Saturday 26 October 2013

Rising above the desert

'Desert' is probably the wrong word to describe early Minimalism: at the time it must have seemed more like a rainforest after the aridity of Darmstadt's iron rule. So in writing my Arts Desk review of the BBC Singers' and Endymion's reduced-forces version of Steve Reich's 1984 masterpiece The Desert Music, I fumbled for a compromise, 'savannah', in trying to describe the terrain from which it, and earlier (in 1980-1) John Adams's equally individual chorus-and-orchestra spectacular Harmonium, took off. Curiously, and incidentally, that same day I read a passage in Richard Mabey's bewitching Nature Cure where another of my heroes used the term 'savannah' for an image in a different context.

As ever, in trying to sum up what Minimalism was for the students in a 20-minute lecture-room whizz before the Milton Court concert began, and where these two composers departed from its basics, I found my Adams bible, Hallelujah Junction, indispensible. Mighty John is writing about the work in which he first found his voice, Phrygian Gates, having turned 30 by the time Mack McCray gave its premiere in 1977. Forgive me for reproducing such a large chunk of text, but it conveys everything I want to say, and more, from an insider-practitioner's perspective.

I had first heard Terry Riley's epochal In C while still living in Cambridge, probably in 1971. A friend, another composition student, invited me back to his flat with the promise of introducing me to something 'like you've never heard before.' And he was right. What he played for me was the famous Columbia Masterworks LP of the landmark piece that announced a new style in contemporary music. Terry's In C may have been to contemporary American music what Ginsberg's Howl or Kerouac's On the Road were to literature. With its insistent, unyielding high pulse on the high C of a piano and the sunny, upbeat fragments of melodies recirculating over and over in a loose polyphony, In C captured the congenial hippie spirit of the West Coast while at the same time proposing a new, slowly evolving approach to musical form. It was also marvelously provocative, giving an R. Crumb [who? I only know, and love, George*] middle finger to the crabbed, pedantic world of academic modernism.

I later heard more organized, more elegant versions of the Minimalist aesthetic when Steve Reich brought his ensemble to town in 1974. Their performance of Drumming revealed a different but equally novel take on pulsation as the guiding principle of the music - the main event, so to speak - but compared to In C, Reich's materials were more fastidiously organized and the gradual process of melodic, harmonic and timbral evolution more methodical. What also impressed me about Reich's music-making was that it was done at a high level of expertise and preparation. In contrast to the free, anarchic avant-garde happenings I'd been involved with, Reich's music used precision and balanced counterpoint to create a sound world that was carefully organized, musically engaging and sensually appealing.

...What appealed to me about these early works of Minimalism was that they did not deconstruct or obliterate the fundamental elements of musical discourse such as regular pulsation, tonal harmony or motivic repetition. Indeed they did the opposite: they embraced pulsation and repetition with an almost childlike glee. To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience.

And what of Glass? I have foresworn his company, which means that if I can avoid it I hope never to sit through one of his symphonies or operas again. Adams is brutally frank on the historical limitations.

...But much as they enchanted me, these Minimalist compositions felt like latter-day descendants of Baroque compositions from the 18th century. As musical organisms, the pieces were largely monolithic, their expressive worlds more often than not confined to a single affect. One spoke of trances or hypnotic states. That was both the brilliance of the style's originality and the conundrum of how to make it evolve into a language of greater subtlety...Much of his [Glass's] symphonic music, such as the 1996 'Heroes' Symphony, based on songs by David Bowie and Brian Eno, moves among simple, familiar harmonies in regular symmetrical units of two and four bars, while the orchestration, once established for a movement, remains more or less unchanged.  

Those are shortcomings you won't find in The Desert Music or Harmonium. Which is why I'm still startled when someone else labels Reich and Adams (pictured above, much more recently than Reich, by his superb photographer partner Deborah O'Grady) American Minimalists. I've just read an annoying interview in the latest BBC Music Magazine with John Tavener, who says he hates that 'school' on the whole: 'John Adams bores me to tears'. Tavener's longer rituals bore me to tears, as it happens. Adams bores me never, even if I respond to some works more enthusiastically than to others.

