The Axis of Minimalism: Cage, Reich, Eno

by Chris Vitiello on March 15, 2011

Robert Rauschenberg's "White Paintings" influenced John Cage.

Musicians often express disgust at genre categories, but the truth is that genres aren’t for them—they’re for us. Genre terms help us shop for, search for, and talk about music in a general way, and give us a narrative entry or context even at the risk of pigeonholing an artist. Understanding that all artists are unique and indefinable to some extent, we can always un-pigeonhole our listening later. And it’s hard to trust a musician or artist who is too controlling about these terms or comes up with his or her own “-ism.”

The danger, of course, is that genre or movement terms tend to get watered down to the point of meaninglessness over time, as artists imitate and sample, into other kinds of next-gen work, the often-revolutionary innovations that necessitated the designation in the first place. Impressionist painting, for instance, meant something pretty specific in 1880; by now it has more to do with the calendar rack at the Barnes & Noble than a radical reconsideration of representation.

Minimalism is just as problematic a term. The composers we call minimalists tend to either ignore or bristle at the term—Terry RileyPhilip GlassSteve Reich. Still others—John CageBrian Eno—could carry the term but rarely or never do. Inevitably, it describes a small, early portion of their corpus, albeit a period that still bears an audible relationship to their contemporary work.

Terry Riley

Alex Ross notes in his book The Rest Is Noise that ReichGlass, and Riley “came to be known as minimalists, although they are better understood as the continuation of a circuitous, difficult-to-name development in American music that dated back to the early years of the century…” After briefly noting their precursors, Ross offers a provisional definition of minimalism: “All of them in one way or another set aside a premise that had governed classical composition for centuries—the conception of a musical work as a self-contained linguistic activity that develops relationships among discrete thematic characters over a well-marked period of time. This music was, by contrast, open-ended, potentially limitless.”

Um, Alex, you’re the best, but that’s not a definition. It’s a list of mostly negated adjectives: non-linguistic, uncontained, unattached, atemporal. The point is that minimalism is one of those terms that steps out of the way when you try to pin it down. So if the term “minimalism” is indefinable or meaningless, what good is it? What, if anything, does it describe?

This Duke Performances season offers the opportunity to consider the breadth—or inchoateness—of so-called minimalism, with performances of Steve Reich’s music by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Glenn Kotche last January, and Kronos Quartet premiering a new Reich quartet about 9/11 on March 19. Although he’s not often lumped in with the capital-M Minimalists, John Cage’s music for Merce Cunningham’s Duets is worth considering as well.

Is John Cage a minimalist? Well, he has 4’33” to his credit, the famous “silent” composition where the pianist sits mutely as environmental sounds comprise the audible music. It’s hard to get more minimal than that. In a way, 4’33’’ is perpetually being performed everywhere; in another way, it’s an outstanding elbow to the ribs of people philosophizing about it, as I am here.

instructions for 4' 33" (from the Malamemoria Colectiva blog)

Less than a year before making 4’33”, Cage first used the I Ching—the Chinese book of changes—to randomly determine variables in his compositional process. Choosing indeterminacy rather than intention (paradoxically, if you think about it), Cage’s work from this period sounds alien: exhilarating and pure to some ears, excruciating and pointless to others. 4’33” is an example of indeterminacy taken to an aesthetic and conceptual extreme—“what if I compose nothing and call it something?”

Cunningham’s Duets debuted in 1980. The program lists Cage’s musical contribution as: “Music by Paedar and Mel Mercier, arranged by John Cage”—another composition that’s not so much composed as imagined. Here’s how Anna Kisselgoff described the music in a May 1982 New York Times dance review:

The music was originally a recording of spoons banged against one another by two Irish folk musicians, Peader and Mel Mercier, and then, at John Cage’s direction, played at varying volumes. Now put on a tape, the sound is a sweet clatter with the dancers impressively working to their rhythms.

These are conceptually extreme pieces, and sonically minimal in their own ways. In 4’33”, Cage puts the very idea of a composition into a frame and places it down over a place and time—the performance hall on the night of the performance. And in the score for Duets he takes a composition—the Merciers’ particular place and time of recording—and manipulates it within the frame of an arrangement.

Cage’s individual notes are discrete, and disconnected from each other by design. You can think of his I Ching pieces from the 1950s as comprising many consecutive one-note compositions. Reich’s notes are as disconnected, in a way, but because he’s so frequently playing the same note many times in a row, they don’t really exist as notes or even phrases.

The first sixteen bars of Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians recapitulates the entire realm of possibility of Reich’s early phase music, also announcing the end of his interest in it as such. Phasing became one of many means to a compositional end, marking the conclusion of his minimalist work. Or rather, phasing became for Reich a way back into melody (reduced to its essence as key) and rhythm (reduced to its essence as pulse).

Steve Reich

The Reich piece Clapping Music Variations that the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Glenn Kotche performed have a foot in Cage’s music for Duets and another in Reich’s phase pieces for tape (Come OutIt’s Gonna Rain) and instruments (Piano PhaseViolin Phase). They’re tonal, but it’s a handclap instead of a tone from the piano harp. They’re polyrhythmic, but the rhythms slide against each other rather than form a counterpoint.

