Vol. 2, Issue #3 March 2nd - March 15th, 2007

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg


Minimalism has given us some of the most beautiful and challenging music of the last fifty years. While the movement was properly began by the early works of La Monte Young in the late 1950s and Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich’s works in the 1960s, its roots stretch further back to the last page of Erik Satie’s 1916 symphonic drama “Socrate,” Richard Wagner’s droning E-flat Prelude to “Das Rheingold” (1869), and even the beloved Allegretto to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (1812).

Due to the popularity of Philip Glass’s recordings in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the movement even found a place in the experimental side of rock music, such as in the music of Laurie Anderson (“O Superman”), The Residents (“Not Available”), and OMD (“Dazzle Ships”). Glass returned the compliment to rock music by acknowledging the debt he owed to David Bowie’s electronic music and Brian Eno’s ambient music with his “Low” and “Heroes” symphonies, built around the two Bowie albums that Eno collaborated on.

Using repetitive patterns, pulses, drones, and consonant harmony, listeners usually find minimalism to be either hypnotic or maddening. Three new discs, and one downloadable project, have just been released that show the many different sides of the movement.

Riley is one of the seminal figures. His masterpiece, “In C,” was released on the Columbia Masterworks label (now Sony) in 1968. While it might have not been a best seller, everyone who heard the album became a minimalist composer. Even Pete Townshend acknowledged his debt to the composer by naming his famous song “Baba O’Riley” (aka “Teenage Wasteland”), where he used minimalist musical theory for the synthesizer sequence that opens the song.

“In C” starts with a pulse to keep the timing, then the musicians – of which there can be any number, using any instrumentation – go through a series of 53 short musical phrases. The phrases, which are simply a few notes long, are to be repeated for as long as the individual musician wishes to repeat them, though Riley suggested that everyone stay more or less within three phrases of each other. The result is a stew of found harmonies that drift together like a glorious, all-encompassing musical fog.

Paul Hillier, co-founder and director of both the Hillier Ensemble and the Theater of Voices, is famous for adding some much needed musical intelligence to the new age movement in the 1990s. His new recording of “In C” for percussion and voices (ARS NOVA/Naxos), featuring ARS NOVA Copenhagen and the Percurama Percussion Ensemble, sounded questionable to me on paper, but it is astounding on CD, like a post-modern motet deconstructed.

The Atavistic label has just released an interesting collection by Glenn Branca, titled for the longest piece on the CD; “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses,” a work record in 1981 by an orchestra of ten guitars and drums that features Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth. Branca and Sonic Youth came out of a combination of the avant-garde and the New York no wave movement, and it shows in this half-hour composition of apocalyptic noise built on sheer sonic terror. It begins in cacophony with bit and pieces clashing, but they slowly come together to a harmonic heart, then bounce back and forth between chaos and beauty throughout the piece. It’s one of Branca’s more challenging works, and if you can break through the feedback, musical bee swarms, and guitar sirens, it’s also one of his most fulfilling.

The recording is followed by an infamous eighteen-minute interview with the composer, and father of American experimental music, John Cage, the morning after he had heard a live performance of “Indeterminate....” Though he later recanted his initial statement, Cage hated the piece that morning. He refers to it as “fascist” and describes it as being “a sustained climax, like Wagner,” who he also hated (going back to the “Das Rheingold” prelude). Actually, Cage’s mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, came out of the line of Wagner, via his inspiration taken from Richard Stauss and Gustav Mahler, but Cage could never wrap his head around harmony. It is interesting to hear Cage attempting to come up with logical aesthetic reasons to dislike a piece that is, in part, homage to his own compositional technique.

The CD ends with a beautiful minimalist piece for orchestra, “Harmonic Series Chords,” recorded by the New York Chamber Sinfonia in 1989. The slow-moving piece is haunting and magical. It feels like Branca channeling Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question,” or Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres.”

Bridge has just released an excellent compilation of the work of Paul Lansky, titled “Music Box,” which is a great name when you consider the repetitious nature of minimalism. While Riley was building on Cagian indeterminacy to build a new music and Branca seemed to be raging against God itself, Lansky’s work is simple, tasteful, and extremely listenable. His work reminds me more of Mark Motherbaugh’s “Muzik for Insomniacs” albums rather than the avant-garde (which should be taken as a compliment). The centerpiece of the album is “Chatter of Pins,” where he took what he considered the basic elements of rap, which is to say an emphatic sense of rhythmic language, and edited it so that a male and female voice simultaneously recite the same words, but the music is sequenced in such a way that they become jumbled, senseless, yet endlessly fascinating.

Many of the gentle compositions sound like lullabies from space. Half of the tracks use the composer’s voice, but it goes through so many effects that it becomes hard to recognize. One of the most haunting tracks, “The Joy in F# Minor,” uses the ticking of a mechanical clock that pans back and forth between the speakers as a light dance comes out in the keyboard, like Satie at his most mellow.

Meanwhile, iTunes has a unique Philip Glass experiment going on. In January, they began a program offering a new recording of one section of his epic “Music in 12 Parts” every month for $1.99 (though so far I have only found the first part available). Though the whole cycle has been recorded before, the new recording is spectacular. Minimalism was a very difficult style of music to perform when Glass first started composing. As he has said, his performing groups, the Philip Glass Ensemble, has now had thirty years to learn how to play his music.

iTunes is releasing the program in celebration of Glass’s 70th birthday. Such a program shows that the once radical young Turks have turned into the grand old men of American classical music.

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.