Minimalist Flute Works

Minimalism as a musical genre owes its inception to the work of American composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass beginning in the 1960s. Musicologist Keith Potter describes the raison d’être for this compositional movement as the need for an “antidote to Modernism, as represented by both the total serialism of Boulez and Stockhausen and the indeterminacy of Cage.” The resulting style sought to promote tonality/modality and simplicity in the wake of the complexity of serialism and the disjunct nature of indeterminacy. From these fundamental ideals, a series of characteristics specific to the minimalist movement emerged. In his essay “Thankless Attempts as a Definition of Minimalism,” Kyle Gann lists these “ideas, devices, and techniques” as such: static harmony, repetition, additive process, phase-shifting, permutational process, steady beat, static instrumentation, linear transformation, pure tuning, influence of non-western cultures, and audible structure.

One compositional issue that arises from the minimalist aesthetic is the practical application of this genre in works conceived for a single-line wind instrument. The greatest challenge to repetition and maintaining a steady pulse is the inherent need to breathe, an issue that is otherwise irrelevant in works for strings, piano, or percussion. In studying minimalist works for the flute, several tactics for overcoming the idiosyncrasies of single-line wind instruments emerge: scoring for live performer with pre-recorded accompaniment, crafting melodic phrases that have clear “break points,” devising rhythmic motives that inherently allow for a breath, and the intentional use of silence in the construction of additive motivic fragments. In an attempt to demonstrate the diverse language of minimalist flute works, I will provide an overview of the following pieces: Steve Reich Vermont Counterpoint, JacobTV The Garden of Love, Philip Glass Arabesque in Memoriam, David Lang Thorn, and Henryk Górecki Valentine Piece.

Perhaps the easiest way to address the challenges of composing a minimalist work for a single-line wind instrument is to conceive a pre-recorded accompaniment for the live soloist, thus allowing for the repetitive texture to continue without the soloist having to bear the brunt of maintaining the pulse. Steve Reich (b. 1936) was no stranger to minimalist tape music when he received the commission from flutist Ransom Wilson for Vermont Counterpoint (1982), a work that pits a live flutist playing piccolo, C flute, and alto flute against 10 pre-recorded flute parts. Reich’s early minimalist tape works It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) manipulated pre-recorded sounds, but the accompanimental track for Vermont Counterpoint features one multi-tracked live performer. The formal design reveals four distinct sections that are determined by key area. The melodic construction of the solo line uses an additive process where small fragments are gradually developed over a series of repetitions that vary in length. For example, in rehearsal 2-5, Reich develops the one-measure motivic fragment in the solo line over a series of four measures, each repeated one time for a total of eight repetitions (Figure 1). Later, in rehearsal 14-17, the motivic fragment is two measures in length, but all four two-measure segments are repeated one time, thus still totaling eight repetitions (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Steve Reich Vermont Counterpoint solo flute part reh. 1-5.

Figure 1: Steve Reich Vermont Counterpoint solo flute part reh. 1-5.

Figure 2: Steve Reich Vermont Counterpoint solo flute part reh. 14-17.

Figure 2: Steve Reich Vermont Counterpoint solo flute part reh. 14-17.

Jacob ter Veldhuis (JacobTV, b. 1951) is a self-proclaimed Dutch “avant pop” composer best known for his distinct genre of “boombox repertoire:” pieces for live performer and synthesized soundtracks based on speech samples. Dubbed “the Andy Warhol of new music,” his minimalist yet throughly tonal compositions create a unique multimedia experience. In a sense, his work synthesize Reich’s early tape music with his later instrumental minimalist works by combining repetitive and manipulated spoken word with a live performer. The Garden of Love (2002) is based on a poem by William Blake, and the pre-recorded electronic component consists of spoken words, various instrument samples, and bird calls. The work was initially conceived for oboe, arranged for soprano saxophone in 2003, and adapted for flute by Margaret Lancaster in 2008. The form of the poem dictates the formal structure of the composition. While the eighth-note pulse remains constant through the constantly shifting meter, there is no clear pulsing rhythmic structure. The minimalist aesthetic therefore refers more to groups of repetitive rhythmic motives (rather than overall rhythmic structure) and pitch classes. A prime example of this approach is the material in mm. 48-57 (Figure 3) which consists of one four-measure phrase (mm. 48-52) and one five-measure phrase (mm. 53-57). The first phrase features a mostly-constant sixteenth note rhythmic motive with the pitch class set [F#-G-A-B-C#-D-E]. The rhythmic motive shifts in the second phrase to one eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes or its inverse, two sixteenth notes followed by one eighth note. The second phrase also contains a smaller pitch class set [B-C-D-F-G].

