The Well-Tuned Piano unfurls in graceful slow motion. A largely improvised piece for solo piano first performed in 1964 and typically lasting over five hours, La Monte Young’s magnum opus presents an imposing challenge to our perceptions of musical duration and development. Yet, at the same time it permits indulgence in the sensuous, tactile beauty of sound itself. Vast swathes of the piece hang in a frozen stasis as disparate tones coalesce to form pixelated clouds of sound, their droning harmonies static yet tremulous, surging with vibrant internal energy. During its densest passages the depth of the musical texture extends far beyond anything that would usually be expected from a solo instrument: the soundscapes of The Well-Tuned Piano are multi-dimensional and in perpetual, kaleidoscopic flux.
So how are such beguiling timbres evoked from a single instrument? The answer lies, at least in part, in the alternative tuning system employed by Young, a system that the American composer kept secret for over 27 years. This unconventional approach was born out of the composer’s disillusionment with standard Western tuning (or, “equal temperament”) which is actually, for certain practical reasons, slightly out of tune. (For a fascinating in-depth explanation of equal temperament and Young’s tuning system, see Kyle Gann’s two informativearticles.) And, whilst our ears have largely become accustomed to the imperfections in equal temperament, the sparkling lucidity of The Well-Tuned Piano demonstrates the potential of correcting the centuries-old errors of the standard tuning system. Free from the slight buzzing and muddiness inherent to Western music, the tones emanating from Young’s piano resonate together, combining to form deep, sonorous blocks of sound.
The timbres of Young’s piano could well be described as crystalline: as glistening and radiant as they are hardened, captivating both in their expansive beauty and their intense physicality. The perpetual tension between these two states – the immaterial and the material – imbues The Well-Tuned Piano with a sense of uncertainty that undercuts the sweeping majesty of its broad washes of sound. Certainly, the earthen density of The Well-Tuned Piano keeps the piece from straying too far into the New Age-isms common to much drone-based composition. Its meditative clusters of sound may well evoke the infinite – the transcendent, the Utopian, even – but, in the end, The Well-Tuned Piano seems to suggest that such lofty ideals will continue to lie tantalisingly out of reach.
Below is a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano followed by a brief listening guide
To accompany a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano with any sort of systematic listening guide would perhaps be somewhat antithetical to the music’s sense of stasis and lack of narrative development. It doesn’t seem necessary to listen to the piece in one sitting (a herculean task) and its steadily shifting textures do not demand – although they generously reward – attentive listening. The piece oscillates, albeit slowly, between sparse inactivity and frenetic activity, with Young conjuring expansive tone-clouds from the piano (the first beginning at around 5:50 in the first video above).
The recording above is performed by La Monte Young in 1981, released on the Gramavision label. Sadly, this edition is now out of print and no recording of the piece is currently available.
La Monte Young is often labelled as a minimalist composer, along with numerous other American composers of his generation. For more conventional examples of minimalism’s repetitive, yet steadily unfolding, musical structures, try Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians(1976) or Terry Riley’s In C (1964).
Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2013 collection for Louis Vuitton was unveiled at Paris Fashion Week earlier this month. Models descended escalators in pairs onto a yellow and white floor, tiled in the company’s trademark Damier check. The clothing camouflaged with this staging, and projected the same values: retro/nostalgia, luxury, excess, kitsch, cleanness of line, “minimalism”. Background and foreground, scenery and actor, became part of the same network. Playing over the speakers for the duration of the show was ‘Knee Play 5’, the final movement of Einstein on the Beach (1975-76) by Philip Glass. The runway show could well have been a radical new staging of the opera in this, the year of the composer’s 75th birthday.
Glass composed the music for Einstein to a series of storyboards by director Robert Wilson, and set texts by Samuel M Johnson, Lucinda Childs and Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet just seventeen at the time. It is non-narrative in tone, instead outlining a metaphorical “portrait” of Albert Einstein. The work is five hours long with no interval. Instead, the audience is permitted to enter and exit as they please. Glass himself claims never to have seen the whole work in one sitting.
It was premièred in July, 1976, at Avignon, before touring Europe. Back in New York, Glass hired the Metropolitan Opera House in downtime with private money and, despite playing to two sell-out audiences, ended up heavily in debt, doing odd jobs to reimburse his backers. Glass worked a plumbing job at the SoHo home of art critic Robert Hughes in the immediate aftermath of Einstein’s US debut: “My God, you’re Philip Glass…What are you doing here?” “I’m installing your dishwasher.” “But you’re an artist.” “I’m an artist, but sometimes I am a plumber as well.”
Wags would have it that Glass remains a plumber – plumbing the depths of bad taste – but I disagree. Einstein in particular is a masterpiece, despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious rootedness to time and place (see South Park for a satire of Glass’ New York urbanity and the hip, non-narrative forms of his “portrait operas”).