The Desert Music certainly isn't for trance states; as Reich says in an interview on the original LP, 'I actually prefer the music to be heard by somebody who's totally wide awake, hearing more than he or she usually does, rather than by someone who's just spaced out and receiving a lot of ephemeral impressions.' As the poetry of William Carlos Williams, a real revelation to me, has it as set in the fourth movement, 'I am wide/awake. The mind/is listening.' The below is a fine performance, even if the choir doesn't 'get' the text in the same way American or British forces seem to.

The opening is anything but Minimalist-diatonic basic: in fact so much of the piece lives in a state of suspension, like Tristan und Isolde, or anxiety (specifically about the nuclear threat) that the hint of an F major resolution, still ambiguous, makes the ending especially luminous.

In that context, I proposed to my great blogging friend Susan Scheid over on Prufrock's Dilemma that we each give a list of 20th century works offering affirmative capability, even if that only comes at the end of the masterpiece in question, one per decade. Here are mine today (they could of course change tomorrow). The Desert Music slotted into the 1980s only by postponing Adams for the 1990s

1900s: Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. It was actually composed in 1899, but the Rosé Quartet and two players from the Vienna Philharmonic gave the original sextet premiere in 1902.

1910s: Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Especially apt since Salome and Elektra had preceded it.

1920s: tricky - Prokofiev's The Prodigal Son is suitable because of the beautiful homecoming, but Nielsen's Fifth Symphony is the greater work.

1930s Britten's Paul Bunyan. Such optimism, such a libretto (Auden). Having recently been faced with the possibility that several of the 'mature' operas, one especially, might not be as great as I thought they were, I love it the more.

1940s: should really be dividied into war and post-war years, but this is a celebration that manages to be rooted and iconoclastic at the same time: Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony with its crazy final blaze of a chord out-Scriabining Scriabin.

1950s: Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. That finale really is raucously celebratory, not hollow, I fancy, with the rampaging of the composer's personal signature. And Stalin really was dead, even if the composer had no great optimism about his successors.

1960s: Poulenc's Gloria. Hits the heights more surely than the earlier Stabat Mater, which I heard on Wednesday and found it eclipsed by Prokofiev's painfully beautiful Seventh Symphony.

1970s: Bernstein's Mass. I see I've gone to the New World for later 20th century optimism from this point on.

1980s: Reich's The Desert Music

1990s: Adams's El Niño. Cheating in quite the opposite way to my choice of Verklärte Nacht: I assume work began at least a couple of years before the Paris premiere in December 2000. Looking forward to hearing it shorn of its Peter Sellars production overload when Jurowski conducts it towards the end of The Rest is Noise festival.

*Howard Lane clarified below: 'R. Crumb is the signature of the cartoonist Robert Crumb of Fritz the Cat, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Mr Natural fame.'

UPDATE (28/10) Notice board for pre-performance talks I'm involved with this week - four on the trot:

Wednesday 30 October: talking to Michail (father of Vladimir) Jurowski in the Royal Festival Hall about his LPO performance of Schnittke's First Symphony. Sorry to hear that Sasha Ivashkin, who knew Schnittke well, has written and/or put together two marvellous books about him and interprets the great man's cello works as well as anyone, is ill and had to cancel his play-and-talk event: hence this different combination.

Thursday 31 October: Up to Birmingham for a talk before Sinaisky conducting the CBSO in Rachmaninov's The Bells.

Friday 1 November: prefacing the brilliant Belceas' Wigmore performance of quartets by Britten and Shostakovich.

Saturday 2 November: back to the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican to chat with Tristan Murail and say a bit about Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto and Mahler's First Symphony before Sakari Oramo's first official concert as the BBCSO's chief conductor.


Susan Scheid said...

