Going with the Flow: minimalism as cultural practice in the USA since 1945

Authored by: Robert Fink

The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music

Print publication date:  November  2013
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781409435495
eBook ISBN: 9781315613260
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042556


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This chapter attempts to sketch a possible response to a series of linked historical and interpretative questions about the minimalist process music of composers such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Where did this repetitive, modular, ‘hypnotic’ music come from? What is its significance as a cultural practice? And why does this particular practice appear in North American culture at the precise moment it does, around the middle of the 1960s? For most critical commentators, a cultural explanation for musical minimalism might begin with the vicissitudes of avant-garde aesthetic politics; or with a consideration of the counter-cultural upheavals of the 1960s; or, perhaps most seductively of all, with a survey of popular and non-Western musical influences, of (to take a representative sample) jazz, raga, gamelan and West-African drumming, played out in an increasingly globalized and multicultural musical world. 1 1

Repetitive, hypnotic and modular are alternative 1960s and 1970s labels for some of the music that would later be called ‘minimalist’. See Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and beyond (London, 1974), pp. 139–71, and Edward Strickland, Minimalism: origins (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1993), pp. 1–10. The countercultural link has been enthusiastically endorsed by the composers of repetitive music themselves, most notably Philip Glass (see Glass as interviewed in William Duckworth, Talking Music (New York, 1995), p. 337). The influence of non-Western music on minimalism is a matter of some debate, downplayed by the composers themselves but adduced by legions of critics and scholars, beginning with Tom Johnson in the Village Voice: ‘The other day someone asked me what I thought was the single most important influence on contemporary music. After mulling over a few possible answers for a moment, I found one which seemed broad enough to answer the question. I said I thought it was the infiltration of non-Western ideas’ (‘Music for Planet Earth’, Village Voice, 4 January 1973; reprinted in Johnson, The Voice of New Music: New York City 1972–1982: a collection of articles originally published in the Village Voice (Eindhoven, 1989), p. 35).

Recent critical work on repetitive music has usefully problematized its relationship with African and North-Indian musical models, noting the idiosyncratic and contingent way in which minimalist composers have received these complex traditions. 2 2

Jeremy Grimshaw, drawing in part on previous work by David Claman, has noted this dynamic in the ongoing minimalist project of La Monte Young; see Chapter 3 of Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: the music and mysticism of La Monte Young (Oxford, 2011). Martin Scherzinger has critiqued ‘Africanist’ readings of Reich’s music from a (South-) African perspective; see ‘Curious Intersections, Uncommon Magic: Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain’, Current Musicology, 79/80 (2005): pp. 207–44.

A new generation of scholars has begun to ask more probing questions about early minimalism’s political allegiances in 1960s battles over race and repression in the USA. 3 3

Exemplary in this regard are Sumanth Gopinath’s ‘Reich in Blackface: Oh Dem Watermelons and radical minstrelsy in the 1960s’, Journal of the Society for American Music, 5/2 (2011): pp. 139–93; and ‘The Problem of the Political in Steve Reich’s Come Out (1966)’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Sound Commitments: avant-garde music and the sixties (Oxford, 2009), pp. 121–44.

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