I was very pleased when Paul Panhuysen suggested that we put together a collection of my Village Voice reviews. I had known Paul for several years, had performed at Het Apollohuis, was familiar with their wonderful book on new instruments, Echo: The Images of Sound, and I was sure that they would do a good job with The Voice of New Music. I especially liked the idea of doing such a collection with a Dutch publisher, so that it would circulate more in Europe, where the Village Voice is generally unavailable, and where few people have ever read my criticism. It also seemed to be a good time. By now, these articles are mostly 10 or 15 years old. That is long enough to give us a little historical perspective on the evolution of a musical idiom which has since become universally acclaimed, but not so long that the issues, and the people, are dead.
Perhaps the most important thing for me about this book, however, is that it will give readers a more complete view of the origins of American minimal music than has been available so far. I find it frustrating, especially in Europe, that so many otherwise well informed people still identify this school or movement as the work of the two or three composers they know best, and think that the music always follows the basic procedures they have heard most often.
The idea of minimalism is much larger than most people realize. It includes, by definition, any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes, pieces that use only a few words of text, or pieces written for very limited instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whisky glasses. It includes pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time. It includes pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams. It includes pieces that move in endless circles. It includes pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound. It includes pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another kind. It includes pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D. It includes pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute.
There are a lot of ideas in this little list, and they came from a lot of different individuals. But essentially they didn’t come from individuals at all, but from a very large and rather nebulous group. Important artistic movements are not produced by individuals. They are produced when a number of talented people happen to be evolving in the same place at the same time. If the situation is right, their ideas cross fertilize, hybrids are formed, these produce other hybrids, the procreation of ideas accelerates, and gradually real breakthroughs become possible. One cannot really appreciate the phenomenon of Elizabethan poetry, for example, or cubist painting, or Bauhaus design, without considering the general context of the discoveries, and the music we are talking about here presents a similar situation.
Of course, some pieces are more minimal than others, and some of the music described in the book does not restrict its material much at all. Lukas Foss’s ‘Map’ or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians or a Musica Elettronica Viva improvisation session are all examples. It would also be quite wrong to think of John Cage or Morton Feldman as real minimalists—particularly Cage, one of whose greatest desires was to make music that would include every sound conceivable, without any restrictions at all. Yet all of these people were active around the SoHo music scene, and the ideas of Cage and Feldman are closely allied to those of the following generation in many non-minimal ways, and it would be unthinkable to do a book about the evolution of minimal music without including such people. Besides, the book is not exclusively about minimalism. Our real subject is new music around New York City in 1972 to 1982, like we already told you on the cover.
It is clear in these articles that my own greatest interest, especially in the early ’70s, was in the most extreme forms of minimalist experiments. I wrote with particular respect for the endless drones of La Monte Young, even when I had gone to sleep listening to them, and I was very impressed by some extreme minimalist exercises, which in retrospect, were rather naive. I am referring to occasions when someone would play the same gong for an hour, or repeat a few verbal phrases for a long time, or ask us to accept a completely static oscillator as a composition.
The extreme statements didn’t continue very long, however, and in my last article of 1974, I am already lamenting the decline of avant–gardism and showing how many individual composers were abandoning their most extreme ideas, and my writing seems to imply that anyone who changed was a traitor to aesthetic purism.
But of course, the change was inevitable. Extreme minimalism just could not continue year after year. The audience lacked the patience to listen to no changes, however novel the presentations might be, and eventually even the composers got bored. No one does such things anymore, and today everyone agrees, once again, that the search for total stasis, for the beauty of absolute zero, was a search for a mirage. But what an exciting mirage, and how essential it was for us!
The minimalist search, the desire to restrict musical materials, was essential to almost all the composers in this book. Mostly born in the ’30s and ’40s, these composers were all basically reacting to the fast-changing, super-complex structures of their post-Webern teachers. And if they were sometimes overreacting, they in any case ended up in a rich new field of slow-changing, super-simple structures—minimalism.
Of course, the difficult part in preparing any anthology is selecting what to put in and what to leave out. In the years 1972 to 1979 I wrote over 40 articles a year in the Voice, and in 1980, ’81 and ’82 there were 20 to 30 a year. The whole pile would have come to perhaps 2,000 pages, and would have been so scattered in its content as to be completely unreadable. To begin with, Paul and I simply eliminated all the articles dealing with old music, European music, folk music, non-Western music, and everything else not pertaining directly to the subject. Then, of course, there was a crisis of conscience and a weakness of will power, and we put some of these things back in, despite all of our rules. And then it seemed obvious that the bird and the pinball machine were at least as important as the people, so we made these and other exceptions. Gradually we eliminated other articles that seemed repetitive or stupid or badly written, and tried to make sure that nothing essential was left out, and generally tried to see to it that we were presenting a more or less balanced view.
As to editing within the articles, there were very few changes. Sometimes there were general introductory paragraphs, which I thought were very perceptive when I wrote them, but which seem so obvious now that we eliminated them. Sometimes we selected one half of a column and not the other, and naturally, we also tried to correct any errors we found. Titles were often changed when they seemed too newspaper-like, and when it seemed advisable, I also inserted notes of explanation, all written in 1989. But nothing was rewritten, and the majority of the articles appear here exactly as they did in the Voice.
The details of my career at the Voice, acknowledgment of the people I worked with there, my decision in the late ’70s to write more about non-Western music and less about minimalism, my gradual disillusion with New York, my shift to a life in Europe, and the gradual termination of my career as a music critic, are all summarized in the 1983 ‘Farewell Article’ at the end of the book, so all that remains here is to express my appreciation to Paul and Helene Panhuysen and their super typesetter Marja Stienstra. It is rare for critics to see their articles collected in a book, and I am particularly pleased that this book is a rather large one. But as I said, the subject is also very large—in a minimal sort of way.