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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

Whether or not the means employed by minimalist composers were insidious, they were surely the (inevitable?) product of the society in which all of the composers considered in this chapter had grown up. Reich has not only recognized but celebrated this fact, justifying his rejection of European modernist styles by remarking that whereas “Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez were portraying in very honest terms what it was like to pick up the pieces of a bombed-out continent after World War II,” the American experience had been different, and demanded a different medium of expression. “For some Americans in 1948 or 1958 or 1968—in the real context of tail-fins, [the rock ‘n’ roll singer] Chuck Berry and millions of burgers sold—to pretend that instead we're really going to have the dark-brown angst of Vienna is a lie, a musical lie.”63

In its seemingly indiscriminate, insatiable, world-devouring eclecticism, its live adaptation of musical techniques originating in the hardware-driven tape studio, and its tendency toward a kind of factory standardization (“mass-production” of repeated modules, equal pulses, terraced dynamics with sometimes only one terrace), minimalism exemplified—and was the (only?) honest product of—the commodification, objectification, and exteriorization of the affluent postwar American consumer society, hailed by many as the economic salvation of the world and decried by just as many as the ultimate dehumanization of humanity.

And as the values of American society spread, so did its musical embodiment. Minimalism has unquestionably been the most influential, worldwide, of any musical movement born since the Second World War. It is the first (and so far the only) literate musical style born in the New World to have exerted a decisive influence on the Old. It is the musical incarnation of “the American century.” No wonder it has been controversial. The seemingly paradoxical fact, moreover, that many who have succumbed to its influence have been consciously opposed to “Americanization” (whether defined as materialism, as “economic imperialism,” or as “globalization”) can be interpreted either as another proof that musical technique as such is politically and culturally neutral, or as another proof that practice reveals a truth that theory denies in vain—a fancy way of saying that actions speak louder than words.

Consider the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (b. 1939). Like most of his contemporaries, he went through a serial period at school, and then a “sixties” phase in which he took inspiration from Cage. His New Left sympathies eventually caused him to mistrust the elitism of the avant-garde, but to regard the Soviet model of musical populism as equally tainted. What was left was minimalism, a style that has been embraced as “democratic” by many Europeans—and particularly, it seems, in the Low Countries, where in 1980 the Belgian composer Wim Mertens published the first book anywhere on the subject (Amerikaanse repetitieve muziek, issued three years later in English translation), and where in the same year Philip Glass's second opera, Satyagraha, commissioned by the city of Rotterdam, had its world premiere. (The opera, far more conventional in conception and in musical style than Einstein on the Beach, concerned the life and influence of Mahatma Gandhi; the title is Sanskrit for “truth-force.”) Like Reich and Glass, Andriessen founded his own performing ensemble, De Volharding (Perseverance), composed mainly of musicians with jazz backgrounds. The reasons he gave for doing so were more overtly political than those offered by his predecessors. Where Reich and Glass spoke of making their own performance opportunities rather than waiting for mainstream recognition that might never come, Andriessen declared that “orchestras are only important for the capitalists and the record companies,” while the people demanded a music that “brought highbrow and lowbrow together.”64 The first model for such a music was Riley's In C, which Andriessen first heard in 1971. Quickly, however, his attention turned to Reich, whose music he admired above all for its inclusivity: “The music was open to many different kinds of influences from all over the world,” he told an interviewer, “and I recognized very many open doors for the future”65 at a time when modernism seemed to be at an academic dead end.

For De Volharding and its more rock-oriented successor band, Hoketus, Andriessen wrote a series of cantatas in which the pulsing minimalist style was applied to texts purporting to espouse political activism. One of them, De Staat (“The State”), composed between 1972 and 1976, is a raucously repetitive score, quite Glassian at times in its additive processes. It employs women's voices, violas, oboes, horns, trumpets, and trombones, all in groups of four, plus a pair of electric guitars, a bass guitar, two pianos, and two harps to accompany—or rather, confront—the famous passages from Plato's Republic that deal with musical ethos, the power of music to influence character and affect behavior, and the necessity for political censorship and prescription. The exuberant music and the repressive text seem to be at odds until one looks more closely at the words and realizes that Andriessen's bellicose sonorities do in fact conform to Plato's prescription for a music that will inspire warriors. Is he for censorship, then, or against it? The composer makes the most of the ambiguity, as if to dramatize his own ambivalence toward the place of music in contemporary society. On the one hand, he has written, “everybody sees the absurdity of Plato's statement that the Mixolydian mode should be banned because of its damaging effect on the development of character, … something similar to the ‘demoralizing nature’ of the Rolling Stones’ concerts.” But on the other, “perhaps I regret the fact that Plato was wrong: if only it were true that musical innovation represented a danger to the State!”66

