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To Repeat or Not to Repeat, That Is the Question
Steve Reich
 



In the good old 1960s, the Bohemian life was cheap in lower Manhattan, the streets were relatively safe, and artists drove cabs for a living. Steve Reich, for example. He had been experimenting with tapes of interesting voices he found, and he rigged up his cab with a tape recorder so he could tape some of his passengers. One day he recorded a young African-American man who had been beaten up in the Harlem riots of 1964. By the young man's account, the police were taking away victims and would only take those who were visibly bleeding to the hospital. This young man wasn't bleeding, so, as he said, "I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them."

The inner melody of that phrase intrigued Reich. He took the tape home and made tape loops from the words "Come out to show them." He started two of the tape loops together and, because his cheap tape recorders weren't precisely the same speed, he listened to them inevitably out of phase. This gradual phasing process obscured the words and turned them into a little repeated melody in C minor. Reich taped the whole process and called the resulting piece Come Out. Describing how it felt the first time he heard two tape loops go out of phase, Reich said, "The sensation that I had in my head was that the sound moved over to my left ear, down to my left shoulder, down my left arm, down my leg, out across the floor to the left, and finally began to reverberate and shake... and then it started going the other way and came back together in the center of my head."

Fascinated by what he had found, Reich started making works based on gradual processes. He tried it with two live pianists playing at slightly different speeds in a piece called Piano Phase. He did it with a percussion ensemble in a major work called Drumming. He experimented with other processes, gradually lengthening melodic lines or compressing them. He built up a repertoire of music, and other composers started doing similar things. A movement was born. No one knew what to call it at first: "Process music" seemed appropriate for awhile. Then "trance music." "Hypnotic music." "Modular music." Those who weren't so enamored of it suggested "wallpaper music" and "going-nowhere music." But the term that stuck, coined in 1968 by composer and critic Michael Nyman, was: "Minimalism."

The word had come from the visual art world. It was applied by critics to the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, the boxes of Donald Judd, the geometric prints of Sol LeWitt, and the large, simple steel forms of Robert Serra. In music, the term would apply to flatness of form, long stretches of music with only a few pitches, little or no textural change, and either a relentlessly steady pulse or long, sustained drones with no pulse at all. Despite its initial austerity, minimalism would become the most important musical movement of the late 20th century, attracting back into the concert hall thousands of people who had given up on contemporary music as too abstract and ugly.

Music history, like just about any other kind of history, swings back and forth in cycles. After a period of extremely complex music, it's a pretty safe bet that what's going to come next is extremely simple music. And that's what happened. The 1950s and early '60s produced the most complicated music in the history of the world. Composers in Europe like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Lucaino Berio, and Bruno Maderna, and in America like Milton Babbitt and Mario Davidovsky, were making hypercomplex music based on the 12-tone technique of Arnold Schönberg, adding to it mathematical techniques for the scientific structuring of rhythm, timbre, and every other conceivable aspect of music. The resulting style, known as serialism because it was based on the concept of a row or series of pitches, rhythms, and so on, was extremely abstract, nearly impossible for the average untrained listener to follow, as an excerpt from Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras may indicate.


La Monte Young
 

Whatever its advantages - and serialism did allow for a vast expansion in the number of ways to conceptualize musical forms - the style did not allow much room for intuition, nor for a composer's personality to emerge. By the late 1950s, some young composers who had been involved in serialism already began thinking it was time for something else. One of these was La Monte Young.

Born in tiny Bern, Idaho, in a log cabin, Young was not much inclined to fade into the wallpaper wherever he was, and he didn't fit into the University of California at Berkeley as a student anymore than he did anywhere else. He started out writing 12-tone and serialist music like a good boy. But he heard another music in his head, and had a mischievous streak anyway. He's always said that his earliest musical influences were long, continuous sounds: the wind blowing through a chink in the log cabin he was born in, and the hum of the power line outside. In 1958 he wrote a trio for violin, viola, and cello in approved 12-tone style - except for its speed. The opening chord lasted four and half minutes. There were only a few dozen notes in the whole piece, each one held for a very long time, and the entire trio lasted almost an hour. Young's teacher Seymour Shifrin allowed a performance of the Trio hoping to persuade Young he was on the path to decadence and despair. But it only egged him on.
Young had a fellow student at Berkeley named Terry Riley, and the two gave concerts together. They would drag a gong down the street with a contact mike attached to it to create a deafening roar, or make a tone poem of chairs and tables dragged across a wooden stage floor. But long, continuous tones were the idea that appealed to Young most, and in 1960 he wrote down what might be thought of as the first truly minimalist piece, Composition 1960 #7. It consisted of nothing more than the pitches B and F# with the instructions, "To be held for a long time."