Einstein can be read as part of a process of “becoming” in a career distinguished by continuity and flux in equal measures, rather than discrete periods or phases. The centrality of the violin (Albert Einstein was himself an amateur violinist) also recalls Strung Out (1967-68), a radically minimalist work of Glass’ youth. The focus on rhythm, repetition, and amplified sound (all hallmarks of minimalist music) does not prevent a lyrical, melodic quality shining through. Comprised of electric keyboards, woodwind (including saxophones), and wordless voices, the Philip Glass Ensemble plays music ranging from ominous, slow-motion drones, to fierce, propulsive arpeggios, but the group always moves as one: more direct and less contrapuntally layered than the music of Glass’ contemporary Steve Reich. Einstein on the Beach, like Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians which emerged from the same cultural milieu, is a defining work of “minimalism”, but its ambitious scope and emotional range perhaps indicate the laziness of the term.
Below are clips (both audio and visual) from Einstein on the Beach, accompanied by a brief listening guide.
Einstein becomes something else when separated from its visuals, but that “something” remains important in the context of Glass’s oeuvre, interesting in its own right.
Knee Play 1: This emerges, rather than “starts”, two figures on stage reciting fragments of text. An organ soon joins. After just a minute (in this recording), a famous game of Numberwang begins in earnest.
Train 1: Rapid-fire number-chanting and a fierce synth/sax ostinato in additive meters. The tempo has picked up, but the rate of change remains impossibly slow. A cut-out steam train entering from the side of the stage visually represents this. My favourite Glass moment is at 6:30, when the harmony is violently tossed away from and back towards its centre.
Trial 1: In three parts. ‘Entrance’, ‘Mr Bojangles’, ‘All Men are Equal’. ‘Entrance’ is austere, sang as a court scene is set. In ‘Mr Bojangles’, an abstract Christopher Knowles text naming pop culture figures is recited over a violin figure (played on stage by “Einstein”), and a two-note male chorus motif. ‘All Men are Equal’ is a surreal feminist tale about a women’s meeting in Kalamazoo.
Knee Play 2: Violin feature for “Einstein”. Joined by two women speaking over each other. Striking phrases include “these are the days, my friends”, “we get some wind for the sail boat” and “it could be very fresh and clean”.
Night Train: A lovers’ duet, with solfège and numbers for lyrics. The lovers aboard a train are at times part of the ensemble, at others soaring atop it.
Knee Play 3: A capella number-chanting. Starts furiously and grows more stately.
Trial 2 (Prison): Another courtroom scene, again in three parts: ‘Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket’, ‘Ensemble’ (no clip above), ‘I Feel the Earth Move’.
After 1:55 of ‘Entrance’-reprising scene setting, a female voice enters with the most famous speech of the opera:
I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super market / and there were all these aisles / and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy / that had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them. / They were red and yellow and blue. / I wasn’t tempted to buy one / but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.
Repeats incessantly, before a ferocious riff suddenly takes over (12:06) and carries on into the Ensemble section. ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ is hushed text over a plaintive saxophone melody and organ drone.
Dance 2: Oscillates between two meters. Violin, keyboard, wordless vocals, ballet dancers.
Knee Play 4: Ascending ‘Do-re-mi-fa-so’ from the male chorus, with ‘Einstein’ at the violin. Changes from furious to melancholic at 1:28. The violin introduces one of the most striking motifs of the entire work at 1:51; the melody is ornamented and performed rubato in total contrast to almost everything that surrounds it.
(from 8:20) Building: A freely improvised sax solo, not present on any recording, but there more often than not in performance, dominates the scene. This, more than anything else, ensures Einstein remains divisive, even transgressive, despite much of its content and style otherwise being accepted and assimilated into the mainstream.
Bed: Aria for soprano voice and organ.
Spaceship: My favourite Glass motif explored for an entire movement. The piece explodes into life at 1:11 and the bass takes on a life of its own at 2:14. The unison cadenza at 4:31 is ridiculous and sounds like nothing else by Glass. The ensemble reenters at 8:32 and the bassline goes into hyperdrive at 10:43, interstellar space at 11:57.
Knee Play 5: The numbers from Knee 1 reprised, a violin feature at 3:57, and a slightly inane Samuel M Johnson text about two lovers on a park bench. This functions, as the narrator says, as a “soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.” Very possibly a joke after five hours of abstract (but highly affective) opera.
The two best recordings of Einstein are on Nonesuch (2012) and Sony (2012). Both are performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, under Michael Riesman. No audio-visual recording is available, nor ever will be unless Glass/Wilson drop their opposition.
Knowledge of the music of Glass’s contemporaries (Steve Reich), his predecessors (Terry Riley, La Monte Young), and his successors (the Bang on a Can collective, and Nico Muhly) can only add to an appreciation of Glass’s own work.
