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A Key Minimalist Voice

Michael Riesman qualifies as a leading expert on minimalist music partly because of longevity. He was drawn to the fledgling minimalist school almost 20 years ago, after earning a doctorate in music at Harvard University, where fellow minimalist John Adams was among his classmates.

Gravitating toward a teaching career, Mr. Riesman discovered that a "rather closed environment" was entrenched in academia at that time - full of cerebral music that offered much food for thought, but little of the visceral enjoyment that Riesman valued highly.

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"There was a sort of academic-music style," he recalls. "We students went through the mill and did what we were expected to do, but we weren't that interested in it. Our ears were somewhere else - we were listening to rockroll and jazz." This affection for popular music paved the way for experiments by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and others.

Riesman sees minimalism as an effort to combine high art and wide appeal in music. "During the first half of this century," he says, "a new situation built up where `popular' music became divorced from `serious' music." While unfortunate in itself, this split offered "the opportunity for a new kind of art music to be created. The whole idea of rockroll is that you didn't study music, you just picked up a guitar. There's a vitality to that, and a closeness to ordinary people." Minimalists blended this ene rgy and accessibility with sophisticated ideas taken from the classical tradition and various non-Western sources.

Riesman heartily defends the repetition that's an important - and controversial - element of minimalist music. "An academic person would say the repetitive element is really stupid," he says with a smile, "because it just goes `da-da-da-da,' three or four notes, over and over. But so does a lot of African music and other `primitive' music....

"People with other expectations may hate it, but for people who come with fresh ears, to hear something different - well, you see what's happened....People like Glass used to be thought of [by academics] as trash. Now he's music history, and [his music] is being taught!"

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