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Making most out of Minimalist Jukebox

The two-week program ends without clearing its identity issues, but the music itself mesmerizes.

April 03, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"I am a Minimalist," Glenn Branca cheerfully proclaimed to a cheering crowd Saturday afternoon in Disney Hall.

His contribution to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's jubilant Minimalist Jukebox may have been a symphony for 100 electric guitars that functioned at maximal volume and proved a teaming sonic event, but he is a proudly single-minded composer. And none of the other nearly two dozen composers whose music was played during the two-week festival, which ended Sunday, appear to relish the label. Maybe "For Lack of a Better Term" should have been the title of the festival, its director, composer John Adams, quipped in a talk that followed Branca's interview Saturday in Disney.

But Minimalism is the term that won't die. It is the musical style that won't die, no matter how often its death is proclaimed, even by practitioners.

Scholars and composers still argue about the meaning, as they did at a symposium sponsored by the Getty Center on Friday in conjunction with the festival. But the three final concerts heard Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Disney and the Getty meant something specific to the symphony world. Music by the likes of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen, so long neglected by the musical establishment, is exactly what can energize orchestras and create a sensation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Instrumentalist's name: A review of a Piano Spheres concert in Monday's Calendar section misspelled pianist Susan Svrcek's last name as Svreck.

Minimalism began close to a half-century ago with a drone. At the Getty on Friday, grimly serious young art historians searched for the roots of this primordial sonic goo in conceptual art. They traced the founding of Minimalism to UC Berkeley in the late 1950s, when a graduate student in the music department, La Monte Young, discovered that sustained single tones or simple chords provided -- if you listened long enough and hard enough -- consciousness-expanding sensation.

To some extent the history of Minimalism was simply a filling in of that blank slate, something that began quickly but continues on to this day. Friday night in the Getty's Harold M. Williams Auditorium, Riley, a fellow student and close friend of Young at Berkeley, proved that a profound wind still very much blows in Minimalism's sails.

The concert began with two historical rarities, a string quartet and string trio Riley wrote at Berkeley. The quartet from 1960 reveals Young's powerful influence with its drone-like chords and long silences. The trio from the following year is more active, containing active expressionist clauses he took from the European avant-garde. The Calder Quartet was stunning.

Already the filling process had begun, and it continued quickly. Within the next three years, his music became pattern based in works like Keyboard Study No. 2.

On Friday, Riley played that exercise in repeated patterns that requires complete independence of hands. Or at least he began to play the study, but during its half-hour course he took, as he later told the audience, "a couple of left turns, some intentional, some not." The left turns went through various jazz styles, seemed to land him in places in other locales -- Morocco, Mexico, India -- in a swirling, remarkably fluid fantasia.

To call this music minimal in any way is, of course, misleading. Yet Riley's ability to create a whole, to demonstrate how patterns can open up into the most varied kinds of musical experiences, was also perhaps the ultimate expression of just what an inexplicable phenomenon musical Minimalism is.

The night before was a keyboard fantasia on a grand scale when Disney was turned over to Piano Spheres. Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson and Susan Svreck began it with "Four Organs," Reich's obsessive and once notorious examination of an 11th chord played obsessively for 15 minutes, its individual notes elongated in a process that draws a listener deeper and deeper into mysteries of tonal music's ability to create and release tension.

A long concert, it contained Glass' arpeggios, Riley fooling around with ragtime, Colin McPhee's arrangement of Balinese music for two pianos (sounding like Reich), and Arvo Part "Annum per Annum" making the Disney organ sound like nothing you've ever heard before. David Lang's "Orpheus Over and Under," for two pianos, was dazzling pointillist Minimalism. A four-piano version of Andriessen's "Workers Union" at the end was a spectacular show of unity and force. Written 30 years ago, it couldn't have been more up to date musically or politically.

For the festival's finale, Adams conducted the Philharmonic in selected scenes from Glass' opera, "Akhnaten" and his own popular orchestral piece, "Harmonielehre." Both works are from the early '80s. Some would call them post-Minimalist, but it doesn't matter. They repeat. They pulse. They proffer to a listener a taste of ecstasy. Saturday, they both turned on a large audience.

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