Minimalism & Millennials: Generation gap?

Minimalist music in Third Angle’s Reich-analia strikes one millennial musician as manipulative


Locational obliviousness combined with missing my first exit and leaving my apartment late due to compositional tunnel vision had me literally running up the stairs in the Montgomery Park Atrium on January 30 as Steve Reich’s Sextet began.

Heavy breaths and forced stillness; running to sit; momentum to dead-space; being on the very cusp of arriving late where every movement matters. Yet upon punctual arrival it all seems so pointless, which is coincidentally the feeling I arrived and left Third Angle’s Reich-analia with, originally due to my poor timing, but sustained by the music:

This is not an idea. Tthis is not an idea. Ththis is not an idea. Thithis is not an idea. Thisthis is
not an idea. This ithis is not an idea. This isthis is not an idea. This is nthis is not an idea. This is nothis is not an idea. This is notthis is not an idea. This is not athis is not an idea. This is not
anthis is not an idea. This is not an ithis is not an idea. This is not an idthis is not an idea. This is not an idethis is not an idea. This is not an idea. This is not an idea.

I’m sorry, let me clarify my thoughts on long-term phasing as a compositional tool. Or as eminent classical music scholar Richard Taruskin, author of the Oxford History of Western Music and other books, said of Reich’s contemporary Philip Glass’s five hour opera Einstein on the Beach: “it’s basic behavior-modification therapy, and so far from spontaneous or liberating, it is calculated authoritarian manipulation. I find it sinister. . .”

Third Angle New Music brought So Percussion to Portland to play music by Steve Reich.

Third Angle New Music brought So Percussion to Portland to play music by Steve Reich.

It’s this mechanical nature of strict minimalist ideas that fails to differentiate the early Minimalist movement from that of Modernism. Sure, the harmonic language had changed, but the same insipid relation to human existence outside of rhythmic patterns or various serialization schemes is the predominant aesthetic feature of both. The Modernists had their twelve-tone rows, mathematics, and cold Stochastic practices, while the Minimalists had their mathematical development of rhythmic motives producing phasing, and obsession with these pattern cycles at the expense of listenability and emotional impact. Life is more than patterns, twelve-tone rows and clever justifications for breaking the rules, jobs, school, social expectations, and all that stupid shit.

As for the popular rise of Minimalism 40 years ago, the success of a specific aestheticism has as much to do with the social climate as it does with the art. The generation which embraced early Minimalism had witnessed JFK’s assassination, the social upheaval of Civil Rights, the draft, and readily available footage of Vietnam carnage. Minimalist aestheticism is rooted in predictable mathematic processes, but stripped of the Modernist’s distracting harmony, instead Minimalism has triadic structures reclaimed from the death hold of functional harmony as an artistic reaction to the chaos permeating the social climate. Reich even comments on this need for a healthy unified social experience:

“While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards toward it.”

New York's So Percussion performed at Reich-analia.

New York’s So Percussion performed at Reich-analia.

However, we have a new generation with a different social experience coming of age now: my generation. The aesthetic push for an unified social experience was so fully achieved all we’re left with is a big lie: There is no such thing as a unified social experience. It doesn’t matter how many cheesy shit-coms you stick on the television: culture and a society are composed of millions of individuals – while a healthy culture is the product of those individuals engaging together – it is not the product of those individuals behaving the same. While the Minimalists were exposed to social turmoil we’ve been sheltered.

This post 9/11 generation has grown up on force-fed feel-good propaganda bullshit and we know it. We’ve witnessed the rise of a mass media machine previously unimaginable, dispensing Hollywood factoids to sedate us:

Sedate us from questioning war packaged as police action.

Sedate us from questioning police armed for war.

Sedate us from questioning a system which does not represent our interests.

This cultural white-washing is why Taruskin’s thoughts on Minimalism still resonate with me – and I believe us – as a Millennial, because the last thing we want is something subtly manipulating our thoughts and emotions: We “find it sinister.” There’s been a shifting of the aesthetic tide towards the unpredictable and abrasively violent: Something which we perceive as a more honest representation of the world events we have been unsuccessfully sheltered from.

This may be difficult to see in the entrenchments of art music, but a new generation of composers has arrived which grew up on hardcore, post-hardcore, rap-metal, and now are listening to horrorcore (yes, I’m aware over the debate of calling this horrorcore), new rap-metal, electronica, and so many other genres which you’re blind if you think aren’t affecting how new art music is written.

So, for me, Third Angles Reich-analia had two layers of deception going on: Modernism guised as Minimalism, and Sextet (1985) / Drumming (1971) being reasonable repertoire for an organization which claims its “mission is to perform and record the masterworks of the twenty-first century while commissioning new works from regional and nationally recognized composers.” Works from 30 to 40 years ago are speaking to a completely different social experience, which is fine, but it’s certainly not new and not speaking to me.

Tristan Bliss is a music composer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Engaging in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from motorcycle dirtbaggery to navigating his way through the bullshit bureaucracy of earning a Bachelor’s of Music with a focus on modern composition; trust me, it’s not as fancy as it sounds. Also, apparently he is now reviewing concerts he goes to.

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3 Responses.

  1. Jay says:

    I’m confused as to what this article is supposed to be about. Are we concerned about a music that’s out of date and not representative of our times? Your own assessment of when it was written it answers that question. Are we worried that Third Angle isn’t playing enough local composers? They premiered a piece of mine last fall, alongside LJ White (another Millennial, I believe). Are we worried about the internal processes of music? Reich’s flavor of process-based minimalism hasn’t been done in quite a while.

    “There’s been a shifting of the aesthetic tide towards the unpredictable and abrasively violent: Something which we perceive as a more honest representation of the world events we have been unsuccessfully sheltered from.”

    Who’s “we”? I’m a millennial and I don’t find phase shifting (or any internal compositional process, really) “manipulative” or “deceptive” or in any way sinister. In fact, I’m fascinated by it because it deepens my listening experience knowing what’s going on between the notes and perceiving a process at work in real time. Nor do I write music that’s necessarily “violent” or “abrasive,” so where does that place me?

    “There is no such thing as a unified social experience.”

    If this is true then no music can fully articulate the world around us in a truly satisfactory way, so again, what are we worried about here?

    This whole thing just sounds like you don’t like Reich’s music, which is totally fine, but wrapping it up in “this music is deceptive and manipulative in the ears of Millennials” is probably the most deceptive part of this piece. It just isn’t true.

    • bob priest says:

      If the bottom line raison d’etre for Tristan’s article is that he doesn’t particularly like Reich’s music, hey, i have no problem with that because I don’t care for R’s music at all – which is one of several reasons why i didn’t attend this show.
      BTW, if one is looking for music that reflects “the unpredictable and abrasively violent,” well, ultra-moderne, “cold” stochasticist Iannis Xenakis is your decible daddy. Should the X-man’s best works (Tetras, Jonchaies, Metastasis, Eonta, Kraanerg, etc.) ever come to flatten an oddience at a theatre near you, D-Bob sez, check ’em out!

    • Jack Gabel says:

      opinion pieces typically play fast and loose with reality – as for “millennial” backlash, an informed opinion, hand might cite Edgard Varèse as the original “millennial” (1883-1965), maybe even Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

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