Learning To Listen Again: Minimalism from Pre to Post
By Thomas May
The late, great critic Alan Rich once praised the music of Reich and other Minimalists for the sort of catharsis it provides. Listening, he says, “becomes a wonderful cleanout process for the ears. In the placid, undulating landscape laid out in these [Minimalist] works at the start, the smallest change … becomes as much a cataclysm as the collapse of Valhalla at the end of Wagner’s Ring. You learn to listen, rather than merely to hear, and the effects of this cleansing process can last a lifetime.”
The catharsis of cleansing happens to be a remarkably apt image, since those who initially caught on to Minimalism in music as a breakthrough often described it as a kind of stripping away of the past — above all the baggage accumulated in the wake of modernism’s self-contradictory revolutions. This new musical outlook promised to clean the slate and make us listen freshly to the elemental building blocks of music — and how they could be ingeniously recombined.
At the same time, the more familiar Minimalist tropes became, the more we realized their continuity with longstanding practices stretching back for long centuries. Some of these — particularly the processes of complex interlocking rhythms — play a significant role in non-Western musical cultures. But some were always there in Western music itself. Both Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt have pointed to music from eight centuries ago as a profound influence: the music of Pérotin, or at least that attributed to the figure also known as Magister Perotinus.
We’re used to seeing guesswork dates for artists from the early Renaissance, but go back to Pérotin and we’re not even sure of his nationality and origin. This was the height of the Gothic era in medieval Europe, when the ubiquitous “Anonymous” was just beginning to assume an individual identity here and there. The best-guess consensus is that the composer and chorus master we know by the name of Pérotin was French and flourished around 1200 as a pioneering musician in the employ of the majestic Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris — which was still in the process of construction at the time.
The significance of Pérotin is that he is credited with the authorship of some pieces that have been preserved in the medieval compilation of liturgical music titled Magnus Liber Organi (“The Great Book of Organum”). Also containing pieces attributed to his predecessor at Notre-Dame, Léonin, this collection represents one of the great turning points in Western music: the shift from the single, unaccompanied line (i.e., monophony) of the plainchant that had served its purpose for centuries to polyphony. With its plural voices unfolding simultaneously, polyphony opened the door to unimagined possibilities for filling musical space and for stimulating the intellect and emotions alike.
Sederunt principes (“The princes sat”) represents one of two organa quadrupla (polyphonic compositions with four voices) preserved in the Magnus Liber and attributed to Pérotin — the earliest such pieces in the history of Western music to have survived. If the scenario proposed by scholars is correct, Pérotin composed this imposing motet for a celebration of the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26), the first Christian martyr, in 1199. It has been suggested that the occasion also marked the opening of a new wing of the cathedral that was then in progress. Sederunt principes would likely have been sung as a processional, echoing through the grand cathedral spaces.
The foundation is supplied by the tenor line, which makes the Latin etymology understandable: tenor is from tenere (“to hold”), and this line serves as the cantus firmus or foundational structure on top of which the other lines move with great intricacy. The line itself is an almost absurdly elongated version of a familiar Gregorian chant, but spaced out so that it almost imperceptibly shifts over time. Here, one connection with Minimalism is apparent.
Meanwhile, above this Pérotin has added three more lines: together they weave a web of much faster-changing harmonies and rhythmic patterns from the brief text (taken from Psalm 118). It’s no coincidence that, in terms of musical sociology, so to speak, it was around this time that singers began to professionalize and collect substantial fees for their art. Set against what had come before it, this music must have seemed overwhelmingly complex to its earliest performers and listeners.
In a lengthy set of interviews with Bruce Duffie from 1985 and 1995, Steve Reich refers to Sederunt principes as “some of the most beautiful music I know, period. I’ve been going over his overlapping of voices. And the quality of the tunes he writes; he had a marvelous gift, that sort of weaving in and out of itself. It’s very related, technically, to a lot of things I learned from the period.” Even the signature Reichian process known as “phasing” — the effects of overlapping echo when two or more processes that loop in repetition go slightly out of sync — turns out to be a variant on a very old technique after all: the technique of the canon.
By manipulating this kind of phasing – multiplying the individual strands, for example – in his early breakthrough pieces, Reich found he could build a dense web that acquires a hallucinatory quality as it lifts the listener above ordinary time. And this pulse can be the vehicle for the most beautiful epiphanies as well — particularly when scored for voices combined with Reich’s unique instrumentation, as we hear in the work he composed a decade ago for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Lincoln Center and the Ensemble Modern: You Are (Variations). Along with the voices (three soprano, one alto, and two tenor lines), the ensemble consists of a pair of flutes, an oboe, an English horn, three clarinets, four pianos, two marimbas, two vibraphones and strings.
Reich studied philosophy as an undergraduate — Philip Glass, incidentally, was a math student before he took up a career in music — and he has remained deeply devoted to the questions pursued by philosophy and by the spiritual wisdom of Judaism. You Are (Variations) compresses many of Reich’s enduring preoccupations into its four movements, each of which musically “glosses” a brief text. (See page 8 for Steve Reich’s composer notes).
In a conversation with the composer for the Master Chorale’s Nonesuch recording of this work, the critic Tim Page points out that Reich seems here to have written “a summing up of things that have been important to you over the course of your lifetime.” But Reich also points out that though he “started off working in a familiar way…by the time all the instruments and voices and especially the four pianos in You Are had made their appearance, I found myself in some new and surprising harmonic territory.”
