In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Minimalism was the rage of Classical Music. It was the “rage” in both senses of the word, anger and an enthusiastic fad. I was curious about it, though not really tempted by it until I heard some of the later music of Steve Reich, which I found absolutely infectious. It was right about 1980 when I started to experiment with some minimalist ideas. I worked with these ideas for about 8-12 months before deciding to not pursue it any further, but by then I had written several pieces.
To me, I didn’t see Minimalism as a style, but as a novel and somewhat non-linear approach to musical organization. Those who saw minimalism as a style tended to emphasize the repetition, but I was more interested in the organization of the changes. Traditional musical structure is organized like a story, in sequential blocks. But music can have several different levels of activity going on at the same time. Though traditional music has this capacity as well, Minimalism’s use of repeated material allows these different levels to be very clearly defined. I was interested in using Minimalist techniques to create a large-scale hierarchical structure with different levels changing at different speeds. The idea is similar to how an Indonesian Gamelan works, with some instruments playing every eighth note while some larger gongs are playing only once every eight or sixteen bars. My interest in this aspect of Minimalism actually aligns me more with John Adams than Reich, Phillip Glass, or Terry Riley, but I didn’t hear any of Adams music until about six years later.
The work below was an early attempt at this technique and sounds quite Minimalist. Each instrument plays nested patterns of different lengths (cello 2 beats, viola 4 beats, Violin II 8 beats, and Violin I 16 beats). Pattern changes occur at the level of Violin I. Every 16 beats one of the four instruments changes its pattern. The changes are organized in a large-scale hierarchy like a Gamelan. If you were to listen all the way through, you would hear that the final collection of patterns is the same as the beginning.
String Quartet 1980
Calypso Round is one of my later works following this Minimalist path. I originally wrote the work for Flute, French Horn, Marimba, Harp, and Double Bass. I wrote a concert of chamber works with various combinations of these instruments, and Calypso Round was supposed to be the finale. I found, however, that the music I had written seemed to be very difficult. I cancelled my plans for this particular concert and massaged my approach so that it was more generalized and forgiving (and therefore easier), eventually writing a concert for two violins and double bass.
Though most of the other works I wrote for the original concert were eventually performed, Calypso Round remained unperformed for twenty years. It was partly due to the difficulty of the work and partly due to its unusual collection of instruments. In 1999, I decided to orchestrate the work and showed it to Robert Moody, the resident conductor with the Phoenix Symphony, who programmed it for the next year. (The original performance was done with some dancers from Ballet Arizona.)
The difference between Calypso Round and the String Quartet is that I liberate the musical material from the instruments in which it is introduced. The result is that some of the musical patterns are tossed between different instruments, often sounding like imitation, or even a round, hence the name. Since the patterns can sometimes occur in instruments of different registers, they lose their identity as “levels” of sound, becoming instead just musical ideas or motives. This makes the piece sound less like Minimalism and more like normal dance music. Eventually in my investigation into Minimalism, I started to add free material and variations to the patterns, which dissolved the effect even further. at which point I just absorbed what I had learned from the experiment and moved on to something else.
Calypso Round is scored for a lavish orchestra – 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 French Horns, 3 Trumpets, 2 Trombones, Bass Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, 3 Percussion (Mallet Instruments – Marimba, Xylophone, Glockenspiel) (Non-pitched Percussion Instruments – Quijada (Jawbone), Triangle, Timbale, Slapstick, Bell Plate) (Drum Set), Piano, Harp, and Strings. It is the only orchestra work I’ve written which includes a drum set, and I found it to be a lot of fun.