Sunday 30 October 2022

Minimalism in music - Vivaldi to Glass

I was not, on the whole, much interested by the 20th century classical musical genre called minimalism; but I recognized that it was taking-up something that had been present in classical music from very early. 

There were pre-Baroque forms such as the chaconne and the passacaglia, which were built around a recurring bass line - but later there are many parts of Vivaldi's concertos that seem to capture the spirit of 'minimalism' more exactly.

These are built around an interest in musical textures of different layers of instruments structured quite simply, using rhythmically-pulsing, chordal homophony, and without melody; harmonically built on several (not just one) segments of repeated harmony. 

Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins RV 580 is a superbly enjoyable example where this 'minimalist' technique is used throughout - I regard it as one of Vivaldi's very best pieces of music:

My favourite piece of 20th century minimalism is Philip Glass's music for the 1985 movie Mishima; and, among these pieces, I think the best is Runaway Horses:

Glass returns to the Chaconne/ Passacaglia idea, but with a recurring sequence of chords instead of a bass line; a strong rhythmic pulse much like Vivaldi; and Glass uses a particularly appealing harmonic sequence. 

As with Vivaldi's RV 580 - there is neither melody nor counterpoint (melody played against melody) - which is, pretty much, what negatively-'defines' minimalism. 

Instead, sustained interest is effectively provided by adding-to, subtracting-from, and varying the layers of instruments (mirroring Vivaldi's use of textures) - and by deploying different kinds of arpeggio (broken-chords), with different divisions of notes.

Here it works very well for me! I find the result hypnotically gripping, and it packs an appealingly wistful emotionality. 


Jack said...

I like this style a lot too. I'm getting quite weary of minimalism in general as it's become the de facto corporate aesthetic, and has taken on dehumanising tones. But the kind of minimalism present here is based on ideas of perpetual motion and constant rhythm which mimics processes in nature. It can even have a ritualistic effect like in the intro to Glass's opera Akhnaten.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - I can appreciate that intro to Akhnaten; but it is a bit *too* minimalistic for me -- more like Koyaanisqatsi; parts of which I sometimes re-listen-to in moderate doses; but taking the the whole thing at once, I find utterly unbearable!

I case you don't already know them; John Adams (not terribly minimalistic piece!) Short Ride in a Fast Machine is worth a listen (as is his Christian Zeal and Activity - which sounds more like Brian Eno's 'randomized', ambient, loop-tape "music for airports" stuff than minimalism).

Epimetheus said...

Glass's soundtrack for The Illusionist is especially lovely also.

Jack said...

Dr Charlton,

Do you enjoy the music of John Tavener? He's my favourite modern composer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - I'm afraid that while I find Tavener and some others enjoyable; my *favourite* works by classical composers only go up to the middle 20th century - with the earliest phase of Tippett.

For me, the great tradition of world-class genius composers in music ended with Richard Strauss (and, I suppose, Schoenberg - who I dislike), and has been unwinding since.

a_probst said...

I like the Vivaldi.

There needs to be law forbidding performances of Pachelbel's Canon and Gigue in D Major without the gigue.

Bruce Charlton said...

a_p - The Piano Guys don't play the Gigue - but this amusing video is premised on the by-now hackneyed boringness of the Canon.