Phillip Glass, Audiophonic Sonority and the Phenomenon of Minimalism
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 7,803
    Phillip Glass, Audiophonic Sonority and the Phenomenon of Minimalism

    After a century long struggle through the search for a 'new' kind of music and wandering in the experimentation of atonalism, sound design, new systems (ala Messiaen) and more, we seem to have arrived back at a juncture where the fundamentals of music theory have re-emerged, but in a different state... one that is primitive... at least harmonically. This brings me to the person of Phillip Glass and subject of his compositions and that of the minimalism movement in particular.

    Lately I have listened to many many hours of Glass. His music is mesmerizing, albeit, not too much on an intellectual level, but much more on a psychological and emotional level that is alluring, perplexing and then also, troubling. At the moment I am playing the sound track to 'The Hours'. ( OK, so his harmonic structures are simply... simple. Minimalism, it seems, is truly a practice of playing with notes the way an immature artist plays with a coloring book or a budding pianist hits the same keys over and over simply because the tactile experience fascinates. There seems to be a lack of intellectual depth or groundedness; only emotion and drive to create with a very limited vocabulary. Nonetheless, Glass' music "works". I like "The Hours" (best of the selections I have heard and performed). I also like the score to "The Illusionist", and fittingly, the music is quite apro pos. It truly ends in my soul like a hypnotic illusion.

    Certain movements in "Glassworks" (a compilation of Glass), which I listened to many times over the past few weeks, can be truly annoying, as can be certain of his highly repetitive works. There are those pieces that drive me to the point of “TURN IT OFF... NOW!” Somewhere I read that Glass is the perfection of sonic ADHD.

    For myself, Mozart has somewhat of the same evocation, who, in a sense was a 'minimalist' in his day. It is all about the present pervasive moment and then poof, it's gone. Although I have heard thousands of hours of Mozart, there are very few of his compositions that have 'stuck' with me. I have played his Fantasia in D Minor for years. I like that one. And his fugue is really good too. I wish he had attempted more of that kind of composing.

    With minimalism, the overwhelming bouquet and aromatic aura that, while present in the air, is overwhelming (and for fleeting moments, captivating), as soon as the music ends (the flower [audiophonic sonority] is absent) the internal movements within oneself seems to dissipate without trace or substance. For myself there seems to be no long term imposition on the soul. This is the part of minimalism that for myself is perplexing.

    So, Glass, although his compositions are very basic in their intellectual content, have a certain 'old river' feeling to them. Primitive and maybe even prehistoric. Glass' music is what I would call 'classical trance'... his music leaves one sort of wandering within oneself. Perhaps it is best categorized as an audio colorscape... it is the perfect background music when working on ones computer... an audio screensaver?

    This leads us to another minimalist, but one which is most definitely in the genre of sacred music... the compositions of Arvo Part. His music has much the same affect as Glass, but since sacred texts are employed, it then leads one onto a spiritual plane that drives toward the eternal destination of God himself ( I have never heard Part in a liturgical setting, only his recordings. His music is also quite hypnotic. This composer is one of the greats of minimalism.

    Minimalism is also something that has emerged in architecture. One of the popular expressions is in the phenomenon of the 'Tiny House'. ( It seems that the drive in this type of minimalism is to rid oneself of baggage; the extracurricular concerns for life, the trauma of day to day living (the goal of getting ahead and staying afloat), and shedding all that tends toward what makes life complex. Someone recently asked me "why wouldn't you just go out and buy a typical RV?" This lead me to the question, "What is it about the Tiny House that has such appeal?" The typical RV represents the age of plastics, oil and the refining of synthetics. It is a very sterile environment. It has an immediate appeal, but then it just gets old... fast. How long can one stand to continuously 'live' in a typical RV without the need to escape it? The tiny house is an attempt to amalgamate the transient with some sense of permanence and a human aesthetic which is absent in the plastic bubble on wheels. However, perhaps there is a deeper issue with the tiny house; the typical RV is a temporary escape from the grind of life. Is the tiny house fundamentally the rejection of putting down roots?

