Discussion of the merits of minimalist music frequently gets bogged down in a quagmire of unspoken assumptions. Some listeners cling to complexity and progression as if they were universal criteria rather than conspicuously localised concerns. Often, even the most committed avant-gardists are unable to come to terms with the more extreme minimalist composers (the obsessive La Monte Young or early Steve Reich being fine examples). Edward Strickland, author of the archaeological "Minimalism: Origins" understood the problem. Half his book is a study of the visual art of Frank Stella, Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, Barnett Newman and others, and with the letters A-R-T held firmly in mind, even the most radical minimalist music is easier to both understand and appreciate.
K. Robert Schwarz, the author of this addition to Phaidon's "20th Century Composers" series, lists "Origins" in his bibliography, but lacks Strickland's interest in illuminating numb history with subtle threads of cross-influence. Everything about "Minimalists" is market-driven. The page count seems tied to record sales (Reich and Philip Glass both get twin chapters, while Young and Terry Riley share a bunk, and John Adams, Meredith Monk, Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt have to put up with the dormitory). Maybe this is appropriate at a time where the once unloved and unlistenable sounds of minimalism have become the ad-man's favourite way to blend compulsive drive with inoffensive placidity. A wristwatch advert explains: "Its melodies composed by Philip Glass make romantic appointments more pleasurable and those at the dentist a little less dramatic".
As a history of the bestsellers, especially the quartet of Young, Riley, Reich and Glass, "Minimalists" is mostly a success (even if it largely ignores the music of Young and Riley after 1970). Anyone except the hardened minimalist trainspotter should find plenty of interest. Influences and associates are competently mapped (Young for example owes much to environmental sound, gagaku, Anton Webern, John Cage and Charlie Parker), and their very different personalities made plain. The close early ties between Reich and Glass are as well aired as subsequent disputes.
Despite this, it's an opportunity lost. Even Strickland's far more thoughtful book bought too heavily into La Monte Young's self-mythologising (a history currently being ably exploded by Young's former associate Tony Conrad), but it at least acknowledges the importance of composers beyond the unit-shifters. Schwarz fails to take to heart his own quote from Glass: "When I came back to New York [in 1967] I would say there were roughly thirty composers working in a very similar style ... Unfortunately, the media has concentrated on a handful of people and I think it's not been fair".
It's sad to think that people will put this book down no more aware of the richness and variety of minimalist composition than they were to start with. Hugely innovatory and influential figures like Pauline Oliveros, Charlemagne Palestine, Glenn Branca, and Alvin Lucier don't get so much as a passing reference, and there are dozens of less major figures who nonetheless have interesting stories to tell (Paul Panhuysen, Arnold Dreyblatt, Rhys Chatham, Eliane Radigue, Terry Jennings, Phill Niblock, Yoshi Wada, Maryanna Amacher, Philip Corner, ...) Schwarz, every bit the classicist, might also leave you with the idea that David Bowie, Brian Eno and John Cale were the only pop inheritors of minimalism's rhythm-and-drone. There's no attempt here to even sketch the vast legacy of Terry Riley's "A Rainbow In Curved Air" (via Krautrock into ambient techno), let alone investigate the modern inheritors of early minimalism's uncompromising mantle (Ryoji Ikeda, Bernhard Günter, Jim O'Rourke, Main, Jliat and a hundred divergent others).
Perhaps Schwarz is right to draw from minimalism in his approach: keep the story simple, avoid straying from the path. On the other hand, the reason even the most extreme experiments by Young, Reich and Glass retain a visceral appeal today is the complexity their modest means engender: the dance of harmonic overtones in a Young drone, or the infinitely intricate polyrhythms in Reich's tape loops. Certainly, there's a richness to the history of minimalism that this book fails to address.
[originally published in The Wire]