A Drink, a Book, and a Song VI
Less is more? Sure, let’s go with that.
Welcome back. Every Friday (more or less), I highlight a tasty drink, an interesting book, and a sharable song with the hope of imparting some useful knowledge or maybe some higher-order trivia for the weekend. If you like what you read here, please share. If you don’t like it, kindly share it anyway. A bad notice is still a notice, as the sages say.
It has occurred to me these pieces have been running a bit long lately.
This week’s theme, therefore, is minimalism.
I. A Drink
Take three absinthe drips
Write the world’s greatest novel
Then thank me later
II. A Book
Forget the sonnets!
A catchy haiku
III. A Song
“Minimalism” was a great trend in musical composition in the 1960s and ’70s.Of the composers considered minimalist, Philip Glass is arguably the most accessible. Glass himself abjures the minimalist label, describing his work instead as “music with repetitive structures.”
Listen to any of it, and that’s about right. Rhythm and repetition. Repetition and rhythm. Pieces that move in circles or use only a few notes or the same pattern within a particular key.
One of the knocks on Glass’s music is that so much of it sounds the same. I don’t know—I enjoy listening to it when I’m working. His music doesn’t necessarily require my close attention, though surely it has earned it. It’s fair to say you know Glass’s music when you hear it, assuming you listen long enough. I also know Gustav Mahler’s symphonies when I hear them, and I happen to love Mahler more than I like Glass. Same with Anton Bruckner, Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, much of Johannes Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach.
Listen long enough to anything, and you will start to pick up patterns and motifs in all of them. The same is true of reading. The same is true of writing and editing.
But while Glass’s work may often lack a certain dynamism—I don’t recall too many crescendos—at least it is recognizable as music. Steve Reich looping a San Francisco street preacher warning of the end of the world for 18 minutes—“It’s Gonna Rain”—is something else entirely. Brahms and Beethoven, it ain’t. Minimalism it is.
At 85, Glass still performs on keyboards with his ensemble. He spent a good chunk of the 1960s in India, studying with and working for Ravi Shankar. It was his job, essentially, to “translate” Shankar for Western musicians. In 2013, Glass explained how Shankar’s music helped him develop his own style of composition:
I did a remarkable, intuitive thing, which is I took the music I had written down and I erased all the bar lines. And suddenly, I saw something which I hadn’t seen before, which was that I saw the patterns. It went over bar lines. Because he didn’t use bar lines. I was using bar lines because that’s what we had been taught to do. But when I took the bar lines away, I saw the flow of the rhythm that I hadn’t seen. This was actually just luck, in a certain way. I saw it, I analyzed it very quickly, and I saw also that there was a cycle of 16 notes that kept coming up . . .
Glass returned to the United States in 1967 and worked odd jobs as he continued to compose and collaborate. He became famous in America in 1976 with his opera, “Einstein on the Beach.” The work runs five hours without an intermission. It isn’t really a conventional opera. It has no real narrative and the “action” is framed by “knee plays”—essentially interludes between acts.
Ransom Wilson, a flutist and conductor who attended the New York premiere, recalled the experience in the Washington Post:
As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored—very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle. I was first irritated and then angry that I'd been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition. I thought of leaving. Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental.
(That Washington Post story, by music critic Tim Page, is a terrific profile of Glass from 1998. Page is a friend of and occasional collaborator with Glass, so, as he writes, “this article cannot be entirely objective.”)
At it’s most annoying, minimalism is “beep-boop” music—not to be confused with bebop, which Louis Armstrong notoriously dismissed as “Chinese music.” I mean beeps and boops, repeated, for what might be three or four minutes but what seems like forever. That isn’t Glass so much as his contemporaries, like Reich and Roger Eno, and particularly some of their successors in the world of ambient music.
But a lot of people dislike and dismiss Glass’s work for that reason. A New York Times critic in 1984 described one of Glass’s operas as “going-nowhere music” with “backgrounds of continually repeated, barely varied sound patterns. They stand to music as the sentence ‘See Spot run’ stands to literature.”
It’s the sort of music that’s easy to mock:
In 2016, Glass was asked what is most misunderstood about his music. He answered with a story:
Years ago I was traveling with my ensemble to Cologne for a very famous new music program. There was a radio station in Cologne, but I wasn’t playing at the radio station at that time; I was playing at another hall. I decided I would go and talk to someone there to see whether they might be interested in playing something of mine. So I went to see a young guy there, he was about my age, in his thirties, and I said that I would like to have something played on the radio and asked if he would be interested and he said, “Can we see the music?” He looked at it and said, “You know, I just have to ask you a question. Have you ever thought of going to music school?” And I said, “Uh, I don’t think I’ll be doing that now.” I did see him again, I came back two years later to the station and he forgot that he had met me. This time we played the same pieces and he thought they were great.
So in these kinds of goofy and completely hilarious ways, I had invented a music language— how could that be? I have real roots in not only concert music of Europe and America, but I have training from people from India and Africa for that matter. The language wasn’t dreamed up in some eureka moment . . .
