Minimalism and Melody

'Minimalism' is a term that no composer likes for a phenomenon that almost no composer working since the late 1960s has avoided. Its essential qualities are two: an extreme reduction and simplicity of means, and repetition. Put in that way, it is nothing new: the introduction to Handel Zadok the Priest, for example, provides an instance of repetitive arpeggiation almost a quarter of a millennium before that became the norm in the music of Philip Glass. But where the function of minimalism in the Handel is preparatory-to provide a stretch of empty time, of non-music, in order to intensify anticipation of the music to come (Das Rheingold offers another such case) -- in Glass this is all there is. And minimalism as total, and as allpervasive, was indeed new in the 1960s; odd earlier examples ( Satie Vexations, Cage Music for Marcel Duchamp, and other pieces) had not been widely followed, and seem to have been rediscovered in the 1960s rather than to have been influential. The starting points (allowing that so strong a thrust is unlikely to have had just one) are more likely to be found in the music of La Monte Young.


New York Minimalism

In 1962, after his early pieces based on few, long notes and his Fluxus text scores, Young founded his own performing group, the Theatre of Eternal Music, to give performances of highly repetitive, drone-based music using carefully chosen frequencies in simple ratios.1 Ideally, his 'dream music' was intended for continuous performance in 'dream houses' as a 'total environmental set of frequency structures in the media of sound and light'.2 The frequencies could just be electronically generated sine tones, drifting very slowly in phase relationship and hence in perceived volume (Drift Studies,) or there could be live performers adding further frequencies, while the visual complement would be the 'ornamental lightyears tracery' of patterned slides and coloured lights designed by the composer's wife, Marian Zazeela.

In 1964 Young began to concentrate his attention on two projects: The WellTuned Piano, given as a solo improvisation through various themes and chords on a piano tuned to particular ratios,3 and The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys (so

____________________
1
See Dave Smith, ' Following a Straight Line: La Monte Young', Contact, 18 ( 1977-8), 4-9.
2
Note with Shandar83510.
3
See Kyle Gann: 'La Monte Young's The Well- Tuned Piano', Perspectives of New Music, 31/1 ( 1993), 134-62.

-209-

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