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Local Minima

The Philip Glass Ensemble, Einstein on the Beach, an Opera in Four Acts, UC-Berkeley, October 27, 2012.

Alarm Will Sound, Music of Steve Reich, Stanford University, March 16, 2013.

Alongside the long path of thinking about minimalism and rock, there came a couple of live shows by American colossi. The Reich was especially on point, being in part a successful cut-up of some harmonies from Radiohead albums, but both were helpful in getting a handle on genre. Like many people, I’ve often thought of minimalism as somehow twinned with electric rock, seeing as they sprang up around the same time and place and used many of the same technologies.

Riley, Reich and Glass (whose selections from Einstein on the Beach I also heard at the same time when Glass toured San Francisco with his group) all influenced me positively and pointed to a way out of the cul-de-sac in which I seemed to be stuck. I had grown up listening to jazz and then later found myself surrounded by the pounding, insistent rhythms and simple harmonic language of rock. That genuinely native music felt to me like my own genome… what appealed to me about these early works of Minimalism was that they did not deconstruct or obliterate the fundamental elements of musical discourse such as regular pulsation, tonal harmony, or motivic repetition. Indeed they did the opposite: they embraced pulsation and repetition with an almost childlike glee. To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience.

—John Adams, Hallelujah Junction

Plausible, but a distinction is getting blurred. Granted, everything blurs in the 1970s; you have high-culture magpies like Adams pilfering from the radio at the same time that art-school rockers are raiding the conservatory. But they started in different corners.

I was a kid who grew up with jazz. I was born in 1936, so that was my quote unquote popular music. In 1950, I heard bebop right after I heard Bach and then The Rite Of Spring and those three musics basically form who I am. To tell you the truth, when I was a kid and I heard Bill Haley and Elvis and Fats Domino, I couldn’t care less. I was just like who would listen to this? And I just went back to listening to Miles Davis and I really didn’t pay attention to rock and roll.

—Steve Reich, 2013 interview

I believe him, too; only I think one music is missing. It stands to reason that, faced with the Stravinsky/serialist spat, Reich would side the former, but to fully map his genome you have to go back one revolution earlier, to the unavoidable Wagner. I’m thinking of Nicholas Spice’s description of The Ring:

We follow the action in big temporal arcs, several times longer than those we would experience in a play using the same dialogue. For example, the dramatic action of the first scene of Die Walküre takes four times longer in Wagner’s opera than it would if you simply read it aloud… In passages such as this one, Wagner’s music has an effect on our sense of time that is the reverse of the effect most music in the classical canon has on us. Where most classical music expands our sense of temporal duration, Wagner’s contracts it. Most music, though short, seems long; Wagner, though long, seems short.

I admit that Wagner may not seem short to everyone. But the time dilation that Spice describes is exactly what happened to us in high school, listening to Einstein on the Beach in the car, and even more so in the performance beginning to end. It was high school friends who came out from Tucson to see it with me (on mushrooms, as it later turned out; keep it weird, Tucson). One of them, who would organize 24-hour video game marathons with Einstein on the Beach looping in the background the whole time, used to say, “I don’t know if Glass’s music is even very good; it’s just so long that it doesn’t matter.”

That’s a useful thing to say about such music, like the odd acuity of the Twain quip that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The five minutes of E flat that begin Das Rheingold are a zero point; if they are not quite death, they come prior to our experience of life. And that, more than technology or tone, is what separates such works from the germ of rock music, because the salient thing about rock is of course that it is alive, that it hooks together the simplest of devices, a magnet and a vacuum tube, and makes them sing.

Minimalism ran the rock algorithm backward. Instead of bringing machines to life, it pressed human performers into emulating phase patterns that machines could have created, that we do hear machines create every day, and so arrived at, not death—even when Glass addresses the atom bomb, it’s never simply death—but the same undeath that begins Das Rheingold. An ascetic’s bliss, the love itself unmoving of “Burnt Norton.” Also a skeleton picked clean, a memento mori worth a long look. It’s said that Wagner’s music out of time corresponds to a world that had lost its teleology. The world of minimalism is harder to describe, being our world, but we’ve suffered it already.

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