The end of the year always seems to call for some kind of summary. This year it is relatively easy to pull together some thoughts I have had about minimal music during the past year, because David Behrman’s December 16 concert conveniently demonstrated most of them. His music, which was part of a three-evening series at 224 Center Street, was also quite gratifying all by itself.
Behrman has been firmly rooted in electronic music for some time. He knows almost as much about electronics as he does about music, and designs all of his equipment. Nothing is ever prerecorded. He performs everything live on his synthesizing equipment. And because his equipment is all custom-made to create the effects he wants, the result is a personal kind of electronic music, which doesn’t sound much like anything other composers are doing.
Sometimes he bills his concerts as ‘Homemade Synthesizer Music’ or ‘Music with Sliding Pitches,’ but often he doesn’t bother with titles at all. Titles are really irrelevant. Behrman doesn’t make pieces exactly. He assembles electronic equipment which is capable of doing certain things. These things change quite a bit from year to year, and even from month to month, because he keeps tinkering with the machinery and adjusting his musical goals. Maybe we could say that everything he does with his equipment is all one composition, and that the composition changes a little whenever he performs it. But that would imply that it is a work in progress, which is not fair, because whenever he gives a concert, the music sounds as controlled and finished as one could ever want.
In any case, the score he currently uses calls for a cellist to play along with the electronic sounds. It begins with a very low electronic tone, which pulses quite slowly through much of the piece. Gradually, higher tones fade in, creating simple major-scale harmonies. Sometimes a note slips slightly out of tune, and then tunes itself again. Behrman makes continual adjustments on the controls, but many of the complex changes in the music happen completely automatically.
Perhaps five or 10 minutes into the 45-minute score the cello enters, playing sustained tones, mostly on open strings and harmonics. On this occasion the cellist was David Gibson, whose bow control is exceptional. He plays without vibrato, and the near purity of his cello tones blends sensitively with the absolute purity of the electronic tones. Often the tones connect into brief melodic lines. The music is almost rhythmless, and it has an exquisite subtlety.
One of the technical and musical niceties of the set-up is that the synthesizer is programmed to respond to several specific cello pitches. When the cellist plays one of these trigger pitches, he upsets some circuits and causes the electronic tones to slide into a whole new chord.
As the piece progresses, the interchanges between the cello and the synthesizer become more involved, and the harmonies modulate into many fresh patterns. The low pulsing tone disappears for a long time, but it returns later to wrap everything up in a neat symmetrical ending. The whole piece has a serene quality, but it is never inactive. Sometimes the pace is actually rather fast, and one must listen carefully in order to follow everything.
It is this relatively fast pace which seems particularly symptomatic of a general change in the local musical climate. I had always thought of Behrman as a minimalist. Only a year or so ago, his music crept along with a minimal amount of activity. If there was a change every minute or so, that seemed sufficient to keep the music alive. Otherwise it was mostly repetition of one sort or another. Everything was to be savored. The important thing was to experience the sounds fully, and it wasn’t necessary to keep the mind occupied with a lot of events, changes, ideas, relationships, and so on.
For several years minimalism has been one of the three or four dominant trends in new music. But now it is changing, and not only in Behrman’s music. I can hear the change in all of the so-called minimal composers, and I can sense it in my instincts as a listener. There was a period when it seemed really refreshing to sort of turn off the mind and just experience sound for its own sake. A single chord or a repeated pattern of some sort could capture my attention for a long time, provided it sounded alive and seemed to be saying something. Minimalism offered a fascinating new way of listening to music. But it is not enough anymore. Maybe it was never enough. Maybe we just had to go through a period of that sort as an antidote to all the complexity which dominated the post-Webern era.
Other things about Behrman’s music also reflect general trends. For one thing, Behrman no longer relies solely on electronics, but like so many others creating electronic music, he now finds it necessary to add traditional instruments. He is also more concerned with melodic lines than he was a year ago, and that seems to be a particularly broad trend. Everywhere I go I hear avant-gardists returning to melody. Composers who only a few years ago were interested only in raucous noises, fancy rhythms, or electronic pizzazz are now writing melodies. And I don’t mean weirdo bleep-bloop melodies either, but plain old la-la-la-la melodies.
There’s something kind of reactionary about this whole ’70s period we’re going through. I wish I could tell you what it’s all about.Note:
It wasn’t reactionary at all. Composers were simply finding that even in a minimalist context, a minimum of intellectual information is necessary to hold the interest of a listener—or a composer.