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MINIMALIST REQUIREMENTS ACCORDING TO JOHN ADAMS.

Byline: David Mermelstein Correspondent

Irony lies at the heart of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox festival, a comprehensive survey of the musical movement that for better or worse has had a profound impact on music over the past 40 (give or take) years.

The irony, of course, concerns the fact that a maximum ensemble (the Phil contains around 100 musicians) is sponsoring and taking part in a festival devoted to music that is, at least philosophically, all about the small-scale. Or is it? Determining which composers, and which of their works, qualified for inclusion in this festival proved no easy task. The challenge fell to composer John Adams, whom the Philharmonic asked to curate the project, currently under way at the Walt Disney Concert Hall through April 2. Adams, who will conduct the final concerts starting Friday, is frequently called a Minimalist, though he eschews the designation.

``I have chosen to be very specific about it,'' said Adams, attempting to define Minimalism. ``There have to be three elements: a perceptible pulse, emphatic tonality within a relatively slow harmonic rhythm and a repetition of small cells or motives, which over time create larger architectonic structures. A brick wall is a good analogy.'' For those who might find that explanation too technical, the composer has this to say: ``It's the opposite of a Bach chorale, which has a change every beat. People might say that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony qualifies, but it doesn't, because of the nature of the harmonies, which change rapidly. That piece also contains the rhetoric of closure, but Minimalism avoids closure like the plague. Your classic Minimalist piece just stops, even after six hours, like someone pulled the plug.''

Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, says defining Minimalism is ``subjective,'' an acknowledgment that the genre, at least practically speaking, is difficult to limit. Yet he's willing to take a stab at it.

``I associate it with a strain in American music that goes back to the first part of the last century,'' he says, ``to the American mavericks. I think of it as something originating on the West Coast, rejecting to a great extent European notions of working within strict forms like presentation of a theme or working in a highly organized mode. I think of it instead as music more as a landscape, a slowly unfolding process in which a theme may be heard over a broad span of time.''

Ross cites composers like Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison and John Cage as progenitors of Minimalism, and notes the influence of Asian music, including Indian and Near Eastern. (Only Cage, though, is featured in the festival, as part of a special event concert on March 30.) Like many other authorities, Ross credits La Monte Young and Terry Riley as Minimalism's co-creators.

But Adams begs to differ. Though Riley retains a prominent place in this festival, Young has been excluded. ``I do not include La Monte Young,'' says Adams.

``I know his fans are adamant about saying he was the first, but he and Morton Feldman do not fall into what I define as Minimalism. Their work is minimalist without being Minimalism.''

So whom has Adams admitted to the clubhouse? Well, first there are the usual suspects - ``well-known composers like Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

There are also some more avant-garde choices, like Meredith Monk, Glenn Branca and Michael Gordon (a co-founder of the lauded Bang on a Can festival and its resultant chamber ensemble, as well as a composer). In addition, Adams has reached out to Europe, giving ample attention to the works of Dutch composer Louis Andreissen and Estonian composer Arvo Part, who is often described (along with John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki) as a ``holy'' or ``spiritual'' Minimalist. The festival even features music by post-Minimalists, like Michael Torke and Adams himself.

For the most part, Adams says he is satisfied with the wide range of composers he has selected for Minimalist Jukebox, but he does admit to one regret, the omission of music by Gavin Bryars, the English composer best-known for the bathetic ``Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet.'' (Adams offers no apologies for the absence of another Englishman, Michael Nyman.) ``Gavin sort of slipped under my radar,'' says Adams.

``It's kind of a puzzle whether he really qualifies for my definition, but I do feel a little bad about that. I should have done something of his.'' In fact, he almost has: Among the events under the Jukebox umbrella is a Monday evening concert programmed and performed by the California EAR Unit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater that features not only a piece by Bryers, but also one by Young.

Though Minimalist Jukebox includes a range of ensembles in addition to the Philharmonic - the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble and the keyboard players of Piano Spheres, among others - the orchestra retains an understandable pride of place. As a result, certain artistic compromises were required.

``The biggest challenge is how do you make a major symphony orchestra present a Minimalism festival for two weeks,'' says Adams. ``The best work by Glass and Riley are not their orchestral works; it's their pieces for what I call indigenous ensembles. And that goes for Meredith Monk and Glenn Branca.''

Yet the composer has only praise for the Philharmonic's leadership in placing Minimalism center stage. For despite the fame of such composers as Glass and Reich, to say nothing of Adams, this festival is the first in-depth examination of Minimalism by an American orchestra during its regular season. (The San Francisco Symphony produced a well-regarded series along similar lines in 2000, but it was programmed as a post-season event.) ``What makes it special is that it's done under the aegis of a forward-looking orchestra in this wonderful hall that represents the spirit of culture on the West Coast,'' says Adams. Ross is even more effusive.

``This looks like one of the most amazing things an American orchestra has ever done,'' he says. ``It's a superbly laid-out overview of this music and its reverberations. It's just a landmark. All credit to the Philharmonic for doing it.''

MINIMALIST JUKEBOX

What: Concerts featuring music by Louis Andriessen, Arvo Part, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and Michael Torke, variously performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw and Stefan Asbury, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, led by Grant Gershon.

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: 2 and 8 p.m. today; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $15 to $129. (323) 850-2000. www.laphil.com. Concerts in the Minimalist Jukebox series continue through April 2.

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photo

Photo:

Beginning Friday, John Adams - frequently referred to as a Minimalist - will conduct the Jukebox concerts.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 25, 2006
Words:1140
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