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Minimalism Conference: Final Report
11 Sep 2009
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Mikel Rouse listening to Charlemagne Palestine

Mikel Rouse listening to Charlemagne Palestine

When I finally struck out for the Kansas City airport on Sunday afternoon, Kyle Gann was about 45 minutes into a very chilled-out performance of his heroic four-and-a-half-hour transcription of Dennis Johnson’s November–a piece which inspired La Monte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano and was the first minimalist piece to employ a diatonic scale, repetition, and to stretch for multiple hours.  November probably would have been lost to history had Kyle not undertaken the work of rescuing it.  Sarah Cahill was going to take over from him at some point that afternoon, and the final notes of that performance were to mark the official end of the conference.

While I did have to miss most of the November performance in order to catch my flight home, I’m pleased to say that in the course of the four and a half days of the conference I only missed the end of that performance, one paper on Sunday morning, and the opening remarks of the conference (having gotten lost on my way from the hotel that first day).  Not all of the papers were brilliant, but some of them were, and all of them had at least some interesting features.  Not all of the pieces on all of the concerts were brilliant, but every concert was worth attending, and some of the music was truly great.  But I’ve talked about the papers and the concerts already: what I want to talk about now is the social experience.

Musicological research into minimalist music is a small and young field.  Vast areas of theoretical and biographical groundwork remain to be done, there are few published close readings of even the most iconic pieces, and much of the work that has been done has not yet made it into the standard musicological journals and resources.  One result, of course, is that researchers in musicology have the exciting prospect of building the foundation of the field, writing the essential papers that will guide future work, and making the kinds of profound discoveries that are so rare in more mature fields.  The other result is a sense of comraderie among the participants in the research, promoted by the sense of common purpose, a need and desire to build on each others’ work, and the excitement of discovery.  That sense of discovery isn’t just about discovering music or interesting research, but also about discovering a group of like-minded scholars who have been thus far toiling independently.  Adversity, to be blunt, fosters community.  I arrived in Kansas City knowing only a handful of people, and I left with the sense that I had begun dozens of potential friendships.  Many of the papers I heard contained not just interesting material, but insights and references I wish I had know about when I was writing my own paper.

The other advantage of a conference in a small field is the fact that the major figures are accessible.  One of Kyle Gann’s chief claims to fame in the musicological world is his tenure at the Village Voice, and his book Music Downtown, a collection of his writings for the Voice, is an essential primary source for anybody studying postminimalism.  Before Kyle was covering minimalism for the Voice, though, Tom Johnson held the post from 1972-82, and his own collection of articles, The Voice of New Music, is similarly essential.  Tom lives in Paris, and I had always assumed that I would never meet him, but he attended the whole conference, gave a talk about minimalism in Europe, and spent the week hanging out with the rest of us.  I lean heavily on Kyle and Tom in my paper, and it was nerve-wracking to have them both in the audience, but the fact that they both seem to have liked my paper gives me confidence that I’m on the right track.  Keith Potter, author of Four Musical Minimalists, was there, and I was delighted to find that he’s beginning some extensive further research on Steve Reich.  Mikel Rouse was in town to present his film Funding, but in between visiting family in the area and visiting his favorite haunts from his own days studying at UMKC, he attended a number of the paper sessions.  Conference co-organizer David McIntire gave a paper on Rouse, and most of us didn’t realize that Mikel was in the room–during the post-paper discussion someone pointed out that he could actually resolve a couple of questions for us, which he graciously did.  Sarah Cahill played the piano beautifully, and in person she couldn’t have been nicer.  Charlemagne Palestine played the organ beautifully, and in person he’s kind of a maniac.  Paul Epstein gave a presentation a compositional technique called “interleaving” which he uses extensively and to excellent effect–after his presentation I assured him that I would be stealing the idea from him.  And that’s just the people I had heard of beforehand.

The third installment of this conference series is tentatively scheduled for October, 2011, near Brussels.  The plan is to switch back and forth across the Atlantic every two years, and 2011 feels like a long way off.  While it was nice to get back home and to catch up on sleep (I was averaging about 4 to 5 hours a night while I was in KC), I also didn’t want to leave.

P.S. Here’s a copy of my paper as delivered at the conference, including typos and still sans bibliography.  For more about the conference itself, don’t miss Kyle’s series of postings over at his blog.

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