Minimal Piano Collection Volume XXI-XXVIII
Jeroen van Veen (piano)
rec. 2015/16, Van Veen Productions, Studio 2, Pernissimo, Pernis, The Netherlands BRILLIANT CLASSICS95543 [8 CDs: 596 mins]
Jeroen van Veen’s Minimal Piano Collection juggernaut continues its unstoppable progress with this chunky 8 CD box set, the even chunkier Volume X-XX of which was reviewed in 2011. This set poses the question, “Who is the true father of Minimalism?” Many of us would think first of Terry Riley with In C as a founding work, and this was indeed a significant milestone, but minimalism is and always was much more than ostinato based transformation.
Dennis Johnson’s huge pianistic landscape November from around 1959 was for a long time something of a musical legend, known about by barely a handful of musicians, and by no means available as a published or performable work. Composer Kyle Gann painstakingly reconstructed parts of the work from a very poor and ancient cassette recording, and after gratefully receiving copies of whatever written material the composer had made, recordings such as van Veen’s and a 2013 release from the Irritable Hedgehog label played by R. Andrew Lee have been made possible.
There are improvisatory elements to the way this music has been put together, so no two recordings will be exactly the same, but the spacious and time-extending feel of the music anticipates Morton Feldman’s own vast later scores. La Monte Young cites Johnson’s November as an influence on his work, and as Young is generally viewed as “the father of minimalism” with his long drones we are clearly getting into some serious provenance with November. As with Feldman, the material in November circles around itself, musical cells and chords subtly changing their context to create an ongoing and never resolving cadence that echoes the slow natural phenomena of crystal formation or the cycles of organic nature or the rotating gravitational dance of the planets. Dissonances tend to be ‘soft’, having the feel of resolution in progress, and there are some sections that have tonal textures that almost lean towards amorous romanticism. This, in other words, is a very pleasant listening experience indeed, and if you are prepared to suspend your craving for swift change and contrast then you will be taken to a place of fascinating beauty.
CD 5 moves us on to the world of Philip Glass in 1969 during a period when his minimalism was of the ‘hard-core’ variety, and when some would argue that he was at his best. Two Pages was written for free instrumentation as were many of Glass’s pieces at this time, and Jeroen van Veen takes its single line on piano and an electric piano in octaves, the slight contrast in timbre adding a mild chime to the fast-paced but slowly developing notes. Hypnotic span and rhythmic accents are also a feature of Music in Fifths, this time played with grand piano and electric organ, raising the bar further on that touch of added sparkle to the sound. Hearing these pieces in this order is like encountering a speeded-up development of music from Medieval monody to harmony, the ultimate refinement being Music in Contrary Motion, here played on piano alone. This option gives more flexibility in terms of dynamic, and there is an organic flow to this version which is very appealing.
Tom Johnson’s Organ and Silence is a refreshing surprise after Philip Glass’s full textures, the music shaping the acoustic and its silences as much as forming its own statements. This was originally a work for organ in 28 movements, of which eight have been transcribed for piano. There are no ostinato patterns here, but you can hear the logical ‘argument’ of each piece as it develops, with subtraction or subtle change keeping us guessing while satisfying an inner intellectual itch. There is a poetry in these pieces which is continued in Block Design, the title of which referring to mathematical principles that also applies to the construction of the musical material. This is process music, but with an elegance of gesture and sonority that is quite hypnotic. Tilework is also connected with mathematics, this time using mosaic-like ‘tiles’ to create something with a more pointillist character. Tango is a delightful little finale, doing what it says on the tin in the left hand, while the right hand works its way through 120 variations on a five-note melody.