Oh, am I in seventh heaven with this post—not to mention your review over on TAD, where I'm pleased to report my comment seems to have gone through (though awaiting moderation). Bravo, David. Bravo, bravo. You touch all the bases, with the smarts and with the goods, including taking on the "lazy-listening trance" of Glass. Lazy composing, too. Reich's music is enthralling, definitely for "somebody who's totally wide awake, hearing more than he or she usually does, rather than by someone who's just spaced out and receiving a lot of ephemeral impressions." What a great quote that is! And of course Adams has it exactly right, doesn't he, as always? Tavener's comment reveals nothing about Adams and much about Tavener, most of all that he isn't listening. As an aside, another comment from Adams I love is that about his move away from minimalism, as we've heard so clearly in recent pieces, like the String Quartet and the Gospel According to the Other Mary (I would say the Violin Concerto, too, among others). As a further aside, I see I must get down to work on my “decades” list. So far, it has me stumped, as there are too many I want to include! In the meantime, here’s a “musical paths” approach I’ve been thinking about: Beethoven to Mahler to Shostakovich to Gubaidulina.)

David said...

Yes, Sue, Reich is just as good with words as Adams, isn't he? We need both of them out there telling it like it is.

I think Adams moved away from minimalism pretty sharpish: compare the opening of Nixon in China, which sounds as if it's going to make slow progress but modulates a minute or so in with any work by Glass. And he just keeps evolving.

Be interested to know about more about your 'musical paths' - a fascinating idea. One could also see how far one could steer away from the first composer by outlandish links.

Still reeling from last night's BBC Symphony programme - another Barbican alternative to the Southbank's The Rest is Noise. Oh, the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos: do listen on the iPlayer...

Howard Lane said...

My exposure to Philip Glass has been mostly, er, minimal, and although I prefer Terry Riley, particularly A Rainbow In Curved Air as well as In C, I have no great aversion to Glass. The repetitive patterns of the music and film in Koyaanisqatsi were perfectly matched, and both meditatively hypnotic and thought-provoking at the same time.

I also liked the 10th Symphony at the Prom this year, although it was partnered unfavourably with some orchestrated Nancarrow (who deserves much greater exposure) and I'm partial to the occasional spin of my Kronos Quartet Glass disc. I don't have the experience of sitting through any of his operas of course, and that may count in some part to your dislike.

Coming at this perhaps more from the non-classical side I hear rhythmic repetition as the principal feature of Riley's music. That ties him quite closely to an art music tradition of both Europe and North America, the likes of The Velvet Underground (R.I.P Lou Reed), Can, Faust and Neu from Germany, Eno etc. Much of this music is non-scored, improvised, drawing on rock music and available to non professionals or self-taught musicians of all standards. Riley, Cornelius Cardew and Eno with The Portsmouth Sinfonia all specifically designed works to be accessible to all. Reich develops repetitiveness with extra layers of subtlety, complexity, and phase shifting, and consciously draws on African influences which the hypnotic rock stoner jammers get instinctively from the blues tradition. His work is only for professionals, preferably his own group.

To me Glass and Adams fall into a different area which has greater affinity with electronic music. I mean the music of programmed synthesizers rather than the abstractions of Stockhausen and Boulez. Sequencers repeat melodic phrases or create complex interweaving patterns. This is Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder territory, and all scored out with no improvisation or aleatory elements. But none of this repetition of patterns or of rhythms is all that minimal. It's all busy with a lot of detail, and many notes and beats. Traditional techniques of melody and orchestration may be minimised, but it doesn't equate to minimism as an artistic concept like Rothko or Mondrian.

That requires the stillness of Górecki, Pärt or Feldman, as well the ambient styles of Eno and Hans-Joachim Rodelius.

R. Crumb is the signature of the cartoonist Robert Crumb of Fritz the Cat, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Mr Natural fame.

David said...

I wonder what you found 'thought provoking' about Glass's score for Koyannisqatsi, though, Howard? I think it's more the question of being able to embrace more challenging harmonies, tonalities and the fullest variety of instrumental colour - ie to be considered serious composers beyond the realms of pop music - which sets Reich and Adams, sorry, not apart from Glass but infinitely better than. They could do what he did, but they chose to move on, to evolve, as he has not.

