My Breadcrumb Trail Has Been Eaten!

The Cliffs Notes to this column will be offered for only $4.95 at any of our participating cheesesteak stands and only $1.95 with the purchase of a side of Cheese Whiz.

Contradictory as it sounds, minimalist music is arriving in an avalanche this fall.

That’s gotta be one big avalanche, a big, contradictory avalanche; Philadelphia’s nowhere near the mountains.

But since minimalism is, by definition, minimal, one envisions...

a) a Buckminster Fuller building.
b) a Samuel Beckett play.
c) a Franz Kline painting.
d) a “less is more” attitude.
e) creatures from some musical Lilliput engulfing Beethoven and Brahms.

If you guessed a-d, you’re getting warmer. However, if you guessed the Jonathan Swift reference...

Yet minimalism has evolved to a point where John Adams' newest opera, The Flowering Tree, commands attention musically and dramatically as handily as Verdi.

Um. From its sheer numbers, minimalism is overshadowing (?) Beethoven and Brahms, yet (?) it commands attention, like Verdi? Okay. And all of this despite the fact that John Adams doesn’t consider himself a minimalist. (Sorry folks. This is for my sake. I just want to leave myself a trail of breadcrumbs, if you know what I mean.)

A musical language based on the idea of small cells of sound repeated to hypnotic lengths has found a range of expression undreamed-of 30 years ago, when some of this music sounded like an LP record stuck in a groove.

Thirty years ago, in 1978, which would make musical minimalism roughly twenty years old, John Adams was beginning to move away from eight-tracks to cassettes and from minimalism to this neo-romantic-minimalist hybrid of which you speak. So, John Adams, at least, was dreaming, way back then.

Is this the culmination of a long-germinating movement?

Cassettes? Probably not. Minimalism? Is fifty years long enough? A hybridized form of minimalism with expressive flexibility? As sure as the seasons change, which is, by the way, what will happen to this “movement,” too.

Certainly, there's a critical mass.

(brain twitches) Critical mass is the SMALLEST amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. In the vernacular, it’s the same, except it refers to people, ideas, or fads. So...

Tons of expressively flexible minimalism, an avalanche if you will, is ready to explode? Or has it already exploded? I’m confused. Very confused.

Either way, a bevy of CDs, DVDs and performances will be rolling down the hill this fall. This includes some John Adams (not a self-described minimalist) and Philip Glass.

Only Steve Reich, minimalism's J.S. Bach, is missing.

This avalanche of minimalism, as one might want to color it, consists of two, count them, two composers—a whole two composers (2). Too.

I also wonder who is minimalism’s Baldassare Galupi.

If there's a consolation, it's a strange but imposing one: British composer Michael Nyman, who coined the term "minimalism" and enjoyed overnight popularity with his distinctive score for the 1993 Jane Campion film The Piano, is getting a burst of U.S. visibility.

“Hear me my diminutive dominions. Instead of Steve Reich, let them eat Nyman.” Yeah (whimper).

Stand back from it all, and conclusions are unexpected.

Conclusions about what? Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the conclusions about this being the culmination of a long-germinating movement.

Why are conclusions unexpected, Dave?

Compare Adams' The Flowering Tree, about a woman who can transform herself into a tree, and Richard Strauss' Daphne, whose title character has similar talents.

Since comparisons are not conclusions (sigh), I’ll play along. What, then, separates the two? Though, I’m not sure where this could be going. Can a comparison of two similar stories utilizing different aesthetics inherently reveal whether or not this avalanche is, indeed a long-germinating movement? Paint me skeptical.

Adams defines the unimaginable, using hypnotic minimalist arpeggios in ways that convey the rhythm of the Earth while melodies wander into unknown regions, governed only by the winds of fate.

Sorry, I need to stand back from it all for a second, too, because it’s breadcrumb time (my head hurts)!

To recap: From its sheer numbers (three), minimalism is overshadowing (?) Beethoven and Brahms, yet (?) it commands attention, like Verdi. It has grown into something more expressive. Both of these facts leads to the question whether or not this is the culmination of a long-germinating movement. To investigate this further, we need to stand back, look at the bigger picture by closely examining two similar, yes dissimilar, works up close. (Am I being fair up to this point?) And conclusions are unexpected. But we're going through the motions anyway.

Where’d I leave off? Ah!

Adams defines the unimaginable, using hypnotic minimalist arpeggios in ways that convey the rhythm of the Earth while melodies wander into unknown regions, governed only by the winds of fate.

