Kerry O’Brien and William Robin’s
On Minimalism: Documenting a Musical Movement
(University of California, 2023)
This is a peculiar book. It is a collection of original source documents from the creation and development of minimalism in music, edited and introduced by musicologists O’Brien and Robin. It is expansive in both time and concept—the first excerpt is by Amiri Baraka, from his article “Miles Davis: One of the Great Mother Fuckers,” which dates from the mid-1980s, and the last is a translation of Éliane Radigue’s 2009 essay “The Mysterious Power of the Infinitesimal.” The earliest original publication date for anything (there are selections from previously unpublished notes) is 1960, a DownBeat article with John Coltrane discussing his recent music.
And what do the Baraka piece and DownBeat article have to do with documenting minimalism?They support the quality of the book, which is meant to be a revisionist history of minimalism. The editors title the first excerpt, “Amiri Baraka on Miles Davis’ ‘Penchant for Minimalism,’” and the immediate response is an emphatic “yes,” followed by an unsettled, “but …” The focus is on Kind of Blue, and that and the writings about Coltrane are useful for establishing the rise of modal playing in jazz.
That is gentle revisionism, but not in a way that would be either startling or useful to a reader with experience with the music already, and for anyone looking for their own introduction to minimalism, the book will likely alternate between insight and inspiration and a kind of owlish obfuscation that might be irritating—often simultaneously. Miles Davis is the perfect example of both the book’s strengths and weaknesses: modal jazz helped move the zeitgeist of Western music in America away from the vertical harmonies of tonal classical music and toward a horizontal polyphony that predominated, for example, in Renaissance vocal music and that was fundamental to the developing style of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. How that may have primed the general listeners’ ears for minimalism is real and important, but by the time modal jazz was widespread in a music that itself was dropping in popularity, Davis (whose main penchant was for restless innovation) was already recording “Circle in the Round,” an extraordinary breakthrough in both how to conceive jazz on minimalist terms and how to use studio technology to create a finished recording, and then the further breakthrough of In A Silent Way, an album that is both a landmark in creating ambient music and yet another transition for Davis—and all this before 1970 and Reich’s Drumming and Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts. Neither are in here.
This is an acutely arguable point for a book that seeks to revise both the original story of minimalism and what the term means. The core of Reich, Glass, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley are of course here, as are artists like Meredith Monk and Charlemagne Palestine, second generation figures such as Julius Eastman and Glenn Branca, the non-Western music of Pandit Pran Nath and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and performers Jon Gibson, Tony Conrad, John Cale, and others. There is a Jonathan Cott piece about Yoko Ono which has no musical relevance but talks about her loft, which keeps appearing as a performance site, so part of the story, as is the non-Western music and cultural ideas, like yoga and trance, which permeated the thoughts of musicians who made minimalism, whether explicit in their work as with Young or fundamental to the personal life out of which came the music, like with Glass.
O’Brien and Robin ask the basic question, what is minimalism? They answer the question by not only including the common artists and works, but also music well outside the minimalist tradition. “And why is it that Reich, Young, and Riley are frequently described as ‘former jazz musicians’,” they write in a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand in the introduction, “but radical Black musicians who improvised with drones, including Don Cherry, McCoy Tyner, and John and Alice Coltrane, are not considered minimalists?”, and they also gather in the monumental experimentalist Alvin Lucier and the equally monumental doom metal duo Sunn O))).
This is, in my view, a key mistake. The sentiment of bringing in more voices is understandable, but it dishonors drone music (and ambient and new age, which have their own chapter in the book, and the contemporary Wandelweiser movement of intensely quiet, sparse music) to conflate it with minimalism. First drone music is so vast a field that it includes Medieval music, Junior Kimbrough, much of Indian classical music, and every form of repetitive chanting around the globe through history (and that’s just a start), that including it makes the definition meaningless, it elides the fact that Cherry, Tyler, and Coltrane did use drones sometimes but not predominately, and also ignores that minimalist music (as it is currently and usefully defined) has different aims and means than drone music, and vice versa. They are genres, and despite the fashion for thinking genres are meaningless obstacles, they are actually highly useful as ways to let music exist on its own terms. The terms of drone music, which are heavily non-musical, are very different than the terms of minimalism. The connection is pinned on Young, who in one man’s revisionist view was less a pioneer of minimalism than he was of bringing drones into avant-garde Western music. That was guided by his own personal spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, which are syncretic enough to be both unclear and inimitable and are simply not enough historically or conceptually to tie these traditions together. (The bibliography does not include Harry Sword’s important 2021 book, Monolithic Undertow, a look at the social, cultural, historical, and religious outlines of drone music. Nor is there an index, at least in the uncorrected reader’s copy, and that is a serious drawback for a book like this.)
This is a substantial flaw in the argument, and it’s related to what can be called the tone of the book’s argument: O’Brien and Robin want to present an argument and then offload their agency. The editors don’t state that this is a textbook but suggest in the introduction that it can be used in the classroom and cement the de facto textbook quality by suggesting claims and then leaving them to the reader (or teacher) to wrestle with. Reading this is like shadow boxing, they drop a hint and then skedaddle, leaving the excerpts to argue for them. It can get on the nerves.
But that’s better than being boring, and the book is far from that. The strength of it, and what makes it worth reading for anyone interested in this music, is the scope of their view and the variety of sources. Indirectly, they make a case for a serious loss of overall cultural literacy—there is relevant writing from Glamour and Vogue that could never exist again in any such publication, and reading John Cale’s words (he was essential to the realization of Young’s music, which was far more collaborative than the composer ever admitted) is a sad reminder that sixty years later pop and rock music are far too ordered and conventional to connect with the avant-garde (Horse Lords excepted).
And it’s great to have all these voices together with Reich and Glass, who still have the deepest, most insightful and succinct things to say about minimalism. Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process” is still the single most useful description. His analogies to playing and listening to minimalism included “placing your feet in the sand by the ocean’s edge and watching, feeling, and listening to the waves gradually bury them,” and explained how he wanted to make music where the process could be heard as the music went along, a profound and beautiful idea. And Glass, in an interview in Tricycle magazine that some may remember from 1999, says how he always considered the idea that he and his fellow minimalist made music for meditation to be a “misconception,” and concludes with “you start out with the exotic, and it brings you around to the most basic daily activities,” and that how you put your shoes on in the morning “turns out to be the most interesting thing.”