Piero Scaruffi's
History of Avantgarde Music

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The second generation of Minimalists

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Minimalism had changed the classical western view of music. A composition could evolve like an organism, rather than being designed to stretch over a predetermined narrative or emotional path. The listener, in turn, was required to listen more carefully, to enter into a sort of union with the piece of music; which was, of course, an idea derived from eastern music. Minimalism had introduced improvisation and meditation into western music.

These intuitions were further developed in various directions by the second generation of minimalist composers.

One of the most powerful innovations in minimalist music had come from rocker Brian Eno, who had bridged the sensibility of rock and avantgarde music on the manifestos of "ambient music". Following his lead, Harold Budd (USA, 1936) crafted sugary, velvety, tinkling cartilages such as Bismillahi Prahmani Brahim (1978), Children On The Hill (1981), Abandoned Cities (1984), Dark Star (1984), Gypsy Violin (1987), that emphasized the hypnotic quality of droning and repetition. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

David Borden (USA, 1938), founder (1969) of the electronic combo Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company, created The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint (1987) for keyboards, horns, guitar and voice, one of the most monumental studies on counterpoint of the century. Borden's "counterpoint" relies on the same basic technique of Terry Riley's In C (a set of independent motifs played in different meters and for different periods of time), but Borden downplays the pulsing effect and employs more than one keys, with an emphasis on fast moving notes, fast developing blocks, fast changing meters. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Sound sculptor Annea Lockwood (New Zealand, 1939) composed sublime exercises in slo-motion subliminal glissandi and microtones: the concerto Western Spaces (1995) for flutes, zoomoozoophone and percussion, the chorale Tongues Of Fire Tongues of Silk (1997) for eight sopranos and percussion, the electroacoustic piece Floating World (1999), created in studio from "spiritual" field recordings by her friends, and the four-movement suite Thousand Year Dreaming (1991) for conch shell, trombone, multiple didjeridus, oboe, English horn, vocals, clarinet and percussion.


North Carolina's violinist Henry Flynt (1940) launched an ambitious project to found a "new American ethnic music" that fused avantgarde music (particularly the hypnotic aspects of minimalism and free-jazz) and hillbilly/country music, best represented by S&M Delerium (1970s), Jive Deceleration, You Are My Everlovin' (1980), Celestial Power (1981), Purified by the Fire (december 1981). Flynt stopped playing music in 1984, but most of his music was released "after" he had stopped playing. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The elegant pulsing scores of Michael Nyman (Britain, 1944), such as Water Dances (1984) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986), were a post-modernist version of neoclassical music. The orchestral miniatures of the film soundtrack A Zed And Two Naughts (1989) capitalized on retro-catchy melodies and tempos that mocked everything from cabaret to baroque adagios.

John Adams (USA, 1947) pioneered the fusion of minimalist pulse and romantic rhetoric in Phrygian Gates (1977), Harmonium (1981), Grand Pianola Music (1982) and Harmonielehre (1985); reiventing the symphony with his Chamber Symphony (1993) and the Naive and Sentimental Music (1999), and reinventing opera with Nixon In China (1987).

Paul Dresher (USA, 1951) started out in the post-minimalist vein with Liquid and Stellar Music (1981), Channels Passing (1982) and Double Ikat (1989), but then absorbed elements from other musical cultures, as in the Concerto for Violin and Electro-Acoustic Band (1997), and specialized in inventing instruments for compositions such as Concerto for Quadrachord & Orchestra (2012) and Sound Maze (2015).

Daniel Lentz (USA, 1942) injected stereotypes of the past into the minimalist skeleton, for example in Point Conception (1984) and Missa Umbrarum (1973).

Other mimalist composers (mostly based in New York) included: Jon Gibson (USA, 1940), more famous as a performer than as a composer, Ingram Marshall (USA, 1942), who applied minimalism to ethnic music in compositions such as Gradual Requiem (1979), Stephen Scott (USA, 1944), who composed for "bowed piano", for example Minerva's Web (1985), Charles "Charlemagne Palestine" Martin (USA, 1945), whose Strumming Music (1974) turned "strumming" (a tremolo style) into an avantgarde technique, and minimalism into highly dynamic (and noisy) music, and whose colossal church-organ drones of Schlingen-Blaengen (1979) did exactly the opposite. In 1981 Japanese-born performance artist Yoshi Wada (1943) recorded a solo voice invocation (a` la Pandit Pran Nath) and a duet for voice and loudly-droning Partch-like sound-making sculptures for Lament For The Rise and Fall of Elephantine Crocodile.

