When I finally struck out for the Kansas City airport on Sunday afternoon, Kyle Gann was about 45 minutes into a very chilled-out performance of his heroic four-and-a-half-hour transcription of Dennis Johnson‘s November–a piece which inspired La Monte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano and was the first minimalist piece to employ a diatonic scale, repetition, and to stretch for multiple hours. November probably would have been lost to history had Kyle not undertaken the work of rescuing it. Sarah Cahill was going to take over from him at some point that afternoon, and the final notes of that performance were to mark the official end of the conference.
While I did have to miss most of the November performance in order to catch my flight home, I’m pleased to say that in the course of the four and a half days of the conference I only missed the end of that performance, one paper on Sunday morning, and the opening remarks of the conference (having gotten lost on my way from the hotel that first day). Not all of the papers were brilliant, but some of them were, and all of them had at least some interesting features. Not all of the pieces on all of the concerts were brilliant, but every concert was worth attending, and some of the music was truly great. But I’ve talked about the papers and the concerts already: what I want to talk about now is the social experience.
Musicological research into minimalist music is a small and young field. Vast areas of theoretical and biographical groundwork remain to be done, there are few published close readings of even the most iconic pieces, and much of the work that has been done has not yet made it into the standard musicological journals and resources. One result, of course, is that researchers in musicology have the exciting prospect of building the foundation of the field, writing the essential papers that will guide future work, and making the kinds of profound discoveries that are so rare in more mature fields. The other result is a sense of comraderie among the participants in the research, promoted by the sense of common purpose, a need and desire to build on each others’ work, and the excitement of discovery. That sense of discovery isn’t just about discovering music or interesting research, but also about discovering a group of like-minded scholars who have been thus far toiling independently. Adversity, to be blunt, fosters community. I arrived in Kansas City knowing only a handful of people, and I left with the sense that I had begun dozens of potential friendships. Many of the papers I heard contained not just interesting material, but insights and references I wish I had know about when I was writing my own paper.
The other advantage of a conference in a small field is the fact that the major figures are accessible. One of Kyle Gann’s chief claims to fame in the musicological world is his tenure at the Village Voice, and his book Music Downtown, a collection of his writings for the Voice, is an essential primary source for anybody studying postminimalism. Before Kyle was covering minimalism for the Voice, though, Tom Johnson held the post from 1972-82, and his own collection of articles, The Voice of New Music, is similarly essential. Tom lives in Paris, and I had always assumed that I would never meet him, but he attended the whole conference, gave a talk about minimalism in Europe, and spent the week hanging out with the rest of us. I lean heavily on Kyle and Tom in my paper, and it was nerve-wracking to have them both in the audience, but the fact that they both seem to have liked my paper gives me confidence that I’m on the right track. Keith Potter, author of Four Musical Minimalists, was there, and I was delighted to find that he’s beginning some extensive further research on Steve Reich. Mikel Rouse was in town to present his film Funding, but in between visiting family in the area and visiting his favorite haunts from his own days studying at UMKC, he attended a number of the paper sessions. Conference co-organizer David McIntire gave a paper on Rouse, and most of us didn’t realize that Mikel was in the room–during the post-paper discussion someone pointed out that he could actually resolve a couple of questions for us, which he graciously did. Sarah Cahill played the piano beautifully, and in person she couldn’t have been nicer. Charlemagne Palestine played the organ beautifully, and in person he’s kind of a maniac. Paul Epstein gave a presentation a compositional technique called “interleaving” which he uses extensively and to excellent effect–after his presentation I assured him that I would be stealing the idea from him. And that’s just the people I had heard of beforehand.
The third installment of this conference series is tentatively scheduled for October, 2011, near Brussels. The plan is to switch back and forth across the Atlantic every two years, and 2011 feels like a long way off. While it was nice to get back home and to catch up on sleep (I was averaging about 4 to 5 hours a night while I was in KC), I also didn’t want to leave.
P.S.Here’s a copy of my paper as delivered at the conference, including typos and still sans bibliography. For more about the conference itself, don’tmissKyle’sseriesofpostings over at his blog.
Tonight’s performance by Charlemagne Palestine was, in short, one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life. Palestine has developed a technique for playing the organ which involves the use of wooden shims to hold down keys so he can build up drones with many notes and still have his hands free to improvise melodies over top of it. He starts with an open fifth and builds over the course of a couple hours to a dense roar that uses most of the available power of the instrument. It was mesmerizing. In truth, I wasn’t expecting to like it much — I expected it to be long and loud and somewhat interesting but ultimately boring. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I urge you that if you ever have an opportunity to hear Palestine play you not miss it for anything.
The rest of the day went well too, but I’m just too exhausted to talk about it at the moment, so I’ll save it for my wrap-up in a day or two.
