Much Ado About Nothing

How original is new music? Michael Oliver asks if minimalist composers are pointing to the future or consigning music to a time warp.

People get all worked up about minimalism. Either it’s The Answer, and high time too, to the serialists and the post-serialists of the 1950s and 1960s, with all their incomprehensible complexity. Or else it’s The Enemy, grossly over-simplifying an art that is by nature mysteriously complex, short-changing the audience with interminable sequences of boring repetitions.

I’m quite capable of holding both points of view at once. Oh, the number of ‘advanced’ scores I’ve sat through that were so complicated you couldn’t even follow the programme note (‘After an abrupt crescendo the solo trumpet triumphantly intones all four versions of the row’ – what crescendo? How on earth could I miss a trumpet solo? And why are all these people clapping? How did they know that was the end?). But I have to say that I’ve endured a fair number of minimalist pieces where the opposite problem was, if anything, even worse (Look, you’ve been heading towards D for ages; would you mind giving us a D, and we can all go home? No, Philip, no: not an E flat: we’ve had quite enough of those already. Mr Glass, why are you trying to drive me crazy?).

So: a plague on both their houses? Not quite. Even when Glass is boring on, refusing to do the inevitable, he can quite often remind you of what a very beautiful thing a simple interval is, or a simple change that he’s rather cleverly made you long for. And the hard-line modernists? Is there anything to be said in their favour? Well, we all know and love some music that we once found puzzling. No, I’m not subscribing to the Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante’s defence of modernism (‘They said Beethoven was mad! They said Chopin was mad! They said Louis was mad!’ ‘Who’s Louis?’ ‘He was my uncle: he was mad.’). No, but some of the music we most value once irked us, surprised us. It didn’t do what we were expecting it to do.

And that, of course, is a defence of both simplicity and complexity. Purcell begins Dido’s Lament (‘When I am laid in earth’) with a melody in the bass eight notes long. Because we know Purcell, and because we recognise that sort of tune, we know that he’s going to repeat it, with little or no variation, until the end of the piece: it’s a chaconne. But the vocal line doesn’t fall into phrases eight notes long, nor is it in the same rhythm as the ever-repeated bass. Dido’s Lament is predictable and unpredictable, simple and complex.

I knew it was going to be unpredictable
It couldn’t be unpredictable without being predictable as well. If Dido’s melody weren’t continually either confirming or denying what that repeated bass causes us to expect, it would surprise us and move us less. The problem with some modernist works is that they’re so complex, so unrelated to the sort of music we know already, that they can’t surprise us with the unpredictable, nor please us by doing just what we expected. The problem with some minimalist music is that once you’ve got the hang of it you can work out roughly what else it’s going to do: again, it can’t surprise you, and since most of the time it does what you expect, it gives you no pleasure when it does it again.

Asking a piece of music ‘are you doing what I expect, or are you contradicting my expectation, and have you got the balance between the two about right?’ is no bad thing. It’s one of the ways we tell good, or at any rate satisfying music, from the unsatisfying or bad kind. We also ask ‘are you doing more than one thing at once?’ Dido’s Lament is obviously doing at least two: that repeating bass, and the melody above it. What’s more, it’s doing them in different timescales: the bass repeats itself every eight notes, the melody proceeds in sometimes longer, sometimes shorter spans. Not only that, but the voice sometimes falls silent, and we become aware of the unchanging chaconne melody; it emerges from background to foreground.

Listening to minimalist music like that can be frustrating, when what you hear really is all that you’re going to get. But there’s nothing quite like minimalism for sharpening the ear to listen out for a second level beneath the obvious foreground, for a cleverly timed surprise, for a repetition that isn’t literal but heading in a new direction. That’s why the composers of the past used minimalism so much. Purcell’s use of chaconne, Bach’s of the same thing, only he called it ‘passacaglia’, all forms of variation technique, or where one voice or instrument imitates another, any piece using a constantly repeated rhythm (Ravel’s Boléro is minimalist; so are all dances, all marches). In all these cases the predictable is there to throw the unpredictable into relief, and any minimalist piece that doesn’t do can give only the very limited pleasure of watching a machine doing a perhaps complex but essentially repetitive, unvarying task.

Clean out your ears
Some modern pieces have severed all links with the past so thoroughly they contain no repetition whatsoever. Inevitably, they demand a high and constant level of attention: pure plot, you might say, with no interludes, asides or descriptions of scenery to let you catch your breath. This sort of music, however, isn’t only hard work to listen to, it’s mercilessly hard to write (just you try, with only twelve notes at your disposal, to write even a short piece that never repeats itself). Most composers continue to use the ‘minimalist’ techniques of their predecessors, or modern developments of them, and listening for confirmations or contradictions of expectation, for foreground becoming background, and vice-versa, is still a very good way of getting to know a piece of music that at first acquaintance may seem puzzling. And the better minimalist pieces are good, ear-cleansing preparations for this. And if that sounds like a recommendation that you use John Adams as an appetiser before a main course of Harrison Birtwistle, then so be it.

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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