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Surprises at L.A.'s Minimalist Jukebox Festival

DAVID WAS reporting:

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is taking the next two weeks to celebrate Minimalism, music that is barely there in the traditional sense.

(Soundbite of music)


It's musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

WAS: It pulses and drones. It is more static than dynamic, and yet has survived much controversy in the last three decades to find it's way into films scores and even pop music. John Adams, the director of the festival called Minimalist Jukebox, is also a practitioner of the genre and says the term is misleading when applied to music that is so full of expression and affords us such pure delight.

(Soundbite of minimalist music)

WAS: The big names of the small music are well represented in the festival, including the movement's godfather, Terry Riley, whose composition, In C, was among the first to incorporate the sounds of India and the Far East, where harmonic movement takes a back burner to darting and droning melodic variations.

(Soundbite of minimalist music)

WAS: Philip Glass also embraced such music, even transcribing Indian ragas while studying traditional western harmony, resulting in his hypnotic score for the film Koyaanisqatsi, which perfectly captured the frenetic and repetitious quality of modern life.

(Soundbite of music by Philip Glass)

WAS: Just as the bee-bop musicians of the 1940s were attenuated to a French Impressionist harmony, the hipper pop musicians of the last 30 years adopted the repetitious and textural characteristics of minimalism and made it their own. Brian Eno's ambient music owes a debt to Glass and Riley, as does Mike Goldfield's Tubular Bells, which at 16 million units sold is easily the best-selling minimal work of them all.

(Soundbite of Mike Goldfield's Tubular Bells)

WAS: It could even be argued that the soporific sound of New Age music is the bastard child of chimes.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: In terms of ability, it is certainly easier to close one's eyes and drift away to the trance-inducing sounds of minimalism rather than pay attention to thematic development and the like. Anyone who's listened to a piece like Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians in a concert hall, as I did at UCLA many years ago, could only have wished to have been ensconced in a waterbed and not in an auditorium chair.

Alas, Disney Hall, where most of the festival takes place, is bedless.

(Soundbite of minimalist music)

Finally, one would be remiss not to invoke the critics of the genre, who say the music is formless and shallow and boring. The standard joke goes like this: Knock, knock. Who's there? Philip Glass. Knock, knock. Who's there? Philip Glass. Knock, knock. Who's there? Philip Glass. Ad infinitum. I would only remind the cynics that similar criticism was leveled at Ludwig Von Beethoven in his day, especially the endless variations of the four-note theme that opens his Fifth Symphony, which is probably the most recognizable and performed symphonic work of the last 300 years.

(Soundbite of Beethoven music)

BRAND: David Was is half of the musical duo, Was not Was. The Minimalist Jukebox Festival continues through March at the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Was