Seven Kinds of Minimalism December 5, 1977

By now most listeners seem to be aware that many composers are interested in minimalism, that minimal music is generally not as severe as it was five years ago, and that the basic concerns have to do with repetition, long sustained tones, and extremely subtle variations. But it is also commonly assumed that all minimal music resembles whatever particular examples one is familiar with. Recently, thinking about some of the minimal pieces I have heard this fall, I was struck by their stylistic range and came up with a graph, based on some minimal pieces I have not yet written about, which shows roughly how these particular pieces contrast in severity and rhythmic vitality. I do not intend to imply that some areas are preferable to other areas, or that this is a complete picture. I can think of quite a few pieces which would have to be placed outside the edges of this particular graph, because they are especially extreme in one direction or another. Also, of course, one might consider many other criteria besides severity and rhythmic vitality. But perhaps this device will clarify the variety of possible approaches.

David Behrman, David Gibson, and Phill Niblock presented their latest work on a joint concert at Niblock’s loft. Behrman’s computer is smarter than ever, responding with increasing sensitivity to the tones of live instrumentalists—on this occasion, cellist David Gibson and English hornist Joseph Celli provided the human input, playing beautifully controlled sustained tones. Behrman’s computer figures out what the musicians are doing, decides on a response, and shifts its own little electronic tones into the appropriate harmonies. The music moves gracefully, almost tenderly, always revolving around a basic set of white-note harmonies. There is an additional theatrical element now too, because Behrman has recently devised little panels of lights that enable the performers to know when the computer has processed their information. I couldn’t quite figure out the code, but I found myself watching the lights much of the time anyway.

David Gibson has a new piece for vibraphone, but it involves sounds that you have never heard from a vibraphone. Apparently he has devised a means of controlling the exact speed of the vibrating mechanism so as to generate different tones. However it works, one hears low eerie tones inside one’s ear along with the high-pitched vibraphone colors. The music is one long melody, which gradually changes tempos as it moves through chromatic patterns.

Phill Niblock presented another one of his tape pieces in which sustained tones grate against one another, filling the air with constantly shifting pulsations or beats. The music is loud, cold, almost dehumanized, and yet very sure of itself. He presented his music, as he frequently does, in juxtaposition with some of his 16-mm film, and I think I am finally beginning to understand the relationship between the two. Niblock handles his microphones somewhat the way he handles his camera, simply setting them up in a particular situation and letting them run, with as little tampering as possible. Later, long strands of film and recording tape are spliced together with the same detachment. In both cases the end results are sensitive simply because the basic process makes sense, not because of little personal touches that could have been added along the way.

Max Neuhaus recently installed a 24-hour electronic-music device on one of the islands in Times Square. It lies underneath a large grating, which several thousand people walk over every day, but no one seems to actually pay any attention to the music. The basic sound is simply a hum, but its overtones slowly fade up and down, and sometimes they seem to be moving around underneath the grating. The music is drab and unattractive, and blends right in with the other unattractive sounds of Times Square. I don’t think I will ever just stand there and listen to it the way I used to listen to the lovely electronic beeping of the installation that Neuhaus set up at the entranceway of the Transit Authority building in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. By comparison, I find the Times Square piece disappointing. Lately, however, I have been thinking about all the pedestrians who walk over the grating everyday, and about how totally unaware most of them are of the sounds around them, and I have begun to understand that Neuhaus’s installation makes a rather strong statement about our sound-calloused culture. If the equipment stays up for a few years perhaps enough people will eventually become aware of it that the point will get across.

It took me a long time to begin to appreciate Harley Gaber’s ‘The Winds Rise in the North.’ The first time I tried listening to it, the string-quartet harmonies seemed awfully intense, the players seemed unable to control their long tones without a lot of unsteadiness, it seemed to take forever to get from one set of sounds to another, and I didn’t even finish the first side. When I put the album on again recently, the string-quartet harmonies seemed awfully intense, the players seemed unable to control their long tones without a lot of unsteadiness, it seemed to take forever to get from one set of sounds to another, and I listened to all four sides with increasing interest. The music is tough and demanding and comes from some austere spiritual center that may or may not mean anything to you.

Joel Forrester presented an eight-hour solo-piano concert at the Kitchen. When I dropped by, around the third hour, he was taking a break, meditating with a friend. After a while he went back to the piano, began a repeated figure, added some countermelodies, settled into a strong beat, gradually improvised his way up to a rousing climax, wound down after about 45 minutes, and took another break. The music was repetitious, but it was also showy, pretty, quite accessible, and reminiscent of a kind of piano improvising that has become fashionable in modern-dance classes during the past few years.

I can’t be completely objective about Philip Corner’s ‘Elementals,’ since I was one of the performers, but I find it impossible to ignore. ‘Elementals’ is a general concept, which can be realized by unvaried repetition of any sound at any tempo, but for his recent realization of it at the Kitchen, Corner selected the C-sharp above middle C, and the tempo of 60 notes a minute. He rounded up several dozen musicians who agreed to come at various times during the week, so that the note could continue, night and day, for five days. The idea was to keep the sound as constant as possible, but, of course, as singers, pianists, guitarists, and wind players entered and dropped out, the note took on a variety of colors. And, since the performers are human, neither the pitch nor the tempo was really accurate very often. So far as I know, however, at least one or two people were keeping the tone going in one way or another for the complete 123 hours of the performance. The music was severe, restrained, and sometimes quite lovely, but as the week progressed I began to feel that its real significance was not musical so much as social, and that it was not intended for an audience so much as for the performers. The event brought many musicians together, allowed them to really tune in on one another, encouraged them to spend a few hours practicing musical self-denial, and demonstrated a rather remarkable degree of appreciation for the principle of minimalism among local musicians. It also demonstrated quite dramatically that, as we attempt to eliminate more and more variety, we always end up discovering that more and more interesting things remain uneliminated. That, I think, is how minimalism got started, and why it continues to be fruitful.