A Return to Form (and other good things)

Of course not all modern “serious” music is like Cage. Among the more welcome musical developments of the modern era is minimalism, the repertoire of which we are currently exploring. The genealogy of minimalism is peculiarly contemporary in contrast to its predecessors which grew up in such institutions as the court and the church. The earliest examples of minimalism were conceived on the university campuses of the post-war generation, before the movement found its role as a rearguard against the advances of the tuneless post-modernism of Cage and Stockhausen. That such music has ceased to be fashionable owes much to the success of minimalism in rediscovering such pure and simple virtues as harmony and structure. For, seen in its proper place, minimalism is a reaction, and a very welcome one at that. It is recognisably modern but respectful of the lessons of the old masters rather than childishly rebellious against them, and most of the best twenty-first century art music acknowledges its influence.

It is to minimalism’s great credit that, although it was conceived in the sanitised environment of the academy, it has transcended its origins and developed into something with mass appeal in the hands of such skilled craftsmen as Glass and Nyman. The reasons for this are inherent in the music, which is essentially concerned with the art of repetition. The older classical composers used repetition as a way of stating again something which had already be said; it was a means to an end. With minimalism the repetitions, and the progressions which take place within and between them, are the whole point. Of course for repetitions to be musically rewarding the right themes are needed, and there is undoubtedly great facility in the minimalist masters’ presentation of harmony and texture. Texture in particular is crucial, allowing the accumulation of so many different motifs that the listener becomes mesmerised. The visual equivalent is of towers of spinning plates growing before an entranced observer; the higher the plates climb, the more impressive the achievement. Yet, paradoxically, within such complex textures great unity of sound is maintained as delicately-arranged cross-rhythms knit the various timbral strands together into one rich, cohesive tapestry. To borrow another visual metaphor, the effect is like a magic eye picture; the listener becomes aware of the distinction between the parts and the whole only by giving it his full concentration.

Such attributes make the minimalist form a particularly versatile one, capable of being carried to a variety of different settings. This is especially evident in the widespread use of minimalism in films, to which it is almost uniquely well-suited; because it is more concerned with atmosphere and mood than bold and brightly-coloured melodies, it easily assimilates with the visual, while its reliance on repetition makes it very easily tailored to on-screen events. Yet minimalism is equally at home in the concert hall as the cinema, and there is no reason why we might not choose to perform a minimalist quartet at some time in the future.