Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bold Musical Form Resurfaces `Einstein on the Beach' Enjoys a Revival, Putting Minimalism Back in the Limelight

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bold Musical Form Resurfaces `Einstein on the Beach' Enjoys a Revival, Putting Minimalism Back in the Limelight

Article excerpt

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. …

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