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and post-minimalism as significant? Answer with detailed reference to ONE work of your own choice.
The term 'minimalism' is typically understood in two ways. In the general accepted sense, it is known as when contemporary American classical composers in the 60s and 70s (such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass) returned to simple tonal music, repetitive arpeggios and constrained dynamics. On the other hand, the term in particular in its adjectival form ‘minimalist’, is sometimes thrown around as a near synonym for 'sparse' or 'simple'. In many music reviews one can find 'minimalist' applied to everything from a solo saxophone improvisation to a solo singer/songwriter on-stage with an acoustic guitar to a four-piece country band recording without the benefit of overdubs. Implementing these ideas that minimalism can mean many things, this essay will initially discuss the complicated field of minimalism and how this further affects our understanding of post-minimalism. Let us then analyse a post-minimalism piece by Louis Andriessen in order to distinguish and recognise the difference between minimalistic and post-minimalistic compositional practice. American minimalism is considered and accepted widely as the alternative to the overly atonal and difficult music of the mid-century avant-garde. It was a movement against ‘complicated’ music such as Serialism and Experimental music to bring back 'serious' music into the American public. In the words of David Lang, 'as being just the battleground that was necessary to remove those forces from power: not to obliterate them or destroy them, but to remove them from power.’1 However, the music known as minimalism (or more specifically, American minimalism) is extremely broad and complicated and the movement is most
David Lang in interview with Keith Potter, November 1993
probably one of the most misunderstood musical movements in history.2 It cannot really be completely described in such a single idea especially when the term is used also for Europe at the similar time. When minimalism made its appearance on the European continent, it took on a very different aesthetic which was influenced by the generally darker tone of European music in the postwar period. Therefore the music by composers such as Karel Goeyvaerts is very much different in musical style to the American composers. The difference and of course the similarities will be very obvious in the analysis of Andriessen later in the essay.
Before we discuss the actual music in matter, one must realize that the two understandings of the term ‘minimalism’ are not exactly two separate notions. Furthermore, as already discussed with the history, the two ways of understanding minimalism are not that straight forward or clear. Obviously, the adjectival form of the word came about due to and after the simple tonal music which the composers began to write at that time. In other words, the use of the word in description of any ‘simple’ musical context came about after the historical movement. In fact, the later genre of post-minimalism only relates to the earlier minimalism with its musical rather than historical influences. Furthermore, it is the other musical styles which are incorporated into the latter music which makes the significant difference between the two genres. This will be discussed later on. Nevertheless, the definition of the adjectival form of the term in itself is still very vague and is difficult to really say what it exactly is. Even among musicians and musicologists, there is disagreement and debate which is clearly shown in Jonathan Bernard’s article ‘Minimalism, Postminimalism, and the Resurgence Tonality in Recent American Music’.3 Furthermore, minimalism is frequently used with negative terminology. It is sometimes meant to describe
A. G. Niren, 'An Examination of Minimalist Tendencies in Two Early Works by Terry Riley' in First International Conference on Music and Minimalism (University of Wales, Bangor August 31, 2007) 1 3 Jonathan W. Bernard, ‘Minimalism, Postminimalism, and the Resurgence of Tonality in Recent American Music’ in American Music 21/1 (Spring 2003): 112-133.
‘music with practically no substance’ or ‘music where nothing happens.’4 For example, although Steve Reich is one of the significant composers representing the American movement, his works has been excessively neglected by serious American researchers and scholarly American journals.5 In fact, it is the Europeans (particularly the British and the Germans) who write about Reich’s music with the respect it deserves.
