WHATEVER happened to minimalist music?
Gone are the days when this bold new form - based on rhythm, repetition, and simplicity - generated headlines and debates on what seemed a daily basis. Was it a groundbreaking new approach that brilliantly synthesized the most magnetic elements of classical, rock, jazz, and international idioms? Or was it a sham and a fraud, compounded of nothing more original than scales and arpeggio from elementary exercise books?
Not so long ago, just about everyone in music had a passionate word to kick into this argument. And opinions took unusual shapes at times.
Some traditionalists, who normally vented their wrath on new-fangled dissonance, atonalism, and "chance procedures," found themselves railing against minimalism - even though it's so harmonically old-fashioned that tonic chords and scales are its main components, and it's so predetermined that every note is played exactly as written.
By contrast, some modernists frowned on minimalism's love affair with time-tested harmonies and complained that non-American influences - such as Indian and African rhythms - were being Westernized beyond recognition by minimalists practising a sort of musical imperialism.
Whoever won the academic and journalistic debates, the pro-minimalist camp won the popularity contests. Performances by minimalists - most notably Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who play their music with their own ensembles - have shown a steady ability to sell out major concert halls. Their recordings are widely available. Celebrated choreographers from Alvin Ailey to Twyla Tharp have set dances to minimalist scores, and opera halls have resonated with such respected works as John Adams's topical "Nixon
in China" and Mr. Glass's postmodern "Einstein on the Beach," created with stage director Robert Wilson.
If there is a single work that best embodies the minimalist spirit, it must be "Einstein on the Beach," with its repetitive but rip-roaring score. As a stage presentation, the opera is anything but minimal, lasting nearly five hours (with no intermission) and populating its visionary tableaux with many dancers and singers. As a musical event, however, it's radically streamlined, without a needless note or flourish. A revival of the show is now on an international tour, returning to the United States this
November at the Brooklyn Academy of Music here. A fine recording is also available on Columbia Masterworks.
For an insider's view of current minimalist trends, I talked recently with Michael Riesman, music director for the current "Einstein" production. He is a composer and keyboard player in his own right - the Rizzoli Records album "Formal Abandon" exemplifies his eloquent, ingratiating style - as well as a key member of the Philip Glass Ensemble and a close associate of Glass on many stage, film, and recording projects.
Mr. Riesman says the term "minimalism" has lost its accuracy in recent years, although it's still handy for shorthand reference. Pieces composed by Glass still receive that familiar label from the press, Riesman acknowledges. But ever since the 1981 album called "Glassworks," billed as the best-selling classical-music record of all time, Glass's compositions have allowed melodies to wander away from underlying harmonies, resulting in more complicated structures than his early pieces contained.
Another big change has been a movement away from small-scale pieces - written for a single instrument, in some cases - to ambitious works for chorus and full orchestra. Continuity has been maintained, however, by Glass's habit of rearranging major works so his small ensemble can play them. A typical concert by Glass's group may feature works from his early career, such as the austere "Music in Similar Motion," alongside much later pieces from his opera and theater scores.
Riesman points out that such varied programming helps draw diversified listeners. "The audiences we get are the most interesting you could find," he says. "There are people of all ages and all musical backgrounds, from rockroll to classical." This holds true at home and also abroad.
Since variety and change have become important goals for minimalists like Riesman and Glass, their music has become harder to categorize. The same goes for other musicians with minimalist leanings, including such major innovators as Terry Riley and Meredith Monk, who have lately turned to string-quartet and opera composing, respectively.
Yet some things remain constant in the work of Riesman and Glass, including their continuing affection for music with a strong theatrical flair. Glass's love affair with stage and screen is well known, and Riesman has his own string of credits including music for the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, a Robert Wilson theater piece called "Edison," and films by such respected figures as Anita Thatcher and Eli Noyes.
"Philip thinks of himself as primarily a theater composer," Riesman acknowledges, "and I love working with other people, too. There's real inspiration in that kind of project. And also, there's nothing more fun."
* The current revival of "Einstein on the Beach" had preview performances recently at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. Having concluded shows at Die Oper Am Theaterplatz in Frankfurt, Germany, Aug. 19-22; the State Theater in Melbourne, Australia, Sept. 17-20; the Gran Teatro Del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 29-Oct. 3; the Teatro Madrid in Madrid, Oct. 7-10; the Art Sphere Theater in Tokyo, Oct. 18-25; the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in NY, Nov. 19-23; and the MC/93 Bobigny in Bobigny, France, Dec. 12-22.