Artwork: ‘Les Deux Plateaux’/‘Les colonnes de Buren’, Daniel Buren
In 1976, moving on from experimental works and adventures in tape phasing, minimalism grew up. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the genre’s austere masterpiece, has since taken its place as one of the cultural watersheds of the 20th century. Writing for his own ensemble, Reich created a minimalist orchestra of sorts, comprising mallet percussion, pianos, strings, women’s voices and clarinets. This combination brought his proto-synthesized soundworld to life in which four interlocking piano patterns seem to fuse into a clarinet descant, or the intensely pure sound of the vibrato-less strings and voices blend seamlessly into one another.
The influence of Reich’s time spent studying gamelan and African drumming can be seen in the visual impact of a performance. The ensemble is reminiscent of an egalitarian African society in which there is no leader (or conductor) – drummers weaving a contrapuntal web of perfectly interlocking patterns, four village women gossiping – transmuted into the immaculate, clear-cut visual and sonic world of the Western concert hall. Reich’s polemics also blur the boundaries between “high” and “low” genres; in the 70s the work was even played as dance music. It has been taken variously as a metaphor for communism, with its egalitarian power hierarchy and loss of individual identity, as well as capitalism, with one musicologist going so far as to relate the repetitive structures of the music to the rows of identical products in the American supermarket. Either way, it matters to people in a way that elevates it above its humble origins in a Manhattan loft.
Its conception is symphonic in scale, consisting of eleven distinct but related pieces (“sections”) each inspired by a single chord, but each taking the harmonic discourse further. The harmony takes cues from French composer Claude Debussy, jazz, and Renaissance polyphony, all polished and updated for the modern age. As a result, the work is uniquely pan-historical – it sets a re-imagining of ancient music alongside a projection of the music of the future. Its beautifully tonal harmonic spectrum and melodic simplicity embody the minimalist rejection of uncompromisingly brutal postwar modernism.
Inspired by a dream in which Reich and his ensemble were drumming on a beach with the waves washing up around them, growing and fading pulse waves are the driving force behind the work. Groups of instruments expose hypnotic melodic patterns adding a new note every so often – the opposite of traditional practice of linear fragmentation and variation. Slowly evolving melodic figures are set over fixed cadences, with the resulting magical effect of varying that which is unchanging. This gradual development of each melodic pattern reconstitutes our sense of time so that we genuinely begin to value each new note; time really does seem to freeze during a performance. No wonder, then, that Reich, rather than Philip Glass, has won a reputation as “the thinking man’s minimalist” – in place of the interminable, meditative scales and arpeggios of his aesthetic colleague, he reinvigorates the emotional potential of tonality and the musical satisfaction of large-scale form within a trance-inducing and crystalline soundscape.
Below is a recording ofMusic for 18 Musicians followed by a brief listening guide.
The basic cycle of eleven chords itself is played in sections consisting only of pulses at the beginning and end of the work, much like a mediaeval Cantus Firmus upon which all intervening complexity is constructed. Two pulsing marimbas fill in the background throughout, whilst other instruments foreground pulse waves, each the length of a human breath, to illuminate the changing harmonies. Having heard nothing but pure harmony until now, the marimba pattern at the start of Section I (5:40) is both refreshing and intriguing. The vibraphone gives aural cues when it is time to move on to the next phrase, such as at 6:53, which gives each performance a uniquely improvisatory quality. Section II highlights Reich’s process of additive melody – starting at 10:25, the xylophones gradually replace rests with notes, building up to a mesmerising, endless loop. The arch-like structure of each section is particularly clear in Section IIIA (14:38), in which the polarised, energetic harmony cools off in the centre of the section at 15:50. After circling indecisively in Section IV (22:18), in Section V, the midpoint of the piece (28:55), the bass clarinets lower the floor from the sunny major modes of the opening to a chilling minor. From this point onwards the harmony spirals down into darker territory, beginning with a showpiece for the four pianos, who build a rhythmicized wall of sound by playing an identical buildup a beat out of phase with each other, reaching a transfixing climax at 31:45. Section VI (35:44), reminiscent of the earlier IIIA, has been described as ‘the scherzo of the piece’ – hints of fiery dance rhythms with offbeat accents in the xylophone pulses and a surprise entry of maracas underpin a jazzy syncopated riff in the front octet. Section VII, a darker recasting of the first section, sees the cello taking the role of electric bass to support the voices’ stratospheric bursts of melody (41:57). The busier Sections IX and X at 48:33 and 53:58 respectively begin the journey back to brightness, and after a cautiously optimistic section XI (55:48), the opening pulses return at 1:01:50, as if we have witnessed the complete cycle of a day. We have come to the end of the acoustic maze so perfectly built for us.
Not everyone takes kindly to new recordings of older Reich works, but its popularity has ensured that Music for 18 Musicians has been recorded several times. The above recording is by the Steve Reich Ensemble, but undoubtedly the most enthralling version is by Ensemble Modern, available on the RCA Red Seal Label.
