Minimalism: from plainsong to techno
Minimalism grew out of 1960s counterculture in New York and California but has its roots in early church music. The FT’s Laura Battle meets composer Stephen Montague and sound artist Scanner, and the London Sinfonietta rehearse Terry Riley’s ‘In C’.
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping.
LAURA BATTLE: Minimalist music as we know it today spans pop albums and contemporary classical, as well as jazz and electronica. The movement evolved not in the traditional European conservatoires, but in the lofts and studio apartments of New York and California in the 1960s. It was spearheaded by a loosely associated group of American composers, including La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. And their diverse influences range from jazz riffs to African drumming, early church music, and even found sounds, such as everyday speech recorded on the streets.
However, a new year-round festival of music here at Kings Place in London argues that minimalism began long before the 20th century. Minimalism unwrapped traces a theme from early plainsong right through to the latest electronic works.
PETER MILLICAN: If you look at the definition of minimalism, every book you come to will give you a different definition. So, you can't really be wrong. But we felt we wanted to take a very broad definition to enable us to programme a very broad range of music that would appeal to a broad range of our audience. But in truth, I think the minimalism of the '50s, it was a rejection of European modernism. And in a way, it was going back to plainsong. And so it wasn't a completely logical place to start anyway.
STEPHEN MONTAGUE: I was born in 1943, so I'm slightly younger than Terry Riley and the others. So I was kind of an observer in the late '60s. I mean, it was happening all around me. And interestingly enough, now it's quite iconic to have been born in the '40s and actually matured in the '60s, go to university. I was involved in the anti-war demonstrations, and very politically active.
There was certainly a political agenda in that the people that did minimal music were not part of the establishment. There were no right-wingers doing minimal music. So, certainly it went along with the drugs culture, with the anti-government stance, anti-Vietnam. All the anti's were all combined and voiced by, I think, minimalism.
Minimalism was like an infection. It started in the lofts in downtown San Francisco and New York. It gained a kind of momentum from a different audience that was uptown listening to the New York Philharmonic. It gained a kind of popular support from people that wanted an alternative. It's kind of a velvet revolution.
The real revolution of the 20th century was Stravinsky and bitonality, et cetera. But this was a kind of a reaction that-- well, it actually stopped the stampede to the exits in the concert halls of living composers. I mean, they were going in droves in the 20th century. So, it was a kind of white knight that came in. It sort of saved contemporary music as a bad word.
LAURA BATTLE: Minimalism was, in part, a response to the increasing complexity of modernist music, and it marked a return to basic principles of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Terry Riley's groundbreaking 1964 piece "In C" put many of these ideas into practise. It's often considered to be the first masterpiece of minimalism, and it's been reinterpreted countless times since, proof that less can sometimes be more.
The London Sinfonietta is rehearsing "In C" for a performance at Kings Place.
STEPHEN MONTAGUE: Terry Riley was a great influence on me at the time in the late '60s and early '70s. I had studied 12-tone music, as had he and the other minimalists. And 12-tone music was a kind of arid, academic, very interesting to analyse but tough medicine when it came to sitting through a concert of what is now called squeaky gate music.
So, this came as a breath of fresh air when I heard the first works of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and later La Monte Young. It sort of changed my compositional outlook. I thought, wow, here's a return to tonality, modality, catchy rhythms. Boy, this looks like fun, as opposed to hard work.
LAURA BATTLE: Reflecting Riley's interest in the repetitive structures of North African music, "In C" has 53 musical phrases, which the performers can choose to repeat or omit. The music falls in and out of sync, while maintaining a steady pulse on the note C, creating an almost trance-like effect. A performance can last 15 minutes or several hours. And rather than being dictated by composer and conductor, the music is shaped by the performers' interactions with each other. Every performance is different.
DAVID HOCKING: Most of the information that we need tends to sort of come about through just performing it and rehearsing it. There's no set pattern as to who should play when, so it is really up to the players to react to each other. The nature of the piece means that sometimes there are many people playing, sometimes there's maybe only one person playing, in which case that would be the pulse. But it really is up to the individual musicians to be listening and deciding for themselves when to join in. If so, for how long, at what volume. No one is supposed to be a soloist, and therefore just the fact that different people join in increases the volume within the piece. Likewise, of course, the opposite to that, which is as they drop out, it gets quieter.
[MUSIC PLAYING SOFTLY]
LAURA BATTLE: Many of the original minimalists, including Terry Riley, disliked being labelled as such. Since then, it's become increasingly difficult to get a grip on this slippery term, and composers and musicians now use minimalism as just one of many tools with which to experiment.
Robin Rimbaud, known as Scanner, has made his name mixing electronic music with recorded everyday sounds, including intercepted telephone conversations. He's created a new work inspired by the late British composer John Taverner, called "Taverner Deconstructed Reconstructed," which will be performed as part of the festival. Taverner was dubbed by many a holy minimalist for his stripped-down, sacred works.
ROBIN RIMBAUD: Taverner's work aimed towards the heart. It was often argued to be something very reductionist, in a way. He sort of made these works that struck true to the kind of essence of spirituality, in a sense. What I'm interested in is taking the raw data, in a way, the raw material, the tiniest little parts, and stretching them and processing them, and seeing where else I can take them. So in a sense, it's me remembering the Taverner works in a very playful way, rather than trying to rework them in a sort of more traditional DJ way or something.
LAURA BATTLE: When did you first come across minimalist music?
ROBIN RIMBAUD: When I was a teenager. I was fortunate enough to meet this fellow on a train, and had a Stockhausen score. And I've never seen this thing in my life. And we started talking about music. And I said, I don't understand what this is. You know, there's these beautiful colours and shapes.
LAURA BATTLE: Would you consider yourself a minimalist?
ROBIN RIMBAUD: I think I'd call myself a reductionist. You know, I used to call myself a minimalist anti-hero in my bio years ago. And what I tend to do when I work on production and collaboration, I tend to collect all this material together, rather like when you go shopping, and you buy all these foods, and then you think actually what I want to eat is this. And then you just choose these raw materials, and you make this new thing to taste. I do the same with music. I collect lots and lots of sounds, lots of ideas, put them together, and end up with this one micro piece, in a sense. So in a sense, I am a minimalist.
The trajectory of minimalism is fantastic in the way it can be read through acid house dance music and minimalist techno and all kinds of things. And I think even rock and roll has drawn from it. You've had bands like Sonic Youth that have not only covered minimalist works, in a sense, but they've reduced the kind of overload of rock and roll, in a sense, and made their own sort of style of music. And for me, that's when it succeeds best of all.
LAURA BATTLE: So you think it's influenced mainstream pop, as well.
ROBIN RIMBAUD: I think undeniably. I think, you know, you could look at dance music and easy recognise Philip Glass could be interchanged very quickly with lots of kind of techno trance records, just like this.
LAURA BATTLE: So where does minimalist music go from here?
ROBIN RIMBAUD: In a way, I think it's combining much more with visual arts, in a sense. So, you're having works-- Reich was sort of investigating these kind of ideas quite early on, but looking at works when you're telling the story not only with sound, but with visuals, but you're reducing the elements, in a sense. So you have somebody like Ryoji Ikeda, a Japanese artist, who takes just literally sine waves and white and pink noise, just the very raw digital data, and makes these incredibly beautiful minimalist works, in a sense, that really strip away everything else and cut directly to the kind of aesthetic of digital culture, but also minimalist music.
LAURA BATTLE: Perhaps the overarching theme of minimalism is an enjoyment of repeated patterns. But the Kings Place programme doesn't offer a concrete definition of minimalist music. Rather, it highlights the breadth and variety of its influence.