Minimalism

CD 21 of 24

Our journey reaches its zenith with a style of composition known as minimalism, the three most popular composers in this genre being Steve Reich (b.1936), Philip Glass (b.1937) and John Adams (b.1947). As we have seen in this history, some music has divided music lovers between those eager for a new sound and, shall we say, those who prefer the more traditional. Minimalism created one such rift. While some hear ceaseless repetition in this music, others experience a hypnotic serenity; where some hear only a C major chord, others are mesmerized by a slow, moving form. In an early concert of music by Steve Reich, Michael Tilson-Thomas (now Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony) describes how “one woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage wailing, “stop, stop, I confess”. Others rose to their feet in rapturous  applause. Fortunately, no riot ensued but the passions had definitely been inflamed.

Reich’s Six Pianos, written in 1973, begins with three pianists playing to an identical eight-beat pattern, the additional three pianists eventually jumping into the fray playing the identical pattern but shifting it two beats, now playing out of phase, this phasing being a crucial compositional technique. At the 8:20 mark on Track 1 the sound lightens and the mood changes, the rhythmic pattern remaining constant. At 17:47 there is an immediate change, this change being retained until the piece reaches its dramatic ending.   

John Adams’ Shaker Loops, also from 1973, is minimalism of a different sort, deriving and drew its inspiration from two sources. The Shaker idea stems from the Shaker Sect, or properly named, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, who had a colony not far from Adams’ boyhood home. The Shakers were known for their ecstatic dancing to repetitive music.  The Loops part of the title is taken from the effect that is heard when a tape loop plays for an extended period. Tape loops were being experimented with in the 1960s, with Steve Reich adding a few pieces to that repertoire. To add variety to his music, Adams, in his own words, “achieved variety in the design by carefully working up to the key changes”

Philip Glass, in his memoir Words Without Music, writes that the thing that made his music “listenable were precisely the changes” and “in order to make it listenable you had to change the face of the music”. That is nowhere more evident than in his Violin Concerto of 1987. Without a doubt, repetition exists, but also in evidence is that the music does change its face. The first movement is organized around a series of pulsing chords, first heard in the strings, later in the brass, all while the soloist deftly weaves their melody. The repetitiveness of the second movement achieves that hypnotic serenity while the third moves at a good clip, the chords again acting as pulsing blocks of sound. 

Despite the protestations heard at the beginning of their careers, these three composers certainly are having the last laugh. All of them have found large audiences in the opera house and the symphony hall, and most tellingly, in the many movies in which their music has been featured or for which they have written the soundtrack, making the audience for their work numbered in the millions. 

 

Recommended Tracks 

Recommended Tracks

Steve Reich (*1936):
Six Pianos
Various Artists
John Adams (*1947):
Shaker loops | 1. Shaking and trembling
Various Artists
Philip Glass (*1937):
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra | = 104 - = 120
Various Artists

Tracklist

(Please find our recommended audio excerpts for this CD on the bottom of the "Overview" page.)

      1. Steve Reich (*1936)
      2. 1.
        Six Pianos
        24:23
        Steve Chambers, James Preiss, Russ Hartenberger, Bob Becker, Steve Reich, Glen Velez
      3. John Adams (*1947)
        Shaker loops
        1. 2.
          1. Shaking and trembling
          8:51
        2. 3.
          2. Hymning slews
          6:29
        3. 4.
          3. Loops and verses
          7:23
        4. 5.
          4. A final shaking
          3:37
          San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart
      4. Philip Glass (*1937)
        Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
        1. 6.
          = 104 - = 120
          6:37
        2. 7.
          = ca. 108
          8:46
        3. 8.
          = ca. 150 - Coda: Poco meno = 104
          9:30
          Gidon Kremer, Wiener Philharmoniker, Christoph von Dohnanyi
    Playing Time 01:15:36