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.



Otar Taktakishvili’s Flute Sonata

Otar Taktakishvili (b. Tbilisi, 27 July 1924; d. 21 Feb 1989) was a composer, teacher, writer, and conductor in Soviet Georgia. He rose to national prominence early in his career, having composed the official anthem of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic while he was still a composition student of Sarkis Barkhudaryan at the Tbilisi Conservatory. The Conservatory later appointed him professor of choral literature and director of the choir in 1949, a mere two years after his graduation. In later years, he also taught composition and served as rector. Outside of the Conservatory, he served as rehearsal pianist, conductor, and eventually artistic director of the State Choral Kapella of Georgia.


Beyond the Ink: Karg-Elert’s Sonata Appassionata

As discussed in my previous post, the performers in Karg-Elert’s life had a profound impact on his compositional output. Fortunately for flutists today, one of those influential colleagues was Carl Bartuzăt, flutist and fellow member of the 107th Infantry Regiment band during World War I. In the preface to his Thirty Caprices, op. 107, Karg-Elert credits the inception of his flute works composed between 1915-1918 to Bartuzăt. This Preface also provides the crucial raison dêtre for these exercises. Karg-Elert sought to mimic the challenges found in the demanding modern orchestral repertoire and exploit the new technical capabilities of the Boehm flute. He discusses the need to form this “connecting link between the existing educational literature and the unusually complicated parts of modern orchestral work” in the following excerpts*: