Two more minimalists

Short post tonight. I often feel quite defensive when I start off thinking or writing about what I like in minimalist music, because, let’s face it – even thanks to interesting work by Music Theorists™ – there’s a fair bit of residual snobbishness in academe when it comes to this repertoire. I think the problem is that there are some composers in this style who have written some pretty bad music, and its hard to get away from the idea that choosing to study someone’s musical works has this side-effect of inaugurating the person in some sort of music-analytical Hall of Fame: “this person’s work is worth analyzing”. Pop music tolerates one-hit wonders, as does – perhaps not coincidentally – opera. So why not twentieth-century minimalism?

Anyway, I have been listening to two pieces in particular quite often during the last couple of weeks: Fredric Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) and Andrew Hamilton’s music for people who like art (2009). I should also probably clarify at this point that I don’t believe either of these pieces to be one-hit wonders (I had other people on my mind).

I have a lot to say about how I feel when I listen to both of these pieces, but I’ll probably save that for another day. There is something I noticed today that makes these two pieces more similar than they first seem, and – potentially interestingly – it’s not an temporally-extended thing about both pieces that makes them seem similar (as would, say, some similar-sounding melody, the use of a common harmonic framework, timbre, text, etc.). They both share a moment, a really fleeting instant of revelation, in which a pitch-black darkness rises out of the text being set (if it could be said to be a text in the case of Hamilton’s piece; of which more anon), a darkness that eclipses any sense of vibrancy and lightness suggested by the otherwise dynamic and progressive music in which these pieces trade.

In Coming Together (1971), the text is slowly revealed by an additive process, so it’s not immediately clear that the text being set is a letter from Sam Melville, an inmate at Attica Prison, imprisoned for bombing federal buildings: “[…] i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.” Melville would later take a leading role in the riots at Attica; he was shot dead by state police on September 15, 1971.

In music for people who like art (2009), it’s the moment where the solo vocalist, instead of singing, violently retches, amidst otherwise cryptic, upbeat, and labyrinthine text, taken from a set of dicta by the artist Ad Reinhardt. This isolated retching sound is the first of many to creep their way into Hamilton’s piece. As they do so, other pathologies take hold of the piece – straying to remote tonal areas (relative to the opening sonorities); rolling, nauseous repetitions of snippets of musical material; and, most strikingly, stuck-CD-style stuttering.

When I listen to these pieces, their darker aspects open themselves to me in an instant. I am reminded that we are always almost upside-down.