These are not the minimalists you’re looking for.

Saturday 25 September 2010

So I was listening to music last night and this question popped into my head, how come all the minimalists pussied out? Of course I immediately realised this was the wrong question, but it was wrong for more than one reason.

The most obvious reason, natch, is that there are minimalists and there are minimalists. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s a True Scotsman, but minimalism is an unusual musical influence in as much as the label can be applied fairly accurately to more than three people and the most famous examples aren’t necessarily the most representative. This leads to the other reason: when I gratuitously accused all these many fine composers of the nebulous crime of pussying out, I was thinking of the Big Famous Minimalists. You know, the ones with movie soundtracks and orchestra commissions and tasteful album covers*.

Okay, so maybe these Big Famous Minimalists are really just sloppy old-fashioned romantics with more taste than imagination when it comes to matters of harmony and rhythm. In which case, the question becomes how the hell did these boring old farts manage to write some amazingly cool music for a few years back in the 70s? Those old Glass and Reich pieces sound at least as extraordinary today as when they first appeared, not least because they were produced by the same tedious fusspots who churn out pricey aural wallpaper today.

What I’m really trying to say here is that I’m surprised at how my perception of Terry Riley has changed over the years. When I was young and arrogant I thought less of his music ‘cos he seemed a bit woolly-minded (his website doesn’t help) and too interested in aimlessly noodling around. Now I’m old and dismissive I notice that while his sometime peers got respectable and boring, he’s still noodling away – with a better sense of adventure, formal rigour and musicianship than the Movie Music guys.

I guess the old hippie ethos of being true to yourself can pay off if you stick to it, and there’s something to be said for repetition.



* Unless you’re Philip Glass.

  1. Ben,

    La Monte Young certainly never pussied out. Neither did Lucier or Niblock or (for my money) Riley. Neither did the English systems composers, or their US equivalents (Tom Johnson, Goode, Corner). And there’s certainly a lot of good non-pussied out music following in this wake — Hauke Harder, the Wandelweisers, almost anyone at Upload… Download… Perform.

    How the whole pussied-out galore thing happened is another story altogether, and one in which you have to explain how, for example, the original US quartet, with Young, Riley, Reich and Glass suddenly became Adamsized and Youngless. (12 points (douze points) if your answer includes the house of Nonesuch and their client critics.)

  2. Obviously you were not in attendance at the South Melbourne Town Hall show which I fled during half time and Mr Jim Knox eloquently summed up as ‘Billy Joel in a Caftan’.

  3. Daniel – agreed. Like I said, my first question was wrong. I immediately thought of Young, Niblock, Johnson, etc etc; but when I thought of English systems guys I thought of Bryars and Nyman. Whoops.

    I had some ideas about where various members of the Big Four went wrong, but no unifying theory. For now I’ll just speculate that they’re all harmless old farts who like noodling around, it’s just that Young and Riley have the chops to pull it off.

    Mark – I wish I’d seen that gig for myself, wonder what I would have made of it. Isn’t he doing something at Oto at the end of the year? I think he might be just talking, not playing.