Cage and Reich, along one axis, are divergent. Incorporating random variables into procedural compositional techniques, Cage sought to eliminate any direct bearing that ego and intention would have on the resulting work. Reich’s early phase shifting aside, he’s a hyper-intentional and highly tonal composer.

In the recent biography Begin Again: John Cage, Kenneth Silverman sums up Reich’s take on Cage this way: “Reich acknowledged Cage’s influence but disliked his music for hiding the process of its composition and for its general impersonality.”

Reich’s own take in an interview with William Duckworth in Talking Music is couched in the particular historical moment that produced his phase music: “I felt the paradox of being thrust sociologically into an area where it was assumed that I would be part of the whole chance mentality, but I really wasn’t. More recently I’ve come to enjoy Cage’s Roaratorio and my respect for his integrity is enormous. I just never really was close to his ideas about indeterminacy.”

But along another axis, Cage’s and Reich’s simplifications and strategies resonate. If their theories are divergent, their practices converge. They’re both extremists. Try to guess which of the two said “Wherever my musical intuition points, I try to follow it to its ultimate conclusion.”

Brian Eno

Brian Eno is a good bridge between Cage and Reich. Eno’s definition of minimalism (quoted by Ross)—“a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space”—illuminates this axis that Cage and Reich share. One can be forgiven for not listing Eno among the twentieth century’s greatest experimental musicians or composers because of his commercial associations, but his name would be alongside Glass’ in the thin, middle sliver of a Venn diagram of notable experimentalists and commercial successes.

Introduced to Cage’s music in the mid-1960s by his Ipswich art school teacher, Tom Phillips (creator of the altered book masterpiece A Humument), Eno was altering pianos and enjoying chance operations before his twentieth birthday. The playfulness of accident began to change over into theory when he staged a performance of minimalist La Monte Young’s X for Henry Flint, in which Eno played the same set of piano keys over 3,000 times. Noticing the differences between each instance, he realized that “repetition is a form of change.” The expression found its way into the deck of Oblique Strategies cards that Eno developed with Peter Schmidt in 1975, which contain aphoristic instructions and suggestions intended to be used within the creative process.

Reich’s phase music crystallized these aesthetic and conceptual influences for Eno. In a 1985 conversation with Cage for Musician magazine, Eno spoke of Reich’s influence in the early 1970s: “Twenty-four track recorders had just become current, and the idea was to make more and more grotesque, Gothic pieces of music, filling up every space and every corner of the canvas. And to hear something that was as alive as this Reich piece [It’s Gonna Rain], and so simple, was a real shock to me.” Eno’s own tape delay setup, conceived with guitarist Robert Fripp, was based upon a feedback delay system that Terry Riley developed a decade earlier.

Eno got a minimalist sound out of tape manipulation, delay, and loops, but as he explains in the liner notes to his 1975 Discreet Music album, it enabled a very Cage-like compositional role: “If there is any score for the piece, it must be the operational diagram of the particular apparatus I used for its production… Having set up this apparatus, my degree of participation in what it subsequently did was limited to (a) providing an input… and (b) occasionally altering the timbre of the synthesizer’s output.”

Geeta Dayal contrasts their deployment of indeterminacy in her book Another Green World, about the 1975 Eno album of the same name: “Cage’s I Ching methodology was graceful and complex… [Eno’s] Oblique Strategies cards, meanwhile, had a specific, utilitarian purpose. The quirky cards were designed to help artists and musicians get out of creative ruts and loosen up in the studio.”

Some examples from the Oblique Strategies cards (draw one here):

  • Use an old idea
  • Work at a different speed
  • Only one element of each kind
  • What to increase? What to reduce?

Eno’s 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports was a beacon for the entire ambient music genre. Conceived while Eno was bored at a German airport, the composition is a response to Cage’s 4’33”, but rather than establishing the environment’s ambient sound as the piece, it takes compositional cues from the ambient sound of the environment. Bang on a Can arranged the album for live musicians and re-recorded it in 1997, touring it at Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Around the same time, Merce Cunningham debuted Pond Way, to music by Eno.

Eno’s common ground with Cage and Reich is audible even in his most mainstream work as a top-flight producer. He most notably applied his hybrid minimalism in his famous transformation of U2 from semi-punk, jagged-edge guitar rockers to spiritual warriors emerging from a barren soundscape in his co-production with Daniel Lanois of their 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire, as well as in the deep, ambient grooves throughout the 1980 Talking Heads album Remain In Light.

Kronos Quartet

The minimalist axis also undergirds Eno’s recent generative-music apps Bloom and Trope for the iPhone, in which the shapes that a user draws on the phone’s screen are interpreted sonically and integrated into a looping soundscape that continues changing even on its own—once seeded by the user, it becomes a spontaneous composer. Minimalism might be an empty term at this point, but it’s useful for locating commonalities and teasing out differences between these intriguing and sometimes extreme artists.

The Kronos Quartet performs the music of Steve Reich at Page Auditorium on Saturday, March 19, including the world premiere of new quartet WTC 9/11. Consult the show’s Duke Performances page for tickets and more information.

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