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.

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.

Adapting its spiky, mechanical rhythms to a modern piano and orchestra, he has cooked up an ear-pleasing delight in three movements. The "First Movement" begins as what Adams calls a "twittering machine" and ends with a more relaxed, ambling touch. The second, "Manny's Gym," is an Eric Satie-like waltz. The last is summarized by its title: "Hail Bopp," conjuring up both a streaking comet and a salute to classic jazz.

Rounding out the CD are "Lollapalooza," which beats out those exuberant syllables with trombones and tubas, and "Slonimsky's Earbox," named after music scholar Nicholas Slonimsky and one of Adams's favorite words.

Glass explores religion

While the whimsical aspects of the "Century Rolls" pieces suggest that Adams is on vacation from the seriousness of large-scale works like "The Death of Klinghoffer" and the great "Nixon in China," the same can't be said of Glass, whose compositions explore moral, philosophical, and religious issues as well as purely aesthetic dimensions.

His massive Symphony No. 5 is no exception. Conceived as a celebration of the millennium at the Salzburg Festival in Germany, it combines Glass's typically pulsing rhythms with a text that brings together quotations from what Glass considers the world's great "wisdom" traditions, sung by vocal soloists, a children's choir, and a full chorus. Its words are taken from the Bible, the Koran, a Creation story of the Zuni Indians, the Popul Vuh scriptures of the ancient Mayans, and the Bhagavad-Gita of Hinduism, among other sources. They are all translated into English, not because Glass avoids multicultural diversity - he once composed a whole opera in Sanskrit - but because he wants to emphasize their common insights rather than their different perspectives.

A feast for the mind and heart

Symphony No. 5 has three parts: "Requiem," representing the past and the early stages of humanity's growth; "Bardo," representing the present and its possibilities for progress; and "Nirmanakaya," representing the future. Within these movements are 12 sections whose titles outline the spiritual agenda of the piece, from "Before the Creation" through "Suffering" and "Compassion" to "Paradise" and a concluding "Dedication of Merit," which signals Glass's hope for what he describes as "global transformation and evolution."

Admirers of Glass's early works may wish this extensive, expansive piece had more of the tough-minded spareness and almost obsessive stringency that were once among his musical trademarks. But the symphony will please those who see minimalism as an increasingly flexible option for orchestral composers. It's remarkably successful in blending rich instrumental textures with the artful repetitions and gradually changing structures that Glass pioneered almost 40 years ago.

And almost everyone will find food for thought in the symphony's insistence on spiritual as well as purely artistic meaning. Like many works by morally grounded composers like Glass and Adams - and Reich and Riley, two more music-philosophers of the minimalist movement - it is a feast for the mind and the heart as well as for the ear.

'Century Rolls' by Adams and Symphony No. 5 by Glass are both available on Nonesuch CDs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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