The Sounds that Changed America

Pwyll ap Siôn interrogates how the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams had a lasting transformation on the American musical landscape

The Problem with Minimalism

Film footage from KOYAANISQATSI (1982). Directed by Godfrey Reggio. Cinematography by Ron Fricke

Minimalism. It remains a much contested and deeply problematic term despite being around for almost half a century.

Ask the average person in the street ‘what were the sounds that changed America?’ and his or her most likely response will be Jazz, Blues, Rock and roll, or even Rap and Hip hop. After all, these were the sounds that defined American popular culture at various points during the twentieth century. But popular culture usually reflects rather than comments on (or anticipates) social, political and cultural change. Dig deeper, beneath the historical flux, to what political theorist Fredric Jameson described as music’s ability ‘to foreshadow new social formations in a prophetic way’, and we may now be talking about a sound that was just as unique to America as rock and roll: the sound of musical minimalism.

Minimalism. It remains a much contested and deeply problematic term despite being around for almost half a century. (Michael Nyman was one of the first to apply it to music, in an article written in 1968.) Minimalism only partly describes the music of Steve Reich (b.1936) and Philip Glass (b.1937), and its link to John Adams (b.1947) is even more tenuous, but during the final quarter of the twentieth century, this style – and the many composers who became associated with it – signified the sound of American art music.

Television producers and sound editors have drawn on the minimalist style to accompany scenes of fin-de-siècle America’s wide open spaces or endless highways, its cityscapes, skyscrapers and shopping malls, of images of mass production, global communication, satellite links and data processing. Godfrey Reggio’s landmark film-without-words, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), was one of the first to do so, utilizing Glass’s music to powerful effect.

More than evoking these images, however, minimalism often signalled or commented upon American culture and society. At times, its bright, repeating patterns, up-beat pulsations and rich, consonant harmony embodied the country’s utopian visions of liberty, equality, freedom of speech and justice. At other times, it was used just as effectively to disclose a darker, dystopian mirror image: a world on the precipice of nuclear annihilation or hurtling towards self-destruction, a society in turmoil with its moral code in tatters and values under threat. And most frightening of all, perhaps, minimalism could sometimes serve as an effective musical trope for expressing the loss of the individual in postmodern society, drowning under a tidal wave of empty signs, hieroglyphic computer codes and virtual signifiers.

'All three can lay claim to have transformed the course of music in the twentieth century...'

Steve Reich © Jeffrey Herman

That minimalism should embody the sounds that changed America is one of twentieth century music’s most remarkable stories. It is a story made even more surprising when one considers its journey from the subcultural ghettoes of downtown New York during the 1960s to cultural respectability on both sides of the Atlantic by the end of the 1980s and finally global success and popularity in the twenty-first century.

During the early years, minimalist music was more often than not the subject of derision, disapproval and eternal damnation from critics and performers alike.

Critics in particular sharpened their knives at the prospect of reviewing a minimalist concert or recording, with New York Times columnist Harold C. Schonberg famously comparing the experience of listening to Steve Reich’s Four Organs (1970) to ‘red-hot needles inserted under fingernails.’ Philip Glass’s music hardly fared any better.

Audiences, however, were making up their own minds.

Attendances increased and this new music gradually moved from the lofts and gallery spaces of New York, via the auditoria and theatres of universities, eventually to the concert halls and opera houses of large European cities.

Today, Reich, Glass and John Adams are venerated the world over. Reich has been described as the world’s most important living composer, Glass as one of its most successful, and Adams by Gramophone critic Philip Clark, as its ‘unofficial composer laureate … the public face of new music in the United States.’

All three can lay claim to have transformed the course of music in the twentieth century.