Andriessen described his cantata frankly as “a contribution to the discussion about the place of music in politics.” In notes accompanying its first recording, he outlined a theory of musical sociology:

To keep the issues straight it is necessary to differentiate between three aspects of the social phenomenon called music: 1. its conception (devising and planning by the composer), 2. its production (performance) and 3. its consumption. Production and consumption are by definition if not political then at least social. The situation is more intricate when it comes to the actual composing. Many composers feel that the act of composing is “suprasocial.” I don't agree. How you arrange your musical material, what you do with it, the techniques you use, the instruments you score for, all of this is determined to a large extent by your own social circumstances, your education, environment and listening experience, and the availability—or non-availability—of symphony orchestras and government grants. The only point on which I agree with the liberal idealists is that abstract musical material—pitch, duration and rhythm—is suprasocial: it is part of nature. There is no such thing as a fascist dominant seventh. The moment the musical material is ordered, however, it becomes culture and, as such, a given social fact.67

It was presumably this last factor, the political implications of musical ordering (i.e., style), that impelled Andriessen to fashion his minimalist structures out of harmonies so much more dissonant than those used by his American counterparts. (See Ex. 8-10, which shows the end of the repressive Platonic dialogue and the orgy of orchestral self-congratulation that follows it.) According to the age-old European modernist conceit, it is dissonance that creates a political edge—an edge of resistance. The same dissonance, however, has always most dependably alienated the very audience which politically activist or populist composers claim to address. And, following another well-established catch-22, Andriessen's efforts to maintain a maverick position have been frustrated by official recognition.

He has occupied a prominent teaching post at the government-supported Hague Conservatory since even before De Staat. The supposedly subversive cantata was awarded two prestigious prizes in 1977, including one from the Dutch government; and its first recording was issued by the Composers’ Voice label, a noncommercial enterprise underwritten by the same government that has awarded the composer prizes and pays his salary. The indulgent treatment Andriessen has received (and accepted) from the state his music ostensibly challenges has cast his musicopolitical agenda in an equivocal light: is it genuine activism, or is it just another show of radical chic?

It is a dilemma from which escape is virtually impossible. In a later cantata, De Stijl (1985), scored for an ensemble of amplified winds, electric keyboards and guitars, and crashing “heavy metal” percussion (what Andriessen, echoing Reich, calls “the terrifying twenty-first-century orchestra”68), the composer paid far more explicit tribute to the “countercultural” sources of his inspiration in an effort to obliterate once and for all the social barriers between styles. “I think it's very good to do that,” he says:

I would again use the word democratic, the desire to break down those borders. I think it's almost a duty, and not only for composers. I hope that the future will bring us a better world in which the difference between high and low, and rich and poor, is smaller than it is now.69

Andriessen has also made a point of preferring African-American to Anglo-American pop as a stylistic model, and he has wholeheartedly embraced disco in defiance of its low critical standing. And yet De Stijl, which has since been incorporated into a huge four-act opera directed by Robert Wilson (De Materie or “Matter,” 1989), calls for resources that put it out of reach to all but the most elite performance venues. It has so far been performed only for “high” (that is, according to the composer's equation, rich as well as white) audiences, and appreciated mainly by professionals.


ex. 8-10 Louis Andriessen, De Staat, mm. 719–734

Andriessen's greatest contribution, perhaps, has been as a teacher. Alone among the major minimalists, he occupies a distinguished academic chair, and he has been a magnet to composers from many countries, including England and the United States, where the musico-social boundaries have been more fluid than on the European continent, but where minimalism has yet to make comparable academic inroads. His American disciples have gone on to form groups of their own. Their names—Bang on a Can and Common Sense Composers Collective, to mention two—are political statements in themselves, showing a determination to keep the elusive dream of “sociostylistic” integration on minimalist principles alive into the twenty-first century.


(63) Edward Strickland, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 46.

(64) Quoted in Schwarz, Minimalists, p. 205.

(65) Ibid., p. 206.

(66) Liner note to Composers’ Voice CV 7702/c (Amsterdam: Donemus, 1978).

(67) Ibid.

(68) Quoted in Schwarz, Minimalists, p. 207.

(69) Ibid., p. 208

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008012.xml