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Minimal Fanfare, Please

Our three most famous living composers are now 60 and 50. Time to celebrate--and contemplate.

May 04, 1997|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Classical music can never get enough of birthdays and anniversaries. Concert halls and record companies everywhere are busily milking Schubert's 200th birthday and the 100th anniversary of Brahms' death, both of which occur this season. New York, San Francisco, London and Vienna know it is a big California year, what with their aggressive celebrations of Henry Cowell's 100th and Lou Harrison's 80th birthdays. This is also a milestone year for opera, which began as an experiment in Florence 400 years ago.

But there is an additional set of birthdays this season which have not yet been getting quite the attention they deserve. Partly that may be because Steve Reich (who was 60 in October), Philip Glass (whose 60th birthday occurred on Jan. 31) and John Adams (who reached 50 on Feb. 15)--the three dominant voices of Minimalism--are America's three most famous living composers, and we easily take them for granted.

But mainly it's because the party is just getting started.

Although there have been some local Reich concerts this season, and Glass passed through town with a piano recital, the big events are still to come. This Friday, Adams will be on hand as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to lead the first local performance of his most celebrated recent work, the Violin Concerto, with Gidon Kremer as soloist. And the following week, Reich arrives in Orange County to present the West Coast premiere of his largest-scale work, "The Cave," a modern-day biblical epic for musicians and video, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, beginning on May 15. In October, UCLA will present Glass' latest music theater work, "Les Enfants Terribles," a collaboration with the choreographer Susan Marshall based on the Jean Cocteau film. In addition, Nonesuch will release 10-CD retrospective box sets for each birthday boy, beginning with Reich later this month.

It's hard not to see this confluence of birthdays as a coming-of-age for Minimalism. However much the more conventional side of the musical establishment may still hate it, Minimalism now takes its place with the other major stylistic movements of the century--the Serialism, or 12-tone music, of Schoenberg and his disciples; the neo-Classicism of Stravinsky; the Impressionism of Debussy, or the Boulez-led postwar avant-garde.


Minimalism is typically considered a '60s reaction against the forbidding 12-tone music promulgated in Europe and pursued by specialist composers at American universities. Twelve-tone music's tightly layered complexities had little to offer a generation that grew up on popular culture and social activism. Simple harmonies and strung-out repetitions were far more relevant.

Early on, Minimal music was equated with the Minimalist movement in the visual arts, in which painting and sculpture were reduced to elemental color and basic shapes. But, in fact, it's always been different, serving more as a receptacle that could be filled with music of just about any kind, from high culture to popular, from world music to Mozart. Reich, for instance, poured into his Minimalist patterns techniques he learned studying drumming in Ghana and the gamelan orchestra in Indonesia. And he is still questing and pouring to this day. "The Cave" generates pitch and rhythmic patterns from documentary recordings of Jews and Moslems in America and the Middle East responding to questions about the Bible.

Similar musical accommodation has also allowed Glass--and Terry Riley (Minimalism's senior figure, having turned 60 two years ago)--to employ rhythmic and melodic procedures inspired by Indian raga. Adams has been able to remain closer to home demonstrating that even the style of Schoenberg and Sibelius can be compatible with Minimalist thinking. The British composer Michael Nyman, who is credited with applying the art term of Minimalism to music and making it stick (others had come up with much worse, such as the pejorative No Nothing Nihilism), made pieces out of Purcell and Mozart. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen let his interest in Stravinsky and black American popular music guide his particularly hard-edged variety of Minimalism.

The reason for this accommodation lies in the fact that Minimalism didn't originate purely as an act of rebellion (that came later). It has always also encompassed synthesis.

Its first popular piece was Terry Riley's "In C," which had its premiere at the San Francisco Tape Center in 1964, and seemed a radical departure from all music that had come before it. But "In C," with its hypnotic pulse and its stringing out of small melodic cells around one tonality, was really the culmination of an exploration that Riley had begun with his friend La Monte Young some years earlier--not a clean break with tradition.

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