Commentary Magazine

Holy Minimalism

The entry for Philip Glass in the sixth edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 1980, is 24 lines long. The entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, published in 1992, is 190 lines long. In the course of those twelve years, the composer of the minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach became the most influential figure in postwar American classical music, and the first American composer since Aaron Copland whose work appealed to a mass audience.

By now, the word “minimalism” (for which there was no entry in Grove 6) is familiar to most non-musicians, and anyone who spends even a moderate amount of time listening to classical music will recognize the endlessly repeated rhythmic cells, brief snatches of melody, and long harmonic periods that are the building blocks of this music. What has been largely forgotten is the extent to which the adoption of these techniques by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and their fellow minimalists represented a radical—and purposeful—break with the immediate musical past.

In the 70’s, classical composition in America and Europe was still dominated by two schools of modernism: the rigorously organized serialism of the descendants of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and the no less rigorously disorganized “chance music” of John Cage and his followers. Though these two schools had little else in common, they shared the fervent belief that the traditional language of tonality was not a natural law of music but an arbitrary construct that had become exhausted by the end of the 19th century and would inevitably be replaced by newly invented, equally valid musical languages.

In a sense, this belief was vindicated by events. Though a few older composers, Benjamin Britten in England and Dmitri Shostakovich in Russia in particular, continued to produce tonal masterpieces well into the 70’s, most of the members of the postwar musical establishment in Europe and America eventually embraced one of the two established styles of avant-garde composition, and younger traditionalists unwilling to follow suit soon found it all but impossible to get a hearing.

But serialism and chance music had something else in common: neither system “worked,” at least not in the sense of being able to produce music capable of commanding the loyalty of mainstream performers or the concertgoing public. As a result, general interest in new music had dried up almost completely by 1970. Virtuosos neither played nor sang it; audiences learned to shun reflexively any piece by an unfamiliar composer. The avant-garde composers complained that modern listeners simply did not want new music, but they were wrong. What listeners wanted was accessible new music, and when it came along, they embraced it enthusiastically.



The postmodern revival of interest in new music was dramatized this past February when the Kronos Quartet, the most successful chamber-music ensemble of our time, gave a well-attended series of four concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Though nobody planned it that way, the first of these concerts, a program of string quartets by three living composers, two of them (Glass and George Crumb) Americans and the third (Henryk Górecki) a Pole, ended up being not so much an evening of chamber music as a historical tableau: a mural in three panels about the decline, fall, and replacement of the old avant-garde.

Founded in 1973, the Kronos Quartet is widely viewed in the music business as a paragon of how to market classical music at a time of mounting hostility to the very idea of high culture. The Kronos’s repertoire consists exclusively of 20th-century music, mostly recent and newly commissioned works; the members of the group perform not in the usual evening dress but in contemporary attire with a downtown flavor, and their concerts employ amplification and theatrical lighting. Their most frequently requested encore is an arrangement for string quartet of “Purple Haze,” the signature tune of the rock guitarist and 60’s pop icon Jimi Hendrix.

That the Kronos should have set up shop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a four-concert residency was wholly fitting. BAM’s Next Wave Festival specializes in the presentation of music, dance, and performance-art events by so-called “cutting-edge” performers who are in fact generously subsidized members in good standing of the contemporary cultural establishment. (I sometimes wonder if the main achievement of public funding of the arts in America has not been to make alienation an entitlement.) Though the Kronos Quartet’s series was not a part of the Next Wave Festival, it might as well have been; the concerts were subsidized in part by the city and state of New York, and most of the new works performed by the group were commissioned for it by a representative assortment of foundations and publicly funded entities.1

Given all this, it seems almost supererogatory to consider the way the music at BAM was played—badly, for the most part. Among thoughtful musicians, the Kronos Quartet is admired more for its packaging than for its performances, which are often coarse and inelegant to the point of near-amateurishness. But the point of the program was not the raspy, ill-tuned playing of the quartet but the juxtaposition of Crumb, Glass, and Górecki, respectively the three most fashionable classical composers of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. A musical archeologist of the 21st century would be able to reconstruct with fair accuracy the entire history of classical music since 1970 simply by watching a videotape of this concert.