Young and Riley moved to New York, although Riley would go from there onto Paris and Morocco. In Manhattan, Young formed an ensemble to play drone music with, called the Theatre of Eternal Music. Working over drones from electronic oscillators or even a aquarium water-pump motor, Young and his wife Marian Zazeela sang, Tony Conrad played violin, John Cale played violin, Angus MacLise drummed on a hand drum, and sometimes Terry Jennings would join in on sax or Terry Riley singing or playing violin. Bathed in Zazeela's colored light projections, this group would give concerts of harmonics sung and played over drones, the whole thing so loud that it could be heard outside the building and down the street. One 1968 Village Voice article described it as an "almost unbearably loud, low-pitched electronic hum.... At first even to enter the auditorium seemed too dangerous to risk, for the sound was painfully loud even with the doors closed. Entering was like being hit in the face with a blast of hot wind or like walking into a room full of brine and discovering that surprisingly enough it was still possible to breath."

The point of the music was to create a feeling of involved well-being by singing and playing overtones - the resonant frequencies of a low fundamental tone, perfectly in tune. Tony Conrad, a violinist, had taught Young about the mathematics of tuning and overtones, and performances consisted of singing through a series of numerical relationships over the drone pitch. Creating panoramas of swirling overtones beating against each other, it was the perfect arual illusion music for the psychadelic age.

Unfortunately, the Theatre of Eternal Music's work remains commercially unavailable today, due to a litigation standoff between Young, Cale, and Conrad. Young claims that he was the sole composer of the music, and the others were his performers; John Cale and Tony Conrad allege that the music was created collaboratively, and that all should get equal billing. As a result, the tapes remain unreleasable in Young's loft, although in 2000 a 30-minute bootleg disc of a 1965 performance called *Day of Niagara* was released.

Today, only a handful of minimalist composers remain well-known - mostly Riley, Reich, and Glass - but the original movement was actually widespread, with dozens of composers in New York and California. Besides Young, Phill Niblock in New York was also working with drones - sustained pitches that slowly changed, sometimes creating amazing effects in which a consonance would very gradually changed to an extreme dissonance and back. Young's most extravagant competitor for star of the Downtown scene was Charlemagne Palestine, a powerhouse of relentless energy known for all-night performances in which he would endlessly strum the keyboard, stirring up tornados of jostling overtones. Naturally, California minimalism was much mellower, represented by Harold Budd. These days, Budd has veered more into the pop music world, having created albums with Brian Eno and the Cocteau Twins. In the early 1970s, he wrote pieces so simple that one piece, The Candy Apple Revision, was nothing more than the instruction: "D-flat major." Budd's pieces, like Madrigals of the Rose Angel, tended to consist of merely a few languid chords that floated around the listener like incense.

And minimalism sprung off into some surprising paths. John Cale, who played with the Theatre of Eternal Music by day, worked with a little rock group called the Velvet Underground by night, and through this passage minimalism flowed into the history of rock. You can hear Young's influence in the viola drone and static texture of "The Black Angel's Death Song" from The Velvet Underground and Nico, the famous Verve disc with Andy Warhol's banana painting on the cover.

 

Terry Riley
 

The most influential early minimalist work by far, however, was created and performed in San Francisco in 1964 by Young's friend Terry Riley. Riley was the first in the crowd to become excited about the use of tonality and repetition. In a 1963 piece called Mescaline Mix, he first used a device that would soon become famous tape delay. He ran a tape between two or more tape recorders. On the first tape recorder he would record his saxophone or electronic organ. The tape would then go to the second tape recorder, and play back along with whatever Riley was playing next, so that he was continually accompanied by an echo or echoes of himself. As Riley explained it,

"I think I was noticing that things didn't sound the same when you heard them more than once. And the more you heard them, the more different they did sound. Even though something was staying the same, it was changing.... In those days the first psychedelic experiences were starting to happen in America, and that was changing our concept of how time passes...."

But the piece that ignited a chain reaction across America, setting off minimalist imitations from Maine to Hawaii, was unpretentiously titled In C - as, in the key of C Major. Riley wrote down 53 fragments of melody on a piece of paper, ranging from one or two notes to a few entire lengthy phrases. Each player was independently supposed to start with melody no. 1, play it any number of times he or she liked, then go onto melody no. 2, repeat that any number of times, and so on. What happens is that with an ensemble, you constantly hear the melodies bouncing back and forth from one instrument to another - the instrumental equivalent of tape delay. At the rehearsals, the performers were having a difficult time keeping at the same tempo, so Steve Reich, who was playing the electric Wurlitzer organ, suggested a pulse on the top two Cs of the piano as a kind of metronome. The suggestion was tried, and from pulse that more than anything, In C gets its jaunty, jangling sound.

