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Manifesting Community in Early Minimalism

Manifesting Community in Early Minimalism

What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

What could minimalism possibly have to do with community?

Community is not one of the words typically included in descriptions of minimalism. It does not take its place alongside austere or process or repetition, nor does it fit into the formalist “family similarities” listed in the recent Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, including drone, repetition, stasis, audible structures, pure tunings, and so on.[1]

Indeed, more often than community, minimalism had to do with conflict. Kyle Gann, in a 1998 piece for The Village Voice called “Minimalism Isn’t Pretty,” writes, “By the time minimalism emerged as a public phenomenon in 1973, it was squeaky clean and spruced up for company… Before its emergence, however, minimalism was a nameless, cantankerous Downtown movement of many composers and musicians.” He continues, “So many minds collaborated that it was not always possible to tell who introduced what innovation. In fact, the original minimalism scene so bristled with tension that it virtually exploded, and when the smoke cleared, newcomers Reich and Glass just happened to be the only ones left standing.”[2] Likewise Branden Joseph argues that “the history of minimalist music is, to a surprising degree, a history of authorship disputes.”[3]

So perhaps dispute and tension are more accurate descriptions of minimalist social relations. Nevertheless, an important point remains: scene-based tensions and disputes occur specifically because there is a community. Disagreement occurs within a commons; it takes place on a stage constructed and articulated through community relationships and sense-making.

Disagreement occurs within a commons; it takes place on a stage constructed and articulated through community relationships and sense-making.

In the case of minimalism, eventual authorial disputes were the result of a long series of close collaborative engagements. Anyone familiar with the historical foundations of the “aesthetic, style, or technique”[4] can draw up a list: during the late 1950s at UC Berkeley, the relationship between La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Terry Jennings, and Dennis Johnson are all closely tied up with, among other pieces, Young’s Trio for Strings, Riley’s Concert for Two Pianos and Tape Recorders, and Johnson’s November. In 1964, Steve Reich helped Terry Riley organize the performers for the premiere of In C in San Francisco; he also introduced the pulsing Cs that create the work’s rhythmic grid and, as Terry Riley told Robert Carl, kept hippies out of their rehearsal space.[5] In December of that same year, on the other side of the continent, Young, Tony Conrad, John Cale, and Marian Zazeela were performing their first concerts under the collective name The Theatre of Eternal Music. A short time later, Reich moved back to New York where, in 1967, he became reacquainted with his Juilliard colleague Philip Glass, leading the two to work together for several productive years (including a couple of European tours) during which they developed pieces such as Pendulum Music, Four Organs, Phase Patterns, Two Pages, Music in Fifths, Music with Changing Parts, and more. The examples could continue, though I imagine many readers of this site are well aware of these early instances of collaboration. What’s important is that the subsequent disputes that resulted from these periods of collaboration—between Young and Conrad, Riley and Reich, Reich and Glass, and later Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, as noted by Joseph—frequently overshadow and seemingly negate the original fact of community for many writers on minimalism. That is, the focal point becomes the inevitably failure of collaboration in art music, rather than the results it produces.

What if we consider instead the early foundations of community among the minimalists? What was it that pushed them to collaborate in the first place? Under what principle of community were these collaborations possible? If there can be no dispute between parties that have nothing in common, then the answer to these questions is best found in the years prior to dispute. We can look in particular to early pieces of minimalist writing—particularly by examining what was manifest in a few early minimalist manifestos.

What was it that pushed them to collaborate in the first place? Under what principle of community were these collaborations possible?

The best known of these is surely Steve Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process” (1968).[6] While many musicologists have focused on Reich’s claims about process, and subsequently analyzed his works with close attention to the relative “purity” of the process in each piece, different portions of the essay strike me as more important. Reich’s focus is less on the technical application, and more on its perceptibility: “I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.” He continues, “to facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process should happen extremely gradually.” There is a clear hierarchical relationship between the two terms: it’s not that gradual processes should be audible, it’s that gradual processes are the means towards the end of making structure audible. Listening and perceptibility are prioritized, with process as the means of actualizing the goal. And listening remains dominant when Reich makes his central historical claim. He points out that both Cagean chance and the serialism of Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen—musics thought of as the opposing poles of the compositional spectrum when he was writing in 1968—share one principle of commonality: “the compositional process and the sounding music have no audible connection.” For all their differences technically and stylistically, Reich offers a simple though powerful critique that finds in these opposites a shared, underlying principle. Again: disagreements construct the stage of their own appearance; the terms of their dispute.

