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A musical melting pot: Minimalism and the Oregon Symphony

The latest of OSO Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane’s Open Music Series concerts featured music by Kahane, Sam Adams, Andy Akiho, Julius Eastman, Reena Esmail, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, and Julia Wolfe.

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Julius Eastman. Photo by Ron Hammond.
Julius Eastman. Photo by Ron Hammond.

Friday October 6 saw the latest in the Gabriel Kahane-curated Open Music Series from the Oregon Symphony at The Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in downtown Beaverton. The Reser, the latest suburban outpost of Portland’s artistic community, seems to be part of a larger project by Beaverton to shed its reputation as the least romantic city in the country, a place of traffic, strip malls, chain restaurants and the Nike Employee store you have to drive through to get to someplace more interesting. So I was surprised to see this spot in Beaverton somewhat poppin on a Friday night, with concertgoers, patrons of the food cart pods and sushi restaurants and boutique shoppers fighting for parking spaces.

Kahane’s thought process when programming this concert was to show the diverse and complicated strands of what we call “minimalism,” which has arguably been the prevailing sound of American contemporary music since the 1960s. As with many genre terms coined by critics and journalists, the original minimalist composers like Glass, Reich, Riley and Young disavowed the term, preferring “process music.” And I can understand this sentiment: minimalism can carry a negative association with things that seem to lack substance or are boring, pretentious, etc. I think this is unfair, but it is a common notion.

“Process music,” meanwhile, makes transparent what the music was about to these composers: the slow transformation of musical ideas, exploring the nuances within one single musical texture. Besides, it seems ironic to call the joyful cacophony of In C or the four-plus hour avant garde opera Einstein on the Beach “minimalist.” Comparing musical minimalism to minimalist paintings, it is similar to Mark Rothko––hard to call his massive paintings minimalist. And some may dismiss it as “it’s just a shade of red!”––oh, but what a beautiful shade of red

Mark Rothko's "Untitled (Red)," 1969.
Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Red),” 1969.

Nonetheless, minimalism is the term we are stuck with. No musical genre emerges without precedence; we all build upon the past. The minimalist composers of lower Manhattan in the 1960s had an array of influences––African drumming; Indian music via their teachers Ravi Shankar and Pandit Pran Nath; bebop; John Cage; and the Velvet Underground. Later minimalists expanded outwards to include even more new stuff.

This is what makes minimalism a deeply American genre of contemporary music. It is a musical melting pot of ideas taken from all over the world, blended together into something wholly unlike anything else. And like many great works of art, it reflects us backwards and lets us see elements of minimalism in music before anyone knew what that was, such as Aaron Copland’s wide, pastoral string harmonies having a minimalist feel or the cross-cultural melange of Leonard Bernstein’s scores. You wouldn’t expect something as seemingly self-evident as “minimalist music” to contain so much variety, yet here we are, with a full two hours of music that is ostensibly minimalist, covering an incredible range of tones and styles.

“1987, a very long time ago”

As Kahane puts it, his understanding is that the “OGs” of minimalism led into the music of John Adams, who was responsible for making the shift into post-minimalism, normally associated with Bang on a Can composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang. This wasn’t Kahane’s only funny commentary. For the number that gave the show its name, Stay on It by Julius Eastman, he said that Eastman’s concerts would often turn into “sexy dance parties,” then glared into the audience for about twenty seconds until we all got what he really meant. 

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This was my first time attending one of the Oregon Symphony’s Open Music concerts since the first one way back in 2021 with Kenji Bunch. Kahane told me over the phone that the series began to find itself over the first few concerts, while retaining its essence: performances of quote-unquote new music with a more casual tone. 

The opener of the concert was a processional by Kahane, written as a tribute to Meredith Monk, appropriately titled For Meredith. The composer played at the piano at the back of the stage while the orchestra gradually found their seats and joined into the texture. At first I wondered why Kahane was using the grand piano way in the back when there was an upright right up front to use, but that upright did get its moment when Kahane played some Monk on it later into the first set. 

Up next was Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, originally composed for fusion guitarist Pat Metheny, who recorded the guitar parts for the tape; guitarist Mike Gamble added the final element to the texture. His tone was good and well-balanced with the recording, and the minor mistakes did not detract from the performance at all and were barely noticeable. Electric Counterpoint also gave us another funny moment from Kahane, who said this piece premiered in “1987, a very long time ago.”

One of the larger works on the program came next, Shelley Washington’s Middleground, originally for string quartet and now for string orchestra. A driving 16th-note drone on the low two strings pervades the A sections, with a lovely viola cadenza in the middle. The term “drone” tends to connote monotony and sameness, but in Washington’s case this drone is lively and full of variation, shifting subtly over time. This was followed by Kahane at the upright in the front mentioned earlier for Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island, a motile piece in her favorite D Dorian mode, with hemiola rhythms and repeated blocky phrases. 