When you say 'accessible to all', do you mean to non professional performers as opposed to non trained listeners, to whom Reich's and Adams's music is certainly 'accessible' in its emotional richness? Isn't that accessible performing incredibly limiting, once done? And how about melody/idea, which moves beyond pattern and syntheisized patternmaking? That's Adams, that's Reich, it's not Glass.

But I have not enough experience of so much whereof you speak, and it's fairly alien to me, I'll admit.

Susan Scheid said...

Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air is certainly a piece I admire. Beyond that, many of Howard Lane’s comments I find mystifying, so of course I must ask.

Regarding the statement about Reich that “His work is only for professionals, preferably his own group,” I can’t imagine what would lead HL to say that (forgive the shorthand, please!). Music for 18 Musicians, as an example, has been embraced by so many ensembles, amateur and professional, it’s hard to imagine the basis for the statement, so I’m wondering, what has led HL to think this?

Regarding the statement about Glass and Adams that “To me Glass and Adams fall into a different area which has greater affinity with electronic music. I mean the music of programmed synthesizers rather than the abstractions of Stockhausen and Boulez.” First, on what basis are Glass and Adams put in the same category? What are the compositions on which HL relies? Glass had a (very) few musical ideas on which he has leaned ever since. Adams, in stark contrast, has continued to expand his musical vocabulary and has left minimalism well behind. On what basis is it possible to say that Adams’s Violin Concerto or String Quartet bear any relationship at all to the electronic music of programmed synthesizers? Light Over Water, maybe, which was an electronica-based piece, using primitive equipment, but that was so early on as not to be contemplated when discussing Adams’s music now.

David said...

My head was spinning a bit after reading Howard's comment so thanks, Sue, for making a few more clear demands. And Howard, we love your comments, so please don't think this is an attack - just a desire to clarify. Of course after this you might just go away, but I hope very much not.

Roger Neill said...

When I chaired Endymion in the late 80s and through the 90s,the players wouldn't countenance performing this sort of thing, although I do remember a really wonderful performance of Morton Feldman's extraordinary piece for clarinet and string quartet... Mark van de Wiel risking his sanity.
I wonder what changed their minds?

David said...

The fact that The Desert Music is a bloody masterpiece, Roger? Lots of variety for them, too, not just counting the bars...Krysia smiled her way through it (what a lot of stars in that band!)

Glad that the wheat is being sorted from the chaff as time goes on...only in the last couple of years have I seen a general acknowledgment that Darmstadt was only one phase among others, 'important for the history of music, if not for music' as that colleague of Prokofiev put it (I love that phrase and cling to it).

Susan Scheid said...

Just to echo what David said, I also was fascinated, if more than a bit puzzled, by your comments, Howard Lane, and hope you will come back and say more.

Anonymous said...

David: Uh-oh. I returned to give a second listen to The Desert Music and send you a quick thank you for recommending Richard Mabey's "Nature Cure." This is the second recent post where you have referred to the book, so I guess it's in your mind - and now it's in my mind. Unfamiliar, I read an online review, written by the perfect sort of person - someone who had to read it, didn't think she could finish such a book, and ended enamoured. Added to your recommendation, her review has convinced me that reading this book is probably something I have needed for some time but wasn't ready even to begin considering until now. I found it on Amazon (gently used - hurray!), where it awaits my right moment. So I came to listen again and thank, and .. uh-oh .. I've read the conversation above. The reviewer calls Nature Cure "a page-lingerer more than a page-turner," right in my comfort zone. I'll be brave here and admit to being musically "someone who's just spaced out and receiving a lot of ephemeral impressions." Today I am inspired by a reviewer who pushed through a book that isn't her usual style and learned she could appreciate something different. I commented something like this to Susan earlier this year, and I will say it to you now: keep writing, and I'll keep listening, and I may learn to stretch! -- Elizabeth

David said...