From this commonality, Reich sets out his primary goal, which gradual process appears to be the most functional means of achieving: “a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.” Reich argues for an egalitarian practice of music-making in which the composer joins the audience in listening to a plainly audible structure such that he or she, as he quotes James Tenney saying, “isn’t privy to anything.” Indeed, Reich writes this egalitarian listening into Pendulum Music (1968), which he composed alongside his manifesto. Several scholars have noted the relationship between the two, pointing to Pendulum Music as the height of a “pure” gradual process in Reich’s music, and criticized Reich for never having followed up on this rigorous, impersonal austerity.[7] No one, however, has drawn any relevance from the score for Pendulum Music directing the performers to “sit down to watch and listen to the process along with the audience.”[8] That is, scholarship highlights Pendulum Music as a supposedly isolated example of a pure, formalist process, rather than acknowledging how pure process allows the composer and performers to join the audience as one listening community. In all listening together differently, it constructs the perfect stage for dispute.

Reich was not alone though; the manifesto seems to have been deemed an appropriate genre by the minimalists for simultaneously outlining their critiques of contemporary compositional practice and supplementing it with their own ideas. A lesser-known manifesto written by Tony Conrad in the summer of 1965 appeared later that year in the journal Film Culture. Conrad gained enough attention for his film The Flicker that the journal dedicated several pages to him, including his own written manifesto about his work with Young, John Cale, and Marian Zazeela. Titled “Inside the Dream Syndicate,” the first-person plural essay outlines the group’s manifestation of compositional collectivism:

Film Culture

The title “The Obsidian Ocelot…” is the one the group used throughout much of 1965 in concert programs. Throughout the essay the twenty-five-year-old Conrad writes in a style somewhere between, on the one hand, quasi-scientific music theory journals of the time like Die Reihe and, on the other, ecstatic, mid-1960s, stream of consciousness political critique. He writes, “Noises are not ever pitchless, to say the least. Pitched pulses, palpitating beyond rhythm and cascading the cochlea with a galaxy of synchronized partials, reopen the awareness of the sine tone—the element of combinatorial hearing.”[9] More importantly, the essay is peppered with collectivized statements of purpose, framed around listening, tuning, and performance practice: “We don’t touch the 5th harmonic… [because] 7 sounds to us as clear as vulgar 5 once did”; “Our music is… droningly mon[o]tonal, not even being built on a scale at all, but out of a single chord or cluster of more or less tonically related partials” which introduce a “a synchronous pulse-beat.” He argues for the “genius of conglomerate action” in that it “raises the overall harmonic operative level beyond what is rationally controllable” by a single author. On their performance practice, he writes, “The string fingerer fights to find the right spot to press a motionless digit for months before noticing the demands of the right arm for microscopic fingerboard digit rockings, compensating periodically for the tiny variations in string tension with each change of bow.” As a result of this collective, long-duration practice, “we fail to have consciousness of [timbral] changes: the voices sound like something else, the violin is the echo of the saxophone, the viola is by day frightening rock ‘n’ roll orchestra [referring to Cale’s work in the Velvet Underground], by night the sawmill.” Because they are “the first generation with tape, with proper amplification,” the necessary technological changes are in place to “break down the dictatorial sonority barriers erected by the master instruments of the cultures.”

Both composers outline their compositional practice in opposition to existing “dictatorial sonority barriers” for Conrad and “secrets of structure” for Reich. In both cases, an appropriate response is formulated to work against those practices, whether it be the use of pure tunings, amplification, and drone for The Theatre of Eternal Music, or gradual and audible process for Reich. Similarly, both focus on moving away from the singular, privileged composer in favour of a music in which, on the one hand, a collective of droning performers can lose track of their own performance as each instrument begins to “sound like something else,” or, on the other, a desire to write a music in which the composer sits down and listens with the audience. Further, both highlight the centrality of listening as a means of breaking down the singular privileges of authorship: whether it be Conrad’s attention to the pitches internal to noise through “combinatorial hearing” or Reich in his central concern that the connection between process and sound be plainly recognizable through listening.

