Saturday 9 March 2013


In which the South Bank Centre treated us Minimalist music devotees to two events within a week of each other, each with it's own focus...


Subtitled 'The Start of Minimalism in the US', this London Sinfonietta performance aimed to give us “an introduction to the world of minimalism, tracing it's origins in 1960s New York loft apartments and art galleries.” A self-description which however enticing might even sell the show short, for while it stars veteran New Yorkers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, it concludes where the whole thing started - with 'In C' by Californian Terry Riley. If Riley is the least-known here, this piece more than any other could be described as the stem cell of Minimalism, the breakthrough that made all subsequent developments possible. (Reich even pitched in with it's first performance, back in '64.)

They're right about the lofts, though. Back then these guys extemporised with small groups of friends in whatever impromptu spaces they could find, to audiences who occasionally made it into double figures. In a recorded interview, Glass wryly commented on how in the early days the New York critics simply wrote off not just them but anything from Downtown New York. (He was told “you have to draw the line somewhere. And we draw it at 34th street.”) Nowadays Glass had composed operas and won Academy Awards for his film scores, while Reich has a Pulitzer Prize for Music sitting on his shelf.

Yet while it's cool these guys finally overcame those cloth-eared critics and hit the concert halls, it's sometimes overlooked this shift in setting co-incided with a shift in the music. Performances grew to larger ensembles, notation became tighter and non-instruments or unorthodox sound sources were phased out. Were we nomenclature-fixated folk, we could call this a shift from Early into High Minimalism.

It's as if the price of fame was to overlook the scene's lowly origins, with these earlier pieces far less often performed. (Something perhaps truer for Glass than for Reich. But notably the programme from Reich's subsequent night spoke of him emerging “from the early tape and phasing pieces to masterworks.”) It's as if we're supposed to see them as experiments or try-outs, mere warm-ups for the main act. So, while we're in the smallest venue the South Bank Centre offers with an audience not a fraction of the size of the one who showed up to see Reich himself the following week, it's worthwhile to remember and celebrate this stuff.

Part of the reason why it's sidelined is that, even more than High Minimalism, it's music you have to see live – with every other option a second-hand experience. That's partly because the performance can have a ritual aspect, something we'll get onto later. But there's also a more directly musical reason. Take Reich's 'It's Gonna Rain'; made from two phase-shifting voice recordings, it may not seem a likely contender for the live experience. Surely it will sound much the same as if you put the CD on at home. Yet heard on the venue's vast PA instead of my reasonably priced stereo, it became one of the highlights of the night. People were nodding along to it as much as during any of the more obviously musical pieces.

Part of this response may be that the music bases itself on such... um... basic sources. The opening piece, Glass' '1+1' takes as it's instrumentation a guy thumping a wooden desk. While in Reich's 'Pendulum Music' microphones dangle over amps lying flat on the floor. The 'players' simply give them a push, so they feed back as they pass over the amps, then calmly walk off stage and let it happen.

Yet, while the after-show talk described these pieces as Fluxus-influenced, they're not really provocations or anti-art stunts. (In the manner of, for example, Christian Marclay's 'Guitar Drag' in which an electric guitar was dragged behind a lorry.) In Glass' piece, for example, as the player's hands slip in and out of sync with one another, the surprising thing is how quickly it becomes musical. It becomes almost like a magic trick. As the sparse equipment comes on stage you note there's nothing up their left sleeve, nothing up their right - then the show begins.

For Reich's 'Violin Phase,' in which a violinist plays against a tape recording, they'd gone to the lengths of hiring an old-style back-in-the-day reel-to-reel recorder - when they probably could have done the whole thing just by plugging in a laptop. But it's such a striking image it makes it worth the effort. Minimalism tended to use the standard instruments of classical music, not the synthesized hums of Stockhausen or the pumped-up electrification of rock.

