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Bach and Minimalism

 

 

Irregularity in Bach, Scarlatti, Glass, &c / Minimalism

Thomas Braatz
wrote:
I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson in his remark about foolish consistency and a hobgoblin.

I know that you quote this statement frequently as an expression of your general philosophy, but somehow, by doing so, are you not really saying, "Give me any situation in music, composing, performing, etc., and I will prefer consciously putting more 'chaos' into the activity, rather than striving for perfection." This is a very Romantic concept, rather the opposite of Classicism. Does this imply that Bach, while composing a fugue, did not strive for exact imitation of fugal subjects wherever possible, but rather thought, "This fugue is simply too perfect. I will want to change deliberately some of the imitations of the fugal subject so that they will be less than perfect," or while playing a fugue thought to himself, "I do not want to play this fugue in such a way that it becomes more perfect than the one that I have already composed [perhaps already containing imperfect imitations], so let me introduce some additional imperfections such as varying the characteristic phrasing and dynamics for each entry of the subject so that others who listen to or play this fugue will not get the idea that striving for perfection is a noble goal but that chaos is a more laudable goal in that it expresses the human situation?" This, for me, is the Romantic ideal put into practice.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 10, 2002):
I don't know what it has to do with a "romantic ideal," but when I hear machinelike regularity (devoid of nuance) I generally find it to be boring music-making. Such a slew of undifferentiated notes strikes me as unnatural. Living things breathe and grow and communicate with myriad levels of irregularity, and show different aspects every time one gives them attention; that's what makes them alive as opposed to mass-produced objects. And I like music to sound alive in that way, to have some meaning to it. I said more about that in this review of a Scarlatti CD:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00004GOXH

Maybe that is a "romantic ideal" of some sort, but I think it's simpler than that: let things sound natural and real, as if they weren't produced or sanitized by machines!

I do enjoy minimalism occasionally, but that's music where the point is to sound mechanically precise, giving the mind something extraordinarily regular to contemplate, to see where that goes. And, to my knowledge, such an impersonal precision in execution ("Just the facts, ma'am!") wasn't the stated goal of any composer before Stravinsky. It is a by-product of a post-Industrial age that has nothing to do with earlier ways of life...and when the music from those earlier ways of life is squeezed into that mould, the soul drains right out of it. Scientific precision over art. Machines over life. Mass production over hand-crafted care. Whatever. It works for a piece like "Koyannisqatsi" because the out-of-control mechanism is the point; and some of Steve Reich's music is very effective too. I can stand to watch "Koyannisqatsi" about once every five years, those mind-numbing images coupled to mind-shattering music. "Koyannisqatsi" is not Bach. Bach nurtures the soul. "Koyannisqatsi" shows what it's like not to have a soul when the machines have replaced it.

Yeah, I guess it is a "romantic ideal" to want to hear life in music. Whatever.

Richard Taruskin has written articles about how the "early music revival" has often brought in a [pseudo-]objectivity more suited to Stravinsky than to Bach and his contemporaries. It's a spirit of the times. I agree. I like to read James Gleick, too, and look at complexity theory, and simply to look at the way crops grow in a field: with a healthy irregularity and flexibility. Rigid plants break off; flexible plants bend with the wind. That's life. Mechanically produced "perfection" has only one or two dimensions; living things have more dimensions.

The philosophers among us (Jim? others?) will have more to say. I'm just a musician who likes to hear the music sound real.

Pete Blue wrote (September 11, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] I second Brad's condemnation of Minimalism, at least as practiced so far. I don't believe this will necessarily be the case for all time, though. I believe technology will, eventually, enable the production (I hesitate to call it creation) of living, breathing music with all the spontaneity of a live performance but possibly without live performers. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but eventually. This seems an unappetizing prospect, but may turn out to be better than one would expect from our current state of ignorance.

