Minimalism, Pole to Pole

Everyone will have read it by now of course, but while I was away the NYT’s ‘The Greatest Minimalist Albums: Ever!’ article caused a lot of comment. I haven’t got much to add to Kyle and Steve‘s remarks other than to say that the fact that the NYT even attempted such a survey puts most of the British press to shame.

But I did want to comment on Norman Lebrecht’s response at Slipped Disc. According the Fact-Checker Supreme himself:

The so-called East European Holy Mininmalism of Part and Gorecki was pretty much sui generis, rooted in counter-communist early Christian monodies, unaware of US trends.

Not entirely true. A quick check in my Warsaw Autumn 2004 book shows that although Reich (Clapping Music) wasn’t heard at Warsaw until 1977, one year after Górecki’s Third Symphony was completed, by this time Terry Riley’s music had been performed no fewer than four times: Keyboard Studies in 1968, In C in 1969, Dorian Reeds in 1973, and the Riley-John Cale collaboration Church of Anthrax in 1974. More revealing for a demonstration of Polish awareness of American minimal trends is the fact that the influential Polish chamber ensemble Warsztat Muzyczny (Music Workshop) were the performers of In C, and their leader, the composer and pianist Zygmunt Krauze, was also one of the performers of Keyboard Studies (along with John Tilbury and Gérard Fremy, neither strangers to the American scene). Krauze’s own music had, since the early 60s, been following a small-m minimal aesthetic, influenced by the Unistic paintings of Władysław Strzemiński.

Strzemiński, Unistic Composition no.11 (1930–32)

I don’t know precisely how aware Krauze was of American minimalism at the time of his Five Unistic Pieces (1963), say, but certainly by the end of the decade he appears to have been reasonably clued up and, as a friendly colleague of Górecki’s (Warsztat Muzyczny commissioned Muzyka 4 in 1970), may well have discussed it with him

I can’t speak for Pärt to the same extent, but I find it extremely hard to believe that works like Perpetuum mobile (1963) and Solfeggio (1964), both long pre-dating the ‘Holy Minimalist’ tag, were as sui generis as Lebrecht would like to believe. (Incidentally, Perpetuum mobile went down a storm at Warsaw Autumn in 1964 and was swiftly performed in several other Soviet bloc capitals.) In any case, the idea of minimalism arising miraculously from the ‘inspirational’ isolation of the Soviet bloc (a cliché that runs a little close to Dryden’s noble savage for my taste) is somewhat misleading.

There’s a second, more obvious, blooper in Lebrecht’s post – Michael Nyman didn’t, of course, write the score to The Pianist (that would be The Piano). The honour should have gone, instead, to Wojciech Kilar, another Pole whose music – ironically – has shown more than a passing influence from minimalism itself in the past.

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22 comments

  1. I can add the example of Hungary, in which the community of experimental composers appears to have been, in many cases, better informed about like-minded activity in the US and UK than many of us at home in the US or UK. Say what one will about the old East Block, in several of its countries, there was considerable invention and efficiency in creating unofficial networks for the distribution of the latest scores and recordings. Further, there were numerous cases of direct exchanges of music and information, via younger composers sent on fellowships to study in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, for example Douglas Leedy, a colleague of both Young and Riley, who was sent in 1965-66 to investigate Polish contemporary music on a joint US-Polish grant.

  2. Oh, and the attempt at arse-covering in “[Nyman’s] impetus, though, was (so far as I can make out) primarily a revolt against European orthodoxies” is another Lebrecht quote for the ages.

  3. Krauze is definitely worth checking out. I don’t know nearly enough of his music yet, but what I’ve heard is completely bonkers. Something like Folk Music, eg, which is essentially a whole orchestra, all playing different chunks of Polish folk tunes, independently and on a loop, for 15 minutes. The only real development is a gradual crescendo from beginning to end. Like the extreme outcome of an Ives experiment.

  4. Pärt had some familiarity with Riley, Reich, and Glass by 1976. He told me: “Two composers, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, changed the world at that time. They may not be such good friends, but I have great respect for them. Still, I am not a minimalist. And to call me a ‘holy minimalist’ is even worse. Those are words with nothing inside of them.”

  5. Thanks Alex – I thought there probably was much more to it than Lebrecht was aware of.

    Daniel – thanks for the info on Douglas Leedy. I wasn’t aware of him really, and certainly didn’t know the Polish connection. There were also several British composers who went to Warsaw to study (Casken, Woolrich, Patterson), but a little later on. The Hungarian connection too is one that deserves much more uncovering – the work of the New Music Studio for example is still very underrated.

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  9. I’m sure you’ll be terribly excited to read a comment to this post more than a year after it first appeared but I only happened upon your blog today (while googling for something not really related to minimalism)… Another important connection between Polish and American minimalism is Tomasz Sikorski, who is often considered the “father” of Polish, or even European (!) minimalism (the latter phrase may simply be over-inflated national pride sometimes vented by Polish musicologists in very strange contexts). He spent a considerable amount of time in the USA in the 70s. His brand of minimalism is essentially quite different from the American type: the pieces are usually very, very short – he doesn’t just reduce material, he also reduces length. And they tend to be rather calm, pensive and delicate. “Music from afar”, a favourite of mine, is in fact so short and quiet that a couple of years ago, after one performance (at Warsaw Autumn) I heard an elderly music critic who was a bit hard of hearing ask a neighbour, in a confused tone: Is the piece over already? Did you actually hear them play anything?

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  12. wait a minute, so Americans were actually responsible for a legitimate cultural trend in the higher arts? SHOCK! HORROR!! :-)

    seriously though, i always preferred European minimalism anyway. it sounds more precise, at least in terms of note and chord selection. The American stuff is mechanical, esp Glass, although i enjoy early Riley i must admit.

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