Whither Minimalism 2009?

CD Review


Steve Reich: Daniel Variations.   London Sinfonietta, Grant Gershon, Alan Pierson, cond.

Nonesuch  NON 406780

Michael Torke: Blue Pacific, for Piano.  Hana Chu, Piano.

Ecstatic Records ECR 92209


Louis Andriessen: La Passione.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Cristina Zavalloni, Monica Germino.  Gil Rose, cond.

BMOP/sound BMOP 1011

Nico Muhly: Mothertongue.  Various performers.

Southern Records SEBS 25568

Whither Minimalism 2009?

1985. Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians changes the way I view classical composition.


Throughout the ’80’s and ’90’s Minimalism reawakened in me compositional instincts grown stale from traditional academic fare.  As a child of Rock, it was rock that started me composing, even though my passion quickly turned to writing concert music.  Pop-influenced Minimalism helped keep the passion alive in later years, even though the deepest influence of my formative years as a composer was the Maximalism inherent in Symbolist music–the works of Ravel, Scriabin, Messiaen.

Maximalism did not fare as well as Minimalism in the latter half of the last century. The dense textures of Boulez and Wuorinen have none of the populist appeal of Minimalism–which carried the neo-classicism of the early part of the century through to the latter part–and which was perhaps destined to become the more popular style in a culture increasingly influenced by the Popular.

I am always excited by the latest Steve Reich release.  To settle into the groove that inspired me in ’85: what a prospect!  Never mind my more recent initial response to his music: is Reich merely recombining past successes and repackaging them?  Yet what matters first is the music itself.  The Daniel Variations are rich and varied, as is much of Reich’s work since The Cave: all the elements of his past come into play now, and he has settled comfortably into an engaging synthesis of his own styles.   This is some of his most exciting music since The Cave.  Likewise the Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings are thrilling harmonically and melodically, casting that old Steve spell. Reich as always has performers up to the standard required for his technically demanding music.  Although it is indeed music to move body and mind, what of the soul, the spirit?    That may require something more: a sign of meaningful growth.  There certainly was such growth up to The Cave;  however, I feel from listening to works written since that he might have reached his peak: progress seems largely quantitative now rather than qualitative.

1995. Michael Torke’s ‘Post’-Minimalism makes a tremendous impression on me, influencing my compositions of that year.


Classical music had largely been about Maximalism prior to the twentieth century.  Minimalism is largely derived from traditional folk and popular music, repetition being a hallmark of music used for social purposes.  Density of ideas, thoughts and feelings–traits inherent in Maximalism–are the things that have traditionally distinguished concert music.

My influential peer Michael Torke now (2007) composes an almost entirely anachronistic piano work.  Blue Pacific carries little or no resonance for me; it is apparently an exercise in tongue-in-cheek New Age/Broadway-based pianism.  Maybe it is an inside joke; perhaps a comment on the rut that Minimalism has gotten into: the impossibility of evolving much beyond its pop roots.  However, the performance by pianist Hana Chu is spirited and precise.

1996. Louis Andriessen replaces Torke in my affections with his more dissonant brand of Post-Minimalism.


Andriessen’s music brought something of the Maximal into Minimalism for me.  There was to my ear much more change, seriousness of purpose, and the return of an aesthetic that I had almost forgotten in the joy of my American Minimalist adventures.  This music was making a bridge between Boulez and Reich, and allowing me to re-appreciate the Maximal in a new context.

If anything, I anticipate Andriessen’s new releases even more than Reich’s.  Louis holds a place of honor in my pantheon few composers can match; he seems a modern-day Stravinsky, a role model of great importance to contemporary composers and performers alike.  I am very glad to see the Boston Modern Orchestra Project involved in this major-label release: they are a hard-working organization fully up to the demands of this piece.  Of these releases, it is not surprising that this is the one of greatest depth, most demanding repeated listening.

What is the problem then?  To some extent it is this: I know what is coming next. Not necessarily musically, but perhaps psychologically.  And I love it.  And yet.

As a student, when I listened to a work–new to me–by Brahms, I had a similar reaction: I know what is coming.  It is inevitable from this great composer.  Yet Brahms’ inevitable, Stravinsky’s inevitable, ultimately differ from Andriessen’s.  I think it is this: in all three the musical language is unmistakable.  The spiritual growth is unmistakable.   Yet in the first two there is not just synthesis, there is transcendence. The entirely unexpected appears in the context of the expected.  With Brahms, it was the symphonies followed by the late piano works and clarinet sonatas.  For Stravinsky, it was the neo-classical liturgical works followed by the serial liturgical works.   Nobody expected these things to happen, and yet this “unexpected” element likely influenced musical culture more than anything else in these composer’s careers.  Much as I admire Louis’s latest work it is fully what I expect from the composer of De Materie; and because he is one of the most influential contemporary composers I am perhaps harder on him than on others, as I feel his career is so vital to the future of contemporary music. That said, this work is essential musically speaking, and La Passione remains a shining example of  progress in contemporary music.

Modernism seems to have become either about remaining with what defined you at first, or arbitrarily taking different directions throughout your career.  Pre-Modernism was about “putting the muse first,” old-fashioned as that sounds.  Nineteenth-century composers who lived well into the last century commented on this fact, Sibelius and Strauss among them.

2008. My discovery of Nico Muhly’s music has me questioning Minimalism.


Muhly’s concert music catches the ear in MothertongueSkip Town particularly breaks some new sonic ground–something these other recordings do not–by breaking the smooth textures of minimalism ever more drastically, yet keeping the lovely modal flavor of Reich and Torke.  However, it is perhaps this immediate beauty which simultaneously dooms this music.  Andriessen instinctively understands this, and his music is suggestive of denser scales like the octotonic, and variations on the Messiaen modes.  The 28 year old Muhly is an intriguing character: he is as much pop composer as classical, and while many reviewers and admirers hail him as a breakthrough figure in both musics, I wonder on the fate of the Maximal: is it truly gone from culturally relevant contemporary music?

In this context, whither Minimalism 2009? A movement which may have saved concert music from oblivion, yet carries the seeds of its own demise in a style which has trouble evolving from its repetitive roots?  And, whither Maximalism?  Once the playground of titans like Ravel, Debussy and Scriabin it has largely been co-opted by academic and theoretical composers, and many “serious” composers still end up there,  isolated to a considerable degree from the culture at large. Minimalism has changed in the context of my own work from something once essential into a compositional dead end.  Yet Minimalist composers as a rule have the attention of the wider culture, and I hope in future can find ways to more successfully incorporate the Maximal in their works.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (www.crsnews.org)  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

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