I've argued before the effects of Minimalism aren't simplistic, even if the component lines can be. It's perhaps important to describe just how the lines combine. They might seem another example of counterpoint, of course a longstanding staple in music. But there your ears pick up two distinct lines, two sets of information which get compared in your brain. Instruments with opposite and complementary timbres are often used, such as bass and treble sounds, to enhance the separation.

In Minimalism the sounds are so similar they superimpose on one another before they even reach you and your ears are no longer quite sure what they're picking up. During 'Violin Phase', for example, my ears kept telling my brain there couldn't possible be two simple repeating patterns producing all those rich intricacies of sound, and asking my eyes to check again. This was underlaid by the repeated use of montage effects in the filmshow, with images not placed alongside but overlaid one another.

But there's more! While rock gigs can fetishise electrification, with totemic walls of amps and guitars held aloft, classical recitals tended to treat that stuff the way you treat the wiring in your house – best kept out of sight. A modern music, Minimalism didn't hide the means of amplifying and disseminating itself in the same way.

Originally, tape recordings of players were in part a pragmatic way to keep the numbers involved more manageable – a machine saving a human having to do it. But there's also something inherently optimistic about Minimalism, and one example would be it's finding a humanity even inside machines. It's almost the opposite of Kraftwerk's “we are robot” schtick; instead of allowing for perfect playing each time and allowing the performers to effectively become robots, it finds imperfections in the analogue machine sound (never-quite-aligned timing, tape hiss and so on) and enhances them. (In the manner of Dali's “mistakes are sacred”, Reich stumbled upon phasing when trying to align two tape recordings in composing 'It's Gonna Rain'.)

Which is of course not so far from to the parallel attitude to the City seen in the recent 'Pioneers of the Downtown Scene' exhibition of Seventies New York; “the City becomes a kind of exoskeleton, augmenting and enhancing us, freeing us from the limitations imposed by nature.”

Others saw machines as quite a different symptom. Music snobs would jeer the repeating patterns involved in this music were “too easy to play”, as if that somehow invalidated it. (Whereas in the after-show talk, players commented how challenging and counter-intuitive phase-shifting can actually be.) The accompanying filmshow and stage direction (by Netia Jones aka Lightmap) was generally exemplary, fitting without being dominant or gimmicky, coming up with neat visual metaphors for the music. One recurrent image it used was of a typist, which may have been intended to take on the accusation that the players were no more than temps in a typing pool. But like Patty Hearst, the more repeatedly she's invoked the more that typist comes over to our side. When projected over such involving, immersive music all that typing gets transformed and starts to look like some kind of Zen exercise.

However, for all that was achieved there was a downside to leaving downtown. It's not so much these pieces weren't intended to be performed in concert halls, for that notion may simply have seemed an impossibility at the time. But they would have worked better where they were born - in the lofts and art galleries. In 'Pendulum Music', had we been sitting on the floor around the dangling mikes, with them swooping over our heads, it would have been more direct and involving than seeing the same thing raised and separated from us on a stage.

Though the show pressed a narrative of Minimalism advancing uptown and breaking into the concert halls, it's truer to say the scene bifurcated at that point. True, Glass and Reich moved away from process-based pieces such as 'It's Gonna Rain,' straightened their ties and became (at least in formal terms) composers bearing scores. But others, such as La Monte Young, instead came to emphasise the ritualistic aspect of the music – performance not so much recital as event. You wouldn't count listening to the CD as any more than documentation, in the way you wouldn't count watching a video of a sermon as going to church. Significantly, his work has blurred the line between musical performance and installation work. (Young refused permission for any of his pieces to be performed here, though they didn't go into the details why.)

An example of a performance more in Young's spirit would be Tony Conrad at Tate's Turbine Hall a few years ago, a cross between gallery event and Modernist warehouse party. (Though notably evenin Reich's recent birthday celebrations at the Barbican, the early pieces were performed in the echoey main hall of the complex, not the concert chamber.)