You're in for a book of great wisdom, Elizabeth, and I'll admit that Mabey's relatively brief descriptions of his crippling depression chimed with my experience. This isn't just a glib 'nature will make it better', because for him - and for me - for the duration it didn't. When the time was right, he moved on to a different landscape.

He's especially on my mind because rather spontaneously, heading out yesterday to his neck of the woods, the beautiful Chilterns, we decided to go out of our way to find his wood, the one he bought for the community and which, he having sold it, still belongs to them thanks to a Lottery Fund grant. I was also aware that the big storm advertised for the small hours of this morning might destroy many trees. It did, but I don't know what happened there. Will be writing about this anon.

I love the breadth of what you're saying, but what did you actually think about The Desert Music? It's such impressions that I find especially interesting.

Sure Howard will be back, Sue.

Susie Self said...

Very interesting conversation. Reich is without doubt the star of this troupe although I am sometimes pleasantly suprised by Glass, Like in the violin concerto. Adams I feel is not truly in the minimalist groove , often selling his soul to the devil and making sentimental music. As a composer myself I believe there is a lot more to squeeze out of this seam.

David said...

Again, how opinions differ. The 'without doubt' is yours, Susie, not mine: by the time of Reich's The Cave and Adams's later operas, the two are incomparable. Adams was actually true to himself in getting out of the minimalist groove: being exclusively stuck in it quickly became the problem. Reich's big move, of course, was speech melody, with Different Trains the seminal work and The Cave its apogee.

I'd argue Adams often saves his soul with sentimentality - as our English master always used to say, it was over-sentimentality which one had to beware - rather than selling it to the devil. Once or twice, yes, he did give listeners too much of what he thought they wanted but I believe he's moved on.

But both Reich and Glass could 'do' the Glass style whenever they wanted - as, it seems to me, can anyone (worst being Nyman and Muhly). Is Glass's Violin Concerto better than most of the rest? I have Kremer's recording, and it seems more of the same to me. As film music, his style can still work in a rather lazy way.

Interesting, though, that you as a composer could mine the Minimalist vein. I'm curious to know in what context

Anonymous said...

David: The first time I listened, my computer didn't want me to listen on your website, so I went to Youtube. Youtube grouped Steve Reich with Philip Glass and Depeche Mode, as well as "Dubai Oriental Chillout Lounge Music (Deluxe and Sophisticated)" and "Wonderful Lounge Music India AND Arabic Balance." This put me in a cheerful frame of mind, and I felt receptive, as I approached "The Desert Music."
To begin, this piece is neither lounge nor chillout. What I'm trying to understand is, what about it is challenging to me? There is a repetitiveness and a building, and those qualities are pleasing to me in other music, both classical and new age. The pitch seems a bit high for comfort, but then I like violin music, which some dislike as "squeaky." Is the tension different from that in the sonatas, string quartets, Bach Cello Suites that I love? To those who immediately love this piece, surely it stands alone. For me, the quotes from Williams at the beginning of each section are important. It is explained, for instance, that we are listening, not to just a flute note, but to "the relation of a flute note to a drum." I imagine myself overhearing a conversation - which probably describes a lot of music, in a way I hadn't thought about. Here is the quote which is critical to me in this listening, at the second moderate section: "It is a principle of music to repeat the theme. Repeat and repeat again, as the pace mounts. The theme is difficult but no more difficult than the facts to be resolved." Learning the inspiration for the composition, and further, the inspiration for Williams's poem, makes me feel that I understand the music better. I don't like this about myself. It feels like I'm cheating, not being able to understand artistic - and therefore, emotional - expression, without explanation.
Disappointed after my second listening, I decided to try something else by Reich, to give the artist, and his genre, another chance. Youtube offered "Music for a Large Ensemble." There are similarities with "Desert Music," especially the pace, but the atmosphere is different. For me it is reminiscent of gamelan - something like gamelan combined with rain. Gamelan is a sound I like to go on endlessly. So why don't I really want Reich's piece to continue without end? You asked me one question, and I'm afraid that my reply is just full of more questions. I might better have left it at my first comment. But I don't want to listen with my mind. I want to listen with my ears and my heart, and they are still open. -- Elizabeth

David said...

