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The Growing Debate Over Minimalism : Four composers' views on minimal music--where it's been, where it's going and what's the brouhaha?

June 18, 1989|DONNA PERLMUTTER

"Now, hardly anyone takes such a stand. What we have is the quick fix, the need for instant self-gratification. And that accounts for this utterly unchallenging, unprovocative kind of music. In fact, it accounts for the general ills of our society--all the way up to our government leaders.

"These days it's a question of how many clap the longest and loudest. Nothing is being asked of the creator or the recipient."

Lest his comments be seen as sour grapes, the composer points out that he "has as much work, and more, as I can handle."

Certainly Wuorinen practices the fire and brimstone that he preaches. In order to uphold his lofty standards, he founded a chamber orchestra, the Group for Contemporary Music. Without absolutely compelling performances, he argues, there can be no persuasion of a difficult work's excellence. Too often, he believes, unconvincing accounts of new music give it a bad name. And too often symphony orchestra musicians show the same skepticism as audiences.

If anything, players do not embrace the typically simplistic examples of minimalism. For example, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic played an excerpt of Philip Glass' "the CIVIL warS" several years ago, the musicians deliberately turned pages noisily to express their contempt of its incessant arpeggio repetitions and limited harmonic interest.

Wuorinen, apparently unmollified by this response, fears that "the distinction between art and entertainment no longer exists. . . . We've succeeded in cheapening art and ruining entertainment. By making popularity the touchstone, we rationalize that we're being democratic and realistic."

His favorite anecdote on the subject of music's lowered standards involves a composing student who naively told a professor that he wanted to be famous and loved and popular.

"How popular?" asked the professor. "As popular as Schoenberg? But Stravinsky is more popular than Schoenberg. As popular as Stravinsky?But Beethoven is more popular than Stravinsky. As popular as Beethoven?But Tchaikovsky is more popular than Beethoven. As popular as Tchaikovsky?But Lawrence Welk is more popular than Tchaikovsky."

So much for goals and definitions of popularity.

"Our refusal to be serious," Wuorinen says, "can be seen in this surge of anti-intellectualism and yahooism. It's been going on for 25 years. If things don't change--and I don't think they will--serious music will disappear."

John Adams: Dividing Art Between 'Serious' and Unworthy Is Far Too Simplistic

John Adams, a Grammy laureate of different flora altogether, stays happily out of academic gardens. Right now, he's fielding phone calls from maverick director Peter Sellars, among others, in his hotel room, having just finished rehearsing the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for a concert of 20th-Century music.

He says this is a convenient time to talk, "if you don't mind interruptions. I have about 15 minutes before rushing out to a dinner engagement."

Adams has barely said this before another call comes in--this one from Lisa Klinghoffer, daughter of Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound American murdered aboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by an Arab terrorist in 1985.

What the 42-year-old composer of "Nixon in China" and "Harmonium" is doing is another opera based on current affairs--this one recounting the above incident. It too will enlist Sellars as collaborator. Commissioned by six opera companies, the work will have its world premiere in Brussels in 1991.

Adams has already pondered the debate over minimalism. Creators in a given field always seem to know who their detractors are and what they're saying.

"In fact, I couldn't be happier to answer Charles and his criticisms," says Adams. "It's something I've never had the chance to do before. Frankly, (pause) I think he's a square.

"To make arbitrary divisions between what is serious and what is outside the worthwhile realm is just too simplistic. Has he ever considered that Shakespeare and Goethe drew on the vernacular? That they were hardly averse to referring to their own contemporary culture? This is what Sellars does so brilliantly. It's essential to utilize the environment we are part of, rather than cut ourselves off from it."

The argument that art and entertainment run along clear-cut and separate paths is one that Adams doesn't buy. While he concedes that Lawrence Welk and Liberace are "strictly entertainers," too many others defy such easy categorization.

He hastens to add that his own music was intended to have entertainment value--"so did Mozart and Ravel acknowledge it, as well as all the great composers did, until these self-appointed guardians of theory came into existence." But he finds "the dour, grim attitude behind art for art's sake to be phony."

As for minimalism, per se, he does not object categorically to the term.

"I don't know if there's any more antipathy to it than to catch-all labels in the past. Picasso probably didn't like being called a Cubist, simply because it unfairly limited his identity.

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