Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Jeez. Gone two weeks only to discover that half of New York has been arguing over minimalism. Again. And proving that New York is the most parochial place on earth. Again.

But it is nevertheless amusing to read a younger colleague describe three works of 1981 (Tehillim, the score to Koyaanisqatsi, and Harmonium) as "Minimalism 2.0". By my -- admittedly aged, if not yet senescent -- reckoning, these three pieces are at least Minimalism Mach 5 (following the initial phases of long tone music, music based on acoustic phenomena, pattern/phase/systems musics, and finally various reconciliations with tonality or modality that followed a trajectory from the west coast of the US all around the globe), and, more critically, these are three pieces in which the respective composers might each be described as having decisively stepped off the minimal trolley.


I had a major insight, some years back, about the differences in viewpoints between generations. At a symposium here in Frankfurt for younger composers run by Ensemble Modern and MusikTexte, two senior figures -- Rzewski and Spahlinger, by name -- tried to give the youngsters some wisen'd counsel, and, in what is here identified as the "spirit of 1968", barely disguised their disappointment in the lack of revolutionary fervor among the young. Spahlinger even insisted to the assembled semi-masses that composing was nothing other than to "Struggle, Struggle, Struggle". My good friend Hauke Harder, one of the most radical composers I knew, both musically and politically, just held his tongue, hoping to get on with the rehearsals, but another composer, a student of Wilhelm Killmayer of all people -- that is to say someone with the most traditional possible training and background, a real "professional" -- stood up and told Spahlinger as clearly as possible, that those conflicts were over, that there was more serious business at hand.

I immediately recalled a famous story from Darmstadt. David Tudor had performed a piece in a seminar, and a kibitzing Theodor W. Adorno interrupted the proceeding to launch into a small but throughly (and authentically) adorno-esque lecture. Tudor responded, calmly but firm: "You do not understand this music."

As much as I can cheer on the delicious take-down here, of Adorno, or of Spahlinger, I also have to recognize that what is going on is simply that which has inevitably got to go on between generations: reconsiderations, reinterpretations, misunderstandings. In an essay for the 100th issue of MusikKonzepte, with the theme of "What is Progress?", I wrote, provocatively perhaps, but honestly, that "progress is forgetting". The cards get shuffled again and we play another round, same rules (same ears), just as interesting as the last, but plays out completely different.

And here I make my plea for a longer memory: when we look, or rather: listen, back to this experimental, radical, and minimal repertoire, let's try to recover more rather than less, and renew our acquaintance with music other than that that has come to carry official sanction. There were and are other important pieces and composers on the west coast whose work did not reach or has not reached the east, there were and are other significant strains of music in a similar spirit in New York that have not had the profile of the nonesuch gang, and the reach of this impulse outside of the United States should not be underestimated.


Nico said...

Hi - thanks for your comment / link! I guess I should have clarified; when I said 2.0 I didn't mean to imply that everything before that fell into a single category of, you know, primitive things. And in fact, as you say, a lot of the 1981 year+ stuff is radically different. For me, it's more about those 3 guys applying the processes rather than just exploring them; it's like, "we built this car, now let's take it for a drive." And of course, the forgotten works of the period – especially in Europe but also in non-coastal America – this is a really tragic thing . But "officially sanctioned," – I bristle a little bit at the tone. For better or for worse, it's just a highway drawn through the country, a wide bar that can coëxist alongside the older routes. (I think the movie Cars made your point in a slightly more Randy Newman-tinged fashion). But you know what I mean. I think most people who take their listening and road-tripping seriously know that the action is on the side roads. --Nico

Ben.H said...

It's all very well to remember the earlier, radical work from when the language was new, but we can't work with it until we forget. We have to forget the last 20 years of Glass movie soundtracks and the like, the one story of minimalism that became all-dominant (heh) and led us into a dead end, so we can rethink what else minimalism might lead to. We need to take a few steps backwards before we can take a new path forwards.

IIRC, the piece Adorno didn't get was Feldman's Piano Piece 1952 (the one which is all single notes in waltz time).

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel,
...actually, I am not quite sure whether Tudor understood what Adorno was saying.

Best wishes,

Daniel Wolf said...

Danyel --

While I don't exclude the possibility that Tudor didn't understand Adorno, that hardly excludes the probability that Adorno didn't understand the music that Tudor had played.

Adorno: great that he took music so seriously, great on one musical tradition in particular, almost completely lost on almost everthing else.