Pioneers of minimalist music expand their horizons
"Rock 'n' roll will never die," sang Danny and the Juniors back in the 1950s, and they were right - at least if you count offshoots like hip-hop and electronica as modern-day carriers of the same hard-driving flame.Skip to next paragraph
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Predictions about minimalist music were less confident when it reared its head in the 1960s.
On one hand, this new style had built-in components that gave it instant appeal to some classical-music buffs and also to rock and jazz fans: a steady beat, stripped-down melodies and harmonies, and much use of pop-friendly instruments like saxophones and keyboards, often brightly amplified like their rock 'n' roll cousins.
On the other hand, even supporters of minimalism wondered whether the style could generate enough variety to stay alive and vital over the long haul. The whole point of minimalist music is to be - well, minimal. Its rhythms are steady, its textures are consistent, its melodies are closer to scales and arpeggios than to the tunes you hum in the shower. How long could composers keep spinning these no-frills ingredients into new and surprising forms?
For at least a few decades, it appears. Born in the revolutionary '60s, minimalism came of age in the '70s with major works like Steve Reich's rigorous "Four Organs" and Philip Glass's massive "Music in Twelve Parts," not to mention "Einstein on the Beach," the towering opera that Glass concocted with stage director Robert Wilson, then at the beginning of his illustrious career.
Minimalists expand vocabulary
Today the genre remains alive and well, with most of its first-generation talents still producing enticing examples of the breed. The latest specimens to reach your local CD shop are Glass's ambitious Symphony No. 5 and John Adams's exuberant "Century Rolls." Both are rooted in minimalist tradition, yet they also illustrate some of the ways in which this seemingly static style has evolved.
The most noteworthy single change has been the expanded vocabulary -more melodies, more harmonies and modulations, more kinds of instruments - that minimalists have allowed themselves to embrace as they try to express a greater range of ideas and emotions. Some minimalists have expanded their horizons so greatly that their pieces are hard to place under that label at all nowadays. Founding minimalist Terry Riley is one such, and so is Adams in many of his recent works.
Still, the no-nonsense power of the style has a powerful pull for those who respond to its particular beauties, and Adams has come back to the fold (at least partway) in his newest recording. Its longest selection, "Century Rolls," is a piano concerto that's a tad more conventional than Adams's best excursion into piano territory, "Grand Pianola Music," but has the sense of rollicking fun and ornery eccentricity that admirers often find in his compositions.
Adams frequently speaks of how much he's been inspired by phonograph records, and here he's gone a step further into the past, taking his cue from the sound of 1920s player-piano music.