The scene: a January night in New York’s Carnegie Hall, 1973. The Boston Symphony is in town for one of its hot-ticket subscription nights, but conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is trying something new. This will be an experimental “Spectrum” concert, the ads have announced: Bach, Bartók, Liszt and Steve Reich’s Four Organs. Come as you are. The orchestra will play in shirtsleeves. (Sound familiar? Just like last week’s “casual” Mahler at Disney Hall!)
The Reich begins: four players onstage – including Reich himself and MTT – at four small electronic organs as at rock concerts, plus four players with maracas. After a couple of minutes of the same harmonic progression repeated, repeated, repea . . . the audience begins to stir and exchange unhappy, concerned glances. Some of the crowd are young and casual, but some have subscribed to these Boston Symphony concerts since the Koussevitzky days. The stir grows louder. A woman zooms down the aisle, bangs on the stage with her shoe and achieves instant if anonymous fame. “All right,” she screams, “I’ll confess!”
Four Organs plays out its 16 minutes: a terse progression in which the components of a stated chord undergo a gradual augmentation, and the chord itself, in episodes of a few seconds each, pulls itself apart. Some of the crowd, along with The New York Times‘ Harold C. Schonberg, react as to “red-hot needles inserted under fingernails.” Your humble scribe, wearing the colors of New York magazine, finds it “marvelous, original invention about musical time and rate of change.” At the end, there are boos and assorted vociferations reminiscent of the famous birth pangs of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris 60 years before. It would also be quite a while into the future before a major symphony orchestra might once again hazard to schedule Four Organs – or much more of the substantial musical world that has taken root around the pioneering efforts of Steve Reich and his fellow believers – on a regular program.
This the Los Angeles Philharmonic has done. There are several aspects of “Minimalist Jukebox,” the generous chunk of programming spread across the orchestra’s efforts for the rest of this month, that speak with compelling eloquence of courage, imagination and overriding intelligence. Observers of the endangered classical-music scene might well be moved to take such qualities to heart these days. Whatever their secret sources, our local planners act as if there actually might be a tomorrow, and perhaps a next day, too. More than just a retrospective, “Minimalist Jukebox” celebrates a continuing creative vitality.
“Oh well, minimalism,” says Philip Glass in the latest The Gramophone, “that’s been over for 20 years already.” Listen in on the Philharmonic’s “Jukebox,” and the continuing vitality might astonish even Phil Glass. Minimalism came on the scene as a sorely needed housecleaning. New York when I arrived, circa 1960, was a vast cobweb of compositional academe. Twelve-tone was easy to teach, and the small halls were full of tone rows being passed off as brand-new music. Along came La Monte Young with his two-week-long single-note concerts and violins burned in Bob Rauschenberg’s loft; Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik and the topless cellist what’s-her-name at 5:30 concerts when Carnegie Recital Hall could rent for pennies: This all got people talking and cleared the air. John Cage put on Satie’s Vexations, 14 hours of it, in a downtown theater, and we were ready for In C and, eventually, for Einstein on the Beach. How fresh and alive it all sounded! I witnessed both Einstein performances at the Met in 1976, ducking out occasionally for terrific omelets at a restaurant across the street. When Einstein returned to the Brooklyn Academy in, I think, 1984, I sat through four performances uninterrupted.
Don’t tell me that minimalism is over. I hear this vitality – of notes standing out in clear air, of tonalities cleanly defined as they brush against one another and do battle – in whatever latest music John Adams brings forth, because it’s truly amazing how many ways he has made its basic principles work in how many kinds of music. Steve Reich’s latest works, including the You Are (Variations) he wrote for our Master Chorale, keep coming up with fascinating new ideas on the relationship of the spoken voice and melodic lines, and these relate back to some of his early minimalist phasing works like Come Out. Louis Andriessen, who took the minimalists’ ideas back to Holland after his teaching terms at CalArts in the 1980s, and mixed them in with some European ideas, is bringing some works old and new to the “Jukebox.” (His recent opera, Writing to Vermeer, to a text by Peter Greenaway, is due out soon on Nonesuch. I’ve heard it and it’s fabulous.)
The Minimalists arrive at Disney (mostly) in interesting circumstances. For two weeks before, there has been great, lumbering, overwritten Mahler (about which more next week). In the week after, there is not-so-great, horrendously overwritten Rachmaninoff. Nothing could better set off the splendid clarity, the power of this music in which every note will count. (I will except, falling back for the first time on my several decades’ life span, the Glenn Branca concert. I do know my limitations.)
But then there is Figaro, opening next weekend across the street and not to be overlooked at any cost. Talk about making every note count! The curtain goes up. Figaro is measuring space for a marital bed; Susanna is trying on a bonnet and trying to distract him. Each has his/her own music; neither will be distracted until the breakthrough. How do we recognize the breakthrough? Simply because he now sings her music as well, harmonizing in a very pretty duet. Three minutes’ worth of singing, and the power of music to tell its story is forever nailed down.
Or take that moment in Act 2. The Count thinks Cherubino is hiding in the Countess’ closet; so, at the moment, does she. Give me the key, he roars; I am blameless, she dithers. The door opens: not Cherubino but Susanna. The Count is dumbfounded; his music grinds to a halt, rendering him mute. The Countess, backed by Susanna, laughs herself silly. The music tells it all, not a note wasted. The neighborhood around First and Grand is full of great music these next couple of weeks; don’t miss a note.?