The 20th century was a century of musical revolutions. One of the last and most audacious ignited 50 years ago on the east and west coasts of America. And in a small but significant way The Spectator played a part in fanning the flames. In 1968 a young critic and early-music specialist by the name of Michael Nyman was sent out by the magazine to review a new work by Cornelius Cardew, a little-known British maverick.
What struck Nyman about Cardew’s new piece, The Great Learning, was how different the musical language was from that of the complex and angsty European avant-garde. ‘It was very gentle, it was very modest, it wasn’t trying to make a huge technical statement,’ Nyman once explained. ‘It wasn’t threatening, the musical material was limited, modest, minimal. It certainly was a new land of music that should be given a title.’ That title was minimalism.
A body of music that had been steadily gathering momentum in America (and Britain) through the 1960s found a very sticky new label. And within two decades, the movement infiltrated not just the classical establishment but the popular one too. The likes of The Velvet Underground, Laurie Anderson, The Who and Brian Eno pilfered the hypnotic pulse and motoric rhythmic propulsion of minimalism to power their songs into the charts.
In two weeks I’m throwing a 50th birthday party at Kings Place for classical music’s most successful ism. Over three nights the fearless French piano duo the Labèque sisters and their band will survey the course of this movement from its experimental beginnings through to its commercial triumph.
How did a movement that had its origins in the mescalin-addled thoughts of a few American beatniks become the most influential musical movement of the 20th century? After all, one had to be mighty optimistic to think that their initial premise would succeed. The first generation of minimalists sought nothing less than an overthrow of that which had underpinned western classical music for millennia: namely, narrative and harmony. Instead of these, Erik Satie’s concept of goallessness would become the aim of music. And not just that. They also wanted to resuscitate sound. In the aftermath of the second world war, in a climate in which European modernists such as Stockhausen and Boulez decreed that music must be an intellectual pursuit, not a sensual one, a return to the sounding process — to its audibility, clarity and beauty — was a Boston Tea Party moment for 20th-century music.
Two hairy Berkeley University graduates initiated the American breakaway. For La Monte Young and Terry Riley, music was all about experiencing the sounding process. From 1958 on they proceeded to reintroduce the various elements that were necessary for this to be more clearly understood and appreciated. Repetition was returned in 1960. Rhythmic patterning in 1961. Tonality in 1964. Forget that the early application of these ideas was still rather contrarily avant-garde. Repetition’s reintroduction, for example, came in a notorious piece of musical Dadaism from La Monte Young, X is for Henry Flynt, in which a loud noise was repeated X number of times. Alongside punkishness, however, came innovation. Terry Riley’s ground-breaking experimentation with tape introduced the idea of layering regular pulses to create rich sonic weaves. Steve Reich structured these weaves according to the propulsive polyrhythms of sub-Saharan Africa. Philip Glass added to them the musical wisdom of India.
Recordings reached Britain in the mid-1960s. Cardew became an early proselytiser for the movement. As in America, the ideas primarily spread through art college campuses. ‘A lot of musicians of my type,’ explains the minimalist composer Gavin Bryars, who started life as a jazzer, ‘were employed at art schools rather than music colleges because we were not viewed as being employable.’ British minimalists were more reluctant than any to relinquish the experimental kick to this new aesthetic.
While the American minimalists constructed new languages — Steve Reich even provided a grammatical manifesto for the movement in his 1968 text Music as a Gradual Process — the British were happy to unpick and ironise the languages that were already there. Michael Nyman electrified maudlin Purcell grounds by scoring them for amplified saxophones and bass guitars. Christopher Hobbs deconstructed bits of Bach and Tchaikovsky. Bryars ennobled the voice of a singing tramp by looping it and setting it within the rosy orchestral glow of a Hollywood orchestration.
Many of these early British experiments with repetition and found sound were considered too eccentric to gain traditional musical acceptance. None of Bryars’s music was broadcast by Radio 3 for 18 years. ‘There was a sense that what we were doing was beyond the pale,’ he explains. ‘We often had hostile criticism. But that tended to reinforce us. It was like the old Wimbledon Football Club chant, “Nobody loves us and we don’t care”.’
And in the early days, few seemed to love the Americans either. ‘The audience was tiny,’ recalls Bryars, thinking back to the early 1970s when Reich and Glass first toured Europe with their bands and hung out at Bryars’s and Hobbs’s flat. ‘I remember Philip [Glass] playing in the canteen of the Royal College of Art and there were probably about seven people in the audience and six people on stage.’
But as the strict aesthetic rules of minimalism commingled with the demands of other art forms, the movement began to gain followers. Glass’s alliance with the operatic stage in Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Nyman’s with the postmodern screen of Peter Greenaway got things rolling. The Velvet Underground — half of whose members had been part of La Monte Young’s band The Theatre of Eternal Music in the 1960s — transmitted the hypnotic beats into American mainstream music. Brian Eno — who had performed Young’s austere X is for Henry Flynt in 1966 at Ipswich Art School and joined Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra — began doing the same in Britain.
Today the influence is all-pervasive. The music of Glass and Nyman chugs over documentaries as if by statute. Even academia is succumbing. ‘It’s all now codified,’ laments Bryars. ‘People are doing PhDs on it. Once you start doing that it’s as dead as a dodo.’
The pure hypnotic minimalism of the first American generation may have been corporatised, academicised and harmonised into oblivion. But its legacy endures. Minimalism opened the compositional doors to music and ideas that modernism had shut out. It allowed classical music to absorb without guilt the innovations of rock’n’roll and jazz, the forgotten tricks of the past and the musical traditions of the world. It is a great irony that an aesthetic that produced some of the most austere and narrowly focused works of music in history blew open the stylistic doors and gave a bold new lease of life to the western classical tradition.
50 Years of Minimalism is at Kings Place from 24 November.