I also find incontestable Brad's disapproval of "machinelike regularity (devoid of nuance)" and that he "like[s] music to sound alive." This is so true, though, that it's a truism. I don't think Brad's words describe, and I hope they're not meant to describe, any particular musical movement or ideology. He certainly doesn't merit accusations of "romanticism." Rather, this is the way one always evaluates individual performances (and compositions), and separates the great and near great musicians from the hacks. After all, the Singer Sewing Machine School of Harpsichord Playing (Brad, though not I, might put Davitt Moroney in there) has always been with us; it surely pre-dates Bach. Go to Juilliard sometime, walk down the corridor past the endless piano-practice rooms and listen to the diligent, desperate banging emerging therefrom and you'll see my point.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 11, 2002):
< Pete Blue wrote: (...) After all, the Singer Sewing Machine School of Harpsichord Playing (Brad, though not I, might put Davitt Moroney in there) has always been with us; it surely pre-dates Bach. Go to Juilliard sometime, walk down the corridor past the endless piano-practice rooms and listen to the diligent, desperate banging emerging therefrom and you'll see my point. >
When I was in grad school the harpsichord practice rooms were directly across the hall from one of the larger percussion practice rooms. I can't count the dozens of times when I was in there trying to work on some details of harpsichord pieces, and would be interrupted by THE SAME *#(*%@(*#&% ORCHESTRAL EXCERPT a bazillion times: somebody whacking away at the marimba solo in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" as arranged by Bennett. Full volume, as loud and fast and evenly as possible. It didn't seem to matter what day of the week it was, that same @#%@#*%& thing would be doing its thing. I like Gershwin, but that piece is too much when heard in that type of isolation. That excerpt lasts only a minute or so, but these students would wale on it for half an hour at a time.

Yeah, I heard plenty of the typical conservatory pianism too. Those were the practice rooms on the other side of the harpsichord rooms.... I never could understand the type of person who finds it worthwhile to slave away for hours on end in a practice room, bashing through the same physical motions over and over and over and over. The music is not in the physical motions. It's in the imagination and the soul. One learns a lot more by taking a walk, or by reading a stimulating book in the library, or by going through the music away from the instrument (either analytically on paper, or mentally), or by listening to recordings, or by having conversations with friends...all of the above together, really...than by pounding the life out of the music in a practice room. Sure, there has to be some training of the muscles, and an exploration of the options that one might call on during a performance (speeds, articulations, emphases, etc.), but that rehearsal is less important than getting inside the composer's ideas and keeping a freshly creative approach to the music. I think I got more useful "practice" done at bus stops and in the laundry room and while going to get an ice cream cone than some of these more diligent students got in their endless hourof practice-room bashery.

Juozas Rimas wrote (September 11, 2002):
< Pete Blue wrote: I second Brad's condemnation of Minimalism, at least as practiced so far. I don't believe this will necessarily be the case for all time, though. I believe technology will, eventually, enable the production (I hesitate to call it creation) of living, breathing music with all the spontaneity of a live performance but possibly without live performers. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but eventually. This seems an unappetizing prospect, but may turn out to be better than one would expect from our current state of ignorance. >
I do think certain Bach's pieces would sound better with serious technical processing. I try to drive the thoughts away, but it disappoints me so much to hear messy polyphony that I was even secretly enjoying Wendy Carlos' rendition of the Sinfonia from the BWV 29. It is completely lifeless and even sounds funny in places but everything can be heard so well that it has some androidal brilliance. It showed me certain elements of the work I really couldn't hear in the natural human renditions.

I constantly think of things like much more frequent use of over-dubbing too: each musician (even in big ensembles) records his part separately and then they're carefully mixed, so that all voices can be heard equally well (or in mathematically exact proportions if certain voices are leading). I know this has been possible long ago but I've heard too many imbalanced recordings so far. The disadvantage of this technique is the loss of the direct link among performers when over-dubbing (some jazz players told me how much it gives when you play feeling other musicians beside). Personally, I'd rather sacrifice this mysterious link for contrapuntal clarity. I'd also love the possibility to switch off and on separate channels (=instruments) in any recording to get a better understanding of how the work is constructed.

