Minimalism at 50
Helen Wallace reviews a celebration of 50 years of Minimalism at Kings Place
So, Minimalism has hit middle-age. No one’s throwing things at sophisticated intellectuals and smart businessmen Steve Reich, John Adams and Philip Glass anymore. And only Riley still seems to breathe the radical air of the Sixties, living far out on Planet Terry, steeped in Indian spirituality. This three-day series with the Labèque sisters, curated by Igor Toronyi-Lalic, began at the beginning with the ground-breaking experiments of Riley and La Monte Young from 1961. On the second concert the spotlight fell on the British response.
It soon became apparent that over here John Cage and Erik Satie cast a longer shadow. Howard Skempton’s sheerly beautiful Images are descendents of the Gymnopédies, with their own gentle, elusive innocence, drawn out with a wonderfully veiled sound by Marielle Labèque. Cellist Matthew Barley gave an engaging performance of his Six Figures for cello, another example of Skempton the miniaturist in the best possible sense: we see a world in a single harmonic. His stature as a composer grows with every hearing; he beguiles with a simplicity that avoids all cliché. In My First Homage (1978) Gavin Bryars purged himself of the jazz instinct: he takes figures from Bill Evans, isolates, examines and neutralises them in a kind of pianistic flotation tank. There’s none of the pulsating drive of the American Minimalists here, and none, too, in Pärt’s two-piano Great City where an incantation of perfect cadences coexists with high tintinnabular cartwheels.
Highlighting again the link between Satie and Cage, sequences from Vexations were followed by Cage’s late work Four3 (1991) where chance and Minimalism meet in a happy, spacey cloud, piano melodies drawn from Vexations acting as a cantus firmus amid seething rain sticks.
If the ultimate lesson of Minimalism is that less is more, it was proved emphatically in two well-chosen percussion pieces. James Tenney’s 1971 Postal Piece No. 10 simply consists of a gong roll in one long, tremendous shimmering crescendo, immersing us in clashing, dancing overtones. We were also treated to Philip Glass’s One Plus One (1968) for amplified table top, played with consummate skill by Raphaël Séguinier on a piano lid – a digital tour de force.
So far so good, but there were black holes in a programme that would have benefited from works by Cardew and Stockhausen to give context. Surplus to requirements were new pieces written by band members, guitarist David Chalmin’s Gameland and Nicola Tescari’s En 4 parentheses. Both were crude, rocky mish-mashes with nothing to say about recent Minimalism, (to be explored on Saturday with works by Radiohead and Sonic Youth.) Free spirit Katia Labèque clearly relished jamming with the boys, but the absence of her graceful, reserved sister in these pieces spoke volumes.
We were left to chill with a realisation of La Monte Young’s droning The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys. If you can get through the pain of those minor sevenths, you reach a higher plane… or so I’m told.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine