Magazine article Musical Times

American Cool

Magazine article Musical Times

American Cool

Article excerpt

American cool CHRISTOPHER FOX Four musical minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass Keith Potter Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2000); xv, 390pp; L50. ISBN 0 521 48250 X.

Four musical minimalists is an indispensable and meticulous survey of the early careers of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the founding fathers of minimalism. It's hard now to remember that there was a time before minimalist music achieved its current ubiquity, a time when a Philip Glass tour would play to audiences barely in double figures, when it was thought smart for a Time Out critic to describe it as music for those with 'the intelligence of a plastic duck, when those of us who regarded minimalism as the most important modernist development since serialism were treated as the village idiots of new music. Four musical minimalists goes a considerable way towards reclaiming minimalism, or early minimalism at least, as an avant-garde music.

The growing profitability and respectability of minimalism is already reflected on bookshelves. Potter launches his book into a market which includes Michael Nyman's ground-breaking Experimental music (a welcome recent reissue from Cambridge University Press), Wim Mertens's idiosyncratic American minimal music (Kahn & Averill, 1983) and valuable collections of writings from Reich and Glass (the latter, Opera on the beach, in collaboration with Robert T. Jones). More recently Edward Strickland's Minimalism: origins (Indiana University Press, 1993) and K. Robert Schwarz's Minimalists (Phaidon, 1996) have joined the lists: Strickland providing useful contextual links between musical minimalism and its antecedents in the visual art of Ad Reinhardt and Sol LeWitt; Schwarz offering a wider range, less depth but livelier opinions.

Keith Potter has an impressive track record as a writer on minimalism. Since the mid-1970s he has regularly published reviews, interviews and articles that introduced Reich and Glass, and, rather less frequently, Young and Riley, to an audience which until the early 1980s had relatively few opportunities to hear their music either live or on record. The book builds on his experience, assembling an extraordinary array of material, much of it new to scholarship in this area. Potter is an assiduous cross-checker, tracking, for example, the lineage of the groups that became the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians back

to the collection of New York-based composer-performers that was pioneering minimalism in the late-1960s. He also provides a convincing lineage for the evolution of the musical ideas that became minimalism itself: Young begat Riley who begat Reich who begat... Here the line becomes more controversial. Glass has always asserted the independence of his own development although Potter quotes Jon Gibson, a fellow composer-performer from those early days and a stalwart saxophonist in the Glass Ensemble for many years, as saying that 'Reich was very giving to Glass' during the period of their closest association in the 1960s. Significantly, Potter also points out that the first manuscript copy of Glass's Two pages, the work in which Glass first explored the additive processes that define his first authentically minimalist works, was originally headed 'Two Pages for Steve Reich' - an acknowledgment of a creative debt or no more than evidence of friendly regard? Potter avoids pursuing the evidence to a single conclusion, instead observing sagely that 'an understanding of the role played in Glass's search for new ideas by compositional developments close to his own need not damage his significance in the emerging story of musical minimalism. …

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