Minimal Music, Maximal Impact

Minimal Music, Maximal Impact

Historical Parallels

Minimalism has generated a tremendous amount of resentment and rancor within academia. One of my graduate professors, for example, was denied tenure in the 1980s because, he was told, “You brought the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass into the classroom, and we don’t want this school associated with that kind of music.” (Don’t worry, Northwestern: you’re not associated with that music.) But for anyone who really knew the history of music, the inevitable appearance of minimalism should have been predictable.

The rise of an extremely simple musical style after the exhaustive development of a complex older style is a musico-historical phenomenon so periodic in its recurrence that you’d think we’d just get used to it.

In the late 16th century, Renaissance polyphony had evolved to a tremendous peak of perfection in the works of Palestrina: perfection, and, I would argue, also a kind of sterile formulaicity. (It’s more difficult to tell apart the masses of Palestrina than the more varied, more individual masses of the earlier, less formulaic Josquin des Prez.) No one could go any further in the development of the polyphonic vocal style than Palestrina did. So up rose a new, ludicrously simple idiom founded by amateurs in Florence, the inventors of opera (Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini). This was dull, simplistic music – but one of the greatest composers of all time, Claudio Monteverdi, got interested, and helped develop it into what we now know as the great musical tradition of the Baroque Era.

That Baroque Era that started out so simple grew and grew in ornateness and sophistication and complexity until it reached a culmination in the works of J. S. Bach. Like Palestrina, Bach brought the musical language he’d inherited to a peak of perfection that no younger composer was going to surpass. So the younger composers, like Sammartini, started writing, again, a ludicrously simple new style of music based on vernacular influences: the Rococo symphony. Eventually Haydn came along, saw a lot of potential in the symphony, and turned it into the basis for another 150-year long stylistic period.

So zip ahead to the mid-20th century. Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez develop the 12-tone language to a point of almost unimaginable, and certainly unbeatable, complexity. What did they think was going to happen? Once again a new, simpler style was going to rise up in reaction, simplistic at first, but offering tremendous potential for new developments: Minimalism.

Unalterable fact of life: Ambitious young artists like to make their individual mark on something. And when older composers say to younger composers, “Here is the musical language we have perfected, there is nothing more to do but continue it and follow in our footsteps,” there are two possible reactions. (I think which one you take depends on how you feel about your father.) Some of the young composers will be “good little boys and girls,” slavishly go along with the older composers, defend that old style at all costs, and banish anyone who departs from it. But other, more ambitious young composers will say, “The hell with that, I’m not going to spend my life in the shadow of old men,” and they will start something new and brash, no matter how rough, how simplistic, how in need of development.

So it happens over and over, yet we never learn. The musical establishment always gets furious, and excommunicates the brash young composers as infidels. Composers in the new style, whether Baroque, Rococo, or Minimalist, are denied tenure, or the equivalent. Yet the 20th century was the first century in which we possessed enough knowledge of the patterns of music history that everything could have turned out differently. Musicologists could have been fascinated to watch the process by which one of the new, simpler styles takes root. Instead, our musical academics were just as unconscious and ignorant as Zarlino and Artusi in the early 17th century. I still, today, get pleas for help from student composers trying to perform and study even early minimalist music against the unbending resistance of their professors.

What makes advocacy of the new style valid, though, is partly the assumption that the new style will ultimately develop into something more subtle and complex. To an extent, I agree with the academics’ evaluative pronouncements on Piano Phase and Einstein on the Beach: that music’s too simple, too obvious to sustain interest forever. But it provided young composers with new prototypes and paradigms on which a new musical style could be based.

Where the public and professors agree is that nothing has grown out of minimalism, that it’s been a fruitless dead end. And that’s where they’re both wrong. They’re just not listening. Because at least two large-scale and very intriguing movements have grown from minimalism. I call them postminimalism and totalism.

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