Now we come to minimalism, chapter two. Soon afterward, Reich moved back to Manhattan. He started working with tape loops, as Riley had. Unlike Young and Riley, who were born in the rural west, Reich had grown up rather well-to-do in New York City. He attended Cornell as a philosophy major, writing his thesis on Wittgenstein, and became a jazz drummer - though he put the drums away to continue at Juilliard. He had gone to California after graduation to get away from the stuffy East Coast aesthetic of his schooling and find a freer aesthetic. In C was what he found, and he began working, as Riley had, with tape loops, though with recorded speech rather than melody as his material.

Instead of the mere repetition that Riley capitalized on, Reich discovered by accident the fascinating phenomena that arise when two tape loops go against each other at slightly different speeds. He first applied the idea to live instruments in a 1966 piece called Piano Phase, using only five pitches in a simple tonality. If Young and Riley represented an austere minimalism that often challenged the listener with its length and high volume, Reich had stumbled on a prettier, more audience-friendly minimalism that was often gently mesmerizing. In 1970 he studied the drumming music of the Ewe tribe in Ghana, and the intricate rhythmic interplay of that music formed the basis for much of Reich's subsequent aesthetic. Reich came home and wrote a 70-minute work that is still one of the classics of minimalism: Drumming, for an ensemble of mallet instruments and voices.

Just as Reich had been involved in the premiere of Terry Riley's In C, another important minimalist would emerge from the Steve Reich ensemble: Philip Glass. Born in Baltimore, Glass attended Juilliard as a classmate of Reich. He abandoned 12-tone music early, and wrote rather conventional pieces in a style reminiscent of Aaron Copland. In 1964, feeling at something of a dead end, he traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, the legendary teacher who had taught so many American composers from Copland on. While in Paris, he was given a temporary job transcribing some music for a film being made by the great Indian musician Ravi Shankar. Just as Reich had found confirmation for his repetitive musical interests in the drumming of Ghana, Glass was galvanized by what he learned about Indian music, with its long, irregular rhythmic cycles. After detours through Morocco and India, he came home.

The Philip Glass who returned to New York in 1967 was not the conservative composer of Americana who left in 1964. He was beginning to write with repetitive phrases, and, hearing a concert in New York by his old acquaintance Steve Reich, realized that Reich was ahead of him in the area of simplicity and hypnotic repetition. Glass reestablished the connection and played in Reich's ensemble. Soon Glass was writing his own process pieces, but where Reich concentrated on phasing within a fixed rhythmic phrase, Glass worked on long, linear works based on additive process: the sequential adding of more and more notes to a growing melody or rhythmic cycle. One of the first of these, Music in Fifths, was a sly rebellion against Nadia Boulanger, who had continually picked apart his counterpoint exercises for the mistake known as parallel fifths. Music in Fifths was written entirely in parallel fifths, for 25 minutes.

Up until this point, minimalism was still an underground phenomenon, known mostly to New York and West Coast musicians. It hit the public in two big splashes. First, in 1974 the prestigious record company Deutsche Grammophon released a three-record set of Steve Reich's music including Drumming, Six Pianos, and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. Next, Glass rented the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976 to present his opera with director Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach. A few days after the premiere, Glass was driving his cab. A lady customer got in, looked at his name plate, and asked, "Do you know that you have the same name as a famous composer?" With these two coups, minimalism hit the mainstream, and became the most talk-about musical movement in decades, cheered by growing audiences, bitterly decried by academic musicians, and made fun of by all those listeners and music critics who insisted that it sounded like a record with a stuck needle.

