Minimalism and the Bay Area String Quartet Scene
In July and August (of 2015) there have been several celebrations of Terry Riley’s 80th birthday. One good example was the Kronos Terry Riley Festival at the SFJAZZ Center where Kronos played some of the many compositions that the quartet commissioned from Riley over the years. Most of the descriptions accompanying the Riley festivities mention the fact that Riley is a major American composer, an important California musician, and a leader of the minimalist music movement. At the beginning of 2014 Kronos got a lot of attention when they premiered the 6th String Quartet of another minimalist composer, Philip Glass. And, earlier this Spring, I attended a concert by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, at Stanford, where the St. Lawrence premiered John Adams String Quartet No. 2. This started me thinking about the relationship between minimalist music, and Bay Area String Quartets.
Minimal Music is one school or style of modernism. Minimal music usually features a steady pulse, no apparent movement or development, or, at most, only very gradual transformations, and the reiteration of musical phrases or small units such as figures, motifs and cells. Minimalist compositions often rely on applying strict rules and so they are sometimes referred to as process music.
Minimalist music is usually said to have originated in New York city in the Sixties and it is often connected with both Indian music and experiments in Rock and Roll that were taking place at the time. Others have associated its historical origins with the Sixties, drug experimentation, and a desire to involve the audience in a musical trips.
A number of American composers have been involved in the development of minimalist music. Those who are best known today include La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. John Adams is sometimes added to this group, though he wasn’t in at the beginning and apparently feels uncomfortable with the label. There are also well-known European composers who are sometimes said to be minimalists, including Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Part.
La Monte Young
Most agree that La Monte Young was the first composer to speak of himself as a minimal composer. Young was born in Idaho in 1935 and grew up in Los Angeles. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received a BA, and later studied composition at UC Berkeley. Young moved to New York in 1960 and became part of the new music scene. He was much influenced by classical Indian music and psychedelics and some Young’s longer pieces are said to have inspired Andy Warhol’s static films. Several rock musicians have said they were inspired by Young, and Yoko Ono hosted a famous series of Young concerts in her loft in New York. Young worked in many genres, and wrote at least some pieces for string quartets, one of which has been recorded by Arditti Quartet on its USA album.
Regarded by some as America’s greatest living composer, Steve Reich was born in 1936 in New York city. He attended Cornell, and minored in music while majoring in philosophy. His BA thesis was on Wittgenstein and later he set some of Wittgenstein’s texts to music (Proverb, 1995; You Are, 2006). Later Reich studied at the Juilliard, and later still at Mills College where he studied with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud (1961-1963) and earned a masters in composition. During this period Reich worked with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, along with Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley, and was involved in the premiere of Riley’s In C. In fact, Reich is said to have suggested the use of the eight note pulse, which is now standard in performance of Riley's piece. Reich has gone on to work in a wide variety of genres, including opera and string quartet.
Reich wrote Triple Quartet in 1998 for the Kronos Quartet. According to Reich, the piece is influenced by Bartok and Schnittkie quartets. Reich’s WTC 9/11 was written as string quartet and tape and was premiered in 2011 by the Kronos Quartet.
Philip Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1937. He is considered one of the most important composers of the late 20th century. His music is often described as Minimal Music, although Glass prefers to describe himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.” Glass performs with an ensemble and has written music for operas, musical theater, 10 symphonies, 11 concertos, solo works and chamber music, including 6 string quartets. Glass entered the University of Chicago at the age of 15 to study mathematics and philosophy, but soon discovered Anton Webern and serialism and proceeded to compose a twelve-tone sting trio. He then went to the Juilliard School of Music and specialized in keyboard and composition. In 1964 Glass received a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Paris to study with the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Glass has stated that “the composers I studied with Boulanger are the people I still think about most – Bach and Mozart.” In 1965 Glass worked on a film score (Chappaqua), with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, that got him interested in Indian music. Glass arrived back in New York in 1967 and attended a performance of works by Steve Reich, which included the minimalist piece, Piano Phase, which led Glass to simplify his style. Glass proceeded to set up an ensemble with fellow Juilliard graduates Steve Reich and Jon Gibson and performed in art galleries and performance spaces. In the mid-Seventies Glass began to write larger pieces including his first opera trilogy, Einstein of the Beach. In 1978 he premiered another opera, Satyagraha. Following this Glass worked on several theater and movie scores, and, in the late Eighties, began to shift to symphonic music.
In 1989 and 91 respectively, he composed his string quartets 4 and 5 for the Kronos Quartet. Throughout all this Glass’s style continued to evolve and he has revisited several genres, writing additional operas and a variety of chamber music. He wrote a 6th string quartet for Kronos in 2013. In 2015 Glass published in memoir, Words Without Music.
Terry Riley was born in Colfax, California in 1935. He attended Shasta College, SFSU, and the San Francisco Conservatory before earning an MA in composition from the University of California, at Berkeley. Riley claims his most influential teacher was Pandit Pran Nath, a teacher of Indian classical voice. Riley made a number of trips to India over the course of his studies. He also cites John Cage and John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus as major influences on this work. He joined the Mills College faculty in 1971 to teach Indian classical music.
Riley began his long lasting association with Kronos Quartet when he met David Harrington, Kronos’s first violinist, while they were both at Mills College. Riley has written 27 string quartets for Kronos over the years. According to the Wikipedia article on Riley, his music is “usually based on improvising through a series of modal figures of different lengths, such as in In C (1964)…” Riley is also associated with the use of tape loops, a technology that combines taped music and live performance. More can be found on Riley at the Wikipedia website on Terry Riley and at his own URL: terryriley.net To read about the Riley-Kronos brithday bash, see this article: www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-cm-terry-riley-notebook-20150705-column.html And here's the announcement of the Riley and Del Sol concert:
Adams was born in Worcester MA in 1947 and went to Harvard University where he earned a BA and MA in music composition. He moved to San Francisco and taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 to 1984. Adams is usually spoken of as a composer “with strong roots in minimalism.” His popular “Shaker Loops (a string septet written in 1978) is a “modular” composition. In 1987 Adams composed his first opera, Nixon in China, and in 2005 he completed Doctor Atomic, his opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Adams continues to write in a variety of genre, and has written two string quartets and a third piece that was written for string quartet and orchestra. All have been premiered by Stanford University's St. Lawrence String Quartet.
String Quartets, Minimalism and the Bay Area
Minimalism may have started in New York in the Sixties, but minimalist string quartets are currently alive and living in California. The leading minimalist composers have been associated with Bay Area schools and with the Bay Area string quartets who have premiered and promoted the various minimalist string quartets. Terry Riley’s birthday celebration by Kronos Quartet, and a later celebration by the Del Sol Quartet, are only the latest manifestations of this interesting regional connection.