Contradictory as it sounds, minimalist music is arriving in an avalanche this fall. But since minimalism is, by definition, minimal, one envisions creatures from some musical Lilliput engulfing Beethoven and Brahms.
Yet minimalism has evolved to a point where John Adams’ newest opera, “The Flowering Tree,” commands attention musically and dramatically as handily as Verdi. A musical language based on the idea of small cells of sound repeated to hypnotic lengths has found a range of expression undreamed-of 30 years ago, when some of this music sounded like an LP record stuck in a groove.
Is this the culmination of a long-germinating movement?
Certainly, there’s a critical mass. Adams’ “The Flowering Tree” arrives on a gorgeous Nonesuch CD, and his much grander opera “Doctor Atomic” enjoys a new Metropolitan Opera production in October; Peter Sellars’ original staging is out on DVD next month. The Met revived Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha” with great success last season, and Nonesuch is reissuing its original recording as part of a 10-disc Glass retrospective. The big news is that his 2005 opera “Waiting for the Barbarians” is out on Orange Mountain Music - not only a significant departure from anything he’s written before, but his best since his 1976 minimalist manifesto, “Einstein on the Beach.”
Only Steve Reich, minimalism’s J.S. Bach, is missing. But as Glass once put it, Reich limits himself to composing a masterpiece every few years.
If there’s a consolation, it’s a strange but imposing one: British composer Michael Nyman, who coined the term “minimalism” and enjoyed overnight popularity with his distinctive score for the 1993 Jane Campion film “The Piano,” is getting a burst of U.S. visibility. Lost in the recording-industry downturn of years past, he returns on his own label, distributed here by Naxos.
Stand back from it all, and conclusions are unexpected. Compare Adams’ “The Flowering Tree,” about a woman who can transform herself into a tree, and Richard Strauss’ “Daphne,” whose title character has similar talents. Adams defines the unimaginable, using hypnotic minimalist arpeggios in ways that convey the rhythm of the Earth while melodies wander into unknown regions, governed only by the winds of fate. The woman-to-tree transformation arises from a bedrock of radiant string tremolos; celebratory percussion sounds like pealing bells in a meadow of glistening string harmonics and soft percussion. The assemblage of sounds is one thing, but could traditional composers create such trancelike stasis?
In contrast, Strauss is about the emotional impact the characters experience at the hands of magic, so the transformation musically is such an afterthought - expressed with Daphne’s wispy, wordless vocalization - that you could almost miss it. In effect, Strauss ducks the dramatic problem.
Like Renaissance vocal polyphony, which gives a spiritual radiance to anything composed with its precepts, minimalism seems to be the language of the heavens. Revisiting Glass’ Mohandas K. Gandhi meditation, “Satyagraha,” one noticed anew how the piece elegantly bypassed the mundane particulars of a linear plot - the sort that took Tan Dun down hackneyed blind alleys in “The First Emperor” - and went straight to more important matters of the soul.
It’s not the most dramatic way to go - you’d never want a sequel to “Tosca” done in this way. And yet Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” gets dramatically muddy without leaving its lofty perch. Its landscape - Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945 - is built from peripheral details. A hard-bitten military officer goes on at length about counting calories. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer closes Act I by singing the John Donne sonnet “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God.”
Soon, you realize the opera is directing its energies toward the moral dilemma of those who made the bomb: Civilization was in the hands not of gods but of real, calorie-counting individuals. The minimalist element - with high-stakes drama juxtaposed with almost passive washes of sound and repetition - gives space to the moral problems at hand, not just for the characters, but for the audience. What would you have done?
Into this comes Nyman - with all the grace of an atheist at a Christmas pageant. His new, determinedly secular pieces prove that minimalism can be earthy, jazzy and sexy, which would be admirable if the music weren’t so suffocating in its inflexible, intractable manner.
Among American minimalists, repeated ostinatos are like the broken white stripe down the middle of the highway, each one taking you farther along the piece’s musical path. Nyman’s repetition is more like a rock-and-roll riff with abrasively robust sonorities and little contour, and with the composer’s considerable sense of invention relentlessly tethered to the central idea. Never does his music kick into that minimalist overdrive when the music mushrooms into something greater than its parts. Nyman takes a straight, unveering, almost robotic route to its conclusion.
All the plasticity cultivated by American minimalists of late - which we may have taken too much for granted - is rejected by Nyman. In its place is novelty: His suite, Mozart 252, sets to music letters from the composer’s father, poems by the composer, plus his list of debits and credits, all with clinical detachment and vocal lines behaving like just another instrumental voice within the larger musical machinery. Same thing, oddly enough, with settings of sexually graphic Italian poetry titled Lust Songs. Put to the service of a strictly secular cause, minimalism hardly seems like music.
However, that theory is shot down by, of all people, the devoutly Buddhist Glass. He achieves Nyman’s in-your-face aggressiveness without the rigidity in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a 2005 operatic adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel about military-dominated regimes and merciless torture. Here, Glass exercises every compositional muscle he’s ever had: In place of his usual musical expanse, he constructs scenes from penetrating modules that lack the pin-point specificity of non-minimalist composition but are dramatically masterful. In one, the humanitarian hero confronts a dictatorial colonel, who is heard against a choral backdrop telegraphing how much he’s in the majority.
The key difference is that Glass’ compositional ego is subordinated to telling the story, while Nyman subordinates his stories (whether abstract or literal) to his personality. For Glass, minimalism is the key to a world of poetic expression. Nyman’s key is just that, which means that no matter how technically impressive he is, the music remains cold and strangely irrelevant. Usually, compositional methods are only as good as those using them. But minimalism is one that penalizes practitioners who use it perversely.