One of Riech's and Glass's most important influences on contemporary musical practice is one that might hardly be noticed outside the new-music world; instead of writing their music for pre-existing ensembles like string quartet or orchestra, they wrote for ensembles they had formed themselves. Unlike orchestras, which can afford very little rehearsal time to new music, Steve Reich and Musicians and the Philip Glass Ensemble could devote hundreds of hours to practicing, and were able to make new music of a rhythmic complexity and intricacy that no orchestra could match. More than anything else, this practice has made it possible for younger composers to develop their own musical ideas outside the extremely constricting limitations of working with a professional orchestra. The fact that we have today the Paul Dresher Ensemble, the Michael Gordon Philharmonic, and even new-music ensembles like the Relache group in Philadelphia and the California E.A.R. Unit in Los Angeles is due to the tradition Reich and Glass began.
Nevertheless, through Drumming and Einstein on the Beach Reich and Glass became such stars that orchestras and opera companies began giving them commissions. In the 1980s, Reich transferred his ensemble concept to the orchestra in works like The Desert Music and Three Movements. One of his most popular works ever has been an ensemble work from 1976 called Music for 18 Musicians, based on a series of pulsating chords. In Three Movements, written ten years later in 1986, we hear similar chords now reproduced with an orchestral mass.

Likewise, Philip Glass - on the strength of Einstein on the Beach, written for his own ensemble - was commissioned by [....need to find out who commissioned Satyagraha, which I can't put my hands on right now] and the Stuttgart opera for two companion operas involving orchestras, Satyagraha, about the life of Mahatma Ghandi, and Akhnaten, the first monotheistic ruler of Egypt. Glass initially had to tame down some of his wild rhythmic cycles so orchestras could negotiate them, but his style, wedded to some colorful orchestration, brought a new vividness to the opera stage. Although he is widely criticized for excessive repetition, not only for the minimalist repetitions of his style but for brazenly trotting out the same textures, chord progressions, and orchestrations again in work after work, Glass has become easily the most successful opera composer of our time, with 17 operas so far and still counting: a modern Rossini.

The death of minimalism has been pronounced by critics and musicians every year since 1974. Reich and Glass disavow the term and wish it would go away. "If you live for a movement," Reich has said, "you go down with that movement." But minimalism didn't really cease to exist; rather, it was a starting point like so many starting points in the history of music. Subsequent composers have turned to it and moved away from it, or, rather, developed it into something else.

The first such figure to make a splash was John Adams, a New Englander who has spent his professional life in the San Francisco Bay Area. A decade younger than the original minimalists, Adams found the music of Glass and Reich liberating. "It was like," he later wrote, "a bucket of fresh spring water splashed on the grim and rigid visage of serious music." When Adams' Phrygian Gates for piano and Shaker Loops for string ensemble burst onto the scene in 1978, it was clear that certain aspects of minimalism - simple tonality, the steady pulse - were here to stay, and that others - like formal simplicity and linear process - were about to be left behind. Adams entered the opera field too, though in a less fluid and less explosively prolific way than Glass. In 1987 his opera Nixon in China brought history to the stage, and in the repeated words of his stuttering Nixon, the repetitions of minimalism found a justification in drama.

The 1980s saw a widespread movement best known as postminimalism, represented by composers like William Duckworth, Daniel Lentz, and Janice Giteck. Duckworth's The Time-Curve Preludes, a classic set of 24 pieces for piano, preserved the harmonic simplicity and melodicism of minimalism, but his forms were more mysterious, his rhythmic processes not so obvious. Duckworth, The Time-Curve Preludes] Lentz's The Crack in the Bell, based on an e. e. cummings poem, used tape delay and masses of repeated notes that resembled minimalist textures, but bent and curved them around an amazing stream-of-consciousness technique.

A younger generation, born in the 1950s, liked minimalism's infectious rhythmic momentum but found it too pretty and simplistic. The first generation to have ethnomusicology courses in college, they encountered the musics of Asia and Africa as a matter of course, and enlivened their minimalist principles with a world music beat. Mikel Rouse, for example, studied African rhythms, and layers of such polyrhythms underlie his operas such as Dennis Cleveland. Dennis Cleveland is an opera in the form of a talk show. Some of the singers are sprinkled throughout the audience, and Rouse himself is the talk show host, talking and singing over rock-inspired backgrounds. Rouse, Dennis Cleveland] Similarly, Michael Gordon's music has the same geometric relentlessness as Steve Reich's, only instead of a steady pulse, Gordon knocks out rhythms in complex assemblages of eight against nine, 16 against 27.

Even more recently has arisen a generation of DJ artists for whom the music of Steve Reich especially has achieved virtually cult status. Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, Octet, and Six Pianos are obligatory stand-bys for any good DJ, providing background beats for other musics to fill in. In fact, several DJs paid Reich the supreme homage of remixing his music in the CD Reich Remixed.

Let's say minimalism is dead for the sake of argument. But its children have spread throughout the music scene, in postminimalism, artrock, totalism, DJ music. The steady beat and simple harmonies of minimalism made it possible for composers to start reacting to and interacting with the popular music of their day.

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