Glass, All-Stars shake up a very measured precision
Minimal art, in the 1960s, offered acute order in an era of turmoil. Hair could be long and unkempt, youth subculture unfettered, a confusing sexual revolution underway, but sculptor Donald Judd made sure his boxes had razor-sharp edges and were precisely lined up.
Musicians tried to follow the lead of such compulsive visual artists. Philip Glass’ scores in the ‘60s appear to the eye clean and symmetrical. Not much happens in them over long periods of time. Tiny, simple melodic phrases get longer, then shorter again. The beat remains steady, as regular as if it were the aural equivalent of perfectly proportioned lines measured and drawn with a ruler.
But there is more than one use for a ruler. You can use it to bang on a can. And that, at least metaphorically, is what the six-member New York ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars did Wednesday night at Royce Hall, appearing in a UCLA Live concert with Glass.
What this rousingly played and illuminating concert also did was remind us of entropy. Tidiness and precision are fine for the visual arts, which exist outside time and which can provide pleasing illusion. But time messes up whatever it touches. With each passing moment, there is more disorder.
Music’s contribution to Minimalism has been to subvert it. The harder we try to keep things together, the more they are bound to fall apart. But the process of falling apart can be mesmerizing and meaningful. Things change, and then they evolve. A mistake tells you what to do next.
Through revisiting two classic Glass abstract scores from 1969 and playing music that they later influenced, the All-Stars demonstrated why Minimalism in music -- as pure, untouchable work -- is impossible, but also why, unlike in visual art, the style is still dominant and evolving after nearly 40 years.
The Glass pieces were “Music in Similar Motion” and “Music in Fifths.” These are scores that when Glass first started playing them with his ensemble of winds and electric keyboards had the distinction of either expanding your consciousness or driving you mad. The repetition is numbing; the additions and subtractions of notes or beats can be barely perceptible. They went on for a really long time, and the players’ concentration inevitably lagged. But the missed entrances and even outright ensemble train wrecks were often memorable.
Arranged by the All-Stars for a lusher ensemble of bass, percussion, clarinet, electric guitar, cello and piano, Glass’ unsoiled piercing textures have already become polluted. There is now buzz and ping. The low strings add fuzz, like a shag rug on the floors of the Gagosian Gallery. It takes more energy to move such a sound. The timbres don’t line up with mechanical precision. The music, in other words, becomes more human. The performances were also short, around 15 minutes each, not enough time to expand much consciousness but enough to bring pleasure.
In the first half of the program, the All-Stars gave a brief glimpse of what this early Minimalism wrought. Louis Andriessen, the remarkable Dutch composer, accepted the rhythmic vitality of Minimalism but not its limited pitches in his 1975 piece “Workers Union.” The players can pick their notes within an approximate range. But they charge ahead in energetic rhythmic unison. Liberty puts them on edge. They must agree and be individuals at the same time. It is music that flies like a bird, yet all systems must work properly to evoke a soaring feeling.
David Lang’s “Cheating, Lying, Stealing” explored, 20 years later, the joy of pure subversion. Lang composes mistakes into repetitious structures. You never know where the next screw-up will come from. The piece is a trick on the performers as well as the audience. Sometimes we cheer the bank robbers, if they are as clever and amusing as Lang.
What Minimalism has finally evolved into is something that oddly embraces just about anything it wants. Glass, for instance, contributed music for “Going Upriver,” the John F. Kerry campaign film, and the composer sued the producers of “Celsius 41.11,” claiming they stole his music in their TV trailers for their anti-Kerry effort.
Playing three of his moody recent solo piano etudes Wednesday, Glass gave no offense. Nor was any given by a brief excerpt from Michael Gordon’s “Light Is Calling,” with its lyrical cello melody. Perhaps what Minimalism in music has ultimately taught us is how to keep a beat without turning into a machine.