In just over a week minimalist musicians, scholars, and fans will descend on Kansas City, Missouri for the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, which runs from September 2 to 6. I’ll be there–I’m giving a paper on Saturday–and I’ll be blogging regularly to give you a participant’s view of the proceedings–papers, concerts, lunchtime conversations, drunken rants, or whatever else is happening that seems noteworthy. I’ll also be Twittering (@galenbrown), and the conference has its own Twitter account (@2ndminimalism). We’ll be encouraging other Twitter users to post their own thoughts with the hashtag #minconf.
Our pal Kyle Gann is one of the co-organizers of the conference, and in order to whet your appetite I asked him a few questions about the event:
GB: You went to the first version of this conference two years ago in Wales. How did that conference come about, and what made you and the organizers decide to turn it into a regular thing?
KG: I don’t know what led Pwyll ap Sion (author of a book on Michael Nyman) and Tristian Evans to attempt the first festival. They clearly didn’t think it would succeed much, and when they got three dozen paper abstracts, they expanded it from one to three days. They lined up three keynote speakers in case two decided not to come. The last day of the conference, a group of us formed the Society for Minimalist Music, and decided to hold the conference every other year, alternating between Europe and America. When someone asked who should direct the next one, everyone sort of looked at me.
I have to say that Bangor, Wales, was an over-the-top picturesque spot for a conference, even if you did have to fly to London and take a four-hour train to get there. Kansas City is a wonderful place too, but I think only the barbecue can compete in the charm area.
GB: The amount of academic scholarship on minimalism is pretty limited. JStor has only a handful of journal articles. As far as books dedicated to minimalism we basically have Edward Strickland’s Minimalism: Origins and Robert Fink’s Repeating Ourselves. You and Tom Johnson both published collections of your writings in the Village Voice, and there are a handful of books dedicated to specific composers. Why do you think there has been so little serious scholarship on such an influential movement, and is this conference intended to help remedy that situation?
KG: Well, – I think you and I know what the general opinion of minimalism is in most academic music departments. In the ’90s publishers would ask me for my book ideas, and when I’d suggest minimalism, they’d invariably say, “No no, no one’s interested in that, it’s not going to last, no one will buy it.” Which gives you an idea of the cognitive dissonance that pervades the field: the most popular movement in late 20th-century music, and the academic publishers think no one’s interested. The phrase “shit-for-brains” comes to mind. More essentially, though, scholars have underestimated, perhaps reasonably, how much there is to write about in minimalist music. I took a class through an analysis of Einstein on the Beach last fall, and kept running out of blackboard space. Just because the music often limits itself pitch-wise, people assume that the composers haven’t knocked themselves out coming up with vast varieties of new structures and intricate processes, and it doesn’t take much analysis to realize how wrong they are. Some minimalist music is fanatically organized, some is completely intuitive (sometimes by the same composer), and everything in-between. There’s a lot to study. The situation would have been remedied with or without this conference, because you can’t hold back a flood of enthusiasm.
GB: How important is this conference as a social event / networking opportunity / party for a group of likeminded scholars, many of whom feel isolated and may not be aware of each other’s work?
KG: That’s why we spontaneously knew the conference would have to continue. At any other music conference I can find at best a paper or two of particular interest, but in Wales, every single paper was on a subject I couldn’t resist. I had spent so many years analyzing this music in total isolation I had forgotten that other scholars might be able to hand me a lot of ready-made insights and save me a lot of work. At night we’d wedge ourselves among the nose-pierced teenagers in Bangor pubs and shout about how nice it was to mention one’s minimalist enthusiasms among other scholars without fear of inciting blank looks or snorts of contempt – and even have those other scholars recognize what we’re talking about! It’s what I imagine a young gay guy must feel like going into his first gay bar and realizing he can relax and be himself. We’re all sick and tired of the condescension that greets minimalism in the academic music world, and we now know we have the numbers and erudition to fight back aggressively. I’m tremendously grateful to the UMKC music dean Peter Witte, and the former acting dean Jim Mobberley, for embracing this idea with such enthusiasm when my co-director David McIntire brought it up.
GB: I know the parts of this conference are like your children, so you’re supposed to love all of them equally, but (aside from the work you’ve been preparing and my own paper, which is sure to be a show-stealer) is there anything you’re especially looking forward to?
KG: I’ll tell you what I regret first, which is that someone submitted a paper, “Milton Babbitt as Minimalist” – and then had to withdraw. That was going to be a feather in our cap. I wanted Uncle Milton to know we’d included him. But I’m pleasantly astonished that we have four papers on Phill Niblock, who is certainly overdue major attention, and two on Julius Eastman, and one on Jim Fox, who’s a fabulous composer often overlooked because he runs the Cold Blue record label. The Glass and Reich papers will be enlightening, I’m sure, but for the total conference to have an impact on public understanding of what minimalism is, we needed some additional emphasis on names that were well-known to everyone in the original minimalist scene, but that never made it into the wider world (a synonym, in this instance, for Nonesuch records). Music critics are intimidated by musicologists, and once we’ve set the record straight, they will dutifully follow along. Plus this will be only my second chance to hear Charlemagne Palestine perform live. Sarah Cahill is finally going to play that great Harold Budd piece that I’ve loved for half my life. And getting Dennis Johnson’s November back into history after 47 years is something I’ll have to be remembered for even if they forget everything else I’ve done.