Minimal content need not mean minimal effect

Discovering one’s compositional identity or voice seems to be a process of continual discovery. I’m not certain I have one voice – perhaps I have an approach that could manifest itself in a variety of sound worlds that would fit the desired context. My last orchestral work ‘Cypher’ (2010) has a very different sound to the musical theatre work ‘Juniper Dreams’ (2011); both have a different context and intended performer and ultimate audience. Placing the works side by side I realise I know have a conundrum – a personal one – in that I’m presented with two very different approaches. I enjoyed the melodic writing of Juniper Dreams and felt an urge to write lines that would be realised with ease by the young performers while in Cypher I thrived on constructing timbral contrast through different ‘choirs’ of instruments. Perhaps what worries me is that tonality – albeit an extended tonal vocabulary – was a real pleasure to work with; the prevailing contemporary music scene marginalises such traditional approaches and it is a scene I desire to connect with. There are conscious decisions I need to make in my next piece – a series of piano pieces – that will ensure a consistent voice can develop (appear?). Perhaps I fear such disparity in my writing might lead in incoherence.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed and was engaged by the Reich concert on Saturday – my review on – as I was determined to not connect with music that is dependent on a tonal centre – or some kind of pitch and harmonic centricity – and relies on repetitive material in its construction. The performance was too compelling to deny and as such the LSO showed that Reich’s music is constructed with such skill and awareness of pace in terms of its harmonic and melodic transformations – as well as textural and timbral contrast – that I could do nothing but be willed to listen. Reich seems to know – for the most part – how to be one step ahead of the listen; perhaps there is some predictability in his approach once one is familiar with several items in his output but nevertheless he does not permit the listener to stop listening. I was never bored – perhaps the odd moment in ‘Desert Music’ where the music settled and I longed for movement but for the most part I was taken along with the music at an appropriate pace. The whole programme confirmed for me that this was music of quality and not a technique that denied complexity – in terms of harmonic vocabulary and melodic gesture – but one that celebrated the skill of pacing the transformation of material through soundscapes that were constructed with care and a keen aural awareness.

Minimalism is often very popular with composition students; repeated patterns can generate large spans of music with little effort. Where the intrigue comes is how and when changes occur. Pupils need directing to the power of pace in such pieces and to recognise the skill lies not in the repetitions but their subtle modification. Consistency is achieved through how extreme or subtle the transformations are and pacing these creates the necessary forward momentum often found in faster minimalism works.

I recognise in myself that I often write too many notes – the famous anecdote regarding Mozart springs to mind – and it is the braveness of minimalism in its minimal content that I admire. Such economical writing is admirable particularly when Reich can create works such as ‘Desert Music’ and there be no sense of it being too long. It is the skill of crafting minimal works that truly work that I admire and if I am learn anything from the aesthetic, style and technique of minimalism it is that pace is everything.

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