As it happens, listening to the Kronos Quartet play George Crumb’s Black Angels, a piece for “electrified string quartet” composed in 1970, was an exercise not altogether unrelated to archeology. A quarter-century after the fact, it is hard to remember how often Crumb’s music used to be played, or why it once sounded so fresh and original; Black Angels now comes across as hopelessly thin in inspiration, a mere skeleton of spectacular instrumental effects without any connective musical fabric.

It is tempting to dismiss Crumb’s brief vogue as a fad, or a manifestation of the politics of the 70’s. (Black Angels was composed in protest against the Vietnam war.) But his popularity, if undeserved, was nonetheless significant, for he was among the first well-known American composers of his generation to break, however tentatively, with the orthodoxies of the postwar avant-garde.

The Kronos Quartet’s performance of Black Angels was a valuable reminder of how little food it takes to ease the hunger of a starving man. Black Angels is hardly more than a montage of sound effects: the players strike gongs, shake maracas, rap on their instruments, shout into microphones. But these effects, musically meaningless in themselves, are strung together with an admirable feel for dramatic pacing, an acute sensitivity to instrumental timbre and—most importantly—an emotional straightforwardness bordering on outright sentimentality. Placed next to a Bartók or Shostakovich quartet, Black Angels is as flimsy as a square of tissue paper.2 But heard after, say, a work by avant-garde composers like Milton Babbitt or Karlheinz Stockhausen, it must have struck its first listeners as not only accessible but genuinely appealing.



For all its flashy surface appeal, however, Black Angels is also still recognizably a product of the postwar modernist aesthetic. Instead of breaking completely with that aesthetic, Crumb watered down its distinctive language in order to reach an audience eager for attractive new sounds. It was only a matter of time before a generation of younger composers would come along who, unlike Crumb, were prepared to jettison avant-garde orthodoxy altogether in favor of a musical style based on conventional concepts of harmony and rhythm.

Philip Glass was not only ready but eager to take that step. As he explained in a 1987 interview:

Though there were many gifted and energetic composers and performers dedicated to serialism, the music to this day has not found general acceptance. It was music I had studied as a student and any further exercise of that kind interested me not at all. To me, it was music of the past, passing itself off as music of the present. After all, Arnold Schoenberg was about the same age as my grandfather.

Glass’s new style, in which the materials of tonal music were reduced to their simplest constituent parts, was initially viewed with a mixture of confusion, skepticism, and outright hostility. But his career turned a corner when he began writing music for the stage, a milieu to which his new style was ideally suited in much the same way that the neutral musical idiom of background scores for Hollywood films enhances their visual content.

Einstein on the Beach, successfully produced in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera House, made Glass an international celebrity. CBS Masterworks (now Sony Classical) signed him to a long-term recording contract in 1981, and his music soon became popular in the truest sense of the word: he collaborated with Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Paul Simon, and Suzanne Vega on an album of rock-flavored songs called Songs from Liquid Days, and the Philip Glass Ensemble subsequently performed on the TV show Saturday Night Live in the guest spot normally reserved for rock acts.

The comparison with rock-and-roll is significant. The repetitive, incantatory qualities of minimalism were comfortably familiar to baby boomers raised on rock (especially those in the habit of using loud music as an accompaniment to the ingestion of mind-altering drugs). In addition, Glass’s rediscovery of tonality was a breath of fresh air for more sophisticated listeners who had lost patience with the claustrophobic “maximalism” of total serialism and the aimless randomness of chance music.

Unfortunately, the simplicity of minimalism is the virtue of a vice, as was apparent when the Kronos Quartet played Glass’s Fifth Quartet, composed in 1991, at BAM in February.3 Just as Black Angels is a thesaurus of avant-garde timbral effects devoid of musical context, so is Glass’s quartet a twenty-minute-long parade of harmonic and rhythmic gestures of the utmost obviousness, repeated ad infinitum with minor modifications. Glass’s style, divorced from the elaborate stage effects of the operas that first brought him fame, is too reductive in its use of traditional musical techniques to hold the attention of most serious listeners for more than a brief time.

Those who live by fashion die by fashion, and such would seem to be the fate of Philip Glass. Though he remains the elder statesman of the BAM crowd—he was on hand to take a bow at the end of the Kronos’s performance of his Fifth Quartet—the school of composition with which he is identified appears to have run its course. Glass’s recording contract with Sony has lapsed, and the critical attention once reserved for the premieres of his operas (and for the heavily politicized, audience-friendly minimalist docudramas of John Adams, the composer of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer) is now increasingly directed elsewhere. The caravan of taste has moved on.



Musical styles do not die out of their own accord: they must be replaced. The decline of interest in American-style minimalism is due in part to the emergence of a new style of classical composition that has found a comparably large popular audience. There is no commonly accepted term for this style, though it is sometimes referred to as “European mysticism” or “holy minimalism.” Its chief proponents are Górecki (1933-), the Estonian Arvo Pärt (1935-), and the British John Tavener (1944-). All three men are intensely religious, are associated with orthodox faiths, and write both secular scores and music intended for liturgical usage; all three use repetition in a manner broadly reminiscent of the American minimalists.

But while the “holy” part of the “holy-minimalist” tag is both accurate and relevant, the “minimalist” part is more problematic. The way in which these composers employ repetition is both highly personal and easily differentiated. In describing his music, Pärt uses the word “tintinnabulation,” a term meant to evoke the bell-like repetition of chordal tones typical of his mature style. Górecki’s more conventional array of compositional techniques includes both elaborate counterpoint and the ritualistic repetition of melodic fragments and harmonic patterns. Tavener’s music relies primarily on the deployment of florid, chant-derived melodies over static chordal backdrops.

The best-known example of holy minimalism is Górecki’s Third Symphony, Op. 36, composed in 1976 and subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” It consists of three movements for soprano and string orchestra based on Polish texts. The first of these is a 15th-century Catholic prayer; the second is a prayer scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell by its anonymous occupant; the third is a Polish folk song about the death of a child. The austere yet ecstatic music to which Górecki has set these emotion-laden texts is permeated with the gently swaying melodic shapes of plainchant—a defining feature of holy minimalism. It is also unabashedly tonal.

The astonishing popularity of the Górecki Third, one recording of which had sold over 500,000 copies worldwide by the fall of 1993,4 was initially treated as a fluke by many hostile critics, some of whom undoubtedly were angered as much by Górecki’s overt piety as by his musical conservatism. Skillful marketing, too, has obviously played a central role in the vogue of the holy minimalists. (One record label, EMI, went straight to the source and released a cleverly packaged CD of Gregorian chants sung by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos that became one of the fastest-selling classical recordings of all time.)



But the appeal of Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener is more than just a matter of marketing. The work of the American minimalists has proved as shallow as their grasp of the traditional musical language to which they turned in order to break free from the shackles of postwar modernism. By contrast, the work of the holy minimalists is deeply rooted in Western musical tradition; moreover, it does not flinch from directly addressing the permanent problems of belief and meaning with which the great artists of the West, musical and otherwise, have concerned themselves.

This high aspiration is all the more impressive in our postmodern age of triviality and camp. To hear Arvo Pärt lash out at postwar musical trends is to be irresistibly reminded of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s equally ferocious attacks on Western materialism: “When I left Russia,” Pärt (who now lives in Germany) has said, “it came as a great surprise and disappointment to me to find here [in the West] composers playing in a sandbox.”

