Manifest Minimalism


The the manifest destiny of American music is alive and well. While conductor Michael Tilson Thomas presents his American Mavericks programs dedicated to the unbridled creativity of composers from Ives to Monk, sound artist Dan Deacon engages his fans by crowdsourcing his own light show. Without generalizing the diversity right out of the avant-garde, I’m confident the ideas of expansiveness and innovation are embedded, at least implicitly, in much of America’s music reaching back to the industrial revolution.

Deacon’s manifest masterpiece, USA I-IV, from America

The composer, wino and stuffed animal enthusiast Charlemagne Palestine has created works of staggering mechanical intensity since the 1970s. While his roots are planted firmly in the early minimalism of Terry Riley and La Monte Young, his own marathon compositions, often for solo piano or organ, are a world of their own. I stumbled upon his most well-known piece, Strumming Music (1974), and was immediately struck by the wall of overtones it creates—two pitches expanding to infinity. He cleverly treats the upper partials as chance operations in the larger timbral equation of the piano. It’s entrancing to hear the piano detune (or retune) after an hour of ruthless bombardment.

Bon Iver’s “Babys” surely owes something to this piece

I respect any uncompromising, genuine artist whether or not I “like” their work. However, it’s quite easy to enjoy Palestine “consonant abstraction” over Schoenberg’s angst-riden expressionism. Take back tonality, Charlemagne, and shoot it into space. Sloooooooow down our thinking and our hearing; allow us to meditate in the musical moment.

Charlemagne 2

Is there a composer who makes you rethink what music can or should be?

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