Nevertheless, the very much complicated matter of the musical definition of minimalism is in fact quite simply summarised in an interesting, single article by Tom Johnson. In the article, he cleverly explores the different ideas on what minimalism is really about and how to describe it.6 He begins to try and define the music in six different ways but in the end, comes up with again a confusing but at the same time somewhat accurate conclusion. The first answer he gives is ‘it has a lot to do with repetition’. Then he follows on with five other generalisations: It has a lot to do with tiny variations’, ‘it has something to do with hyper-clarity’, ‘it has something to do with encouraging more subtle perceptions’, ‘it has something to do with making music less dramatic’ and finally ‘it stems partly from certain Asian and African attitudes’.7 As Johnson then tries to explain, all of these ‘definitions’ of minimalism are correct only up to a certain point. In other words, these notions cannot be a complete definition to the music by themselves as it is with any kind of music. In the words of Johnson, ‘it isn’t really about ideas, and it can’t really be explained in words. It can only be demonstrated. And even then, every demonstration is going to be a little different, and no one demonstration will ever be definitive’.8
H. Wiley Hitchcock, ‘Minimalism in Art and Music: Origins and Aesthetics’ in Classic Essays on TwentiethCentury Music, Selected and annotated by Richard Kostelanetz and Joseph Darby (New York, 1996) 318 5 K. R. Schwarz, 'Steve Reich: Music as a Gradual Process: Part I' in Perspectives of New Music, 19/1-2 (Autumn, 1980 - Summer, 1981) 374 6 Tom Johnson, ‘What Is Minimalism Really About?’, in Tom Johnson The Voice Of New Music New Yokr City 1972-1982 (Village Voice, 1989) 296 7 Johnson, ‘What is Minimalism?’ 296-298 8 Johnson, ‘What is minimalism?’ 298
The complications of both historical and musical definitions of minimalism are demonstrated by the various pieces we have today composed by the many composers who are considered as minimalists. The music in fact is very broad considering all the different composers with different styles to minimalism in both America and Europe of which we have already discussed. In American minimalism alone, we have the cinematic ear-candy of Philip Glass to the mind-blowing of Terry Riley and the symphonic affectation of John Adams. All demonstrate some of the general ideas of minimalism but also have distinct different colours and styles of their own. The problem with the three main composers or representatives of the American Minimalism movement (Reich, Glass and Riley) are all continuously known as ‘minimalists’ despite their later music which suggest other styles also. For example, Glassworks by Glass is at the same time still very much like his cinematic works which one can find in his earlier works but is moreover very different with the influences of pop-oriented styles. As a result, this six-movement piece released in 1982 is in fact therefore considered as music of postminimalism. In the words of the composer himself, ‘Glassworks was intended to introduce my music to a more general audience that had been familiar with it up to then.’9 Incidentally, Reich was also influenced hugely by Jazz in later works. What's more, this also questions the debatable matter of defining post-minimalism. This then leads into the question of how to understand and define the distinction between the two genres. Bernard, in his article suggests two criteria by which a composer can be qualified to be called a post-minimalist. The first is ‘began as a minimalist and is now writing music that, however different from those beginnings, can be plausibly traced back to them’ and the second ‘developed after minimalism’s most abundant flowering, but principally in response
Philip Glass.com music:glassworks
to it’.10 In my view, I think Bernard’s proposal is most sensible but still again do not think that all the composers could simply fall into one criterion or the other. There will be exceptions. Nevertheless, the understanding of Philip Glass’ Glassworks definitely fits nicely into the first and composers such as Louise Andriessen in the second. On the other hand, (perhaps more relevant to the first criterion) due to the unclear definition of minimalism and the various music which is considered as the genre, one could easily argue that Glassworks as a variant of minimalism; not a post-minimalist piece. This could also be a plausible interpretation of the work and neither is really right or wrong in answer. However, there will always be exceptions such as this but one must also realise that there are many pieces which are more easily labelled as minimalism or post-minimalism if we consider the dissimilarities of the two genres as significant. In other words, the musical distinctions which are generally made between the two in fact give us some guidance to understand and recognize a piece to be either minimalist or post-minimalist. It is the similarities (the minimalistic elements of post-minimalism) which generate the debate and disagreement. Therefore, by considering the differences as more significant than the similarities, one can gain a much clearer idea of what the two genres mean and represent. Apart from the minimalism influences of the later genre, there are more influences of many other genres which are combined into single pieces of works. This links onto the idea of eclecticism in modern music. Therefore, besides the repetitious and less dramatic elements in the music, the incorporations of other musical styles create richer harmonies and different musical colours. For example, many composers include rock, jazz, world music, folk, sound art or even the classical western art music within the minimalist foundation.11
