Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Contextualising Minimalism – a study day with Stephen Montague

Stephen Montague
Minimalism Unwrapped; Stephen Montague, Christina McMaster, Chris Brannick; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 10 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Lecturing and performance in enjoyable and informative study day on minimalism

Part of the Minimalism Unwrapped series at Kings Place, this study day by composer Stephen Montague (1943-), along with Christina McMaster (piano) and Chris Brannick (percussion), was an interesting exposé of the music and culture of the New York minimalist movement of the 1950's and 60's. Using musical examples and a lot of humour, Montague took us on a whistle-stop tour of history – highlighting music which would become influential such as Gregorian chant, or reacted against such as Schoenberg's twelve tone music. He touched on more exotic influences such as Indian raga, Ghanaian drumming, and Javanese gamelan - and all before the first coffee break.

Following on from this was a discussion about what was happening in art and literature, and then to the nitty gritty of some of the different ideas that were being explored by people we now know as minimalists: the drones and alternative tuning of La Monte Young, repetition and processes of Terry Riley, phasing of Steve Reich, and arpeggiation of Philip Glass.

In addition to performing some of the examples, including works by Montague, McMaster talked about the influence of minimalism in popular music especially in dance and film music, and the importance of synthesisers such as the Moog Modulator.

Brannick also performed a couple of pieces (one on flowerpots!) both of which were based on mathematical triangles, demonstrating both the pared down approach to minimalism where pitch ceases to have the same level of importance as in more traditional classical music, and the processes which pervade this style of music.

Mixed in with all of this were several experimental works that the participants could be involved in. This increased in complexity from John Cage's '4'33''' and La Monte Young's 'Composition 1960 #4', where the audiences roles is observational, via a sung version of Young's 'Composition 1960 #7' (where we sang either the F# or B) and working our way around a graphic score, to creating our own minimalist work using a variety of percussion instruments supplied by Brannick. I think one person even played one of the flowerpots.

The other participants seemed to have a variety of level of experience - from those who were able to talk about all-day performances they had seen when they works were first performed in England, to people who had only just begun to be interested in minimalism. Some were musicians, others interested listeners. Everyone I spoke was drawn to a different aspect of the day. Each person had their own direction of approach from pop and jazz, to traditional classical, and there were some whose interest inclined to social history.

All three of the speakers/performers were interesting and knowledgeable – yet without a trace of dry and dusty lecturing. The performances and musical examples were cleverly chosen - encompassing both well known and more obscure pieces designed to keep everyone's attention regardless of prior experience.

All in all a very enjoyable day.

The Minimalism Unwrapped series continues with concerts and study days at Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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