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Whatever Happened to Minimalism? Past and Present Merge at the L.A. Philharmonic

March 25, 2014

On March 16th a remarkable citywide celebration of Minimalism (past to present) began in Los Angeles with a long overdue production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer produced by Long Beach Opera.

Coordinated by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the “Minimalist Jukebox” is a celebration/festival 50 years in the making. And the upcoming calendar through May 4 is filled with noteworthy concert events that explore Minimalism’s birth, evolution and multiple influences.

John AdamsThe central events in this series are the marathon concert on April 8 and the shorter (but still extended) concert on April 9, which together map out a composer’s history of minimalism and its aftermath. The April 8 Green Umbrella concert, curated and conducted by John Adams, the L.A. Philharmonic’s new music consultant (officially, its “creative chair), features the talents of composer/pianist Nico Muhly, Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), violinist/drummer/composer Andrew Tholl (Formalist Quartet, wild Up new music group); guitarist Gyan Riley; the Calder Quartet; flutist Claire Chase (MacArthur “genius” grant awardee and co-founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble); plus wild Up, the ICE, and the L.A. Phil New Music Group. The concert is so big that audience members are encouraged to come and go as they please.

The star-studded lineup plays a concert that links the pathfinders with their artistic heirs in a mashup of generations. Steve Reich is represented by music from three different decades: Pendulum Music (1968/1973), an example of his experimental, “phasing” or process music, then Vermont Counterpoint (1982), his sonata for flute and tape, Different Trains (1988), the classic remembrance piece about his childhood and the Holocaust, and Radio Rewrite (2012), inspired by two Radiohead songs.

Around that axis the concert brings in Stay On It (1973) by James Eastman, one of the first works to marry minimalism and rock. Eastman, who died virtually unknown in 1990, has become something of a cause for connoisseurs of minimalist phenomena. James Tenney, who played with Reich and Philip Glass on some of their early minimalist works and became a well-known theorist and composer in his own right, completes the pioneer generation represented on this concert, with his piece In a Large Open Space exploring the tones of the harmonic series. Perhaps the most interesting of these forgotten or unknown minimalists is Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888-1944), a composer associated with Henry Cowell at the New School, who (believe it or not) wrote an electronic music piece (Music of the Spheres) in 1934. She also wrote percussion pieces in the 1930s and is represented by one of them, IV on this concert, a work which can, perhaps, be seen as “proto-minimalist” in its emphasis on a kind of “process form.”

The central events in this series map out a composer’s history of minimalism and its aftermath.

The postwar generation is represented by Adams himself (the rarely heard American Standard (1973), a minimalist reduction of an American march and other forms) and by David Lang, a co-founder of Bang On a Can. Death Speaks (2013) is his song-cycle based on Schubert song fragments. You won’t recognize much that is conventionally thought of as minimalist in this piece, but that’s part of the point of this festival. Minimalism never was a formula, and the composers who were attracted to it are not obligated to eternally invent variations on the ostinato. Pretty much everyone has moved out of that place by now.

Katia and Marielle Labèque – Photo credit: Umberto NicolettiThe same is true of the generation of composers, now in their mid-30s, who have premieres on this progam, Missy Mazzoli and Mark Grey; and Tristan Perich, who is known for his low-tech “bit music” (created using the simple sound processors taken from vintage computers, which is, in a way, a return to strict ideas about minimalism.) All of them are musicians for whom minimalism is “classic,” part of their heritage.

Of course, one of the great legacies of minimalism is the way that it merged, almost seamlessly, some of the musical ideas of the 20th-century avant-garde with the music of the rock and roll revolution of the 1960s and beyond. That convincing connection, which brought the music an audience, allowed minimalism to leave the precincts of the new music institutions, such as universities, and mingle with commercial forms, to the lasting dismay of part of the classical music community. That aspect of minimalism is celebrated in a central section of the Philharmonic’s April 9 concert, which also provides you with a few examples of “proto minimalism” along with the, sometimes accidental, connection to the European avant-garde, from the “tintinnabulation” music of Arvo Pärt to English accordionist and co-founder of the Scratch Orchestra Howard Skempton and several others.

One of the great legacies of minimalism is the way that it merged, almost seamlessly, some of the musical ideas of the 20th-century avant-garde with the music of the rock and roll revolution of the 1960s and beyond.