As for the variation principle that generates the structure for all four movements, Reich explains that each repetition of the brief text naturally suggested a process of varying the musical setting to some extent. “Hence, variations were basically forced on me as a form by my choice of texts.” Yet “the actual means of variation varies considerably” through the four movements.
The first (and by far longest) movement began with the conventional ground plan of a sequence of recurring harmonies that would underlie all of the variations. But in the process of composing, Reich discovered he was intuitively drawn to complicate that pattern by veering away from the original harmonic “ground plan.” The variations include allusions to the famous “L’homme Armee” tune of the early Renaissance and even “echoes of James Brown.”
Setting the second movement’s Hebrew text, Reich deploys repetitions and augmentation to create what he calls “a kind of slow-motion canon with marimbas, vibes, and pianos driving it on in constantly changing meters.” Next comes a slow movement with minor-tinged harmonies, followed by another Hebrew setting for the canon-based fourth movement, which returns to the original pulsing tempo that began You Are. Reich adds that a chord of D major recurs throughout as a “bright ray” that “illuminates” most of the work. The epigram set in the first movement, he points out, might be taken to offer “a pretty good description of the act of listening to music, if one is listening at all closely. You are wherever the music takes you.”
Perhaps the universal appeal of J.S. Bach’s Passions lies in how they reflect our need to glean meaning from the suffering — the root meaning of “passion” — that is inseparable from existence. David Lang, like Bach, understands music’s capacity to “describe” that suffering and at the same time to assuage it. In the little match girl passion, he alludes to Bach’s Passions as a model to set to music Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-breaking fairy tale. And the techniques of Minimalism prove readily assimilable to the Bachian model. In this way Lang ruptures the line presumed to set the sacred and secular apart, highlighting what he terms “the naïve equilibrium between suffering and hope” that attracted him to Andersen’s parable of the suffering caused by poverty.
A native of Los Angeles now based in New York, Lang has a well-established reputation as an innovator — and as a curator of the new through such ventures as the Bang on a Can Festival, which he co-founded in 1987 and which is still going strong. Lang’s range of work reveals him to be a bona fide American maverick. And a maverick can be counted on to question our most basic assumptions about making music, let alone the differences between styles and genres. Thought-provoking collaborations are typical of Lang. These range from projects with the photographer William Wegman and a chamber opera with playwright Mac Wellman to the score for (Untitled), Jonathan Parker’s comic film featuring a fictional composer amid the experimental art scene.
In the little match girl passion, Lang created his own libretto by “collaborating” with well-known works from the past — works that come from entirely separate and previously unlinked sources. From their synthesis he creates a uniquely affecting hybrid. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new, and largely unheralded, composition,” wrote Tim Page, who served as a juror on the committee that awarded match girl the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.
Lang originally scored the piece for a vocal quartet, preparing the version for chorus that we hear on this program in 2008 — a year after the world premiere in New York in 2007. As in the original, the choral version calls on the singers to provide spare accompaniment from a variety of percussion instruments: brake drum and sleigh bell (soprano), crotales or “antique cymbals” (alto), glockenspiel (tenor), and bass drum and tubular bells (bass). These instruments can be amplified, notes the composer, adding that “distortion, reverb, sound processing, lighting, and staging may be useful” in realizing the little match girl passion.
Lang’s approach, in its musical and dramatic dimensions alike, reflects the “miniaturism” of Hans Christian Andersen’s story yet paradoxically evokes something of the large-scale effects of Bach’s sweeping canvas in his St. Matthew Passion. Once again, Minimalism reveals its power to trigger maximal emotions via structures and devices that only seem simple. At the same time, even the expanded forces of the choral revision retain the intimacy that characterizes the earlier version.
The result of this restraint builds to an almost unbearable intensity through the course of the piece. As in Reich’s shifting textures, the impact of a tiny gesture resonates far beyond its apparent “size.” The simplicity of Lang’s musical language is a deceptive simplicity. The opening chorus, for instance, layers familiar and archaic elements with an ambiguous and unpredictable use of accent, meter, and harmonic placement. Lang hearkens back not only to Bach but to the polymetric technique of Renaissance choral writing.
Lang fashioned his overall libretto using not just the original Andersen story but texts from the translator of the story into English (H.P. Paull), Picander (Bach’s librettist for the St. Matthew Passion), and the Gospel According to St. Matthew. The overall structure of the little match girl passion presents an alternating sequence of “commentary” choruses — as in Bach, the moments in which the present audience is pulled right in through direct empathy — and the “plot” that recounts the events as told in Andersen’s fairy tale. The latter suggest a kind of “recitative” through their momentum, yet Lang endows this with with a quasi-ritualistic tone through his austere percussion accompaniments.
There are moments of traditional word painting, such as the “shivering” syllables of the chorus “when it is time.” Lang sustains a larger metaphor across the piece as well through his use of hollow fifths and other spare harmonies. These serve as a musical embodiment of coldness and alienation. Lang meanwhile continually varies the Minimalist principle of additive repetition, much as Reich reshuffles his unaccompanied vocal forces in the motets.
The contrast between narrative detachment and the emotion that is given sway in the intervening choruses builds in the little match girl passion to induce an effect of overwhelming compassion. And for all its savvy use of pre-existing models, Lang’s work ultimately belongs to our own time. Writes the composer: “There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus — rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.