This is the first article I have written since the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, so the latest in a series of tenuous themes for this column takes inspiration from this landmark event of 2021, focusing on the defining American contribution to Classical music: minimalism. Minimalism developed in New York City in the 1960s and focuses on gradual changes. This may mean fewer or shorter melodies or textures that build up slowly (as you’ll see with the Adams below), but it also includes more electronic instruments or unusual techniques for playing instruments. As an example, John Cage, a key minimalist, wrote for a ‘prepared piano’, where the piano has added rubbers and nails on the strings to change the sound of the keys to make it more percussive. If that’s not both very cool and odd at the same time to you, I’m not sure what can be.
This week rather than choosing an obscure and a well-known piece, I’ve chosen one that’s more chilled-out and one that’s more energetic.
Steve Reich - Electric Counterpoint and Fast-Slow-Fast, 5 minutes each
I was first introduced to this piece in GCSE Music and it stayed with me. It was written in 1987 for a single performer to record multiple tracks and play back, written for 8 electric guitars and 2 bass guitars- Classical music doesn’t always require a piano or an orchestra! The same melody appears in all three movements in subtly different forms and is split between multiple guitar parts and toyed with in all the movements (in the third movement, the melody is written backwards, upside down, and against other parts which are written in a different time signature which gives a funky effect). In all three movements, we start with a single guitar, and layer in the background strumming guitars, who repeat their own part again and again, and almost imperceptibly tweak the rhythm or the pitch of the notes up or down, before combining into a single voice and ending together. Because of how slowly things progress, it’s almost as if Reich isn’t raising his voice or trying too hard to get his message – it makes for relaxing listening.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine - John Adams, 4 minutes
Relaxing listening is not what Adams went for in his celebrated “fanfare for orchestra” of 1986. After a few taps of the wood blocks, the entire orchestra comes in together, with the focus very much on the stabbing off-beat brass which represent all the bells and whistles of a train. Look out for the trumpet fanfare in the second half, conveying optimism and excitement about this journey, that comes, like the Reich, to a very sudden stop. Let’s hope it doesn’t represent a car crash.
To end on a strange note, to see just how experimental minimalism can be, go and look up 'Sticks' by Christian Wolff. The clue is in the title.