The misunderstanding is that musicians and artists are somehow dreamers who live by themselves. Yet, at the same time you have Einstein. When he was working on the theory of relativity, he was trying to reconcile questions of classical physics that were not solvable. It required a completely different way of looking at the physical world for things to make sense. It’s 2016 and they’re still confirming his theories. I mean this is an astonishing idea—two galaxies colliding—what can that possibly mean? And yet, the vibrations have been found. Well Einstein thought he was right and there are pictures of Einstein when he was around forty years old and a little foxy looking like he’s saying, ‘I told you so’.
Einstein wasn’t alone either; there were the Maxwell experiments with light. I mean, there are all kinds of things that indicated classical physics was about to be abandoned. He was the first one over the wall maybe. In fact, they say if there was any misunderstanding, it is that we live separate lives—we don’t, we live interdependent lives, especially in the arts, if not in social sciences, and certainly in politics, though you hardly could believe that from what you see in the papers. But we won’t go into that, right?
Right, we won’t. But when I read that—and much of what I’ve read about Glass these past few days—I took away a couple of notions. First, nothing creative people do is ever done in a vacuum. Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but what we put on the page is the culmination of a million influences. Whether we write or paint or compose music or cook, everything we do requires input and feedback from others. That is simply indispensable. Even the Desert Fathers had the Gospels, after all.
Second, less really can be more—even if your groundbreaking opera is five hours long.
As contemporary composers go, Glass is about as mainstream as they come. He has written or collaborated on dozens of scores for television and film (his IMDb page lists more than 100 soundtracks), including “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), “A Brief History of Time” (1991), “Hamburger Hill” (1987), and “Candyman” (1992). He also contributed to Burkhard Dallwitz’s soundtrack-score for “The Truman Show” (1998), for which he won an Oscar. Glass also received Academy Award nominations for “Kundun” (1997), “The Hours” (2002), and “Notes on a Scandal” (2006).
But the two pieces I want to highlight are part of his score for a 1982 experimental documentary called “Koyaanisqatsi” (a Hopi word meaning “crazy life” or “life out of balance”), which I’ve never seen and you likely haven’t seen, either. (Though it’s easy enough to find on YouTube.)
There is a better-than-decent chance, however, that you’ve heard some of Glass’s music from that film, because it appears in at a trailer and on the soundtrack of Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen.”
I’m probably not the first to say that “Watchmen”—a film I greatly disliked, by the way—was my introduction to Glass. I had assumed, incorrectly, that “The Simpsons’” joke was accurate and that his music was unlistenable. Part of the joke, I suppose, is that Glass isn’t atonal at all. He’s quite melodic.
And rather than being boring, “Prophesies” and “Pruit Igoe” are arresting. It’s no wonder Snyder selected them for the scene in which the physicist Jon Osterman is vaporized and returns as the godlike Doctor Manhattan. Watch and listen. As much as I did not like the movie (I thought it actually diminished the source material), this scene still gives me chills:
And here are the “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophesies” sequences as seen in “Koyaanisqatsi”:
IV. A Final Word
That was a lot on “minimalism,” wasn’t it? Oh, yes. Yes, I know. Congratulations. You made it!
Against my better judgment, I’m back on Twitter. Please follow me at @NiceThingsBen.
Autumn is my favorite season. I’ll be making the case for autumn on Monday. (Pumpkin spice? Pshaw!) Sometime soon afterward, my friend and fellow Gentleman of the Swig Christopher Gage will attempt to rebut me at Oxford Sour. You would do well to subscribe, assuming you haven’t already.
Until next time, cheers!
Real absinthe contains wormwood, and that’s not quite legally available in the United States. The story a bit confusing. Absinthe was banned and then it wasn’t because of a legal loophole. This article sorts it out. The European version of absinthe contains thujone, which is supposed to be the chemical that makes absinthe fun. (Science says otherwise.) I gather it’s possible (?) for Americans to obtain European absinthe, but it is neither easy nor cheap.
I didn’t pay that much for my edition of Bevington, which includes excellent explanatory notes. Obviously, the price is steep. I only recommend it because it’s the edition I own and know best. The Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s works is much more economical. I don’t own it, however, so I cannot vouch for it. The plays are all the same, obviously. The difference is the supplementary material.
I entertained using the word “fad” instead of “trend” but I decided it would be too pejorative. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has made a name for himself as a composer of film scores, and he’s collaborated with and been heavily influenced by minimalist pioneer Steve Reich. If an style/approach has been around for 50 years, even if it ebbed, is it really a fad?
I suppose I need to point out here that I am not a musicologist. I’m not even a journalist who specializes in music. I simply know what I like.
If anything, it’s much closer to Fatboy Slim.
Based on that profile, Glass impresses me as a man of good humor, and not at all a stiff. Page writes: “One of the last Glass pieces I covered for a daily paper was his Violin Concerto (1987). I was underwhelmed and said so—probably too strongly, in the off-with-their-heads style of many young critics. Still, when next we met, Philip’s response was cheerful—and typical. ‘Oh, that's all right, Tim,’ he said. ‘I don't like everything you write, either.’”
"I was first irritated and then angry that I'd been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition. I thought of leaving. Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it."
A common psychological phenomenon amongst hostages.
I *love* Koyaanisqatsi. I saw it in theaters, and got a copy on VHS (yes, I'm that old) when I could. Amusingly enough, I found that Koyaanisqatsi was quite effective with the ladies; every time I got someone home to watch....