To the Max
Free at Last
And so the stigma has been lifted, and we can sport the mantle of “minimalist” in public without shame. It comes, in fact, in all sizes, shapes and colors. At a symposium on the final day of the Philharmonic’s “Minimalist Jukebox,” which concluded last weekend, the fortissimo guitarist Glenn Branca, whose full-length concert three days before I had forsworn in self-defense, proclaimed himself a “minimalist” in one breath, and named Gustav Mahler as his prime musical influence in the next. Try that on your stereo.
From any point of view, the “Jukebox” was a brave, enterprising, successful event. You can argue, as Philip Glass did when I ran into him in the hall after the final concert, that it was largely a celebration of old music and therefore belonged with festivals of Bach and Mozart. But that leaves out a vital aspect of this latest event: the audience it drew, and the response that aggregation of teens and college kids (plus young-in-heart of other ages as well) provided. Some way must be found to keep this audience — not through contrivance, as with the hokey “First Nights” concoctions, which common sense is finally ending after this season, but with the unencumbered recognition of where genuine adventure lives and pulsates within the musical repertory.
Until this is done, the notion of stigma remains. What was remarkable about these two weeks of concerts was their revelation of so much music that needs to move into the repertory and, by doing so, start to attract that young-spirited crowd that showed up at Disney these past weeks. Example: There was an all–Steve Reich program, three big works — orchestral and Tehillim with singers — that should be lighting up symphonic programs all over the world where Till Eulenspiegel and the 1812 currently add to the clutter. Example: Terry Riley sat behind me on the night when Mark Robson played a small organ piece by Arvo Pärt, and you knew what a wonderful event Terry and his A Rainbow in Curved Air would create on that organ someday, and you knew that he was thinking the same; it should happen. Example: Forty minutes from the Glass Akhnaten was scarcely enough to rekindle memories of his great years; that work (not to mention Einstein on the Beach) should have nuzzled its way onto the operatic roster beside La Traviata years ago. The “Jukebox” was a wonderful teaser; now it’s somebody’s job to stand there and keep pushing the quarters into the slot.
It was both amazing and gratifying, in fact, how much new and undiscovered got threaded among the time-honored minimalist masterworks. Who, for example, had ever heard of Terry Jennings? The opening program, which ended with the wholesale murder of Riley’s iconic In C (by a CalArts ensemble 10 times too large, organized with cue cards instead of allowing the musicians free choice from one element to the next), began with a proper-size CalArts ensemble performing Jennings’ 1960 String Quartet, music of hypnotic silences and near silences, fashioned at 20 by a legendary colleague of Riley and of La Monte Young. Something that made the work even more interesting, if in retrospect, came late in the series, at a Riley celebration at the Getty Center, when the Calder Quartet played a Riley quartet also from 1960, almost a double of the Jennings (in purpose if not in actual sound). These two works of “pure” minimalism, dating from four years before In C, which is generally accorded patrimonial stature for the minimalist movement, seemed to bookend the whole local program in all but name. (La Monte Young, also among the minimalist “fathers” for, among other masterworks, his fortnightlong single-note compositions, declined to participate in the “Jukebox,” musically or personally, for reasons of his own.)
The legend of the 1973 New York audience revolt that greeted Steve Reich’s Four Organs seemed reason enough to schedule the work (for the four members of PianoSpheres, on itty-bitty electronic keyboards), with audience docility a measure of the changing times. That program included its own brand of latter-day chaos in Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, for four banged-upon full-size pianos, again politely if adoringly received. Andriessen, who taught at CalArts in the 1980s and worked out a vivid mix of American minimalism with the theatrical outlooks of Luciano Berio and others, also brought to the mix two great, steamy works: the familiar De Staat (melding some of Plato’s harmonic rules into a political context) and the brand-new Racconto dall’Inferno, a glistening, hellish travelogue made all the more infernal in the gyrations of a captivating, diabolical mezzo-soprano with, or so it seemed, a 7-inch waist, a certain Cristina Zavalloni. Wow.
Decasia drew the event’s smallest crowd; I know it’s available on DVD, but the resonance of Michael Gordon’s score, excellently dispatched by USC musicians, bouncing off Disney’s walls to surround Bill Morrison’s film fantasy, was a whole ’nother kind of media experience. For me, what it meant was that Gordon’s rich, lush musical score was, in some way, creating the tattered, abstract images of Morrison’s film scraps and turning them into some kind of visual drama beyond anything you see and hear. If you don’t know what this is all about, that must mean you still have Decasia ahead of you, and I envy you that.
By Saturday, the “Minimalist Jukebox” was firmly in John Adams’ hands, conducting a Philharmonic program that included the “pure” minimalism of the Akhnaten excerpts, ended with Adams’ own Harmonielehre and also included, before that, a marvelous talk by Adams, interspersed with musical bits, on his life among the shaping forces of today’s music. These included, to my delight, the electronic wizardry of Mort Subotnick’s early adventures at the Buchla synthesizer, so that I could relive my own hair-raising discovery of The Wild Bull (1967, was it?). Then Adams spoke of something newer and electronic called Aphex Twin, and I felt the little remaining hair rising again. Then on to Harmonielehre, in which, along with the throbbings and repetitive textures and clear-headed tonalities and modulations on the edge of minimalism, there are long, eloquent, sinuous, passionate melodies that grab you by the ears, don’t let go for minutes at a time, and even, perhaps, make you think of Mahler. Try that on your stereo.
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