It's strange how important setting can be when hearing music. It feels almost frivolous to suggest it matters at all - but it clearly does! As I commented after seeing Acid Mothers Temple, the spacey, free-form jamming of Sixties-style space rock was made to be played at festivals or for happenings, and never fits in the box of straight venues that well.

Similarly, I first saw Riley's 'In C' played in a stageless community hall in Brighton sometime in the Nineties, played by a gang of amateurs to a Saturday night crowd. (Who responded rapturously.) After all, the score allows individual players great latitude while still keeping them playing together in the key of... oh, you guessed... and so is more an invitation to become involved than set of instructions. Getting carried away as I am wont to, I responded by imagining it as a manifesto for a harmonious, free society - as much as any autonomous political pamphlet I've ever read.

Performed here 'In C' felt more like one of those revivalist folk clubs, so desperate to preserve something that they forget about the more important task of keeping it alive. There wasn't the same sense of the musicians seizing the chance to take off, with the result that the evening's finale was not a particular highpoint.

Having complained about the space, I'll go on to feel the width. Bluntly, pieces could run to the short side. If not length, then indefinite duration was a frequent feature of Early Minimalism. One participant joked in the after-show talk about how in those early days this was taken to such an extreme it became something of an endurance test, as hours would pass in venues ill-endowed with comfy seating or adequate heating.

Perhaps I'm just a sucker for punishment but, in music which largely eschews dynamics, duration would seem to become a core component. There's something about duration which becomes mesmeric, which pulls you deeper and deeper into the music. In Voodoo, the rituals have to take a while, to give time for the spirits to journey down to our world. Minimalism, though kinder to chickens, feels kind of similar. (Which is of course what I emerged saying after having seen Glass' four-hour 'Music in Twelve Parts'.)

In the end I emerged feeling rather half full/ half empty. While I'd first been lulled by the bravura simplicity of the pieces and the elegant stage design, my doubts and disenchantments had seemed to grow as the night progressed. The thought was a good one, there's something precious and unique about Early Minimalism which means it shouldn't simply be overwritten by what follows. But as a means to celebrate all that, the night was mixed.

The first part of Terry Riley's original 'In C':

But of course that didn't stop me going back for more...

If many Minimalist pieces serve you two similar lines until you notice how much they actually diverge, these two nights were no exception. This programme of Reich's music was clustered around a new piece, 'Radio Rewrite,' receiving it's world premiere. After seeing Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood perform a version of his 'Electric Counterpoint' in Poland, an impressed Reich had composed the work around two Radiohead tracks. Notably, the title plays on the popular term 'radio music' as well as the band's name.

The Guardian recently cited Reich as the antithesis of Schoenberg's elitist notions of contemporary music (“if it is art, it is not for all”). Minimalism can have a Marmite reaction among listeners; some find it enthralling, others unbearable. But those reactions are direct, almost innate. You won't come to like Minimalism any more or less by reading up on music theory, you don't need to prepare for concerts like they're exams.

Reich himself has often spoken eloquently of the barriers between high and popular music impeding creative flow, and in the programme speaks of a “dialogue” between them as music's historical “natural state.” Which he's clearly right about. But we need a note of caution – a dialogue is an interchange between two separate people, taking from each other whatever they find that makes sense to them. It's not the same thing as the prevalent notion that all music is in need of being funnelled into something 'popular', like it needs bringing to “the people” and that's the accepted route. The result of which is normally some neither-nor hodgepodge.

It's like when 'radical' theatre companies come up with a hip-hop version of 'Hamlet' or something; so much of what made the original is lost in translation, alienating existing fans, while it's intended audience would rather listen to Wu Tang Clan. (Reader, please imagine I used a more contemporary hip-hop name there.) People don't necessarily know much music theory, but they can tell when they're being patronised.

