From an imagined podcast…
It is generally agreed that ‘minimal music’ appeared in the mid-60s, arising out of the US avant-garde scene in which John Cage was a principal figure. Most writers and commentators, Sitsky for example, list La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass as the key composers.
A study of any discography of minimalist music will immediately reveal that La Monte Young produced few recordings. This lack of ‘catalogue’ should not suggest a concomitant lack of importance. Alex Ross lays it out clearly at the beginning of his section on West Coast Minimalism: “Minimalism proper begins with La Monte Young”. More on Young later.
For now, let us journey to the West coast of the USA, specifically California, where Terry Riley was born in June 1935. His is a much less sparse discography, headlined by his best known (and certainly most successful, sales-wise) work, A Rainbow In Curved Air.
If we accept, for a moment, the assertion of John Cage that music can be described by four characteristics,
and… d u r a t i o n …
organ notes dripping like rivulets from a broad-leafed tropical plant. quite suddenly, a spray of fast notes hits my face like a shower of rain. i’m wandering a forest of tall swaying ferns, feet crushing vegetable matter to release heady earth aromas, warmth, damp warmth, sensual and mysterious. a bird flits past, chirping a brief ecstatic welcome… the air shimmers with energy, humidity bends the light… under all, through all, the pulsing mid-range throb of the organ flurries… to a sudden stop. Silence punctuates and startles. [0:00 — 6:45, “A rainbow in curved air”]
Terry Riley met Young in the late fifties. “What La Monte introduced me to,” Riley said, “was this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest.” [Ross, p.539] This was in stark contrast to the European tradition.
Are there commonalities amongst the works produced by an array of composers? David Cope (1997) suggests qualities that may characterise minimal music:
•Continuities: requiring slow modulation of one or more parameters
•Phase and pattern music, including repetition
…the repeated circular pulse is present but subdued. a patter of tiny feet like benign millipedes scampering over a hollow log, this dream unfolds strangely as a half-unseen path opens into a clearing where a long-haired vicar wearing love beads is playing a church organ, tribal stops fully extended, while a dozen naked maidens with painted faces dance around tapping bongos. the organ cascades, the hair swirls, synapses connect. it sounds frenzied but is more ecstatic than primal; a short organ sermon exhorts us to rise up into the air, swoop and roll on the rainbow curves, higher, higher, gone! [6:50 — 18:40, “A rainbow in curved air”]
Now if you are not sure about this music, perhaps even discovering a negative response, you are not alone. Robert Fink (2005) quotes composer Pierre Boulez as suggesting minimalism “can be understood as a kind of social pathology, as an aural sign that American audiences are primitive and uneducated.” Ouch!
Another unimpressed European was respected British writer Ian MacDonald—who many will know for his seminal work on the Beatles songbook Revolution in the Head—who claimed that minimalism is the “passionless, sexless and emotionally blank soundtrack of the Machine Age, its utopian selfishness no more than an expression of human passivity in the face of mass-production and The Bomb” . One can only wonder what it was about this music that angered him.
There is a quaint story associated the the piece that occupies side two of A Rainbow In Curved Air, “Poppy No-good and the Phantom Band”. Edward Stickland, author of Minimalism: Origins, relates it in the booklet accompanying the excellent compilation, OHM+: The early gurus of electronic music, 1948—1980.
Terry’s baby daughter Colleen (now a physician) used to call him “Poppy”, adding “Nogood” when she was piqued. The piece developed from Terry’s tape experiments of the early 60s… [Having learned the rudiments of saxophone, the resultant piece…] later evolved into “Poppy Nogood”, which appeared in various incarnations and various “All-Night flights” with dancers, light shows, mimes, and so forth.” [p. 56]
Note the different feel of this piece.
…something is fading into my brain, a quiet, slow, crescendo of quivering organ, creeping forwards in phased atonal waves like a dream of darkwater oceans. a repetitive, subdued squawking suggests a barn-full of large disconsolate birds, shuffling around seeking something they only vaguely recall. disruption. discontinuity. awake. [0:00 — 4:20, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band”]
Unlike side one, where Riley is credited with playing “electric organ, electric harpsichord, rocksichord, dumbec and tambourine, “Poppy Nogood” is for soprano saxophone and electric organ. There is also lots of reverb and echo, giving the piece a shifting, dream-like quality.
… some rolling waves of organ pulse, further chirruping fades away to a drone… drifting harmonics; a plaintive brass-like call echoes over misty hills. shaman bagpipes croon to wheeling stars, it’s midnight, not dawn. echoes bounce in slow motion, the calling voice rises over but never obscures the ever-present drone. occasional low tones add a basso profundo croon… space for slow deep breaths, breath of earth and endless space…
[5:40 — 11:10, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band”]
There is no question that Terry Riley courted and was embraced by the alternative culture of the 60s and 70s, performing extended concerts to chemically transported hippies and sinking himself in eastern teachings. Although it appears almost unbearably twee today, the sentiments embedded in the story on the back cover should not be despised for their naivety:
The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light / World health was restored / An abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways
…a call, a chorus, a new dawn. hands aloft in praise, in supplication, salute. dissonant yet melded, the pace quickens with circular organ and saxophone flurries like time elapse of an unfolding flower, like an accelerated dawn that reaches midday in minutes… the pace varies, like the natural world varies, insects buzz, birds dart, cubs gambol, foliage grows before your eyes in this most psychedelic of nature documentaries. [11:10 — 21:40, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band”]
Denying the organic siren-call of this music is as pointless as donning a wetsuit to take a shower. Doing so will make you frown and twitch. I wonder if Ian MacDonald might have had a different experience of minimalist music if he had taken John Lennon’s advice.
“Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, it is not dying”?
Riley, Terry (1969) A Rainbow in Curved Air. Columbia Masterworks.
Various Artists (2000) OHM+: The early gurus of electronic music, 1948—1980. Ellipsis arts, 3CD/DVD
Cope, David. 1997. Techniques of the Contemporary Composer. New York, New York: Schirmer Books.
Fink, Robert (2005) Repeating ourselves: American minimal music as cultural practice. Berkeley: University of California Press, CA.
MacDonald, Ian (2003) The People’s Music. Pimlico Publishing, London, UK
Ross, A (2007) The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century, Picador, NY.
Sitsky, L. (2002), Music of the twentieth-century avant-garde: a biocritical sourcebook, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
If you have got this far, then it is time to reveal that, other than the Ross book which resides on the VC music bookshelf, partially read but fully endorsed, the other quotes were sourced from a succinct and very helpful Wikipedia article (here).