An evening with Michael Nyman's minimalism

Michael Nyman is credited with inventing the musical label "minimalism."

This was a performance in three very different parts, yet all identifiably Nyman. The concert opened with 1990's String Quartet No. 3. The musicians, we learned, formed their quartet especially for this performance, but you could not have told for their playing. There were hints here of what was to come in the swelling cello, and in a dissonant note on the violin in the third part, and echoes, perhaps, of Nyman's "Drowning by Numbers" (or was that my wishful thinking?). String Quartet No. 3 built to a magnificent crescendo and then, also in anticipation of "Something Connected with Energy," nothing. Wonderful.

Some artists transcend sensory worlds. Nyman is a bridge between music and film, from Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" to his wildly celebrated score for Jane Campion's "The Piano." These are projects where the sum is greater than the parts, reminiscent of collaborations between friend of the festival Philip Glass and director Geoffrey Reggio for the Qatsi triology. Nyman's film scores are much more about pushing boundaries than dressing moving images. Soundtracks were at the heart of the second section of the concert.

The program suggested that these pieces would be introduced from the stage. Happily they weren't, and Nyman, at the piano, ploughed through the music, flinging sheets to the floor. I waited for him to get lost in there, but that seemed not to happen; a flash or two only, as when he built a wall of sound down in the bass keys early in his set. I did get lost; yet I can report that he opened with a darker passage from "The Piano." I'm almost certain there was some "Wonderland" in there. I failed to hear anything from his work with Greenaway. And, I shouldn't have been surprised at my own excitement at his finishing with a medley from, again, "The Piano."

I should have long since tired of that music, but I cannot: because of its elegance and, as conductor John Kennedy suggested in his introduction, Nyman's music - none more than this - is part of the soundtrack of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Perhaps the most meaningful thing I can say about Nyman on piano is exactly that: I heard Michael Nyman himself play "The Piano." No small thing!

The essential Nyman, however, was saved until last: 2008's "Something Connected with Energy." Nyman is credited with coining the phrase Minimalism. This is a slippery idea, but whatever it is, this was it. The musicians fair crackled with excitement and they channeled their energy into a very tight musical performance.

Kennedy's enthusiasm is infectious, of course, but this was all about the pulse of the music. The musicians were grooving. Heads bobbed and weaved on stage and it was foot-stomping good where I was sitting. I don't remember even a fleeting thought at a classical music concert that people might dance in the aisles. That wasn't likely tonight either, but the pulsating energy of this piece might just have animated us qua puppets.

The music was relentless in places, to good effect. Most of the seven parts that make up "Something Connected with Energy" end abruptly, and what for others may have been release, for me meant passing disappointment that I could not remain forever lost in the loop. For listening closely here, the background music of our existence can be heard more clearly - the ceaseless throb of electricity as I write this review late at night, for example.

This music is another place where Nyman spans genres: this is clearly classical music, but it's something else, too. Minimal music foreshadows electronic sounds in later pop: all the programmable instruments from Moogs, resurgent it seems, to Apple's production software, have at their core this ability to amplify through repetition.

Minimal music lays down a baseline for what can be artifice through absence, and may entail deliberate dissonance, even if no more than a strident note on the flute, repeated. It skates close to the limit on repetition. It is music designed to challenge us to pay close attention to the basics. And, for the sacrifices made, the core of the music must be, well, sound. If you push the audience to pay close attention, it better be good.

Monday night's was superior.

Mark Long is associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.