Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Here's a question for students of the history of late 20th century music marketing. The term "minimalism" emerged in the early '70s with composer-critic Tom Johnson specifically in connection with the music of composers like Alvin Lucier and, as "minimal music" in Michael Nyman's 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. These initial uses of the term referred, within the context of a larger experimental repertoire, to an attitude or approach to musical materials, specifically one in which materials were reduced to those most essential to the core idea of a work. (The term presumably was borrowed from its use in the visual arts, and the connections between artists and musicians thus evoked were -- and are -- legitimate ones, for example between Young and De Maria). By 1980 or so, the US composers most prominently associated with minimalism formed a quartet: Young, Riley, Glass, and Reich (see, for example, Wim Merton's book, American Minimal Music (Dutch edition 1980); but I was around at the time and the composition of this quartet was common knowledge). While musical activity that can usefully be described as minimalism was never coterminus with the output of this quartet, it would be fair to say that the most public discussion, indeed controversy, about minimalism, could be described by the field of proclivities, activities, connections, and differences marked by a square with these four gents at the corners.

However, at some point, the composition of the quartet changes. In publicity packages and -- subsequently -- in the mainstream press, the name La Monte Young no longer appears, and is replaced by that of John Adams. In roughly the same time period the major interests of Reich and Glass turn substantially towards music for larger forces, for ensembles other than their own touring groups, and away from a number of musical characteristics that were more comfortably associated with earlier definitions of minimalism, in particular attention to acoustical phenomena. The definition of "minimalism" when identified with the new quartet is, implicitly, one which invokes something about tonality and repetition. Further, These newer works by Glass and Reich could be easily fathomed alongside works for orchestra or opera by their younger colleague. I presume that Riley remained in the quartet by virtue of the perennial and aorchestral dimensions of In C, an unavoidable public landmark, as well as the fact that he continued to record commercially. Adams, to be clear, had previously written a number of works in a more experimental, and at times, "classically" minimal character (the elegant electronic studio-inspired "gates" and "loops" works especially), but these would not have elevated him into the quartet rather than any one of a number of his colleagues who were producing well-received works at the same time.

Okay, then, here's the question: When, and in which context, was the first recorded use in print of the later quartet formation?


Matthew said...

A Lexis search finds John Rockwell linking the four as early as 1982, but the first real statement of them as a self-contained quartet is in a February 10, 1985 Rockwell NYT recording round-up, focused primarily on Adams and Reich. Then there's a J.D. Considine primer on minimalism from the September 20, 1985 Washington Post, which lists the big four, plus, interestingly, Arthur Russell.

It should be noted that Rockwell's 1985 gathering pre-dates Nixon In China, which is not what I would have guessed. Up until then, at least in the mainstream media, there's mostly talk of a founding trio—Riley, Glass, Reich—with Adams mentioned as the leading "second-generation" minimalist.

Daniel Wolf said...

Matthew --

Lexis is certainly useful.

1985 is earlier than I had imagined, but the connection with a roundup of new recordings is not surprising, and Rockwell's take on minimalism raises some additional issues. For example, in a review in '87, he wrote: "For maximally scaled Minimalism with sustained tones, the mature Morton Feldman has a lot more to say than the youthful La Monte Young." Feldman's late works, many of Cage's, early Christian Wolff (not to mention much by Tom Johnson, Lucier, or many others) are, from a material standpoint, obviously minimal, but not as obviously invested in aspects of tonality (and, frequently, direct repetition) as the public quartet. The label has probably stuck, but it's misleading and perpetually disavowed by the labeled.

Finding the name Arthur Russell in this context is not so surprising, but I guess that it could just as well have been one of his contemporaries -- Paul Dresher or Peter Gena or Scott Johnson come to mind -- or one of the figures who bops in and out of the minimal canon, like Daniel Lentz or even Subotnick. 1985 was also an interesting moment in that there were a number of contact points with more popular musics, especially in the ambient and new age directions. Being something of a situationist, I thought of this as the moment of minimalism's recuperation.

Ben.H said...

I only started to become aware of music outside of pop in the mid 80s but, as Matthew says, I also first heard of Adams when he was repeatedly mentioned in the same breath as the Big Four at this time, as the prominent second-generation minimalist. This statement was made on the basis of pieces like Shaker Loops and Harmonium.

So, he insinuated his way into the Quartet, first by association, followed by gradual absorption.

Now you mention it, my tastes in music began to expand in 1985, and as it happened it was easy to drift from one genre to another without making too many distinctions, from minimalists to new age to later prog rock to electronics to new wave rock.