In 2006 the L.A. Philharmonic did something no other orchestra in the world had done: a survey of minimalist music. Curated by one of the leading practitioners of the style, John Adams, the Minimalist Jukebox Festival resurrected forgotten but crucial works, touched on classics and showcased newer takes on one of the most influential styles of the late 20th century. Anyone who heard Glenn Branca's 80 electric guitars and basses rocking out in Walt Disney Concert Hall, or watched decaying silent films accompanied by Michael Gordon's blistering score, is unlikely to have forgotten those experiences.
Adams returns for the long-overdue second Minimalist Jukebox Festival, running through May 4. It focuses less on the early works, devoting more time to more recent music by the genre's giants and remounting several important works from the 1980s and '90s.
To understand how minimalism changed composition, it's helpful to revisit modern classical music in the early 1960s. Composers then had two options. The first is that they could create complicated rules to choose their pitches, rhythms and even how loud the notes were. To the average listener, these pieces sounded like arrhythmic beeps and farts.
The other possibility was to leave choices of pitch and rhythm to the performers, who had to interpret cool-looking scores that could be hung on the wall as art. These pieces also sounded like arrhythmic beeps and farts.]
Some young American composers were disenchanted with these options. Instead, they wrote music with a constant pulse and built from small patterns created from the same scales used by Bach or The Beatles. Harmonies changed very slowly over 20 to 60 minutes of continuous music. Minimalism's steady rhythms and easily perceptible harmonies were an enormous contrast to the seemingly arbitrary sounds of composers at the time.
The first piece composed in this style was Terry Riley's In C in 1964. You can hear it at the Hammer Museum courtyard April 5 and 12, in a performance that also involves a swarm of those stick figure – shaped inflatable balloons that gyrate in the wind outside car dealerships.
Steve Reich played in the premiere of In C, and developed his own spin on pattern-based music. Philip Glass heard Steve Reich's group, and formed his own ensemble to work out ideas about repetitive composition. Glass eventually became a prolific composer of operas and film music, and Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is one of the last century's masterpieces.
A festival highlight will be a semi-staged concert version of Glass' 1984 opera the CIVIL warS at Disney Hall on April 17 and 19. “It's an abstract, surrealistic take on the idea of civil wars, of people turning on themselves,” conductor Grant Gershon says. “There's kind of an underlying current of sadness and remorse in both the poetry and the music.”
Like Glass' Einstein on the Beach, CIVIL warS is similar in its “hypnotic quality, very much like the trance-like states [experienced] in Northern Indian classical music, taking you into a whole different perception of time,” Gershon says.
[In addition to the Disney Hall concerts presented by the L.A. Phil, the fest has nine other events, including a concert by the L.A. Master Chorale featuring Reich's You Are (Variations), the first piece Gershon commissioned after becoming director of the Chorale.
“Like most minimalist music,” Gershon says, “it takes incredible concentration to perform.” Reich wrote difficult interlocking rhythms between the chorus and orchestra. In performance, Gershon says, “You can feel the heat from all the brain synapses expiring onstage.”
Soprano Susan Narucki says minimalism's repetitive language requires a different approach from singing Puccini. “You can't put too much emphasis on any particular phrase; the effect comes from the whole structure,” she says. “It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. You have to think about pacing.” She'll be a soloist in Louis Andriessen's music theater work De Materie, receiving its West Coast premiere April 18.
Andriessen was one of the first European composers to adopt minimalism, and he put an abrasive edge on it. In the 1970s, while Glass and Reich loosened up their tightly controlled, overly logical structures, Andriessen cherished the rigor of Reich's earlier work. You can hear the musical clockwork in the opening of De Materie, in which two ensembles throw the same chord back and forth at slightly different rates of speed, creating an exciting, unsettling effect.
Part 3 of De Materie by Louis Andriessen
Andriessen in turn influenced younger American composers, particularly David Lang and Michael Gordon. Gordon's Sunshine of Your Love is receiving its American premiere April 11-13. Not performed since 1999, it's scored for an impractical orchestra, featuring extra instruments such as electric keyboards, saxophones, electric guitars and basses. The orchestra is divided onstage into four equal groups, and each group is tuned a little bit off from the others.
“It's loud,” Gordon says. “There's a mystery to the sound. It's filled with notes you know and notes you don't know … and you can't put your finger on it.”
You won't hear any Cream in this piece, despite the title. “Every single [pop] song is about love; it's all tender and emotional. I think of love in a completely dif-ferent way, as something ferocious, overpowering, mysterious,” Gordon says.
Gordon wrote Sunshine of Your Love 35 years after In C, and his grinding dissonances and the overlay of four or more different rhythms show how far minimalism has evolved from Riley's happy, trippy creation. (This program includes the world premiere of Riley's At the Royal Majestic.)
Yet Gordon's work also displays how repetition – one of minimalism's essential features – can produce music of great complexity without forsaking an immediate connection with listeners.
An earlier work by Michael Gordon, Yo Shakespeare
Minimalist Jukebox Festival takes place at Walt Disney Concert Hall and other venues, through May 8.
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