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Book Review

On Minimalism: Documenting A Musical Movement


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On Minimalism: Documenting A Musical Movement
Kerry O'Brien and William Robin
449 Pages
ISBN: 9780520382084
University of California Press

Much like jazz, the origin story of minimalism is messy and hard to pin down to a date. And like jazz, definitions of minimalism can be rather slippery or downright contentious. Such challenges, thankfully, have not stopped editors Kerry O'Brien and William Robin from colourfully depicting a movement(s) in all its weird and wonderful forms from the 1950s to the present day.

This meaty, though by no means exhaustive tome, is a compilation of articles by music journalists, musicians and art critics who experienced the music at its birth and who engaged with the genre as it subsequently grew and morphed over the ensuing decades. Their essays, reviews, liner notes and interviews reflect a wide array of opinion on music that has journeyed from the counterculture incubators that were New York's SoHo lofts in the 1950s and 1960s, to Metropolitan Museum of Art high-art status in the 1970s, and onwards to Spotify mood playlists.

Much previous writing on minimalism tends to focus on its four most famous figures: La Monte Young; Terry Riley; Philip Glass; and Steve Reich—the Mount Rushmore of the genre. They have been internationally lauded as pioneers in the use of drones, repetitive pulses, loops and phasing. This quartet and their landmark recordings duly receive a large enough slice of O'Brien and Robin's pie, but as the editors note of minimalism as a movement: "to fail to look beyond the Big Four is to have an impoverished understanding of its history."

As such, On Minimalism offers a revisionist history, embracing a much broader and inclusive view of minimalism that champions many lesser-known names.

Writing for The Wire in 2018, in an article entitled 'Black Minimalism,' David Toop points out that the first person to use tape loops was Richard Maxfield, in 1960. A pioneer in electro-acoustic and electronic music, Maxfield was a student and then a teacher in John Cage's New School Course, in 1958-59. His suicide in 1969 would confine him to relative obscurity, but his influence, Toop states, could later be seen in the work of Young, Riley, Terry Jennings, Yoko Ono, Henry Flynt and George Maciunas—founding figures of the Fluxus art movement.

Toop pens a spirited riposte to the traditionally white narrative that characterizes most histories of minimalism and that canonizes the best-known works of its most celebrated white composers. Black minimalism, Toop states, has a long-established history. It is found in the repeated patterns of traditional and popular African song, in the ceremonial rhythms of vodun as practised in New Orleans' Congo Square in the early 19th century, in the unchanging bass ostinato of Junior Walker's "Shotgun"—sampled by Terry Riley—and in James Brown's relentless funk grooves and vocal riffs.

Whereas white minimalism has often been hailed by critics as tied to the intellect and to the spirit, black minimalism, Toop relates, has been maligned as monotonous or mindless. He rails against the "toxic survival of this complacent belief..." and rounds off a thought-provoking essay with a suggested black-minimalism mixtape of over eighty artists, from Alice Coltrane to Sly and the Family Stone, from John Lee Hooker to Grace Jones and from Lee Perry to African Head Charge.

And as O'Brien and Robin elucidate, while minimalism has been historically racially segregated, the reality is otherwise: Don Cherry collaborated with Terry Riley, Anthony Braxton with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Though the term "minimalism" only became common currency in the 1970s, the spark that lit the movement's fire was the visit to New York of Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan in 1955, and a 1956 recording culled from a rehearsal—seemingly the first full-length LP of Indian classical music. In a New York Times preview, Yehudi Menuhin described the music as "monotonous yet full of rich variety, simple yet so intensely subtle." La Monte Young, for one, was entranced and inspired. A year later John Coltrane was similarly beguiled by the music of Ravi Shankar.

But as O'Brien and Robin caution, looking for a single origin of minimalism is a pitfall. Their aim in gathering such a wide spectrum of critical opinion is to demonstrate that it was a confluence of influences that enabled minimalism to take wing.

Indian ragas, the modal jazz of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and John Coltrane's Africa/Brass (Impulse! Records, 1961)—this latter an important influence on Steve Reich—conversed with the experimentalist art of the Fluxus movement. Pauline Oliveros, in the late 1950s, found her own drone inspiration in the continual hum of freeway traffic.

The book is divided into three parts: the late 1950s to the mid-1970s; 1976 to the late 1990s; and 2000 to today. At every point in the story, or so it seems, minimalism eschews boundaries. Little wonder then, that some of the artists profiled in these pages struggled with the minimalist label. Glass, for one, declares that little he composed after 1974 fits the description.

There is a certain irony in the lengths that many artists went to, and in the hefty logistics involved in many of the minimalists' projects. Reich's famous Music for 18 Musicians was a bigger ensemble than most jazz big-bands of the day. Ellen Fullman's mind-boggling Long String Instrument was too long for most rooms and had to be installed on a roof. Maryanne Amacher, in her neuroanatomical explorations of perceptual responses to music, employed 750 speakers in a Japanese concert hall.

Even when explaining the music, or in critiquing it, artists and journalists alike often do so at great length and with relentless attention to technical details. As David Toop wryly observes, "Less is definitely more than you bargained for."

It is fascinating to read how people responded to minimalism. For every blissed out individual in thrall to trance-like rhythms and never-ending cosmic drones, there was, it seems, a detractor.

For some, the music was overly simplistic, "the sort of tinkling cacophony music teachers require from classes of very tiny infants," or as Beth Anderson complained, just "too fucking loud." Writing in The Face in 1987, Ian Macdonald dismissed minimalism as "the passionless, sexless and emotionally blank soundtrack to the Machine Age." He went on to describe Philip Glass's soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio's cult film Koyaanisqatsi (1982) as "a symptom of the society Reggio deplores, not a description of it."

In much the same way that jazz has morphed, grown new limbs and jettisoned others, minimalism has never stood still. Like the old Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant, minimalism has come to mean very different things to different people.

Accordingly, On Minimalism throws the spotlight on figures as diverse as Julius Eastman and John Adams. It portrays so-called post-minimalist composers such as Alexandre Rabinovitch, Sergei Zagny and Ann Southam, amongst others. The works and modus operandi of spiritual minimalists Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki are also analyzed in perceptive essays and in-depth interviews. So too, the ambient soundscapes of Brian Eno, the ambient jazz of Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders and the meditative drones of Éliane Radigue.

With passion and some style, the collected writings of On Minimalism invite the side-stepping of origin stories and the dismantling of a minimalist cannon. Instead, it invites a deeper and wider immersion in a radical music that continues to divide and entrance in equal measure.

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