Figure 3: JacobTV The Garden of Love mm. 48-57.

Figure 3: JacobTV The Garden of Love mm. 48-57.

A different tactic in overcoming the inherent challenges of writing minimalist music for a wind instrument is crafting melodic motives that have clear “break points” where a breath does not disrupt the forward motion of the music. Philip Glass (b. 1937) had a distinct compositional advantage when he conceived Arabesque in Memoriam (1988) for solo flute— as a young musician, he studied flute at the Peabody Preparatory Institute with Britton Johnson, the dedicatee of this work. Though Arabesque in Memoriam is clearly pulse-based, shifts in harmony and the rhythmic subdivision of the beat allow for clear delineation of phrases which directly translates to appropriate places for the flutist to breathe (Figure 4). An example of the combination of these two techniques occurs at rehearsal 3 (mm.13-20). Harmonically, Glass primarily presents two-measure phrase groupings, so it would not be disruptive to breathe on the bar line between shifts in harmonic areas, a practice that is generally discouraged in wind repertoire. In mm. 13-16, he establishes a repeating harmonic sequence of DM-f#m-DM-f#° in arpeggiated triplets where the bar line serves as a clear marker for the breaks between each repetition. The harmonic pattern changes to DM-f#m-f#°-bm7 in mm. 17-18, and the two full measures of D-Major in mm. 19-20 repeat. Without the change in harmony to dictate phrase breaks in the repeated D-major measures, the phrasing is aided by the quickening of the rhythmic subdivision from triplets to sixteenth notes and the subsequent relaxing back to triplets on the repeat, thus allowing for a breath in the ebb back to a slower subdivision.

Figure 4: Philip Glass Arabesque in Memorium mm. 13-20.

Figure 4: Philip Glass Arabesque in Memoriam mm. 13-20.

In addition to melodic motives that have clear phrase breaks, it is possible to devise rhythmic motives that inherently allow for a breath. Post-minimalist composer David Lang (b. 1957) demonstrates this tactic in Thorn (1993) for solo flute. This piece features rhythmic and harmonic permutations of a repeated three-note grouping that descends from a piercing note in the third octave to a note in the middle range and ends in the extreme low register of the instrument (Figure 5). Lang’s marking at the beginning of the score reads “rhythmic and hard—the top notes should be painful—breathe when you can.” Lang obscures the pulse with metric shifts between 3/8, 5/16, 2/8, and 3/16, but fortunately for the performer, it is the shifts that make any measure ending in an eighth note (rather than a sixteenth note) a suitable place to breathe. The primary differences between this post-minimalist work and the previously cited minimalist works are the blatant exploitation of the full range of the instrument and the lack of overall formal structure.

Figure 5: David Lang Thorn mm. 1-10.

Figure 5: David Lang Thorn mm. 1-10.

All of the works discussed thus far are essentially constant streams of sound, but Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) intentionally uses silence in the construction of additive motivic fragments in Valentine Piece (1996). The work is part of an anthology of “valentines” for solo flute commissioned by Carol Wincenc. Similar to the motivic construction in Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, Górecki gradually develops small fragments over a series of repetitions, but whereas Reich employs this technique over a pulse-based accompaniment, Górecki incorporates sonic breaks between each subsequent repetition (Figure 6). Valentine Piece begins with a 32nd-note minor third descending motive from C to A followed by a fermata over a half rest. After several repetitions, the motive expands to three notes by resolving back up to the initial C.  The final expansion of the motive adds the D above the initial C before moving to a new motivic cell. The fermata over the rest stresses Górecki’s intentional use of silence as a compositional tool— the rests as written would create a certain degree of separation between each iteration of the motive, but the addition of the fermata emphasizes Górecki’s acceptance of silence within a minimalist texture.

Figure 6: Henryk Górecki Valentine Piece mm. 1-5.

Figure 6: Henryk Górecki Valentine Piece mm. 1-5.

All of the techniques I have dicussed address the inherent challenges of composing a minimalist work for a single-line wind instrument. These different approaches, including melodic and rhythmic considerations in pulsed-based unaccompanied works, filling silence with pre-recorded sounds, and simply accepting silence as a sonic break between iterations of a motive, allow for the application of the minimalist aesthetic to an instrument that relies on the breath for sound production.

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