Perpetual motion and minimalism

It’s time.

Katia et Marielle Labèque (photo by Brigitte Lacombe): click on photo and then click “The Labèques’ Minimalist Dream House” for more information

Recently I wrote about minimalist music in anticipation of Katia et Marielle Labèque playing Toronto Summer Music’s August 1st concert: The Minimalist Dream House project.  While I titled that piece The Geneology (sic) of Minimalism I was not suggesting an evolutionary pathway so much as family resemblances.  The metaphor of evolution for artistic forms is one I am very hesitant to invoke.  Sometimes composers are amenable to influence, but there’s never a smoking gun.

I am sure someone must have connected the romantic virtuoso perpetual motion showpiece to minimalism, although I can’t recall reading about the link.  The long compositions of regular patterned eighth notes surely anticipate the pattern music of more recent composers.

So let’s listen to some examples, first from the classical realm, and then from the world of popular music, with minimalism in mind.

Beethoven? While several movements from piano sonatas have perpetual motion qualities, the purest example –that is, the one without the gripping drama of the last movement of the  Appassionata sonata or the beautiful melody found in the last movement of the Tempest sonata—is the finale to Op 54, a pure display of movement as an end in itself.

Schumann’s Toccata is very much a virtuoso display piece, with only a few moments of actual melody & accompaniment, suggesting the sort of figure-ground relationship I alluded to before: where the quick pulsing notes that might be an accompaniment take over, to become the raison d’être of the piece. 

Rimsky-korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee is another example of the genre.

Are any of those influential? I don’t know, only that they showed other composers that music didn’t really have to devolve into melody + accompaniment, that they could be exhibited in one complex pattern.

Here are some more recent examples that take these patterned compositions in a new direction, especially celebrating rhythm in their textures & shapes.

“12th Street Rag”, written by Euday L. Bowman in 1914 is highly influential, in taking a syncopated pattern of notes that is almost anti-melodic, and making that the central feature of the piece.  Listen for it 37 seconds into the piece, a tune that’s very familiar even if the composer is comparatively unknown. No it’s not minimalist; but other compositions that are minimalist emulate the style of composition.

“Fascinating Rhythm” by George Gershwin dates from 1924, and isn’t minimalist either; but it does the same sort of thing with its melody as what we see in 12th Street Rag.

Fast forward to 1959, when Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” appeared.  This begins to sound minimalist.

Let’s digress slightly, to include Bernard Herrmann’s film music for Fahrenheit 451 that appeared in 1966.  The prelude to the film is also minimalist by the way, but roughly a minute and a half into the clip he creates odd-numbered rhythms, a perverse march for the firemen sounding a bit like goose-stepping.  Did Herrmann have Brubeck’s happier piece in the back of his mind?

And finally let’s listen to King Crimson’s 1974 Fracture by Robert Fripp.  

I’m looking forwared to the TSM concert.

The Minimalist Dream House
Thursday August 1, 7:30pm
Koerner Hall

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