. Their presence was influential on Reich, who was a student in the Bay area during the 1960s, and later also on John Adams. (Only Glass did not head west, but he entered through the back door with a trip to India that changed his thinking.)
Young is an even more radical case. For years he has written works which use extremely long-held tones, usually in restricted pitch sets. Young began as a serialist, but he quickly took the row out of a European time-world and into an Eastern one. He has always claimed that his music is concerned with sustained tones, not just drones, and the distinction is critical. Long-held tones open up a dual possibility: not only does one hear structures develop over an almost geological time-span, but one can also start to concentrate on the interior world of the sound itself. If it is a single pitch, one starts to hear tiny inflections of intonation and color; if there are simultaneously sounding pitches, one listens to the degree of perfect tuning within the chord, the shadings of overtones and beats as the instrumental sounds either mesh or grate. As time has passed, this combination of micro- and macroscopic concerns has united for Young in a focus on tuning as the primary element of music. In this vein, he has gone so far as to devote the last decade to the making of a five-hour work for retuned Bösendorfer, The Well-Tuned Piano, which transforms the instrument into a new thing altogether, an imaginary Eastern orchestra from which a single performer can coax degrees of harmonicity and inharmonicity previously unimagined in the West.4
So now, after this digression about "classic" minimalism, I can at least define some qualities that minimalism has, if not exactly say what it is. Minimalism seeks to reduce music to bare essentials, to achieve purity of intent and expression through the simplicity of its materials. Such simplicity often entails (1) repetition, either of motoric motives or meditative modules, and (2) a restricted harmonic palette, usually modal and static.
This leads to the issue of minimalism's balance sheet, an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. To begin, it has made several contributions to musical culture, opening up many avenues previously closed to serious composers for a long time; and for this it deserves credit.
First, minimalism did to the "uptown" school of composition, the heirs of modernism, what Cage's aleatoric music did to total serialism in the 1950s. A small historical digression is necessary here. Cage's method of making all musical decisions by chance operations resulted in music which sounded disturbingly similar to pieces written according to completely deterministic procedures, such as Boulez's Structures. When serial composers tried to make every instant of a piece as different as possible from every other, this rapid and continuous rate of contrast paradoxically made the surface of the music sound both hyper-complex and undifferentiated. Constant change deprived the listener of any reference point, and hence change became imperceptible. Chance procedures resulted in essentially the same sound; in fact, that this music emerged from the throwing of dice made it even more intriguing than the laborious matrices and charts of the serialists could ever do. Cage's music, by its very concept, was magical, with all the associations that the word conjures up—including charlatanism. It was just a bit sinful, and as such could not help but be more seductive, controversial, and hence influential in the long run.
Minimalism likewise created an "emperor's clothes" effect when compared to much of the modernist-inspired music produced by academic composers. For years, devotees of contemporary music had been forced to accept the "uptown sound" as the only legitimate path for progressive music in the classical tradition. There could be no argument: composers wrote articles on their work, they developed a rhetorical technique to justify the sound of their music, and they seemed to bear all the insignia of craft—indeed, of science—that could only cow laypersons into questioning their own taste before that of the composer. But with minimalism, the tables turned. While much of the music was infuriating, much of it also accepted traditional principles long abolished from the contemporary concert stages: rhythm and pulse, harmony (albeit static), texture, and sensuality. Further, composers such as Steve Reich were highly intelligent, also wrote articles,5 and developed a theory of interrelated aesthetics and technique which looked comparably rigorous to that of the serialists. The music could be intellectual, but it was not self-consciously learned. And one could actually hear these techniques at work, if one wanted. For an audience interested in an avant-garde, but not so masochistic as to become fanatical students of an often esoteric musical style, this was a godsend. All of a sudden, composers who cultivated serial complexities looked like stuffy bores, and their poor students seemed like prematurely old young men and women, uncomfortable in their three-piece suits and Sunday dresses.
Second, minimalism recaptured something lost from music for almost a generation: continuity. The only "flow" one heard in most American music of the 1950s and 60s was that of instant to instant: a mosaic of gestures, often spasmodic, with no perceivable underlying rhythm. But with minimalism, one could relax, one did not have to listen to every detail for fear of missing the point. Time was filled up; textures metamorphosed gradually from one to another; the deep rhythm of change in the music was so glacial that one could shift one's concentration to examine surface details and then return to a global perspective in one's listening, all without losing the thread. And most of the time, there was a pulse. One could sway, tap one's foot again—no wonder dance companies became hungry for this music.
Finally, minimalism opened the door for a return to tonality. While the harmonies employed in minimalism were usually modal and non-functional (at least by the rule of common practice), they were also triadic, and they created an aural link to the simple but very direct tonal progressions of most popular music. Yet such composers as Reich, Glass, and Riley were admirable in that, while rejecting Schoenberg's atonal revolution as if the first half of the century had never happened, they did not simply return to the pre-Schoenbergian world of Brahms and Mahler. Instead, they found a model in sources further from the recent Western tradition in both time and space. Reich, for instance, cited Balinese gamelan, African drumming, and twelfth-century organum as seminal influences. World music and early music suddenly became, for this new tradition, an important, if unlikely, blending of sources.