Still, it is essential not to confuse good intentions with good works. Though the holy minimalists have already spawned dozens of imitators, the staying power of their music remains in doubt.

Tabula Rasa, the first album of Pärt’s music to circulate widely in the West, seemed to herald the appearance of a new and original musical voice, but there is a sameness to Pärt’s later compositions that leads one to believe he may be more a stylist than a genuine innovator.5 Tavener’s music is even more formula-ridden than that of Pärt; works like The Protecting Veil (1987), if more expressively ambitious than the music of the American minimalists, are just as reliant on a degree of repetition that quickly reaps diminishing returns. The appeal of Tavener’s music clearly has more to do with its explicit religious content and palpable sincerity than with its musical imagination.6

Górecki, however, continues to strike me as an artist of considerable depth, an impression fostered by frequent hearings of the Third Symphony and reinforced by the Kronos Quartet’s performance at BAM of his Second Quartet, Op. 64, composed in 1991.7 Though the use of repetition in this work, as in many of Górecki’s other pieces, does at times test the limits of the attention span, the Second Quartet remains a powerful, thought-provoking composition. To point out that it is reminiscent of late Shostakovich is not to accuse Górecki of derivativeness but merely to acknowledge that his method is a part of the mainstream of 20th-century modernism—not the hermetic modernism of the New Viennese School and its sterile progeny, but the true modernism of Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, and Shostakovich. All these composers proudly acknowledged their places in the great tradition of Western art and sought to expand the frontiers of tonality, rather than arrogantly seeking to create “new” musical languages out of whole cloth.



Whatever the ultimate value of the music of the holy minimalists, it is already safe to say that they will be remembered for having definitively freed themselves from the smothering embrace of the postwar avant-garde. What is also worth remembering, and all too easy to forget, is that they had help. Without wrongly positing the existence of a direct chain of influence, it is nonetheless correct to say that the long road away from Schoenberg and Cage to Henryk Górecki was paved in part by the easy-on-the-ear minimalism of Philip Glass and his contemporaries, as well as by the accessible avant-gardism of George Crumb.

The irony of this journey is that it has followed a circular path. It took classical music a full half-century to escape the cut de sac of hermetic modernism and reclaim the usable past of tonality. The rise of the holy minimalists recalls the remark Giuseppe Verdi made to a friend in 1871, “Let us turn back to the past: that will be progress.”

It is also of no small interest that the composers who have done the most in recent years to revive the language of tonality should all be religious (not excluding Glass, a convert to Tibetan Buddhism). Regardless of one’s own beliefs, there is something undeniably satisfying about the fact that the world of classical music at the end of the 20th century is dominated by three men who can say of tonality what G. K. Chesterton said of his rediscovery of religious faith:

I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the 19th century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. . . . I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.


1 A case in point was Cold War Suite, a piece by Scott Johnson based on a taped lecture by the late left-wing polemicist I.F. Stone. According to the program, Cold War Suite “was commissioned for Kronos by the National Endowment for the Arts, Hancher Auditorium/University of Iowa, Lincoln Center, the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, the Lied Center at the University of Kansas, On the Boards, Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, and the North West Area Foundation.” (Appropriately enough, Stone's lecture was originally broadcast by National Public Radio.)

2 The Kronos Quartet's recording of Black Angels (Elektra Nonesuch 9 79242-2) is coupled, to devastating effect, with a performance of Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet.

3 The Kronos Quartet's latest recording is of Glass's Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Quartets (Elektra Nonesuch 9 79356-2).

4 Dawn Upshaw with David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta (Elektra Nonesuch 9 79282-2).

5 Tabula Rasa contains the title piece, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, and two versions of Fratres (ECM New Series 1275).

6 Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the London Symphony have recorded Tavener's The Protecting Veil, with Steven Isserlis playing the cello solo (Virgin 0777 7590522 9).

7 The Kronos has recorded the Second Quartet on Elektra Nonesuch 9 79319-2.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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