First, “hypnotic minimalist arpeggios” is, well, quirky. Unless “hypnotic” is modifying “minimalist,” which is okay, then...no. I take that back. It’s just wrong. Minimalism is, by and large, hypnotic. So, “hypnotic minimalism” is redundant. On the other hand, if “hypnotic” is modifying “arpeggios,” fine. But, then, in this case, the “minimalist” is redundant. You see? Both “hypnotic arpeggios” and “minimalist arpeggios” are the same thing. If you want to contend that they are not the same thing, then whoops, too! You need a comma separating “hypnotic” and “minimalist.”

Despite that nitpicky mess, the contention is that “Adams defines the unimaginable,” which, by its implicit impossibility, is impossible, given that he can’t imagine the unimaginable. Right? Moving on.

The woman-to-tree transformation arises from a bedrock of radiant string tremolos; celebratory percussion sounds like pealing bells in a meadow of glistening string harmonics and soft percussion.

I just threw up in my mouth.

The assemblage of sounds is one thing, but could traditional composers create such trancelike stasis?

Excellent. We’re back on track, sort of. We’re back on track to compare apples and oranges. But we’re still nowhere close to finding out why conclusions pertaining to whether or not today’s minimalism is the culmination of a long-germinating movement are, in fact, unexpected.

And to answer the question about traditional composers, yes.

In contrast, Strauss is about the emotional impact the characters experience at the hands of magic, so the transformation musically is such an afterthought - expressed with Daphne's wispy, wordless vocalization - that you could almost miss it. In effect, Strauss ducks the dramatic problem.

I’ll give Dave one thing: the conclusions, if you can call them that--and are apparently back on the table--are, indeed, unexpected. By comparing Adams to Strauss, we found that they composed with different means and intents. Adams defines the unimaginable; Strauss ducks the dramatic problem. In “conclusion,” romanticism is not minimalism. And to think, I’m up to my ears in student loans, when I could have just waited a few years in order to read this.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Like Renaissance vocal polyphony, which gives a spiritual radiance to anything composed with its precepts, minimalism seems to be the language of the heavens.

Hmmm. Either something is terribly wrong with this or I’m beginning to nod off. I know! I need some coffee. Just continue reading; I’ll be back in a moment.

Revisiting Glass' Mohandas K. Gandhi meditation, Satyagraha, one noticed anew how the piece elegantly bypassed the mundane particulars of a linear plot - the sort that took Tan Dun down hackneyed blind alleys in The First Emperor - and went straight to more important matters of the soul.

It's not the most dramatic way to go - you'd never want a sequel to Tosca done in this way. And yet Adams' Doctor Atomic gets dramatically muddy without leaving its lofty perch. Its landscape - Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945 - is built from peripheral details. A hard-bitten military officer goes on at length about counting calories. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer closes Act I by singing the John Donne sonnet "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God."

Soon, you realize the opera is directing its energies toward the moral dilemma of those who made the bomb: Civilization was in the hands not of gods but of real, calorie-counting individuals. The minimalist element - with high-stakes drama juxtaposed with almost passive washes of sound and repetition - gives space to the moral problems at hand, not just for the characters, but for the audience.

Okay, I’m back and caffeinated.

What would you have done?

What?! Who, me? Shit! What did I miss? A lot, apparently.

Into this comes Nyman - with all the grace of an atheist at a Christmas pageant.

I’m no stranger to insults, but man, this is like shooting an Indian for trying to dress all civilized and such but failing to cinch the bolo tie tighter.

What the hell did I miss!?


(reads previous thread)


Oh. Weird.

His new, determinedly secular pieces prove that minimalism can be earthy, jazzy and sexy, which would be admirable if the music weren't so suffocating in its inflexible, intractable manner.

So, is it fair to say that his pieces are characterized by suffocating earthiness, suffocating jazziness, and suffocating sexiness? Is it also fair to say that those things don’t mean anything?

Jesus. “An atheist at a Christmas pageant.” Jesus. What's with this "sacred vs. secular" thing, anyway?

Among American minimalists, repeated ostinatos are like the broken white stripe down the middle of the highway, each one taking you farther along the piece's musical path.

By most accounts (Well, one really. I did some research a while back, which was funded by the Michael Nyman Institute of Stupid Things People Say About Him)—by most accounts those white dashes in the middle of a road or highway are there solely to inform a motorist which side of the road he/she may occupy, while, circumstances allowing, indicating a safe place to pass a slower vehicle. They are not, repeat not, there to take you anywhere. You may pass by them, but never will they take you anywhere. In fact, they are not living creatures. Some living creatures can, indeed, take you places, like horses, elephants, seeing-eye dogs, and most importantly, asses.

Similarly, ostinati are simply there. You, you, pass by them.

