13 May 2004

Glass. Works.

Minimalism in music arose in response to the sometimes astringent academic serialism of the 1950s and 1960s. (This is an oversimplification, even if admitted to by some of its practitioners, but let's go with it for now--shorthand definitions can often help us absorb initially foreign concepts.) If we look more closely at minimalism, we can see that the rebellion against "difficult" music has only shifted complexity from one dimension (melody and harmony) to another (metric).

I've chosen two contrasting examples because of their style and, conveniently, because of their brevity.

In the second movement of Elliot Carter's 2nd String Quartet, written in 1960, we hear many of the features of serial compositions. Carter is not a serial composer, and although his aesthetic is in many ways separate from serialism, this piece is still a good example of the intent of many composers at the time and a good contrast to Glass's music.

The meter and tempo fluctuate unexpectedly; melodies include clustered melismas punctuated by pointillist interval jumps; each harmonic line, although sometimes sharing material, seldom aligns with the others; each rhythmic line defines its own space. "Schizophrenic" might be a first impression, but each time you listen to its 2 minutes and 39 seconds you start to understand its dementia:

  • 0:00-0:42 a declaration of the themes,
  • 0:42-1:50 development as ideas are contrasted,
  • 1:50-2:39 contrasting phrases that eventually merge together

You may hear a different expression, and it will probably change the more you listen, but the fluid abstraction of Carter's style becomes apparent.

In 1976, Philip Glass wrote the now-famous opera Einstein on the Beach. The 3rd Knee Play from that opera expresses "fluid abstractions" considerably different from Carter's String Quartet. The singers count out the meter in succinct tonal phrases (E minor, Eb major, C major, etc.). The phrases are lengthened and shortened as the counting is altered (sections of "1234-1234" flow into sections of "1234-123" and so on). The shifting buzz of the chorus's fricatives begins sounding more like the musical equivalent of op art than of minimalist art.

Although I began with a simplfied description of the two styles, I've tried to avoid pointing out the repetitive or difficult aspects of minimalism and serialism, and instead focus on the expression of the pieces in themselves.

So what was Glass rebelling against, and where did it get him? The differences of the two examples are obvious, but the similarities should be noted. Where the listener strains to comprehend the order in Carter's piece, Glass forces a fascist, mechanized order onto the listener that is equally difficult to comprehend. Both pieces are held up by a hidden logic that defines the styles but only manifests itself after multiple listenings.

And both are demanding of the listener (although they hopefully provide something in return). Like many rebellions, the rebellion of minimallism merely changed the emphasis and not the basic rules.

[ posted by sstrader on 13 May 2004 at 10:10:30 PM in Music ]