How funny, Elizabeth, the groupings. I think a difficulty to start with are the unresolved, tense and complicated chords that Reich uses throughout The Desert Music - it gives that sense of reaching out for transcendence, but finding it slips away. The WCW poems I find wonderful, and the move towards the nuclear threat (the bald prose 'poem') powerful, culminating in the violas impersonating sirens (Reich originally thought of real sirens in the score). The symmetry which doesn't quite repeat gives one a grip, too, though the long span does require the concentration of an act of Wagner.

So worth persisting, I think. If you seek further verbal footholds, the seminal beyond-minimalism piece is Different Trains, paralleling journeys across America with wartime journeys to the camps. It takes real documentary speeches - including the voice of Reich's old nanny, if I remember write - and gets a string quartet to melodise and harmonise the sentences. Just what Janacek was doing seventy or more years earlier, but to different ends. In that respect Reich was a real pioneer.

Obviously it's not worth persisting if you don't think the music is for you, but if something has provided a hook, keep the mind open and listening...

Susie Self said...

I have researched "The Cave" David, it seems an incredibly inovative approach using a searching interface between live ensemble and imaginatively provocative video. If "ensemble modern" felt I was worth doing then that certainly cements its value. In comparison Adams has returned to old symphonic ideals but he has nothing new to say, just more sturm and drang so I am afraid I can't agree. Reich is rhythmically inventive and the music thrilling, like a modern day Bach. He doesn't fall into the trap of demonising characters, so cod these days don't you think? As for Glass's violin concerto it has real quality above the filmatic. I believe there is more to discover in this vien as a composer so watch this space with my new opera!

David said...

If anyone is a 'modern day Bach', Susie, it has to be Adams in The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Whether you like it or not, you have to concede that he is doing 'something new' in it. HAVE you heard it? And there's a new-found playfulness, the polar opposite of Sturm und Drang, in a work like Absolute (Infinite) Jest: try it. Try the string quartet, too: in parts, like nothing I'd heard by Adams or anyone else. I could go on.

The last Reich I heard live, on the other hand, the Hindenburg stuff and the trilogy as work in progress, I found very disappointing.

Susan Scheid said...

What a rich and richer conversation! The difference in perspectives is fascinating, and Elizabeth’s questions, in particular, prompt me to go back and think again, what is it I like/dislike among our three protagonists here (Adams, Reich, and Glass). In responding, I’m writing not from a technical vantage point, but rather from that of my own listening experience. I have come to think that, on the whole, minimalism doesn’t often attract me—there is so much of it about and so much that is repeating endlessly what has already been said. But, that noted, I continue to find Reich enormously stimulating, and the pieces I like (Tehillim and Different Trains, to name two) I can go back to again and again without feeling I’m “done.” The issue of sonority, to which Elizabeth also points, is very interesting and makes a lot of sense to me. I would also say that listening to Reich is sometimes like taking a great big jolt of caffeine. I can’t touch “real” caffeine, but I love the jolt of, say, Six Pianos or Music for 18 Musicians. Alternatively, if I’m sitting quietly and feeling ruminative, Reich is not the one I choose. (As an aside to Elizabeth, I think you might like Lou Harrison’s Gamelan Music album.)
With Glass, for me, the opposite pertains. I have many, many friends whose opinions I respect who love Glass, and, while I understand (I think) what they each have said to me, I just can’t fathom it. I do think he is a lazy composer, recycling what he’s already done . . . repeatedly. (I can usually tell within a minute or two when something of his, even a piece I’ve not heard before, comes on the radio.) But even to the extent that might not be true, I think the real underlying problem for me with Glass is that I experience his music as lugubrious and depressing. Really depressing. The more I listen, the more weighed down (not to mention bored) I feel. The one exception to this was a Contemporaneous performance of Glass’s String Quartet No. 5. The group’s love of the piece sold me on it in performance—but I don’t go back to it. His musical world is simply not one I want to inhabit.
Adams at his best, to me, is exactly the kind of musical world—or really worlds, as he keeps evolving—in which I want to spend my time. He’s definitely not a minimalist, there I think we all agree. He went through a minimalist phase, to be sure, but then moved on. That’s part of what I find so enthralling about his music, his constant exploration and expansion of his musical language, his continuing courage to move out of his musical “comfort zone.” I, too, would point to The Gospel According to the Other Mary as a dramatic milestone on the journey, and what’s particularly exciting to me is that there is as yet no end to that journey in sight. To be sure, some Adams pieces “land” for me better than others. City Noir, for example, has been a harder piece for me to get my ears around than, say, the Violin Concerto or The Dharma at Big Sur or . . . well, the list is long. But, while some pieces may succeed better than others, I don’t hear anything in his work that suggests he’s sold his soul to the devil or pandering to what’s popular—in contrast, for example, to some current composers, who, in an understandable desire to make a living, try to compete with pop music (I think Muhly falls prey to that, for one). With Adams, I think all that he’s doing is writing the best music he knows how.

