Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bruckner's Minimalism

That’s a title that should get some attention!  I doubt that very many would ever expect them to appear in the same sentence, let alone as a topic for discussion.  In fairness, however, I should make the disclaimer that I have heard Anton Bruckner’s music in concert exactly once.  It is not that I have been trying hard to avoid him (although where my collecting of recorded music is concerned, I certainly have not tried to build up a major library of his work).  It is more that everyone else seems to avoid him these days, so it is not a matter of choosing one concert over another because of how much Bruckner is being performed in each of them.

The other disclaimer is that, when I did hear Bruckner in concert, I went in rather positively disposed.  That was because Kurt Masur was conducting the San Francisco Symphony.  Ironically, he had coupled Bruckner’s fourth symphony (the “Romantic” in E-flat major) with Sofia Gubaidulina’s “The Light of the End,” which is what really occupied most of my attention when I wrote about this concert on this platform back in 2009.  However, I also ended up writing about how there were parallel factors along which the works complemented each other.

One of those factors had to do with the extent to which Bruckner confined himself to two major harmonic ratios (2:3 and 3:4).  With that kind of constraint, it is almost inevitable that the melodic lines would home in on “repetitive structures” that would probably honor the spirit (if not the actual content) behind Philip Glass’ preference for that phrase over “minimalism.”  Finally, Bruckner seems to have a great rhetorical interest in taking a wide crescendo and stretching it out over an extended duration.  In other words, notwithstanding Glass’ aversion to the term, there is an awful lot going on in Bruckner’s scores that we would call “minimalism” if we did not know who he was and when he was composing.  This may tell us more about how sloppy we are with the terminology we use;  but it may also tell us a thing or two about listening to Bruckner, if not cultivating a greater interest in doing so!

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