Almost every work by Reich marks a turning point in the composer’s style. The most notorious of his radical, early ‘phasing’ period are It’s Gonna Rain and Four Organs. Drumming sounds like a visceral unrefined cousin of Music for 18 Musicians, while Different Trains stands out as one of the most powerful pieces of memorial art ever created. His jazz and rock influences are also evident in New York Counterpoint and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet.
John Adams today is perhaps the most successful living composer in the United States, known primarily for his modern, minimalist-inflected operas – Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) – and high-profile commissions like the 9/11 tribute On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). But in 1985, the year of Harmonielehre, Adams was still a young, sideburned and open-shirted American composer, abandoning a twelve-year stint teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and enduring an eighteen-month bout of writer’s block. Harmonielehre is the culmination of that period of frustration, and its power derives in part from a feeling of long-awaited breakthrough, an outbreak of momentary inspiration.
The sources of this inspiration are varied: Adams describes a submersion in the writing of Carl Jung at the time, and a surreal dream of “watch[ing] a gigantic supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket”, but most important in understanding the form of Harmonielehre is Adams’s recognition and simultaneous rejection of the serialist Schoenbergian tradition, and consequent embrace of the century’s tonal masters: early Schoenberg himself (c.f. 1911’s Gurrelieder), Jean Sibelius, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler.
Having, as Adams put it, “sided with the Philistines”, Harmonielehre – from the German term for “study of harmony” – treats this melodic tradition without irony, and indulges moments of earnest tonality (amidst, it must be admitted, much dissonance and minimalist soundscape). Most fitting is the composer’s own description, that Harmonielehre “marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin de siècle late Romanticism.” The alchemic cleavage of modern technique and romantic sensibility is made all the more striking by the piece’s tripartite movement structure, with each of the three operating in a distinct musical idiom.
The first (unnamed) movement is propelled mechanically at first with pulsing woodwinds and weighty horns partly reminiscent of the minimalist work Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), composed only a few years prior by Steve Reich. But that minimalist aesthetic is quickly subsumed within the swelling orchestration that follows the introduction of a searing cello-led melody. The second movement, however – The Anfortas Wound, taken from the legend of medieval king with wounds that could never heal – is immediately melodic, though meditatively so (à la Sibelius – and Adams has indeed noted his debt to the Finn’s Fourth Symphony). But the result is far more static and moody, generating a sense of tense unease that groans into two separate dissonant climaxes without resolution. In juxtaposition with the second, the third and final movement – Meister Eckhardt and Quackie – feels like an unshackling, perhaps a mirror of the Adams’s creative breakthrough, and in the composer’s words “as airy, serene and blissful as The Anfortas Wound is earthbound, shadowy and bleak.” The pervasive sense of unencumbered flight closes with a climax of entirely defiant euphoria.
Below is a recording of Harmonielehre accompanied by a brief listening guide.
Movement I: immediate introduction of the leitmotif rhythmic pattern at 0:00 with heavy E Minor chords, note the minimalist techniques (woodwind and pizzicato pulses after 0:29, brass at 4:39 and especially 6:21). Key Cello melody at 6:30, orchestra swells after 6:56 (but note continuing minimalist pulses below). High-low contrast emerges between melodic surface and rhythmic undertones. Final swell after 13:22 demonstrates Adams’s trademark sense of rhythmic acceleration, and primary use of brass (as opposed to strings) as the climactic motor (seen also, for example, in The Death of Klinghoffer’s first Chorus).
Movement II: far more conventional (and melodic) use of strings at 0:16, steady climax after 5:00 into the strong dissonance of 5:59 (again, note use of brass). Second climax culminates at 8:52 and into the col legno strings and brass of 9:04. Neither climax resolves the unease (the timbre of the violins at 9:25 assure us of that).
Movement III: immediately conveys an atmosphere with the airiest of flutes and celesta at 0:00, joined by strings at 0:52. Sense of motion also created through timbral shifts (particularly the interplay of strings and woodwinds). Rhythmic turn at 4:30-4:40, into aggressively-paced pulsing like that of The Chairman Dances (1985, the same year) and late 1970s Reich. The skitter of strings at 8:16 and punches of trombones after 8:35 mark the beginning of the final and exultant brass-led climax.
The recording above is the original recording by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Nonesuch in 1985. Equally commendable is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle for EMI (which also includes The Chairman Dances and Two Fanfares).
Anyone who enjoys Harmonielehre would no doubt also take pleasure in Adams’ The Chairman Dances, composed in the same year. For a more ironic take on melodic power, see his earlier Grand Pianola Music (1982).Any look at the minimalist movement must also acknowledge the singular influence of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians(1976) and Music for a Large Ensemble (1978).