Plus, these oft-stated overlaps between Reich and popular music often seem overstated. In the accompanying programme, Tim Rutherford makes one of the better comparisons of Reich's Minimalism to dance music. But he's really talking about a formal similarity more than links, and the fact remains no dance DJ could get away with playing a Reich piece. There's little I could find to disagree with in this Guardian piece on Reich's influence, but it noticeably falls short on naming names. Reich's influence has been pervasive but indirect, permeated rather than transmitted.

Moreover, on a more narky point, while I have liked Jonny Greenwood's film soundtracks and solo compositions I confess I have never seen the appeal of Radiohead. (Mostly I vote with my feet as soon as I hear Thom Yorke's whinging voice... but I digress.)

So soon after my boldly stating Minimalism retained classical instrumentation, the first half of this show is pretty much devoted to compositions Reich made not just for electric instruments but guitars and basses – the staples of rock. Happily however, he shows general disregard for rockist cliches. Generally people latch onto the power of rock music, like befriending the big kid in class, something in which he shows no interest. Reich has called these “not rock'n'roll [but] chamber music for rock instruments.”

If 'Electric Counterpoint' sounds like anything from guitar music it's the softer, lilting rhythms of Afrobeat. (I later read in the programme Reich was influenced by Central African horn music.) '2x5' contained sequences of multiple guitars supplying a kind of morse code note-picking, the nearest rock equivalent for which I could imagine being the intro to Pink Floyd's 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond.'

Devotees of Reich's music, however, may have noticed concessions. One was even heralded in an already-given piece's title – counterpoint. 'Electric Counterpoint' was based not on the blurring of similar lines, such as in 'Violin Phase', but overlaid lines. It was mildly reminiscent of the live looping used by performers like Bela Emerson. (Though in this case all but the top line were pre-recorded.)

There was also something of a hierarchy between the instruments; in '2x5' twin pianos provided a strumming not unlike a drum beat, while the guitars moved around over the top. It was a fairly shallow-sided pyramid compared to orchestral music or the full-frontal guitars often found in rock bands, but was noticeable all the same. (None of which necessarily matters. Just saying is all.)

The second half then eschewed the electrics. Though 'Radio Rewrite' was the night's sell, I probably enjoyed it less than the other pieces. How close the piece is to the originals I wouldn't be the one to tell you. If anything, from the jagged staccato the pianos sometimes employed, I'd have guessed it's origins lay with Kurt Weill. Reich has stated he merely took two Radiohead melodies as a starting point, the way Stravinsky and Bartok borrowed from folk music.

The night was bookended by older pieces, the perennial warm-up 'Clapping Music' and 'Double Sextet.' Neither of which have a whole lot to do with popular music influences, and I'd previously heard 'Double Sextet' during Reich's afore-mentioned birthday celebrations. But then they who say they've heard 'Double Sextet' enough are truly tired of life – and it made the evening's highlight for me even on it's second serving.

So why 'Double Sextet' over 'Radio Rewrite?' As long-term fellow travellers, we naturally think of Reich and Glass together. But while Glass moved towards the world of post-minimalism, drawing on a wider sonic palette, Reich has stuck more to his Minimal roots. Which seems to me each man doing what works for him. Some artists thrive on collaboration and cross-fertilisation, others are best being left alone. 'Double Sextet' works better because Reich being Reich is best, and conscious efforts to engage with wider traditions merely dilute him. And I say that as someone who mostly listens to popular music. (Well, the more unpopular ends of it...)

By co-incidence, both nights took a tack slightly off-centre, focusing respectively on Minimalism's early years and on Reich's relationship with electric instrumentation and popular music. I was drawn to the first idea more than the second, but on the night enjoyed the second programme the best. There is probably some kind of moral there...

The audio only of 'Radio Rewrite'...

Jonny Greenwood's actual performance of 'Electric Counterpoint,' to which Reich responded with 'Radio Rewrite'. Alas, an incomplete recording...

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