MINIMALISM is something of a misnomer when it comes to describing the work of classical music's American vanguard. There's more to the music than "less is more," for beneath the basic harmonic triads and bone-simple modulation is an attention to rhythmic development and compositional structure far more advanced in its way than the mathematical complexities of the serialists.
PHILIP GLASS -- "Mishima," the Kronos Quartet, et al. (Nonesuch Digital 79113-1). This soundtrack composed for Paul Schrader's biography of Yukio Mishima is in many ways one of Glass' most dazzling achievements. The orchestration is wonderfully lush, filling out Glass' ideas with a wealth of textural detail, and he has achieved an impressive unity of structure, establishing rhythmic motives that are at once hypnotic and compelling.
TERRY RILEY -- "Cadenza on the Night Plain, and Other String Quartets," The Kronos Quartet (Gramavision 18-7014-1). Riley, the grand old man of harmonic reductionism, created a masterpiece of monochromaticism with "In C." But these pieces are built around an entirely different aesthetic, in which the composer works out a multitude of melodic approaches, of which the "Cadenza," with its exotic tunings and Middle-Eastern modality, is the most ravishing.
JOHN ADAMS -- "Light Over Water" (New Albion NA 005). Like Glass, Adams is fond of unraveling uncomplicated harmonic structures, and also of drone-like repetition. But "Light Over Water" applies that apparent simplicity to imposing pyramids of sound, adding and subtracting thematic layers like a calculator gone berserk. It's that seemingly irrational arithmetic that gives this piece its energy, allowing it to ebb and flow like the water Adams names as his inspiration. (Available through the New Music Distribution Service, 500 Broadway, NYC, NY 10012).
STEVE REICH -- "The Desert Music," Steve Reich and Musicians with Chorus and Members of the Brookland Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting (Nonesuch Digital 79101-1). As always, Reich's pulses of rhythm shift gradually, conveying the design of his work the way a hooked rug would if it were viewed nub by nub. Because he has increased the textural detail of his orchestration, "The Desert Music" expands upon the vivid exoticism of "Tehillim." But the composer's attempt to blur the distinctions between sounds and meaning tends to obscure his text, making it difficult to discern the relationship between the William Carlos Williams poems and their settings.
ARTHUR RUSSELL -- "Tower of Meaning," Julius Eastman, conductor (Chatham Square CLS 145). Russell's approach is more harmonic than rhythmic, for he uses repetition to shuffle and reshuffle the possibilities within the chordal sequences. As such, his "Tower of Meaning" is gentle and cloud-like, recalling Messaien but without the severity. (Available through the New Music Distribution Service, 500 Broadway, NYC, NY 10012).