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Minimalists
John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Shaker Loops [24:46]
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Façades [7:48]
Company [7:17]
Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Eight Lines [17:56]
Dave HEATH (b. 1956)
The Frontier [8:13]
London Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Warren Green
rec. March 1990, All Saints Church, Petersham
VIRGIN RED LINE 7352992 [68:01]

American Minimalism is now a fairly diverse genre with lots of exponents and lots of styles, but if you’re looking for a way in then this disc is as apt an avenue as any. It gathers some accessible music from the movement’s three most famous composer - plus Dave Heath - in an easy-to-digest format in excellent performances at a bargain price.

Shaker Loops was one of the first major works that gained recognition for John Adams. Since then he has gone on to do great things, such as Harmonielehre or Doctor Atomic. There remains something special about this work of 1978, inspired by the dancing of the Shaker religious sect to their rhythmic pieces of music. It begins with an insistent, almost troubled string sound that is halfway between tremolo and frenzied repetition. It's brought to life brilliantly by the LCO strings. I especially liked the moment, a couple of minutes in, when the cellos and basses first enter and then take over the sound completely. The sly string glissandi in  Hymning Slews are both beguiling and a little sinister, as is the endlessly repeated fragment in  Loops and Verses,  finally intensifying into something close to frenzy - mimicking the dances of the Shakers. The rhythmic gyration that ends this movement is almost tantric in its intensity and hypnotic mood. The finale retains its power to surprise through radical change of mood. The final bars don't so much end as stop, the abruptness of the ending ripping us dramatically out of the work's sound world with perturbing rapidity. This work, given here in its orchestral version, is a great way into Adams’ persistent world of rhythmic intensity, and the performance helps it come to life with excitement and passion.

When Glass first used the music for Facades in the film Koyaanisqatsi  it accompanied urban shots of Wall Street on a quiet Sunday morning. Even if you haven't seen the film, the music's quietly restless vibe still has the power to evoke the constant flow of an urban scene. The music is inescapably cinematic, and that's probably just as much of an admission of how influential Glass has been - it reminded me of Hans Zimmer, among others. The ceaseless undulations of the string sound are offset by spine-tingling parts for soprano saxophone, enormously evocative but ever so slightly suggestive of danger. Company, here heard in its version for string orchestra, sounds every bit as edgy and restless, though the sound-world of the outer movements manages to be paradoxically restful at the same time; this arising, perhaps, in the hypnotic nature of its rhythmic repetitions.

My favourite thing on the disc is Reich’s Eight Lines, a fabulous piece that works through rhythm and colour. You’ll struggle to find a melody here, but the powerful use of rhythm, energy and drive had an almost narcotic effect. The first time I heard the piece was while I was out for a walk. After a while I stopped noticing my surroundings and instead felt transported by the hypnotic, endlessly energetic vision that Reich evokes through abstract sound. The constant tintinnabulations of the piano, the chirrups of the clarinets and piccolo, the enigmatically still string line - all have the power to take the listener somewhere special. It is a tremendous, almost hypnotic experience to expose yourself to this music.

Heath’s Frontier works through more overt use of contrast, blocking the frenzied writhings of some sections against equally lyrical passages; the almost electronic sound of the opening string flurry is extraordinary! It was, by the way, this orchestra and this conductor that gave the world premiere of this piece in 1990.

The performances by the London Chamber Orchestra, under their principal conductor, are committed and intelligent, and the recorded sound is very well captured. In short, this is as good an introduction to the world of minimalism as I can imagine. The main snag is that there is no documentation beyond the track-list.

Simon Thompson
 


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