Howard Lane said...

Sorry for any lack of clarity in my previous comments. Firstly I completely agree about the brilliance of Reich and Adams. My personal preference is for Reich and I don't have as much familiarity with Adams' work (not that it's a contest), nor Philip Glass.

I'm glad to hear that Music for 18 Instruments is widely played. I would shrink from attempting its intricacies myself (even more so the Desert Music!), but I do perceive a distinction between fully scored compositions and work which by its less formal nature is available for non-readers to play. This doesn't necessarily mean it's lower quality, but it may fall into the category of "rock" music, like Terry Riley whose albums had a wide popular appeal and were clearly partly improvised. Unlike other contemporary compositions so-called minimalism has a broader context that includes Eno and many others in the non-classical field. There is much cross-fertilisation and Steve Reich is greatly revered, not least as a performer himself.

This is where I perceive a distinction between the repetitive/percussive style with which many people will be familiar from, for example, the Velvet Underground, (the combination of John Cale's work with La Monte Young and Lou Reed's street experience), and the more melodic repeating lines of Philip Glass, and Reich and Adams, however much these two have now moved on from Glass' more limited approach. The comparison with programmed synthesizers is not that they used them, but that the technique is similar. Unlike more improvised minimalism, there is little aleatory freedom to vary the material in either a musical score or an electronic sequence. This is merely an observation not a criticism.

Worth investigating: Eno's "Music for Airports" or the "space rock without the rock" of Cluster II. Perhaps with a nod to Glass' "Low Symphony", Spotify users can now hear LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy's latest David Bowie remix "Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA)".

I don't use Spotify myself so I'll have to wait until it's available elsewhere to hear it!

David said...

Oh, this is what I do so love about blog-comment discussions: in trying to define our points of view we hopefully get a little clearer (though I must say that Sue was clear from the start) and maybe make a few concessions.

And now I've been up against, by contrast, the knottiest music possible, Lutoslawski and Schnittke, in one of the most amazing concerts I've ever attended. Actually I knew it would be when I sat down this morning with a score and a Rozhdestvensky recording of Schnittke's First Symphony.

So THIS is the natural heir to Shostakovich's Fourth, doing to us now what S4 must have done to first-time listeners at the long delayed 1960s premiere.

More I shall say in the review, and then some on the blog - after all, it isn't every day that one chats to a conductor who once played piano duets with Shostakovich, or two composers who were present at so many towering first performances - and the world premiere of Schnittke One in the closed city of Gorky in 1974 must have been one of the most extraordinary ever.

But I'm a bit hyper about the whole experience and need to go and sleep on it, if I can...

Susan Scheid said...

So pleased to see you back, Howard Lane, and your point about improvisation (among others) is an interesting one. This may raise a different issue than you're indicating, but I recently heard the premiere of Adams's Sax Concerto, which I'm pretty certain was fully scored, and I would love to know whether he thought about allowing room for improv, and what his reasoning was in his choice not to do so (as I assume).