Peter Garland is another less-familiar name in this firmament of early minimalists, through by chance I recently came across his Walk in Beauty on an innova recording of the same name (review). His sublime tonal repetitions went entirely against the grain during the avant-garde of the 1970s, but the technique of repeating fragments in an order chosen by the performer is very much part of the period’s zeitgeist. Jeroen van Veen has taken deliberately slower tempi in his playing of these pieces with the approval of the composer, but with the freedoms in a score such as A Song there are plenty of ways of creating its atmosphere of stately beauty. Nostalgia for the Southern Cross has a poignant feel, having been written after Garland became separated from his first wife. The Days Run Away takes us out and back on an extended journey through eight segments that are played ‘slowly and softly.’ The gently rocking phrase of the opening is gradually augmented, with certain notes taking on a more melodic identity while the essence of the music’s flow being in its consistent integrity, the return towards the feel of the opening a quasi-resolution that of course never entirely resolves. Two Persian Miniatures stretches the sound of the piano, with an instruction to “hold the notes until all sound dies away.” This cannot be entirely be observed of course, especially with the resonance of the fine Yamaha C7 used for these recordings, but the horizons do spread towards infinity, and the relationships between notes and chords become rare and precious. The Fall of Quang Tri builds around a central C# to create a slow, cluster-like vortex that builds in dynamic before releasing us into silence.
I last had a look at Terry Riley’s Piano Studies No. 2 played by three pianists on the DUX ‘Grand Tour’ album (review), but Jeroen van Veen uses two pianos positioned at an angle and takes on the challenge of coordinating rhythm and variation between the two instruments. This creates a remarkable effect and is a tour de force of stamina and inventiveness from both composer and performer. The swift ostinato of both Piano Studies has the meditative quality most associated with minimalism, but these performances also have an energising groove and keep one alert to spot each change, like looking at the night sky for the occasional shooting star.
Harold Budd’s serene soundworld may be familiar to some from his work with Brian Eno, and Children on the Hill comes from Budd’s album ‘The Serpent (In Quicksilver)’ from 1981, van Veen’s performing version coming from another transcription by Kyle Gann. Budd’s phasey piano is exchanged for a more pure sound in this new version, the instrument given a halo of added resonance using an amplifier.
La Monte Young really deserves a chapter all of his own, but Composition 1960 No. 7 is a fine tribute with which to conclude this remarkable collection. The music is just an open fifth played once and held down on the piano until the notes have decayed entirely. Van Veen stretches this effect to an appropriately homage-like 4:33 duration.
You may have preconceived ideas about minimalism as a musical genre, but this chunky box set reveals more about its origins and sheer diversity than you would expect. This is not only chock full of inventive and revolutionary surprises, but will also fill that need you might have for extended sonic landscapes that can take you on flights of inspired imagination. Jeroen van Veen’s music factory is prodigious but by no means superficial, and the sense of commitment to these works and the quality of the performances is luminously apparent throughout. All I can say is, snap up this good stuff while it’s still around.
Contents Dennis JOHNSON (b. 1938)
November I/IV (parts 1-6) [79:56]
November II/IV (parts 7-12) [79:54]
November III/IV (parts 13-18) [79:55]
November IV/IV (parts 19-24) [77:10]
CD 5 Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Two Pages (1969) [23:10]
Music in Fifths (1969) [29:19]
Music in Contrary Motion (1969) [22:36]
CD 6 Tom JOHNSON (b. 1939)
Organ and Silence (2002) [25:19]
Block Design [19:53]
Tilework (2003) [5:42]
Tango (1984) [4:27]
CD 7 Peter GARLAND (b. 1952)
A Song (1971) [24:07]
Nostalgia for the Southern Cross (1976) [5:17]
The Days Run Away (1971) [29:09]
Two Persian Miniatures (1971) [8:15]
The Fall of Quang Ti (1972) [3:11]
CD 8 Terry RILEY (b. 1935)
Keyboard Studies (1965)
No. 1 [25:44]
No. 2 [33:20] Harold BUDD (b. 1936)
Children on the Hill (1981) [5:43] La Monte YOUNG (b. 1935)
Composition 1960 No. 7 (1960) [4:33]