Ukrainian (German-born) composer Lubomyr Melnyk (Germany, 1948) devised "continuous music" for his piano compositions that is closely related to minimalist repetition: a continuous flow of rapid arpeggios that generates overtones melting into each other. This translated in a very fast playing technique, up to a dozen note per second, as demonstrated with KMH (1979), The Lund-St Petri Symphony (1979) for organ, Legend and Song of Galadriel (1984), Wave-Lox (1985), The Voice Of Trees (1983) for three tubas and two pianos.

The generation of composers born after World War II continued to experiment with minimalist techniques. In fact, interest in the music of LaMonte Young and the other pioneers resumed and peaked towards the end of the century.

Somei Satoh (Japan, 1947) employed the repetitive techniques developed in the 1960s by USA minimalists to create music that was, first and foremost, a spiritual experience, for example in Litania (1973), Mantra (1986) and Stabat Mater (1987). While Indian religion had been the scaffolding of much of LaMonte Young's and Terry Riley's work, Satoh harked back to both Christian liturgy and Japanese zen.

The massive guitar ensembles lined up by Glenn Branca (USA, 1948), for example in Ascention (1981), Symphony 3 (1983) and Symphony 5 (1984), used repetition, but were better described by the word "maximalism" than minimalism. A similar avenue was pursued by Rhys Chatham (USA, 1952), also fond of just intonation and the overtone series, with his compositions for large ensembles of guitars, for example Die Donnergotter (1986), An Angel Moves Too Fast To See (1989) and A Crimson Grail (2005), but also in Two Gongs (1971) for two gongs or Massacre On MacDougal Street (1982) for brass instruments. David Bedford (Britain, 1937) had predated both with Nurses Songs With Elephants (1972).

The minimalist dogma was bent to more pragmatic (melodic) needs by Belgian composer Wim Mertens (Belgium, 1953), whose Close Cover (1983), Whisper Me (1985), Lir (1985) and Educes Me (1986) attempted to reinvent chamber music and lieder.

The angelic minimalism of Mary Jane Leach (USA, 1949) was built from her manipulations of sonic events (such as human chanting), was more focused on the acoustic properties of sound than on its structural development, for example in Bruckstueck (1989),

Lois Vierk (USA, 1951) employed an "exponential" method to build up dense and intense sonic architectures out of rather simple sounds, as in the chaotic Simoom (1986) for eight cellos.

Other notable minimalists included: Arnold Dreyblatt (USA, 1953), founder of the Orchestra Of Excited Strings (1980) and composer of the Who's Who Opera (1991), who also toyed with intonation, as in Animal Magnetism (1995) and Resonant Relations (2005), and musique concrete, as in Turntable History (2011); Piero Milesi (Italy, 1953), with the sophisticated Modi (1982), Michael Byron (USA, 1954), composer of Tidal (1982) for small orchestra, Mikel Rouse (USA, 1957), composer of the percussion piece Quorum (1984), Dan Plonsey (USA, 1958), whose Moving About (2001) straddles the border between minimalism, jazz, pop and folk, Rod Poole (Britain, 1962), who exported Young's hypnotic music for just intonation to the tabletop guitar with The Death Adder (1996), etc.

Arthur Russell (1952), a cellist who composed chamber music inspired to Indian ragas (or "Buddhist bubblegum music") and a disc-jockey who crafted disco hits, composed the neoclassical seven-movement suite Tower Of Meaning (1983) in the minimalist vein.

Oliveros' deep-listening music was well-represented by the improvisations of trombonist Stuart Dempster (1936), documented on In The Great Abbey Of Clement VI (1979), by the music for the extended tones generated by long vibrating wires of Ellen Fullman (USA, 1957), as documented by Long String Instrument (1985), by the music for steel-metal sculptures played with a bow of Robert Rutman (1931), first documented on 1939 (1990), by Paul Panhuysen (Holland, 1934), specialized in installations of "long strings", such as Partitas for Long Strings (1999), by the music based on field recordings of Scott Smallwood, such as Desert Winds (2002), and even by the guitar drones of Portuguese guitarist Rafael Toral on Wave Field (1995).

Gordon Mumma's electronic nightmares were evoked by Richard Lainhart's Cities Of Light (1980); while LaMonte Young's lesson lived on in radical experiments such as the massive drones of James "Jliat" Whitehead (Britain), a purveyor of absolute quiescence in the massive electronic drones of Hilbert's Hotel (1998), and those of the eclectic David First (USA, 1953), notably Pipeline Witness Apologies to Dennis (2008); while If Bwana, the project of Al Margolis (1955), indulged in the frantic and brutal Clara Nostra (1999), scored for 106,476 clarinets.

British-born but Berlin-based tuba player Robin Hayward (1969) delivered carefully choreographed solos of symphonic gravity on two lengthy drone pieces of Nouveau Saxhorn Nouveau Basse (2014).

Klaus Lang exported Alvin Lucier's ideas into chamber music, thereby producing the equivalent of melody and harmony with drones instead of notes as the fundamental elements.


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