At precisely the point in time when the art of music is trying to decide, semipainfully, what its future will be like, some extraordinary attention is being given to a movement that offers as much challenge to what music is and isn't as did 12-tone Serialism in the 1920s and aleatoric (''chance'') music in the '60s - perhaps even more. That school is Minimalism.
Minimalism, of course, has as many different facets as it has composers offering it up, of whom Terry Riley, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, and Steve Reich are by far the best known. But, briefly defined, the minimal ideal in music consists of the repetition of short figurations or rhythmic motifs many times - enough for them to lose any import of their own, changes being introduced over a long period of repetitions (ad infinitum) and multi-instrumental overlappings of the same snippets.
The challenge? Art music of the West has traditionally relied on the semantics of musical material in deciding just how much attention a musical gesture deserved. Those who wielded them with surety, whether J.S. Bach or Aaron Copland, loomed as giants on the art's tundra. Minimalism is contradicting all that, appealing to a return to music's basics . . . proposing to freshen and sharpen our awareness.
But nothing could be more fatuous or more decadent than that current line of musical blather. Typical of it is a companion ''criticism,'' written some time ago to Terry Riley's ''In C,'' which was actually a chance piece from the '60s. It argues that this piece, amounting to a built-up-from-one-instrument jam session on 53 notated motifs (in the scale of C), is so close to the ''basics'' of elemental music that it can be enjoyed by people with no musical background whatever. Continuing:''It's kind of like not necessarily knowing if you dig ballet, but definitely liking the way the girl across the table moves her hands. No preconceptions, you just dig it.''
I was not aware that it was necessary to have a musical education in order to perceive that Beethoven (or Bartok) is saying something to us in life-enriching terms. Neither should musical training be necessary to hear that a piece like ''In C'' (lasting around 50 minutes) is conceived in terms of musical gibberish - a ''happening'' in which what our own minds are forced to supply to its semantic void is of far greater importance, rendering the artistic worth of the ''composition'' nil indeed.
This is historic background, for Riley's piece is a kind of bridge, being mostly improvisational. It was the chance music of the 1960s that evolved into the minimal concept of the '70s, although the latter was also in flower at the same time. In fact, one can see Minimalism as a logical sort of answer to the inherent structural failures of chance ''performance'': building in some more controlled planning for variety and change in the course of the improvisational ''happening.''
I would have much less of a problem with Minimalism, if its composers and apologists would own up to its quintessentially Eastern ethic, and not continue touting it as something Western - as the brave new classical music that finally bridges the cultural gap and (behold!) fills the halls.
Young audiences are indeed attracted to concerts by the Philip Glass and Steve Reich ensembles, and seem to be injecting a vitally needed youthful element into concert life. Those concerts, moreover, do seem to bridge the popular and classical worlds, true enough. The music has wound up as unclassifiable as John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, or Alec Wilder, and for similar reasons. But classifiability is not the point, and never was. Make no mistake, what we are seeing in Glass et al's box office success is every bit as much pop culture, by whatever name, as Skitch Henderson or Sigmund Spaeth in their heydays - only in this case with a good deal of conscious pandering to boot.
The music of Glass and Reich is not the genuine item, and has no foundation with reference to the 500 years of high and rich Western musical art. Yet this is the laurel to which, one gathers, it covetously aspires. Reich insists he is very Western, not Oriental: that his roots are in Bach, the blues, and Jewish music. But the actual aural ethic of a work like his Drumming is very Oriental.
The syntactical, the connotive, and the individually redemptive belong to the Western ideal; the hypnotic, the nonconfrontational, and the cancelling of a Western sense of musical cognition, belong to the Eastern. I have always had enormous regard for both musics, but the two have never been successfully mixed before without becoming corruptions of one another. And Minimalism has offered us yet another version of the same mix.
I can accept that minimalist music, especially in works like Glass's operas Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, and LaMonte Young's Dream House, is about consciousness, about getting in touch with basic feelings, about transcending to more refined levels of experience. At some point, though, art music in this milieu is going to have to try, at least to a . . . minimal . . . extent, to be about itself, and not anything else. To have its own, intact, memorable, aurally engaging reasons for existing - and for being returned to.
The music that our culture is going to attach any value to whatever, in the long haul, is going to have to be music of which the listener can say, ''I love this; and I want to come back and hear it again.'' And composers who seek popularity for their music by having it ''about'' other things, attached to other countercultural things, or who seek to fashion synthetic new worlds and then proceed to create works of filigree and pablum to inhabit those worlds, are simply not going to secure a hold on the affections of future audiences who cherish the deeper riches of Orpheus's tender art.
Minimalism: a listening list:
* Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach; Satyagraha; ''Glassworks'' (an album).
* Steve Reich: Drumming; Six Pianos; Music for a Large Ensemble; Four Organs; Tehillim.
* LaMonte Young: Dream House.
* Terry Riley: ''In C''; ''Shri Camel.''