Artistically, culturally and geo-politically, the world was a very different place in 1964, the year Terry Riley premiered his groundbreaking composition In C. In the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Or, as Bob Dylan observed, “The times they are a-changin’.”

In C with its unique structure of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats, in which each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times, rang out like a shot across the bow to those academically approved composers and educational institutions that continued to worship at the altar of 12-tone composition. It was "The Rite of Spring" for the second half of the 20th century.

ReichIn 1969 and 1970 I worked on a pair of in-studio performances with Terry Riley. The first featured Terry surrounded by his reel-to-reel tape recorders playing the music that would become A Rainbow in Curved Air. The second show allowed Terry the chance to perform with his musical guru, the North Indian raga singer Pandit Pran Nath. It felt very much of the times, astoundingly different from what we all had come to expect from contemporary music.

As John Adams emphasizes in his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, during the turbulent era from the mid-1960s and the early 1970s (roughly from the release of A Hard Day’s Night to Let it Be,) America found itself embroiled in the quagmire of the Vietnam War; heard the hallucinogenic cry of “turn on, tune in, drop out”; and saw the rise of the antiwar movement, black power, feminism, gay rights and the environmental movement.

Adams writes, “A cluster of signal historical and cultural events all coalesced as if in a centrifuge … And then of course there was the music: rock music — something utterly new, Dionysian, and magnificently provocative.”

The pioneers of this new music — Riley, Glass, Reich, LaMonte Young, and others — fundamentally changed the artistic landscape.

Minimalism not only broke new ground in the concert hall, it brought about a seismic shift in the realm of advertising and the movie soundtrack.

Young composers of today, who were born decades after the premiere of In C, have grown up with minimalism as a basic element of their musical DNA. It’s hard to hear how strange and difficult-to-follow works such as Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians or Glass’ Music in 12 Parts were when they first appeared.

That’s because minimalism, particularly the compositional style associated with of Philip Glass, not only broke new ground in the concert hall, it brought about a seismic shift in the realm of advertising and the movie soundtrack — a fact that director Peter Weir celebrated when he showcased Glass seated at the piano playing softly in the background during a nocturnal moment in the film The Truman Show. The patterns of minimalism are so ingrained in our musical consciousness, we take it for granted.

No question, it’s been a remarkable half-century since that premiere performance of In C. So get ready: It’s time to spin the “Minimalist Jukebox.”

The Calendar

April 5 and 12: Terry Riley, In C, 1-5 p.m., The Industry, Hammer Museum, Westwood, free.
April 5 and 12: Family concert, “Finding Patterns in Music,” 11 a.m., LA Phil, Walt Disney Concert Hall.
April 5: “Knee Plays” from CIVIL wars ( David Byrne), and music from (Glass), 8 p.m., Jacaranda, First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica.
April 6: Los Angeles Master Chorale, music by Pérotin, David Lang (The Little Match Girl Passion); Steve Reich (“You Are” Variations), 7 p.m. Walt Disney Concert Hall.
April 8:“Maximum Minimalism,” 8 p.m., LA Phil, Walt Disney Concert Hall.
April 9: “Minimalist Dream House” (music by La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Aphex Twin) featuring Katia and Marielle Labéque, 8 p.m., Walt Disney Concert Hall.
April 11 and 12: Paul Taylor Dance Company (The Uncommited, music by Arvo Pärt), various times, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
April 11-13: Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by John Adams performs music by Michael Gordon (Sunshine of Your Love); Terry Riley (At the Royal Majestic, world premiere) and John Adams (Naive and Sentimental Music), Walt Disney Concert Hall.
April 13: Areté Vocal Ensemble (music by Riley, Glass, Adams, Ligeti, Ingram Marshall and Lang), 2 p.m., California Lutheran University, Samuelson Hall.
April 16: Colburn Orchestra conducted by John Adams (Hallelujah Junction and Gnarly Buttons both by Adams), 8 p.m., The Colburn School.
April 17 and 19: Los Angeles Philharmonic, The CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down” Rome Section (Glass), Walt Disney Concert Hall
April 18: Los Angeles Philharmonic, music by Louis Andriessen (De Materie), 8 p.m., Walt Disney Concert Hall.
May 3: Philip Glass Ensemble (Music in Twelve Parts), Center for the Art of Performance, UCLA, Royce Hall, 5 p.m.
May 4: [email protected] Court (Philip Glass, The Madrigal Operas). Boston Court Performing Arts Center. 2 p.m.

For complete program information: (323) 850-2000 or

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).