Bernard, ‘Minimalism’ 127 Dave Lynch & François Couture, ‘Post-Minimalism’ in Allmusic.com
To demonstrate these ideas, let us now concentrate on a particular composer who is a key figure of post-minimalism or more specifically, European post-minimalism. Louis Andriessen (born in 1939) is a Dutch composer who is renowned for his excellent postminimalistic music. However, his early music show influences of many other genres and he experimented with a few contemporary styles such as serialism. It is only the composer’s mature music which is described as post-minimalist which varies from large to small scaled ensemble pieces. One could understand Andriessen as suited in the second criterion by Bernard. The interesting point about Andriessen’s music (and many other European composers) is that their music is rather considered as a variant of post-minimalism. In other words, despite the fact that they are influenced by the American genre, their works are considered more to towards their own culture; creating their own personal contemporary Dutch music. His piece De Staat is considered as ‘Standard-bearer for contemporary Dutch music’.12 De Staat (‘The Republic’) by was composed in 1976 and was a breakthrough in the composer’s career. The foundation of minimalism is clear but the music also undoubtedly shows the influences of jazz and even art music such as Stravinsky which I will discuss in detail. First of all, the resonance of American minimalist composers such as Reich is evident in De Staat. He had made acquaintances with these composers and their music during 1970 to 1971.13 Andriessen met Steve Reich in 1971 and also came to be known to the music by Glass and Riley such as Music in Twelve Parts and In C during those years. Andriessen also was influenced greatly by the music of Frederic Rzewski.14 Although Rzwski is also American by birth, he spent much of his time in Europe and is quite different in character to
Robert Adlington, Louis Andriessen: De Staat (University of Nottingham UK, 2004) 1 Adlington, De Staat 41 14 Adlington, De Staat 42
the others too. One may consider him also as a post-minimalist. His works uses a nondiatonic harmony and is much more energetic than the music by Reich or Glass. Robert Adlington suggests in his book completely dedicated to the piece De Staat that the content of the piece can be explained simply in terms of four loose basic categories- each which recur several time in the piece: the Repetitive, mostly diatonic (very much resonance of American minimalism), frenetic unison melody, rhythmic, low-register chromatic brass music and harshly dissonant chord sequences.15 Due to the strong foundation of American minimalism De Staat suffers with no exception in the debate about the music being minimalist or postminimalist. Nevertheless, there are so many other musical styles involved in the 35 minutes piece; it is far from being ‘simple’ music. One of the prominent influences in Andriessen’s music is jazz. From a young age he was exposed to the music and had made many Jazz musician friends.16 In the field of jazz, the composer’s influences range across boogie-woogie, big band and bebop which can be heard not only in De Staat but many of his other works such as De Stijl (1985) which resembles styles of boogie-woogie and bebop style in Facing Death (1990).17 The features of big band such as the use of brass, homophonic texture and sudden hurried gestures can be found in De Staat. Adlington gives a few examples including the noisy brass entry at bar 403 and the homophonic scoring from bar 823.18 However, the same features also resemble the Russian contemporary music of Stravinsky which I will talk about later. Other element of the piece which can be linked to jazz is Andriessen’s use of the voice. The text to De Staat is Plato’s Politeia (The Republic) which is scored for four female
Adlington, De Staat 69 Adlington, De Staat 33 17 Adlington, De Staat 35 18 Adlington, De Staat 37
voices.19 The voices are amplified and sung with no vibrato.20 It is definitely far from the classical music domain such as opera but much closer to jazz. Furthermore, the use of amplification allows the voices to be heard within the instrumental texture of the ensemble piece. Perhaps this element is a unique style of Andriessen. In other words, the voice acts like an instrument. Attached with the score, there is a diagram of the seating arrangement in which one can see that the vocalists are seated at the ear of the stage; virtually hidden. (See figure 1) As you can see, the voices are even behind the two pianos and harps. This can be compared to the typical staging of opera singers as they stand in front of the orchestra. Figure 1
