Minimal music, maximal subjects

Minimalist composer Philip Glass at the piano.

Minimalism and the big stories – Tim Rutherford-Johnson explores why American minimalist composers are drawn to the major issues of their time.

Almost since its beginnings in the mid-1960s, American minimalism has been drawn to the big stories of the day. Two of the style’s founding works, Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) – tape collages of speech by an evangelical street preacher and a Black victim of police brutality – confronted issues of religion and race.

And although many works of instrumental minimalist music are defiantly abstract, concerned primarily with musical matters of repetition and process, once minimalism entered the opera house its composers could not resist the grand themes: Philip Glass’s first operas are portraits of three men, Einstein, Gandhi and Akhnaten, who forever changed the realms of science, politics and religion. John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China (1987) dramatized a turning point in the Cold War, and he has since addressed the Arab-Israeli conflict (The Death of Klinghoffer, 1991) and the creation of the atomic bomb (Doctor Atomic, 2005). Reich’s own first stage work, The Cave (1993), a video opera created with his wife, Beryl Korot, tackled the roots of the three Abrahamic faiths.


Yet repetition is also a quality of meditation and reflection. Whether in the clamouring alarms of 24-hour news or the calm stillness of prayer…

What draws minimalist composers to such stories? In part it is to do with an American instinct for era- or nation-defining art: Einstein on the Beach and Nixon in China are ‘Great American Operas’ in the manner of ‘Great American Novels’ like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But the connection runs deeper than this.

Musical minimalism emerged in the age of television, the medium that defined more than any other how the twentieth century told its stories. As the musicologist Robert Fink has described, minimalism’s repetitions parallel those of TV news. As Nixon bellows as he steps triumphantly out of Air Force One in Adam’s opera: ‘News, news, news, has a kind of mystery!’

Yet repetition is also a quality of meditation and reflection. Whether in the clamouring alarms of 24-hour news or the calm stillness of prayer, it is through such loops of sound and imagery that we have learnt to understand the great challenges of our time. Reich is particularly adept at negotiating this border.

His string quartet WTC 911 (2010), for example, juxtaposes recordings of NORAD air traffic controllers and the New York City Fire Department on September 11 with reflective chants from the Psalms and the Torah. Meanwhile, Glass’s many scores for film and theatre, from Einstein on the Beach (1976) to The Truman Show (1998), blur the line between buzzing reality and detached contemplation. Whether in his portraits of Gandhi or Akhnaten, or his famous film score for Koyannisqatsi (1982), his looping rhythms and harmonies create an insistent, disquieting, yet strangely comforting soundtrack for our times.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson

On 21 October at 7.30pm, the Philharmonia performs a programme of music by Philip Glass and John Adams at Royal Festival Hall.

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