Nyman's repetition is more like a rock-and-roll riff with abrasively robust sonorities and little contour, and with the composer's considerable sense of invention relentlessly tethered to the central idea. Never does his music kick into that minimalist overdrive when the music mushrooms into something greater than its parts. Nyman takes a straight, unveering, almost robotic route to its conclusion.

Really. When did this become a Michael Nyman bashing party? I thought we were here to find out whether or not this “expressive” (subjective opinion) minimalism (misnomer) is the culmination of a long-germinating movement. Or at least why conclusions are unexpected.

While I don’t particularly like Nyman’s music, does he deserve this? Maybe. But, still...

All the plasticity cultivated by American minimalists of late - which we may have taken too much for granted - is rejected by Nyman.

That is, if you can call what they’re doing “minimalist.”

In its place is novelty: His suite, Mozart 252, sets to music letters from the composer's father, poems by the composer, plus his list of debits and credits, all with clinical detachment and vocal lines behaving like just another instrumental voice within the larger musical machinery. Same thing, oddly enough, with settings of sexually graphic Italian poetry titled Lust Songs.

Setting odd texts to music is not novel.

Put to the service of a strictly secular cause, minimalism hardly seems like music.

Where did this come from? Where the fuck are we? I’m caffeinated and alert. Would someone like to fill me in?

However, that theory is shot down by, of all people, the devoutly Buddhist Glass.

? “Of all people?” ? ?????????? ??? ??? Glass shot down theories? Really? Your theory, maybe. Or maybe, you just didn't think your theory through before writing it down for all of Philadelphia and beyond (I'm in San Francisco) to read?

He achieves Nyman's in-your-face aggressiveness without the rigidity in Waiting for the Barbarians, a 2005 operatic adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's novel about military-dominated regimes and merciless torture.

Torture? What does this “story” have anything to do with Nyman’s music not really sounding like music?

Here, Glass exercises every compositional muscle he's ever had: In place of his usual musical expanse, he constructs scenes from penetrating modules that lack the pin-point specificity of nonminimalist composition but are dramatically masterful.

Oh yes. The “penetrating modules that lack the pin-point specificity of nonminimalist composition but are dramatically masterful” scene-construction muscles. I just worked those out the other day. Boy do they hurt.

In one, the humanitarian hero confronts a dictatorial colonel, who is heard against a choral backdrop telegraphing how much he's in the majority.

The story...though secular...what? Seems like music? Despite your theory?

The key difference is that Glass' compositional ego is subordinated to telling the story, while Nyman subordinates his stories (whether abstract or literal) to his personality.

Help. Anyone?

For Glass, minimalism is the key to a world of poetic expression.

Did you ask him? Christ.

Just fucking shoot me already. Any semblance of coherence is gone. Every sentence, phrase and word is problematic. I’m plain lost. And I still have no idea whether or not minimalism is the culmination of a long-germinating movement, nor are we even trying to conclude anything--that's why conclusions are unexpected--not to mention we still only have three composers that constitute an avalanche. And what's with this whole "sacred vs. secular" bullshit?

Nyman's key is just that,

What?! A world of poetic expression? I. Don’t. Know. What. Is. Going. On. Anymore.

...which means that no matter how technically impressive he is, the music remains cold and strangely irrelevant.

A note to everybody ever: Please stop talking about “stories” in music as if they were concrete, irrevocable determinants of a piece’s worth and importance. Thanks. It helps no one.

Usually, compositional methods are only as good as those using them. But minimalism is one that penalizes practitioners who use it perversely.

Those sentences say exactly the same thing!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !! !!!!!!!!(?)

Except now you’re calling Nyman perverse. For what? What's perverse? And where’s my goddamned long-germinating movement? (insert poop joke here about how we've been reading it, all along)


Sator Arepo said...

What the fuck?

Wow. That is some crazy shit...

and as an athiest that is sometimes forced to attend Xmas parties--fuck you (not you, E.).

Sator Arepo said...

Uh, "ostonati"?

Empiricus said...

Huh? Dictionary much?

Empiricus said...

Love you...

Empiricus said...

Poop is always close to brown. Remember that, my friend.

Sator Arepo said...

Wait, what?

Just fuckin' with you.

School today...

Empiricus said...

Ah, comments (esp. inside jokes)! Good things to have around.

"Usually, compositional methods are only as good as those using them."

This little nugget has been swimming around in my head all day. I can't shake it. I think it's a truism. But it certainly doesn't need to be qualified with, "usually." Name an instance when a piece was successful only because of the compositional method, not the composer. They're not mutually exclusive, are they?

If that's true, then why this?

"BUT, minimalism is one that penalizes practitioners who use it perversely."

..as if it needs the "but." Isn't minimalism a kind of compositional method? One that is only as good as those using it?