Sunday, January 31, 2010

Classical Nerdage: Minimalism

Recently Ive been hanging out at the IC office quite a bit. Ive heard a lot of music by Philip Glass playing in Mr. Cobras office and its inspired me to do another post on classical music.

This time I'm going to cover a movement rather then one specific composer. This movement is called "Minimalism".

Minimalism began in the bay area during the 1960's amidst the drugs, rock n roll, and freaks that are most often associated with the region at the time. The story begins at UC Berkeley with a couple of guys who could easily have been mistaken for some of the Haight Ashbury types at first glance. The story really starts with La Monte Young...

La Monte was a talented jazz saxophonist early on. I don't know how many of you guys nerd out on jazz but La Monte actually beat out Eric Dolphy for a seat in the Los Angeles City College. La Monte ended up in Berkeley, CA where he began to get more and more interested in long sustained tones (according to La Monte it was a life long obsession, so perhaps its more accurate to say that he began playing or writing them). In 1958 Young wrote the first piece that was referred to as minimalist, titled, Trio for Strings. With its long sustained tones, countered by long sustained silence, this piece is closer to drone then the dense, rhythmic music of the others associated with this movement. La Monte has been cited as an influence several times by the always hyped drone metal duo Sunn O))). While he was part of the minimalist scene and is most often mentioned in relation to it, his music is unique and not quite like the rest of the guys associated with the style.

While at UC Berkeley La Monte met and began a life long friendship with fellow composer, Terry Riley...

Riley began experimenting at the San Francisco Tape Music Center during the 60's as did another minimalist, Steve Reich. More about him in a minute. Terry Riley composed the definitive "minimalist" piece in 1964 called In C. Originally this was a tape piece consisting of 53 short loops, all in the key of C major. The loops are played in different combinations throughout the piece. It is commonly performed by real live musicians. Here's a preview...

This piece has been a source of inspiration for many people outside of the "classical" scene. One of the more notable examples are Japan's, Acid Mothers Temple. They recorded an album creatively titled "In C" in 2002 which included their interpretation of the piece (Check out a preview here).

This is a perfect example of the style that has come to be called minimalism. Philip Glass has been vocal about his opposition to the term "minimalism". He prefers the title "music with repetitive structures". That doesn't quite have the same ring to it but it is definitely a better description.
Whatever you want to call it you have to agree that this stuff puts you in a unique mood. All the repetition almost can make you feel like your in a trance. African tribes have used repetitive rhythms to prepare for war or hunting. There is definitely something primal about music like this. The combination of the western classical instruments and approach to harmony makes for some good listening.

A more recent photo of Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and La Monte's wife, Mariam Zarzeela

Those crispy critters above are what I'll call the "west coast minimalists". Although La Monte Young moved to New York in the 60's and still resides there today, he retains a certain west coast aesthetic that can't really be denied. Both of the above were open about using drugs in the 60's. Terry Riley has a tape piece titled "Mescalin Mix" and La Monte has stated that he hardly remembers the 60's at all. Both got more into some pretty far out ideas (especially La Monte) later in life.

There are two other major figures in this movement which could be called the "east coast minimalists". The first is Steve Reich...

In my opinion Steve Reich has written some of the better music in this style. Reich spent a majority of his life in New York, but is no stranger to the west coast. Early in life Steve's parents divorced so he split his time between Los Angeles and Manhattan. He traveled back and forth by train which he says sparked his initial interest in repetition and rhythm. Later on he spent time in the bay area at the tape music center where he made some pretty trippy pieces. I could have written a full post on Steve's music alone. There are no shortage of gems in his "discography".
Two essentials are Music for 18 Musicians and Different Trains. I'm also pretty fond of Electric Counterpoint myself. Any of you who play drums or who have some knowledge of music theory should check out Drumming. That shit will melt your brain, no joke.

The final major figure in Minimalism, also hailing from New York, is Philip Glass.

Glass is one of the best known contemporary composers today (second only to John Williams Id say). Philip was recently featured on IC here. I, like many people today, was introduced to contemporary classical music through Philip Glass. These days I don't listen to much of his music. Nothing against the guy, a lot of his stuff just sounds the same to me. A couple exceptions are, Einstein on the Beach and the soundtrack to The Hours for solo piano.
Even still hes undeniably a major force in modern music and was another key player in the minimalist movement. In fact if you talk to him hell tell you that he created the whole thing himself. Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who were at one point close friends, no longer talk to one another because Philip has denied Reich (or Riley and Young for that matter) contributed in any way to his idea. A bit of an egomaniac Id say but that's just my opinion.

There's one final composer to be mentioned when talking about minimalism. This is John Adams...

John Adams is a little younger then the previous four composers. While he wasn't there for the first days of minimalism his music has become synonymous with the style. On top of writing some sweet tunez this dude is also a pretty funny, down to earth guy. A lot of composers tend to come off as overly academic, snobbish, and self important. John Adams is a welcome exception to that stereotype. To get a sense of his personality check out his blog Hell Mouth.

Ready to check some of this stuff out?

Check out In C by Terry Riley here.
Purchase here.

Check out Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich here.
Purchase here.

Check out Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass here and here.
Purchase here.

Check out Shaker Loops by John Adams here.
Purchase here.

Check out the Black Album from La Monte Young here.
As far as purchasing goes...

La Monte has rarely been recorded and the little that has been is usually done in a small press. At Amoeba records here in San Francisco they have one DVD available from him (which is the most they've had in the 4 years Ive frequented the store). Its priced close to $1,000. So basically your not going to be able to be able to buy anything from this guy for a while. Were it not for the internet I don't know that I would ever have got the opportunity to hear anything by him, unless I was to go to New York and see him live. This album is a little weird so be warned. Its drones, the first track is sine waves and the second is La Monte and his wife singing. This might not be your cup of tea but I wanted to include it anyways.

Nerd out!



love yer blog
link up?
check mine out! NO BEAST SO FIERCE

Helm said...

I prefer Reich and Riley from this lineup. Salome Dances for Piece and Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards.

Mister Booze said...

Great post. You are right about putting you in a "different mood" and feeling like you are in a trance or something. Thanks for sharing.

Shelby Cobras said...

Epic post, broseph. Nice work.
I'm downloading all this stuff now.

Soon I will get tuned into the Ganja Vibration and totally mellow out on some stony minimalist jams.

Shelby Cobras said...

Whoa. Einstein On The Beach is blowing my mind right now, and I'm really digging the Reich stuff too. My apologies to Mr. Young, but I don't think I can hang with 40 minutes of sine waves. Not "intellectual" enough for me.

Peter said...

I agree with you Helm. I like a lot of what Riley did in the 70's and prior but Im picky about more recent stuff. Reich is consistently on point even now. The double sextet that came out last year was killer.
I really enjoy the Well Tuned Piano by La Monte, and seeing the Dream House in New York was pretty epic. Beyond that I enjoy his personality and ideas more then most of the music.

Shelby, I thought you might like Einstein on the Beach. You should read up on that a little bit, in retrospect I should have attached a bit more of an explanation... Some epic shit goes during in its performance.

Steven said...

Not really down with minimalism in general, although I do have an excellent S Reich album back home, and I think the Koyannisqatsi soundtrack is very cool.

Gonna hafta wait til the weekend to take all this in. Thanks Mr Peter...

Viagra said...

Not big fan of minimalism either, am not quite sure if I'll ever be into int, am more the type that likes complex and some times mind blowing compositions.