Early Beginnings and
Vernacular Sounds

Film footage from KOYAANISQATSI (1982). Directed by Godfrey Reggio. Cinematography by Ron Fricke

Reich once said about popular music that ‘it comes and it goes’, but he fell under its spell at an early age, as did Glass and Adams. Reich’s mother was a singer-songwriter and lyricist who wrote tunes for Broadway shows during the 1930s and 40s. Before entering Cornell University, at only sixteen, to study philosophy, Reich immersed himself in jazz, heading down to Manhattan from the leafy suburbia of Larchmont, New York, during the early 1950s to hear Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke. Bebop drummer Clarke was especially influential, and for a few years Reich harboured aspirations of becoming a jazz drummer himself. The notion of a propulsive groove serving as a musical work’s rhythmic backbone has formed an integral part of Reich’s musical language ever since.

Glass entered college at an even younger age – fifteen – arriving at the University of Chicago having studied flute at the Peabody Conservatory in his hometown, Baltimore. Like Reich, he also took philosophy, alongside mathematics, but spent his evenings in the jazz clubs on fifty-fifth street, listening to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

Adams’s parents were keen amateur musicians – his father played clarinet and saxophone while his mother sang – who both performed in big bands around Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Adams’s route into music was more direct. Having gained a music scholarship to Harvard University, ostensibly to study conducting and develop his skills as a clarinettist, Adams studied twelve-note music by day while listening to jazz, rock and soul by night.

In other respects, the backgrounds of the three composers could not be further apart. Although his parents divorced when he was very young, Reich was raised in New York City in comfortable upper-middle-class surroundings (his father was an attorney). Glass came from a working class background. His father ran a radio repair shop in downtown Baltimore, which in time was turned into a record store. Thus Glass was exposed to a wide variety of music from a young age. Some of it was of a rather recherché nature, too, as Glass’s father brought home recordings of music he couldn’t sell in the store. Unlike Reich and Glass’s urban upbringings, Adams was brought up in rural East Concord, New Hampshire, with a population of just 300.

Photo: Steve Reich © SiSi Burn

A New Musical Language

Film footage from KOYAANISQATSI (1982). Directed by Godfrey Reggio. Cinematography by Ron Fricke

Of course, popular music was only one piece in the colourful mosaic of influences that shaped Reich, Glass and Adams’s musical language. But it was an important one. Listening to jazz and rock convinced all three that regular pulsation was music’s heartbeat, repetition its lifeblood, and harmonic consonance its food and drink. Popular music nevertheless coexisted alongside studies of standard classical repertoire. Later, all three were exposed to contemporary avant-garde music, against which they reacted in equal measure. In an interview with composer Robert Ashley in 1976, Glass even went as far as to say that the European avant-garde scene during the 1960s was ‘dominated by these maniacs, these complete creeps, you know – who were trying to make everyone write this crazy, creepy music.’

Whatever the case, by the late 1950s Reich and Glass serendipitously arrived at the same place to further their musical education. The Juilliard School provided focus and direction for both, but inspiration was to follow later. Reich headed west to California to study with avant-garde composer Luciano Berio between 1961–62. Berio immediately grasped the compositional conundrum that bugged Reich since his Juilliard days. He said: ‘if you want to write tonal music, why don’t you?’ Tonality and pulsation belonged to jazz and popular music, but where else? Reich found the answer by looking at non-Western music. He picked up a copy of A. M. Jones’ landmark account Studies in African Music and started unravelling the complex rhythmic patterns and lines transcribed by Jones.

From these early studies, a musical language evolved that eventually resulted in classic minimalist compositions such as Drumming (1971) and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973). Reich’s visit many years later to Ghana in 1970 to experience African music at first hand served mainly to reaffirm what the composer had already found out through his own research.

'Listening to jazz and rock convinced all three that regular pulsation was music’s heartbeat, repetition its lifeblood, and harmonic consonance its food and drink...'

Philip Glass © Gladys Strouc Tison. Courtesy of Dunvagen Music Publishers

While Reich headed west, Glass headed east, to Paris, to study with the doyenne of musical theory and counterpoint, Nadia Boulanger. Revered and feared in equal measure, Glass later said of his weekly lessons with Boulanger: ‘It was a nightmare! But I loved it.’

If Reich received inspiration at Mills, Glass received discipline from Boulanger, along with the foundations upon which to build a solid compositional technique. But Boulanger was only one thread in a colourful tapestry of influences. If Reich had appropriated specific musical sources such as African music to his own ends, Glass drew on an eclectic range of non-musical influences from all four corners of the world. His thirst for knowledge ranged from Kalimpong on the foothills of the Himalayas to the Wixárika Indians in the mountains of central Mexico and to the four spiritual paths of yoga, Buddhism, tai chi and the Toltec tradition.

Like Reich, Glass’s exposure to non-Western music changed all the rules for him, although this time the influence was North Indian rather than African

One of the first of Glass’s encounters was to help shape the direction of his music for years to come. In-between lessons with Boulanger, Glass worked with Indian sitar player and composer Ravi Shankar for Conrad Rooks’ psychedelic film Chappaqua (1966). The film is now largely forgotten, but its impact on Glass was decisive. Like Reich, Glass’s exposure to non-Western music changed all the rules for him, although this time the influence was North Indian rather than African. Glass soon struck upon the idea of generating large musical structures out of the combination of small rhythmic cells and cyclical patterns, as heard later in compositions written specifically for the composer’s own ensemble of electric keyboards, saxophones, flutes and voices, such as the colourful, dynamic Music with Changing Parts (1971) and the epic, mesmerising Music in Twelve Parts (1971–74).

An Unequivocablly American Sound

If Glass’s musical ‘double life’ included working with Shankar while producing counterpoint exercises for Boulanger, during the early 1970s, Adams’s double life at Harvard involved composing twelve-note music for his composition teachers during the day while listening to Jim Morrison and The Doors or Eric Clapton’s Cream by night. In an attempt to reconcile these differences, Adams headed – as Reich had done a decade or so earlier – to San Francisco, armed with a copy of John Cage’s influential book Silence. Soon, Adams started to develop his own musical voice, initially through collage, quotation and experimentation, such as in the neo-Ivesian American Standard (1973), but also by harnessing the rhythmic energy and harmonic stasis of minimalism to his own, far more eclectic and intuitive ends.

Adams later stated that ‘minimalism is only a fraction of my musical life’, and his music’s architectonic dimensions, large-scale tonal designs, temporal sweep and vivid orchestration owes as much to Debussy and Ravel as it does to minimalism. In fact, paradoxically all three composers’ musical languages have been moulded by outside influences. It is worth noting that the sounds that now epitomise America were drawn from cultures and traditions far beyond its borders.

Just as Debussy’s music leaves an indelibly ‘French’ imprint on its audience, so does Adams’s music sound unequivocally ‘American’.

His music lives and breathes a kind of present-tense America, one which – in operas such as Nixon in China (1985–7) or the controversial The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) – possesses the same sense of immediacy and urgency one gets from a CNN news bulletin. There is of course far more to Adams’s music than recasting historical and political ‘fact’ through music. His powerful yet restrained On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) was one of the first works by a major composer to respond to ‘9/11’.

'Just as Debussy’s music leaves an indelibly French imprint on its audience, so does Adams’s music sound unequivocally American'

John Adams. Photo: Margaretta Mitchell

From City to Desert

Film footage from KOYAANISQATSI (1982). Directed by Godfrey Reggio. Cinematography by Ron Fricke

Not every work by Adams is set in contemporary America. His 2006 opera A Flowering Tree is based on an Indian folk tale, for example, but more often than not Adams’s music is shaped by America’s people, history, politics and landscape. Even the early Shaker Loops (1978) looks back, somewhat nostalgically, to the gradual disappearance of a strong and vibrant religious community and tradition that flourished in the village of Canterbury, New Hampshire, during the nineteenth century, near where Adams grew up as a child, while large-scale choral works such as El Niño (2000) and The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013) cast a contemporary light on biblical texts.

Adams’s music often seems to belong to an ‘America of the moment’ – high octane journeys in fast cars and their subsequent valorisation and glamorisation in road movies. But there is also a very different America of the moment, one paralysed by fear and self-doubt.

Back in the mid-1960s, Reich’s early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) located America in a dystopian present, capturing the paranoia that gripped the country in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 (the ‘rain’ of a nuclear winter) or, in K. Robert Schwarz’s words, the ‘horrific racial strife that would soon engulf America’ during the race riots of the 1960s.

Later, the third act of Reich and Beryl Korot’s multi-media opera Three Tales (2002), entitled ‘Dolly’ also addressed contemporary issues relating to cloning and genetic engineering.

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot. Photo: Alice Arnold

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot. Photo: Alice Arnold

Reich’s music also reflects an ‘America of the self’ and ties in with the composer’s quest during the late 1970s and 80s to look inwards in order to rediscover his own religious roots and identity. It resulted in a series of notable works, such as the rich, vibrant psalm settings of Tehillim (1982), and later on, the multi-layered multimedia opera The Cave (1993). In reality, The Cave is no more ‘religious’ than Adams’s Nixon in China is ‘political’, although both are informed respectively by religious and political themes.

Photos: John Adams, El Niño at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris (2000) © Kopie; John Adams, The Flowering Tree at Halle E+G, Vienna (2006) © Lisbeth Rojas; Steve Reich's Three Tales (2005) © Wonge Bergmann

The ‘America of the moment’ is linked to an ‘America of place’. Its cityscapes have served as inspiration for positive reflections, such as Reich’s New York Counterpoint (1985), in addition to more negative ones, such as City Life (1995) or Adams’s City Noir (2009). The rugged, wide open ‘frontier’ spaces of America’s Midwest and Southwest is celebrated in Adams’s Hoodoo Zephyr (1992–3) or The Dharma at Big Sur (2003), for example, while Reich’s ominous The Desert Music (1984), offers a harrowing glimpse of a world turned to dust following nuclear Armageddon. In all cases, a sense of place is animated by Adams and Reich’s keen sense of ‘psycho-geography’: these are not places captured in timeless isolation but conjured up through the composers’ own response to (and experience of) them.

Glass’s music captures the fragility and uncertainty of the American psyche, one that lies beneath the Gung-ho, machismo and hubris

Personal, spiritual and religious reflection relates to another kind of ‘America’: the ‘America of the mind.’ Glass’s music, in particular, captures the fragility and uncertainty of the American psyche, one that lies beneath the Gung-ho, machismo and hubris. The opening from his Glassworks suite (1982) presents a world that is both bittersweet and strangely familiar. Susan McClary sums it up: ‘before us glimmers once again the Romantic soul, decked out with all its requisite emotional trappings – alienation, memories of lost arcadia, and longing for utopia.’ It’s a grizzly paradox that Adams also tapped into in his autobiography Hallelujah Junction: ‘America loves its heroes [and] thrills at their triumphs … [but] we love even more to bear witness to their weaknesses, to see them fall from their pedestals, suffer humiliation, even degradation. In this way their eventual rehabilitations can be all the more bittersweet and inspirational for us. If they die before they are forgiven, we raise them up posthumously. It is part of the psychic drama, the dark, nether side of fame.’

Whether reflecting an America of the mind or the self, of a sense of place, a moment in time, or of the America of supermarket shelves and mass production, the music of Reich, Adams and Glass will forever resonate with the sounds that made – and changed – America during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Photo: Utah Desert © Deborah O'Grady

Listen to The Sounds that Changed America playlist on Spotify

Words by Pwyll ap Siôn

Pwyll ap Siôn is Professor of Music at Bangor University, Wales, and is the recipient of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship on the music of Steve Reich.

Illustrations by R N Taylor