Michael Torke – The Yellow Pages

Michael Torke’s The Yellow Pages (1985) is a movement from a three-piece work called Telephone Book. It takes a simple, upbeat musical phrase and develops it slowly, modulating and employing variations on the phrase. Torke’s music falls somewhere in the grey area between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism; he began composing when Minimalism was beginning to gain credibility in classical music circles. It befits our strange postmodern culture that a movement and a post-movement can arise simultaneously. Torke embraces the superficial characteristics of minimalism–the short repeated phrases, the minute variations–and combines them with both poppy, jazzy musical phrases and idioms, and a tonal and developmental scheme that falls comfortably within traditional harmony. In a way, his music is similar to John Adams’, unafraid to engage with both minimalism and traditional harmony at the same time. However, whereas Adams uses minimalistic processes to compose music that draws from both American themes and post-tonal harmony, Torke’s music owes as much to the orchestral pop of the 40’s-60’s as it does to the European classical tradition.
This brings up a serious reservation I have with Torke’s music. There’s a big difference between the post-tonal sources that Adams uses in his pieces and the tonal, commercial sounds that Torke uses in his: the former is much harder to listen to, less accessible, than the latter (It’s no accident that Torke’s music is commercially sucessful [for a classical composer]). That’s not necessarily a demerit, and I should say that I enjoy Torke’s music very much, however other aspects of his music give cause to doubt its real merit. Torke’s Wikipedia page* categorizes his music as influenced by minimalism and jazz, but when you listen to his music, there’s not much jazz. There a lot of stuff that’s jazzy, but it’s the jazz of commercial jingles and the A.M. radio of a bygone era. An uncharitable reading of Torke’s music might find it to be pretty, empty phrases rearranged in a watered-down minimalist scheme.
I still haven’t decided which side I come down on. I’m not a fan of his source material; I despise the vacuousness of the idioms that he imitates. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like the compositional processes he employs are interesting enough that I don’t care (part of the reason I like The Yellow Pages so much is that it has really fine counterpoint. And believe me, I’m not usually the type to be excited about anything for counterpoint). It’s also just fun to listen to.
There’s a couple of good recordings out there, but if anybody is interested in hearing more Torke (I particularly recommend Adjustable Wrench), he has a 6-CD box set called Ecstatic Collection that contains most of his major pieces.
*I recognize that nobody is responsible for their own Wikipedia page, but these pages are often an indicator of general consensus about how musicians and composers are categorized.

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