David: So maybe the path I noted before isn't Beethoven>Mahler>Shostakovich>Gubaidulina, but to Schnittke, eh? I'll look forward to your report on the concert.

David said...

Lots of improvisation, of course, in Schnittke's First Symphony - I wanted the jazz combo last night to go on for longer, as they do on Rozhdestvensky's gobsmacking live recording.

Well, there are plenty of possible lines, Sue, but that one seems to me the most plausible. As Gubaidulina is thriving, slava bogu - and coming to London, staying with the fabulous Russian musicians I met last night - you could simply slip in Schnittke between DDS and her...

Anonymous said...

I found your post as a link in
theartsdesk - Basel - more minimalism
which I found searching for Basel and Lulu and Marisol Montalvo.

A few thoughts below, and more here
because my first comment exceeded 4096 characters.

* I believe the composer Martin Dalby
Scottish Music Centre - Martin Dalby
once said that Terry Riley's "In C" was a very joyful piece of music, which is certainly my experience.
(Note to self: try to find a performance or recording of Dalby's Missa Fi Fi, and other works.)

* "John Tavener says: 'John Adams bores me to tears'. Tavener's longer rituals bore me to tears, as it happens."
Just before I found this post I wrote in an email that for me the music of Claude Vivier has the spiritual quality of John Tavener, but is non-religious and much shorter. ( has more - or rather less - on Tavener.)

* My limited experience is I find Reich more interesting than Adams or Glass: speaking aphoristically my problem with Philip Glass's music is that it is mostly both not interesting enough to be interesting and not boring enough to be interesting. By contrast, in Reich's early tape pieces "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain" the initial material is interesting, but might rapidly pall on repeated literal repetition. But the effect of the slow phasing is that one (well, me at any rate) concentrates on micro events under the surface of the initial material, and that is interesting. (I don't know why I prefer Reich to Adams.)

But I genuinely admire Philip Glass for his persistence and determination - for example, working as a plumber to support his music making, his studying with Nadia Boulanger, and his interest in some aspects of Indian music - and I have heard a few of his pieces which do really interest me, for example one of the movements of a string quartet, and it was interesting to hear what he said when he was interviewed on BBC Radio3's Composer of the Week by Donald Macleod.

* A question: Who do you consider was the first post-minimalist composer? I used to think Rimsky-Korsakov (Scheherazade, a piece I love), but now I think Beethoven, specifically one piece, one or maybe two movements of it. I ask this because I think post-minimalism came before minimalism.

* "a list of 20th century works offering affirmative capability, even if that only comes at the end of the masterpiece in question, one per decade" - for the 1920s - Nielsen's Fifth Symphony

I won't disagree, but will add: after a very good 1980s BBC Prom performance by the (then) Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gibson one reviewer adversely criticised the symphony for being "dramatic", or possibly "too dramatic", a bit like adversely criticising Notre Dame cathedral in Paris for being massive - that's the point of Notre Dame.

Assuming I understand the task correctly, as an alternative 1920s choice, maybe Janacek's "Sharp Ears the Vixen", or "Adventures of the vixen known as Sharp-Ears", or the (regrettable?) "The Cunning Little Vixen"?

A list, in roughly descending order, or the 20th century operas that mean most to me:
* Sharp Ears the Vixen (The Cunning Little Vixen) - Janacek
* Duke Bluebeard's Castle - Bartok & Balazs (I insist on crediting at least some librettists)
* Salome - Strauss
* Lulu - Berg
* Madame Buttefly - Puccini
(I know it was premiered in 1893, but I'm tempted to include Verdi & Boito's Falstaff in that list.)
The only reason I place the Vixen above Bluebeard is that Bluebeard is about death and life and death, but the Vixen is about death and life and death and life.

David said...

Thanks, Suliram, for what I can already see from the footnotes is a fascinating response. Unfortunately my internet at home isn't functioning and I'm snatching the odd half-hour here and there until it's fixed (hopefully on Thursday). So regard this as a grateful 'holding message' and I'll respond in due course.