According to the Pete's vision of the future, I imagine the possibility to sample the voice of some great singer (or even digitally improve its qualities) and use it with a living musician (not necessarily a singer) with a good sense of musicality. He would be singing with his imperfect voice but the voice, processed using the sample of the great voice, would be perfectly clear, soft, well controlled etc in the recording. Now I sometimes find it impossible to enjoy voices in Bach (hence the thread about tenors), especially when singers are singing ornamentation. So far, I'd really like to have an option to hear solo voice parts in certain (most) cantatas played by instruments (violin, oboe, flute, viola etc) instead of voice.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (September 11, 2002):
< Pete Blue wrote: I second Brad's condemnation of Minimalism, at least as practiced so far. >
I must take a stand against the rising tide that is putting down minimalism... I am a big fan of Steve Reich, and of some of Philip Glass' music, as well as other minimalist or similar composers (Brian Eno, Wim Mertens, Harold Budd, etc.).

I think you are looking for the wrong things in minimalism. You cannot compare it to Bach, or to any other type of music, because minimalism is not so much about melody as it is about texture. To use Reich as an example, his music provides some of the most subtle rhythmic textures in any western music - listen to Six Pianos, how the phasing moves through the piece, how the rhythms interweave and mesh. Yes, part of this is about trance-enducing, but not all. There is a lot of joy in some of this music - listen to the intensity of Reich's Tehillim, for example, to discover an emotion similar to that of Bach.

I think you need to open your ears and listen to this type of music with different expectations. Appreciate the subtle elements that are hidden behind the surface, don't just write it off because it is "repetitive".

Pete Blue wrote (September 11, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] About minimalism, Kirk wrote: "You cannot compare it to Bach, or to any other type of music, because minimalism is not so much about melody as it is about texture."

I can't speak for Brad, but for me it isn't that the minimalist works I've heard are textural rather than melodic, but that I find them inexpressive. Some "music", like hip hop, I think of as the aural equivalent of graffiti. Other, like Muzak, Don Ho and some minimalist works I've heard, I think of as the aural equivalent of wallpaper -- functional, yes, good for forming a backdrop to bar-drinking, lovemaking and supermarket shopping, but mostly unworthy of concentrated apprehension.

As for melody: throughout much of musical history, melody was not predominant. Lots of great music eschews melody -- to mention a couple, among an infinity of possible examples: Prokofiev's Sixth Piano Sonata, and anything by Palestrina. Or if you fancy "repetitive", how about the Grosse Fuge? Compared to those (I confess this could be a generation gap thing on my part, and that I simply can't open my mind enough), it's difficult for me not to see even the most esteemed products of minimalism as at least bordering
on the trivial.

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 11, 2002):
Pete Blue stated:
< "I also find incontestable Brad's disapproval of "machinelike regularity (devoid of nuance)" and that he "like[s] music to sound alive." This is so true, though, that it's a truism. I don't think Brad's words describe, and I hope they're not meant to describe, any particular musical movement or ideology. He certainly doesn't merit accusations of "romanticism." >
Agreed - "machinelike regularity (devoid of nuance)" is to be abhorred, but there is another spectrum on which Brad is slightly more in one direction and I in another, or, to put it another way, one of us is a little more left of center and the other a little more to the right. This is on the scale of Classicism vs. Romanticism. This does not mean that either one of us is living in the late 18th or early 19th century. This polarity can be expressed in a modified manner even in our time in the way that we approach music, whether composing or performing, or even as a listener expressing our predilections as we choose the artists that we wish to listen to. I found some quotations in a book by J. C. Fillmore ("Pianoforte Music") in which he attempts to define these terms:

"In romantic music content is first and form subordinate." "Imaginative appeal" becomes more important than other factors.