This summary has to be a short one, since I need to finish preparing for my paper presentation tomorrow morning, but today was another excellent conference day. During the day, in addition to papers there was a concert of Tom Johnson‘s extremely minimal Organ and Silence performed by Neely Bruce. At dinner time Robert Carl gave a plenary address about In C, a subject on which he has just published a book. Then we all had some of the justly famous Kansas City barbecue. In the evening Sarah Cahill, a great champion of contemporary music, gave a concert which included two recently completed transcriptions of Harold Budd‘s The Children on the Hill. The piece was originally improvised, and there exist two vastly different recordings, which Kyle Gann has painstakingly transcribed. The pieces are quite beautiful. The rest of the concert was good too, but the other highlights for me were an excerpt of Hans Otte‘s Das Buch der Klange, which is virtuosic, beautiful, and spectacular, and John Adams‘s China Gates, which he actually wrote for Sarah Cahill many years ago.
A day that starts at 9AM and ends after 11 at night, in which 15 different people give presentations, and which culminates in a two hour concert, is not a day that is easy to distill down to a single theme (except perhaps happy exhaustion). We began with no fewer than six papers on Steve Reich, some of which were thematically linked but none of which was redundant. Perhaps my favorite moment of those morning sessions was when Sumanth Gopinath compared a feature of Different Trains to the music from a classic 1980s IBM commercial. In the afternoon we had papers on Part, Eastman, Glass, and Young. Kyle Gann described his painstaking reconstruction of Dennis Johnson‘s pivotal-yet-nearly-lost November, which Kyle and Sarah Cahill will be performing in all its 5-hour glory on Sunday. And at the end of the day the great Tom Johnson, who was the Downtown critic for the Village Voice from 1971 to 1982 and who now lives in Paris, gave an hour-long presentation on European minimalist music that we in the United States aren’t familiar with, and on some of his own music. Johnson’s book The Voice of New Music is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand minimalism, and it was a real thrill to hear his current thoughts on the European scene.
After dinner, the Kansas City based New Ear Ensemble gave a concert of minimalist works. New Ear is, to begin with, a superb group–they played some very difficult music very well. The concert had three high points for me: Vladimir Tosic‘s Arios for piano and cello was quite beautiful and highly formalized in a way that made every moment feel like a natural, organic outgrowth of the preceding. Jacob Ter Veldhuis‘s The Body of Your Dreams for piano and tape is always great fun, with its Reich-inspired interplay between piano melodies and a tape part assembled from an infomercial about a piece of exercise equipment that promises great results with minimal effort. The final piece on the program was Tom Johnson‘s Narayana’s Cows, which is an ingenious representation (including Johnson providing explanatory narration) of a math problem supposedly posed by the 14th century mathematician Narayana Pandit: “A cow produces one calf each year. Beginning in its fourth year, each calf produces a calf. How many cows are there after, for example17 years?” That may sound dry, but it’s actually a very fun piece.
If good luck in travel is a harbinger of things to come, then the fact that my flight into Kansas City for the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music actually touched down twenty minutes early is surely a very good sign. And so far today things have worked out that way.
The conference got underway with two papers on Intertextuality in the music of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and British composer (and the first journalist to use the word “minimalist” to describe music) Michael Nyman. Apparently Nyman steals liberally from everybody, including himself. I mean that in only the best possible way–Nyman seems to deeply interested in the artistic possibilities that such borrowing and referencing, and he even once had a microfilm reader in his house next to his piano to enhance his ability to quickly look for material to work with. After a short break we then had three papers on the music of Phill Niblock, whose microtonal drone music is strange, fascinating, and beautiful.
After dinner, and after an on-stage conversation with Kyle Gann, Mikel Rouse presented his 2000 film Funding at the Kansas City Public Library. The film is a fascinating non-narrative (or perhaps extremely-limited-narrative) exploration of New York City, money, and identity, underscored by Rouse’s post-minimalist, rhythmically complex music. Rouse has clips of some of his films, including Funding, on his website, so I’ll just direct you there, since I need to get some sleep so I’ll be fresh for day two, which starts at 9AM tomorrow with a paper on Steve Reich.
Also, remember that some of the conference participants are Twittering about the conference with the hashtag #minconf.
Here’s your heads-up that the Second International Conference on Minimalism is fast approaching! It runs Sept. 2-6 and Kansas City gets the honors this time out.
Papers and presentations abound, as do a string of wonderful concerts. Of course there’s talk on Glass, Reich and Adams; but also Phill Niblock, Julius Eastman, La Monte Young, Tom Johnson, Mikel Rouse, Dennis Johnson and more. Concerts not only include one by prodigal legend Charlemagne Palestine, but a closing that puts none other than our old pal Kyle Gann at the keyboard with Sarah Cahill! (I’m sure Kyle’s practicing and sweating bullets at this very moment…) S21’s own resident minimalist, Galen Brown, is giving a spiel on Saturday, and hopes to post here throughout the shindig.