Tones And Drones: Minimalism At A Glance
Minimalism is one of the most vital yet misused words in music.
A movement within the classical sphere, it was groundbreaking and at times outright revolutionary, upending preconceptions and adding countless new phrases to the aural lexicon.
Charles Hazlewood has long been an advocative for the minimalist lineage, with his life and work as a composer and a conductor resting at the cutting edge.
Fresh from an acclaimed BBC Four documentary series, Charles Hazlewood brings Paraorchestra and Friends to London and Manchester for two extremely special performances.
Ahead of this, Clash spoke to Charles Hazlewood - as well as some fellow travellers in the minimalist field - about some core texts from minimalist giants.
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Terry Riley: A Rainbow In Curved Air
1969 was a hell of a year. Terry Riley’s masterpiece and sonic revolution, A ‘Rainbow In Curved Air’, was released, turning 50 this year alongside The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ and memories of the moon landings. It’s up there beside them as one of the 20th Century’s most iconic moments. It encapsulates the revolutionary nature of minimalism.
Music, with few exceptions, has always been about reaching a certain goal, there’s an end point and the way to get there is verse, middle eight, chorus and so on. Terry crashed that idea, creating a work that’s entirely written and performed in A Major, quite purposefully stripped of the linear nature of composition, in search of ‘the eternal now’.
People generally get drawn to contrast, whether they’re painting a room in their house or reading a book. They want light and shade and different characters to appear. ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ is sublime, but just pinned around that one chord, yet so sublimely complex.
As a nine-year old, being played it in concentrated sittings by my music teacher, Mr Edmonds, it blew my mind. How could Terry play all of this by himself? I tried to do it on my organ at home, obviously having no idea at all about the multi-tracking and tape loops that he’d employed to such devastating effect.
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Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion
Philip Glass is a wonderful human being and what most impresses me is his earlier work. When he was just emerging as an artist, he’d hold down other jobs like driving a cab and, I think, plumbing and running a removals business. He’d work, compose, sleep, be a dad, compose and get back out to work.
It affected his music so much, developing this feverish, obsessive and uncompromising nature, repeating itself, becoming unyielding, rigid and brazen. Every now and then he’d add a note, or take one away, a deft move of minimal contrast.
This 1973 piece is a stark example. ’Music In A Similar Motion’, and Glass’ work of this era is like a punch in the face. For anyone that’s been around downtown Manhattan, they’ll recognise a sense of the architecture that surrounds you and surrounded him at this time. It’s tall, harsh, cold and angular and his music is redolent of the environment around him. It’s a very New York piece of music.
When I first started asking orchestras to play this work in the 90s, they were horrified. After one recital, an orchestra looked up at me with bloodlust in their eyes. Thankfully, times have changed.
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Pauline Oliveros: The Last Time
At the ‘drone’ end of minimalism, Pauline Oliveros was something of an unsung pioneer. Very much at the heart of the influential San Fransisco Tape Music Center, Oliveros was overshadowed in this patriarchal society of ours by her male counterparts.
Born and raised in Texas, her drone compositions are very much the sound of unending lines of telegraph poles, passing trains and the slog of architectural machinery. Again, at odds with the idea that music should be heading somewhere, Oliveros’ work sounds like nothing is happening, but evokes the concept of ‘deep listening’. It’s very much about being in the now.
“Her work has a remarkable, nuanced aroma. Eventually you start to pick up on subtle overtones, like when you strike any note on a piano, the other strings vibrate, but in Oliveros’ piece they slowly disappear as they had gently encroached into the piece.
Relatively new, The Last Time was released in 1998 and is inspired by a poem of her own, Ghostdanjce.
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Steve Reich: Tehillim (1981)
Tehillim was, in so many ways, a complete departure for Steve Reich. After two decades of composing music built of slowly shifting, repeated patterns, he suddenly burst into melodic bloom. Instead of a consistent (usually twelve-quaver) bar, he found constantly changing meters. The ﬁrst two pages of the score dance blithely through 5/8, 8/8, 6/8, 4/8 and 7/8. Even the title is in new territory.
Reich’s usual abstractions or reliance on the line-up – Six Pianos, say, or Clapping Music – was left behind for a narrative title: the Tehillim are the Hebrew psalms. This was the ﬁrst time Reich had engaged with his heritage, and it yielded terriﬁc results.
Reich’s music requires enormous concentration to perform, and oy gevalt is Tehillim seriously bloody difﬁcult. Score for four (non-operatic, N.B.) female voices, woodwinds, percussion (including unjingled tambourines which the composer speciﬁes in almost comic detail in the score – even suggesting a retailer), organs and strings, and spread over four movements lasting half an hour, it bubbles along with a crazy optimism – though going via the composer’s ﬁrst truly lyrical writing, in the third movement – and ends with a triumphant, bursting ‘Hallelujah’.
The original ECM recording is a thing of absolute captivation.
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John Adams: Harmonium (1981)
Adams’s ﬁrst major commission (though not his ﬁrst major work or even his ﬁrst orchestral work) is quite staggeringly beautiful. In fact, it is ravishing. Written for a gigantic combination of chorus and large orchestra, it starts with ‘a single tone emerging out of a vast, empty space’ and gently grows into a luminous, almost magical weft. It’s that rare thing – a choral symphony – and that rarest of things – a masterpiece.
Set to texts by John Donne and Emily Dickinson (strange bedfellows), the three movements are about (in this order) love, death and sex. The second movement hovers in mid-air and time stands still. Eventually the chorus peals the ﬁnal, plangent ‘toward eternity,’ and distant cowbells are vaguely heard, before an amazing tornado of a crescendo drives the orchestra into a colossal, spangling, orgiastic explosion and the chorus – as one – frantically yells, ‘Wild nights!’ while a ‘monster orchestral gamelan’ clangs and zings around it.
It’s a huge piece, in every sense – hugely ambitious, hugely emotional, hugely resourced and – atmospheres above all of this in importance – hugely enjoyable. The breathtaking original recording, on ECM, was nominated for a Grammy.
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Michael Torke: The Yellow Pages (1985)
Torke wrote The Yellow Pages, for a quintet of woodwinds, strings and piano, while still a student at Yale. The ﬁrst of a series of colour-themed compositions, like Ecstatic Orange and Bright Blue Music, it takes its inspiration from – of all places – the bass line of Chaka Khan’s ‘Hold Her’. (Weren’t expecting that, were you?) And, like the song, the piece bounces along, full of ﬁzz and sunshine.
Torke – sometimes described as a post-minimalist – takes a simple one-bar bass line, repeats it and, every two bars, changes one of the notes by a semitone, so the piece cycles around the keys before ending up back home in the bright yellow of G major. It’s a simple mechanism – and was a new approach to handling ‘minimal’ material at the time – but the mechanics aren’t the thing. The thing is: it’s totally delightful.
Not enough noise is made about Torke, whose music is so buoyant and witty and fun and thrilling and fresh. You never heard fresher music. It sounds like it could have been written tomorrow. The original Argo recording should be at the top of your wish list.
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The Paraorchestra performs Minimalism Changed My Life: Tones Drones and Arpeggios at Southbank Centre on September 28th and Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on October 2nd.
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