"The classical ideal is predominantly an intellectual one. Its products are characterized by clearness of thought, by completeness and symmetry, by harmonious proportion, by simplicity and repose. Classical works, whether musical or literary, are positive, clear, finished. The chief element is the beauty of form, where form is first and emotional content subordinate. In romanticism this situation is reversed: emotional content is first, while form is secondary."

Of course there a definite dangers when either of these directions, classical or romantic, is taken to the extreme: absolute and strict adherence to form without deviation (a bit like "machinelike regularity") as opposed to a dissolution in an emotional, chaotic mass of formlessness. One could conceivably also practice with machinelike regularity and copy exactly in one's own performance what one hears in a recording by a 'romantic' artist including the rubato, special phrasing, etc. and yet sound machinelike or 'studied.' No matter how the style of performance can be characterized (classical or romantic), it still must exhibit a live quality that a discerning listener will be able to detect. In a more classical performance, the expression of liveliness is more subdued and restrained, whereas a romantic performance allows much greater variability in the idiosyncratic emotional expression of the performer(s). These are differences that are not 'good' or 'bad,' they are simply different. One is not hurling an accusation at a composer or performer(s) by using classical or romantic to describe or characterize the music that one hears.

P.C. Lang in his "Music in Western Civilization" states "In Beethovenclassicism became romantic." In Goethe the pendulum swings in the other direction: from 'Sturm und Drang' (a precursor to Romanticism) to Classicism. Goethe, actually, had reservations about Romanticism because he had already moved on to his classical period when Romanticism began to flower in Europe.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 11, 2002):
< I second Brad's condemnation of Minimalism, at least as practiced so far. >
For the record, I didn't "condemn" Minimalism; I said I like some of it. My favorites are Steve Reich's "Tehillim" and "Desert Music" which are expressive, and some of John Adams....

Francine Renee Hall wrote (September 11, 2002):
What about Terry Riley? He started out doing all-night improvisations so that he could increase the possibility of finding a new note, theme, nuance, direction that would not be available had he just mimicked LaMonte Young. Music is filled with 'chance'. (thinking of John Cage here) When Riley wrote his famous "In C" he also moved into many directions: his piano music (using just intonation); Salome Dances for Peace -- a string quartet piece filled with wonders Riley would never have expected from himself without the commission of The Kronos Quartet; saxophone quartets, etc. I think the Kronos Quartet has been one of the best things to happen to music in the latter 20th century. Because only a quartet is involved, it was possible to find myriad of composers who otherwise would never have seen the light of day, minimalist or otherwise.

Pierce Drew wrote (September 12, 2002):
< Kirk McElhearn wrote: Appreciate the subtle elements that are hidden behind the surface, don't just write it off because it is "repetitive". >
I completely agree, Kirk. Indeed, I have often thought that the "repetition" of minimalism is akin to the baroque canon or variation structures (Bach's complexity is quite unique when you look at many of his contemporaries and predecessors). Pachelbel's famous canon is repetitious (alas, it has been cliched by the wedding industry), although written in a very different idiom from minimalist compositions. But I think, like minimalism, it is the texturing that gives it such appeal.

Early music in general has informed many aspects of the so-called minimalist movement (including the work of Michael Nyman, the one who coined the term minimalism). I know that Gavin Bryars and Philip Glass have looked into baroque canons for inspiration. Personally, I do not care for synthesized Glass. But I enjoy his compositions for more traditional musical forces: his violin concerto, symphonies, solo piano music and string quartets (recording by Kronos).

In addition, minimalism should not be restricted to a post-modern sensibility. There is a "holy" side to the movement, as well. My favorite contemporary composer is Arvo Part, who musical idiom is minimalist, but whose music is deeply spiritual and faith-affirming like Bach's. "Fratres" (the 11 cello and string quartet versions, especially) is starkly simple, yet possesses a profound beauty that I have yet to tire of. Part's choral music -- especially the works on "Te Deum" (ECM) -- are also brilliant. Well worth investigating.

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Last update: żNovember 22, 2002 ż17:16:41