The first set closed with Movements (For Us and Them) by Sam Adams, the younger son of near-“OG” minimalist John Adams. Movements opened with furious tremolos in the string orchestra and ended as if the music was falling apart before building back up for the finale. Compared to the other pieces we’ve heard so far, this one had more starts and stops, and a more anxious energy, full of sour notes uncharacteristic of the pentatonic consonances we expect from other minimalists. We even got to see Sam Adams come out on stage, looking like a younger, hipper version of his father. 

Once we returned from the intermission, we heard Oregon Symphony cellist Trevor Fitzpatrick (as well as husband to assistant principal cellist Marilyn de Olivera) play Andy Akiho’s Three Shades, Foreshadows for solo cello and electronics. Here Fitzpatrick treats his cello––respectfully––as a percussion instrument, smacking the body, playing col legno for a sharp, woody sound, and constantly putting the bow behind his back to play pizzicato. Akiho’s accompanying tape part sounds like digitally processed cello samples turned into glitches that provide a tempo and groove for Fitzpatrickz––much like the Reich piece we heard earlier, while adding a 5 to the 4:3 polyrhythm of Electric Counterpoint

An unannounced surprise was that this performance of Julia Wolfe’s A Wild Furze was actually a US premiere, having premiered in Dublin by the Crash Ensemble in 2019. Featuring the rich, multitimbral textures one expects from Wolfe, A Wild Furze features some exceptional glissandi and cool extended techniques. Immediately following was Reena Esmails’ Darshan, whose title means “seeing” in Hindi. Darshan followed some phrygian-esque melodies on the low G string, with many of the microtonal inflections that reminds me of Indian raga melodies, when the vocalist weaves their way around the central melody. I’ve criticized performers before for missing these nuances that make music outside “The West” distinct, so I have to commend assistant concertmaster Erin Furbee for getting this one right.

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The final piece was the much anticipated Stay on it by Julius Eastman. Eastman has an impressive resume, graduating from Curtis and joining the Creative Associates at SUNY Buffalo, which allowed him to compose with a stipend without needing to teach. But unfortunately, life was (and still is) tough for a talented gay Black man in this country, and he died tragically young and homeless at the age of 49. No one even seemed to notice he died until months later, with an obituary from Kyle Gann in Village Voice. In spite of this all-too familiar story, his music has seen a resurgence and re-discovery since the 2005 release of the three-hour CD Unjust Malaise, a compilation of his works from New World Records.

Stay on it is the opener from Unjust Malaise. Appropriate to the “sexy dance parties,” Kahane mentioned, there is an orgiastic energy to the piece, with lots of improvisation, some impressive solos, and a tight groove courtesy of Kahane and percussionist Sergio Carreno. It looked like the whole band was rocking with the groove and having a fun time, a joyful way of ending the concert. 

The performances were across the board solid. I especially admired how the orchestra handled the Eastman piece, which had far more improvisation and a tighter groove than anything in the “standard repertoire.” (Mozart has no bangers! Brahms can’t cook!)

Associate conductor Deanna Tham also handled the larger groups of the abbreviated orchestra gracefully, bringing the music to life beyond what is on the page. This is another common facet of minimalism: the scores may look unremarkable, but they are brought to life once performed. This contrasts with New Complexity, which looks impressive on the page but, to many, sounds like pretentious bullshit.

But this show was hardly pretentious bullshit: it was lively, exciting, and full of variety, showing what the Oregon Symphony is capable of when stretched beyond the bounds of the Classical Series at the Schnitz. Many of the OSO’s musicians also perform as part of Portland’s many fantastic new music organizations, with many of them on stage that night. I am looking forward to more shows that feature new music. When the oldest piece on the program is from 1973, the same year as Dark Side of the Moon (and the year my parents were born), and the second oldest is from 1987 (a decade before I was born), I feel I hear my sensibilities being represented.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

 

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3 Responses

  1. I don’t know if Brahms could cook, but they say he made a mean cuppa joe.

    “Process music” – a term left over from the bad old days (or are they the bad new days), when how a piece is made was (is) more important that how it sounds (alas maestro Taruskin, you gave it your best shot, which is really saying something). It’s redolent of bureaucracy, soulless machinery, chemical factories, even watching paint dry while giving off climate-warming VOCs. “Minimalism” is the savvier term, now as then.

    More great works will be written in the manner, whether in C major or not (pace Provokief), but it’s 50 years old, it’s at least as much old music as new music these days. The paint has dried and I can smell the dust.

    1. I think this concert was trying to show that music called or inspired by “minimalism” doesn’t need to be as strict as the “OGs” made it. Plus there are plenty of other strands or aesthetic “schools” of contemporary music that have little to do with minimalism, which do seem to get a lot less attention here in North America. Nothing is really “new”, it all builds on what was done before; what is important is how it builds on it, what new ideas it brings, and most importantly, whether we like the music.

  2. An artist friend once served up the following knee-slapper;
    “Minimalism, it’s the least you can do.”

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