We can perhaps consider one earlier piece of pre-minimalist writing mentioned by La Monte Young in his “Lecture 1960”:

When Dennis Johnson and I were staying at Richard Maxfield’s apartment in New York, we discussed the amount of choice that a composer retained in a composition that used chance or indeterminacy. We generally agreed that the composer was always left with some choices of one sort or another. At the very least, he had to decide what chances he would take or what he would leave to indeterminacy in his composition. [Later] at my apartment in Berkeley Dennis mentioned that he had been thinking of what we had discussed in New York and that he had discovered a piece which was entirely indeterminacy [sic] and left the composer out of it. I asked, “What is it?” He tore off a piece of paper and wrote something on it. Then he handed it to me. It said, “LISTEN.”[10]

Johnson’s piece of paper inscribed “LISTEN,” if we can consider it a manifesto, might be the shortest example of that genre across any artistic or political movement. Nevertheless, it points to the central concern developed by many of the people who would come to be called minimalists a decade later: prioritizing listening over writing is the dominant means of moving beyond the Cagean challenge to authorship. It seems that many of the impulses that define how we think of minimalism—drone, stasis, pure tunings, audibility of structure, process, repetition—developed as means of enacting a non-coercive compositional authority, a way of composing music in which no one has privileged knowledge of the structure. That these features all developed long before 1973 when Gann argues minimalism appeared “spruced up and ready for company,” points all the more to the fact that the sound of minimalism was developed as part of a community that, like any other, was equally open to collaboration and to dispute. The complex problem is this: while minimalism was still cantankerous and nameless, the composers were writing from within a collaborative community; it only took on its historical image as a “pretty” style of repetitive diatonicism once musicologists turned away from the complexity of collaboration, accepting instead the inevitability of dispute.


[1] Keith Potter, Kyle Gann, and Pwyll Ap Siôn, editors, The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music. (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), 4-6.

[2] Kyle Gann, “Minimalism Isn’t Pretty” in Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 203-7.

[3] Branden Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Verso, 2011), 37.

[4] Timothy Johnson, “Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style, or Technique?” Musical Quarterly 78/4 (1994), 742-773.

[5] Robert Carl, Terry Riley’s In C (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 44.

[6] Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 34-6.

[7] See, for example: Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music (London: Kahn & Averill, 1983), 54; Keith Potter, Four Musical Minimalists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175; K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon,. 1996), 227; Edward Strickland, Minimalism: Origins (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 198; Sumanth Gopinath, “Contraband Children: The Politics of Race and Liberation in the Music of Steve Reich, 1965-1966” (PhD Dissertation, Yale University 2005), 59 (footnote 78); and Ross Cole, “‘Sound Effects, (OK Music)’: Steve Reich and the Visual Arts in New York City, 1966-1968” in Twentieth-Century Music 11/2 (2014), 239.

[8] See Reich (2002), 31.

[9] All quotes from this paragraph from Tony Conrad, “Inside the Dream Syndicate”, Film Culture 41 (1966), 1-8.

[10] La Monte Young, “Lecture 1960” The Tulane Drama Review 10/2 (1965), 73-83.


Patrick Nickleson

Patrick Nickleson is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of Toronto. His dissertation–supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada—focuses on the politics of authorship, collaboration, and dispute in early minimalism.

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One thought on “Manifesting Community in Early Minimalism

  1. Jeff Winslow

    While it’s true that minimalism as conceived by Reich works against the (near) auditory irrelevance of structure to the listener’s experience, it retains another 20th century audience-alienating factor: the emphasis on how a work is made rather than what it evokes in its listeners. For this (type of) minimalist composer, just like the practitioners of total serialism and Cagean chance, the audience matters only to the degree it’s willing to share the composer’s concerns.

    But why should listeners even want to feel a sense of equality with the composer? (Indeed, many these days have little idea what a composer even does.) The audience has its own concerns, orthogonal to the question. Obviously “Reichian” minimalism addresses some of them – witness the continuing popularity of his music. But it’s a half-solution at best.

    An interesting read on the subject is Richard Taruskin, “The Poietic Fallacy”. Old news now, maybe, but worth keeping in mind.

    Reply

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