Reich has spoken of "re-learning" musical technique from the ground up, starting with rhythm; Glass would say that he started with harmony. This sense of beginning afresh, tabula rasa, gave many other composers a perspective which allowed them to re-approach tonality with more open and less apprehensive minds. Now, if they used a dominant seventh chord, they were not denying their personality or tradition. The minimalist wash had cleared the decks and given credibility to tonal, triadic materials by seeing them in a new light. Indeed, while there were other forces stirring in the late 1960s, there is little doubt that minimalism helped prepare the way for much of what has been called "neo-romanticism," even though the composers of these two schools were often quite critical of what the other school was doing. The real connection between the two aesthetics becomes clear in the work of composers in their thirties and forties, such as Jonathan Kramer, Peter Gena, James Sellars, and John Adams, who have found this area between minimal and nineteenth-century languages a highly fruitful one to play out the conflict between the desire for pathbreaking art and for music which satisfies a more traditionally expressive, even nostalgic need. As such, they have created a music that shows real promise of reaching more traditional classical audiences, and in which so-called originality is measured not so much by technical innovation as by a uniquely personal set of compromises made between conflicting aesthetic goals.
So minimalism has already left a substantial legacy; but what of its limitations? The name itself implies the answer. Not much happens in minimal music. If one wants lots of musical information per unit of time, then one will be bored stiff. Further, much minimalist music, especially the later work of Glass, treads deeply into what can only be called kitsch. There is a difference between materials that are archetypal and those which are simply banal. In the case of Glass and his imitators, an arpeggiated triad, endlessly repeated, is supposed to take on an overwhelming, primal character. Instead, it often sounds like grandiose pretentions propped up by materials too weak to support the ambition. Interestingly enough, the earlier music of Glass, using his own ensemble of electronic keyboards and woodwinds, is far more palatable precisely because the sound of the group is fresh and remarkable. When the same musical devices appear clothed in orchestral garb (as in the post-Einstein operas), their pomposity suddenly becomes evident.
Second, the aesthetic premises of the movement have constrained its ability to develop fruitfully. While it would be harsh to call minimalism a reactionary movement, I think it can be called a reactive one. This means that minimalism was born from an explicit disavowal of the musical style which preceded it, rather than from a desire to enrich or inflect an already existent language. Of course, this is not new—in the late sixteenth century, the Florentine Camerata cleared the boards by disavowing the great Flemish contrapuntal tradition and creating a new vocal music which combined elaborate ornamentation with very simple accompaniment. This movement also looked to the past, but in this case to ideals drawn from the vocal music of antiquity. And it was fruitful: while the first practitioners of the style are now musicological footnotes (though occasionally revived, performed, and recorded due to scholarly advocacy), they were quickly followed by Monteverdi. He applied their techniques to more ambitious purposes, combining fresh but simple harmonic progressions with a sure sense of theatre and an appreciation for clearly defined melodic lines; he was also unafraid of counterpoint in the new tonal context. Thus, there already had been a "minimalist" musical revolution, and it created the conditions for most of the music that makes up today's concert repertoire.
But this does not by itself justify contemporary minimalism. Its reactive quality, its tendency to define itself via contrast with its perceived enemies, has brought into relief a number of limitations. For example, the actual techniques of minimalism, while ingenious, do not allow for much extension. Additive melodies, phasing, repetition, modal progressions—all these devices are relatively self-contained, contributing to an overall sound, but not suggesting the invention of further techniques applied to other levels and aspects of the music. There seems to be a gap between the conceptual basis of minimalism and its technical realization; the former is sweepingly philosophical and the latter extremely concrete, with little intersection between them. Style and substance, surface and structure rarely interact, blur, or become metaphors of one another. By contrast, serialism still seems a field open for development (despite the exhaustion of the American expressionists), in that its system is transferable to aspects of form, timbre, time, or style, instead of pitch, as Schoenberg originally intended. Perhaps it is this weakness in minimalism that has led both Riley and Young to pursue the intricacies of intonational systems as the basis of their most recent works. In this sense, they now link up with the tradition of classic American experimentalism, embodied by Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Harry Partch.
But even the conceptual basis of minimalism, its motivating idea, is neither very radical nor surprising. Its desire for simplicity is in fact rather nostalgic, and, while characteristic of the reaction of the late twentieth-century to its increasingly complex environment, it is not necessarily the most important development of the age. Our basic ways of thinking are rapidly beginning to alter under the impact of new technological, social, and scientific forces, yet the desire to flee these does not make us appreciate or understand our world any better. At the best, such escapism can only provide a needed respite. Indeed, the impulse to simplicity behind most minimalism is too vague and unassailably "good" a precept (rather like motherhood) to engender a true artistic revolution.