    The real dichotomy in minimalism is that one is wholesale buying into the simple along with what is overtly transient. Does the art of musical minimalism do the same? Is the music of today’s liturgy (ala OCP and company) represent another bad flavor of the same phenomenon? Are we willingly ejecting all that has gone on before us so we can insistently always be running toward the new? Is the foundation of minimalism locked up with the goal of always wandering? Or is it that we simply cannot live with ourselves?
  • Carol
    Posts: 252
    I would never think to compare Glass and Mozart! I am not that familiar with Glass' compositions and not formally trained in music theory, but Mozart is my favorite composer. My husband and I were at Tanglewood last week to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform the "Overture from the Marriage of Figaro" and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor." Lang Lang was the pianist and it was remarkable! Mozart is incredibly sophisticated in the way the harmony lines and the melody are so balanced. It's like graph paper, in that the vertical of harmony is perfect and the horizontal of each instrument's line are meaningful and going somewhere important at the same time. Over the 30+ years my husband and I have been going to music concerts I have learned to appreciate classical music. Recently we have gone to more contemporary serious music events and I have more appreciation for them than I did initially, but I rarely leave thinking "I'd like to hear that again." Frequently I leave thinking "That was a waste of some really good musicians!"

    I think only time will tell what is good in today's liturgical music. Most of it is not good. As I have learned here most of it is more self-centered rather than Christ centered. A few new hymns will endure because they have Truth written in them, both spiritually and musically. For now, most of us seem to be stuck with the good and the bad.

    I listened to the Arvo Part piece a bit, and it is so peaceful and contemplative! Thank you for pointing it out. Don't have time for the whole piece just now, but will come back to it. I am curious how others will react to your long post. You call Arvo Part a minimalist, but this seems complex to me, not busy, but complex.

    God bless and have a great day!
  • Pärt is the right kind of minimalism, and far more competent than his contemporaries at writing for the voice. I don't think it would be far-fetched to call him the greatest living composer, at least for the voice. Here, we performed his Nunc dimittis at the Presentation of the Lord.

    However, I cannot share your assessment of painfully-easy-listening Glass.
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,142
    I have difficulty listening to Glass, too. But, I can enjoy Mozart piano concertos without liking his attempts at church music, few though they are. Part, is underrated, I think, and writes well.
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,116
    Uh, this emperor isn't wearing any clothes.
    Koyanisquatsi (sp?) indeed.
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • Carol
    Posts: 252
    I remember that movie! I won't try to spell it, but I believe it means life out of balance in a Native American language. I sang in a community choir that did the Mozart Requiem, using soloists and orchestra, a few years ago and thought some of it was really evocative and spiritual. Not suitable for worship, but beautiful nonetheless.
  • toddevoss
    Posts: 31
    thank you for introducing me to Arvo Part
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 5,935
    My first encounter with Part was back in the nineties. It was on the NPM (correction = NPR) radio station late at night. It was fascinating and I, thinking that I was listening to XIIth century organum, called the station to enquire what organum it was. I was told that it was Arno Part. What the selection was I don't remember, but I have been enamoured of his music ever since. I share Schonbergian's estimation of both Glass and Part.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 7,803
    However, I cannot share your assessment of painfully-easy-listening Glass.
    Can you elaborate?
  • davido
    Posts: 65
    What bothers me philosophically about minimalism is the lack of melody. (On a practical level, it is the listening that bothers me).
    I don’t care a lot for Mozart, but start listing the Mozart melodies that you can sing from memory! And melody, or song, is one of the two basics of music (the other being rhythm or dance). Minimalism is so far removed from the origins of music, which is human song and dance, human bodies. It works on a mental, emotional, maybe “spiritual” level, but it really is a product of Oriental ideas.
    Thanked by 1francis
  • I disagree with Glass's definition of minimalism, which I think he uses to justify compositional laziness and lack of skill more than anything else, and which is overly narrow.

    Gregorian chant is minimalist because it achieves everything it sets out to do with a minimum of effort and a minimum of resources - one unadorned melodic line. Josquin, Victoria, Byrd, and Tallis achieve incredible depth with scarcely more than eight voices, if even that. All of the Classicists - Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms - built entire symphonies and string quartets out of the simplest motives and strove for complete transparency in their scoring. All of these are what I would consider minimalist. Part exemplifies the first of these examples and imitates chant's subtlety in his writing, which is why it works so well for the voice.

    Glass's music is minimalist like a pop song - in the most dull and uninteresting way. The goal of minimalism is to create something that's more than the sum of its limited parts, but Glass never rises above that threshold. To me, it's like saying Eric Whitacre has "interesting harmonies" and therefore putting him on the same plane as composers like Reger, Debussy, Schönberg, and Schroeder - ones that had something to say with their technique rather than merely being defined by it.
    Thanked by 1francis
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,166
    I can enjoy Mozart piano concertos without liking his attempts at church music, few though they are.

    CW: Probably because much of Mozart's ecclesiastical music (which is the only Mozart that I've been fond of) is grounded in fugue and BACH.

    Another vote for Part, wonderful stuff.

    It was on the NPM radio station late at night.

    Jackson, surely you mean NPR--If NPM had a radio station, I doubt (a) that they'd play Part, and (b) that you'd be listening to it in the first place.