Minimalist music hasn’t always enjoyed the cachet it does now. Once upon a time it could elicit the same curled lip as “pop art” or “modern dance.” That’s surprising, given that minimalism is now embraced by everyone from contemporary rock groups to young composers, who see it as a large part of a revised canon. One of its most famous public faces, Steve Reich, features prominently in this Duke Performances season. This weekend, the Bang on a Can All-Stars perform Reich’s NY Counterpoint, 2×5, and Music for Pieces of Wood. And in March, the Kronos Quartet performs three Reich string quartets—Different Trains, Triple Quartet, and the world premiere of a brand new work.
Reich and his contemporaries in the 60s experimented with consonant harmony, drones, and the repetition of phrases and small motifs, which led to their pieces being dubbed as “process music” in addition to minimalist. Soon, other musicians began utilizing some of these principles. Anthony Moore, a British musician known for his work with art rock group Slapp Happy and as an occasional lyricist for Pink Floyd, did the 1971 album Pieces from the Cloudland Ballroom, a stunning disc of vocal-led undulations with two members of krautrock outfit Faust. In Halana magazine, Alan Licht said of Pieces, “It is not a krautrock or art-rock LP but a bona fide minimal classic. Side one is ‘Jam Jern Jim Jom Jum’ which has three singers chanting that mantra while Moore plays these odd, luminous repeating chords underneath…while ‘A.B.C.D. Gol’fish’ could almost pass for the trance rock classic that Moondog never got around to recording.”
It would be easy to assume Moore had vanished into cult fandom, but he is an active composer and professor, and in 2010, he issued a collaborative 12″ LP with a disciple, Alexis Georgopoulos. Georgopoulos had been in rhythm-based Bay Area group Tussle, deeply inspired by German bands like Can. (Tussle released a remix EP on local Chapel Hill label FrequeNC). He came into his own with drone-oriented, lightly psychedelic compositions under the name ARP. His collaboration with Moore was released by the RVNG label, and made the rounds on fashionable websites (download their song “Spinette” via Fader). Moore and ARP performed a one-off in New York. Moore’s name was suddenly on the lips of the young and hip.
While figures in early minimalist music likely never foresaw their future acclaim in popular culture, it seems understandable in retrospect: They were making music deceptive in its ability to sound simple, but compelling in its unlikely marriage with beauty. If some of their compositions were once seen as limited experiments that never should have left the laboratory (and this is likely true in some cases), minimalism has long since stopped being scandalous—instead, it’s ingrained into the very fabric of contemporary music.