The final influence which I will talk about is the music of Igor Stravinsky. I found this the most striking of all and the music is evident from the very opening. Moreover, I believe that these influences are what really make De Staat stand out as a European post-minimalist piece. When I first heard the work, it immediately reminded me of Stravinsky’s most famous
Plato- Classical Greek writer of philosophical dialogues Maja Trochimczyk, ‘The Man and His Music: A Portrait’ in The Music of Louis Andriessen (New York, 2002) 51
piece The Rite of Spring (1913). Similarities include: the tetrachordal (B-C-E-F) meanderings of the woodwind in the start can be compared to the bassoon solo in opening of The Rite (see figure 2), the sudden homophonic and fortissimo brass sections with asymmetrical accentuations (see figure 3) and the dissonant harmonies which can be compared to the style of Russian folklore in Stravinsky.21 Adlington in fact summarises the harmonic progression of the whole piece in his chapter ‘De Staat: The music’ and a score can be found on pages 64 to 67. Through this, one can find easily the types of chords used in the piece which are influenced by several genres. For example, there are many modal harmonies such as the use of the Mixolydian at bar 105 and the Aeolian chord at bar 201.22 Furthermore, there is evidence of Indonesian music in the sections which use the Pelog scale in bar 503.23
Trochimczky, ‘A Portrait’ 51 Adlington, De Staat 64 23 Adlington, De Staat 65
Andriessen, the composer himself was very open about his passion for the music of Stravinsky. He said, ‘I cannot remember a time when I did not love the music of Stravinsky.’24 He also felt that The Rite was ‘the most important and historical and revolutionary piece for the next two hundred years’.25 It is therefore no wonder that the resonance of Stravinsky is so passionately evident in De Staat and in many other pieces such as Hymne to the Memory of Darius Milhaud (1974).
Apart from the three styles I have discussed in the essay, there are many more styles and genres which influenced the works of Louis Andriessen. I believe that the eclecticism of his music is a fine example of how it can allow us to understand the difference between the two genres of minimalism and post-minimalism. In the words of Michael Zbyszyƒski, ‘it is the quotation of and subsequent dialogue between disparate musical styles that distinguishes
Robert Enright, 'Notes towards anarchy: an interview with Louis Andriessen' in Border Crossings 15/1 (1996) 37 25 Adlington, De Staat 48
the music of Andriessen’.26 However, a thing that one must realize here is that the earlier minimalist pieces may not be as eclectic as post-minimalist pieces, but they sure will also have influences from other musical genres. As already mentioned, there will always be exceptions and any ideas made in musicology, there can always be an opposing argument and further different points of views on the matter. It is more about how you reason the answer which supports the validity of the idea proposed.
Michael F. Zbyszyƒski, 'Aesthetic issues in De Staat, De Tijd, and. De Materie' in Music 202: The Sinfonia of Berio and Contemporary Music in Europe and America, 1945-1972, (December 1996) 12
Adlington, Robert, Louis Andriessen: De Staat (University of Nottingham UK, 2004) Bernard, Jonathan W., ‘Minimalism, Postminimalism, and the Resurgence of Tonality in Recent American Music’ in American Music 21/1 (Spring 2003): 112-133
Enright, Robert, 'Notes towards anarchy: an interview with Louis Andriessen' in Border Crossings 15/1 (1996)
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, ‘Minimalism in Art and Music: Origins and Aesthetics’ in Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, Selected and annotated by Richard Kostelanetz and Joseph Darby (New York, 1996)
Johnson, Tom, ‘What Is Minimalism Really About?’, in Tom Johnson The Voice Of New Music New Yokr City 1972-1982 (Village Voice, 1989)
Lynch, Dave and François Couture, ‘Post-Minimalism’ in Allmusic.com Niren, A. G., 'An Examination of Minimalist Tendencies in Two Early Works by Terry Riley' in First International Conference on Music and Minimalism (University of Wales, Bangor August 31, 2007)
Schwarz, K. R., 'Steve Reich: Music as a Gradual Process: Part I' in Perspectives of New Music, 19/1-2 (Autumn, 1980 - Summer, 1981) 373-392
Trochimczyk, Maja, ‘The Man and His Music: A Portrait’ in The Music of Louis Andriessen (New York, 2002) 47-68
Zbyszyƒski, Michael F., 'Aesthetic issues in De Staat, De Tijd, and. De Materie' in Music 202: The Sinfonia of Berio and Contemporary Music in Europe and America, 1945-1972, (December 1996)
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