This becomes especially clear when we ponder the case of John Cage. He also wiped the slate clean, and with a very simple concept: that all sound is music (not just potential music, but actual music from the start). Many minimalists see themselves as post-Cageians; the Cage works of the 1930s and 40s, with their modal harmonies and catchy rhythms, seem a logical ancestor to the new music. And Cage has personally been very sympathetic to these composers. (He certainly stands apart in this regard from Elliott Carter, who has gone out of his way to decry minimalism at every opportunity.) Yet Cage's basic idea of a limitless musical continuum was far more radical—and far less sentimental—than anything minimalism has offered. Cage now seems an outgrowth of a great tendency in this century, that of the listener's exposure to more and more varied musical materials, whether from electronic, popular, or world musics. It was radical and of its time; it did not try to escape its era, but instead to reflect, even reshape it.
But perhaps all this is too hard on minimalism; already Reich and Glass claim to have moved on to other things, and the movement—if it has not produced a great master—has at least renewed the creative soil. At the same time, American expressionism has wandered far from its roots; pieces are still being created from New York to Dubuque full of ersatz angst, but these are now so far removed from the source as to be aesthetically dishonest: composition in this "classic" style makes about as much sense today as a contemporary analyst's diagnosis of hysteria, the disease on which Freud started his researches but which has now largely disappeared. Minimalism has at least been honest in its emptiness: the deliberate lack of "meaning" in its swirling sounds became a much needed detergent for new music's soiled linen.
This leads to a final point, which one may regard as a strength or failing of the music, depending on one's point of view. I remember the first time I heard Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians, and I remember what a revelation it was. The precision of the playing, the expert orchestration, the driving rhythms were all unforgettable. Yet as time passed the music began to seem increasingly poignant to me. I discovered the reason for this when I began to make certain associations—this music was very much of its culture, in that it mirrored a common American psychological state. Here, in the relentless pulse, the snappy rhythms, the consonant but "going-nowhere" harmonies, the bright colors, the automaton-like performance technique—here was the world of the freeway, the ordinary frenetic pace of daily business, the perpetual smile demanded of one whether there's an ache inside or not. On the surface, the music presented the cheerful face of much pop music, but its deeper workings were stripped of any such content. This music, more than almost any other, bespoke an alienation from the familiar, from the routine. By taking a slick, bright surface and deliberately denying it any ordinary expressive "meaning," minimalism captures much of the malaise which Americans repress in their relentlessly optimistic way. For me, this sense of alienation is a strength of the music, but I also suspect this style is so deeply immersed in these unconscious cultural assumptions as to be unaware of its relation to society. Minimalism cannot comment on culture (just as academic music cannot), because from the start it refused any analysis of its own assumptions, instead preferring to lash out at such perceived enemies as modernism and the academy. Most American minimalists have refused to recognize the common emphasis on process and mechanization of music which they share with "rational" composers grounded in serialism. To recognize this would possibly engender a new technique, original and rich in potential for growth. But if both minimalist and serial composers ignore such a perspective, and avoid opportunities for cross-fertilization, then their musics will not present a solution to our aesthetic dilemma, they will just remain part of the problem.6
1Leonard B. Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas (Chicago, 1967), 188.
2Tim Page, formerly of the New York Times and now of Newsday, and Kyle Gann, of the Village Voice, are characteristic of these two kinds of critics I admire.
3There was slightly more correspondence between these two manifestations of modernism in early twentieth-century America. Here, a "tinkerer" such as Charles Ives bore a resemblance in his work process and attitudes to such inventors as Henry Ford and the Wright brothers. Thus, aesthetic "experimentalism" in America bears some relation to the roots of technocracy. The work processes and social structures of artists and industry, however, have grown ever more divergent throughout the century.
4Riley also has become preoccupied with intonation during the last decade.
5See Steve Reich, Writings About Music (co-published Halifax and New York, 1974).
6I would like to gratefully acknowledge the Rockefeller International Study Center in Bellagio, Italy, for providing the time, space, and ideal circumstances for the completion of this essay.
Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018
Robert B. Carl
Robert Carl (b.1954) studied composition with Jonathan Kramer, George Rochberg, Ralph Shapey, and Iannis Xenakis. His music is performed internationally, and is published by American Composers' Alliance, Boosey&Hawkes, and Northeastern. His grants, prizes and residencies have come from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, Tanglewood, Camargo Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, Ucross, Millay, Bogliasco, Djerassi, the Aaron Copland House, Youkobo ArtSpace and the Tokyo Wonder Site, and the Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio). He received a 2005 Chamber Music America commission for a string quintet featuring the Miami String Quartet and Robert Black. An excerpt from his opera-in-progress Harmony (with novelist Russell Banks) was presented in May 2006 in the New York City Opera’s VOX Showcase series. He received the 1998 Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. New World Records released a CD of three string chamber works in March 2006, and in July 2012 his second disc on the label featured electroacoustic works based on Japanese materials. In 2013 Innova released a collection of three large piano works. Other CD releases of his work are found on Cedille, Neuma, Koch International, Centaur, Lotus, Capstone, and Vienna Modern Masters. In 2007 he received a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council for travel to research contemporary Japanese composers, and his book Terry Riley’s In C (Oxford University Press) was released in 2009. He is chair of the composition department at the Hartt School, University of Hartford, and writes extensively on new music for Fanfare Magazine.