The Mysteries of Minimalism 2.0

Minimalist Music.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.

Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin
Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin

Originally, that was going to be the whole post.

Then I thought I could elaborate with something like this:

Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap repetitive New-Age crap repetitive new-agecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecrap ………

I didn’t care for Minimalist Music, I didn’t like the recordings of the composers that were lumped together as minimalists and I didn’t understand why they were so popular.

Here is an example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Philip Glass Glassworks : Opening

Its all just consonant mush.  No form, no themes.  No beginning, middle and end.  As far as I’m concerned it could end in the middle of the track, or could go on for ten more minutes.  It doesn’t seem to make any difference.  I sincerely believe that understanding something of the forms that classical music contains can give a deeper meaning to the listener.  Theme and variations form,  Sonata form, or rondo form:  these are all conventions that help the listener follow where they are in a piece.  Even if a piece has some original formal structure, repeated listening helps one uncover that structure and leads to a deeper understanding of the work.  This minimalist stuff has none of that, it’s just repetitive new-age crap.  Or so I thought.

Then I read something that helped me unlock some understanding of minimalism.  The music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass was very early on referred to as the  New York Hypnotic School.   This gave me the clue that this stuff was MEANT to be formless.  On the About page of this blog I said something about taking each piece of music on its own terms and not asking it to be something it wasn’t trying to be.  That is exactly the mistake I was making with the Philip Glass piece above.   It is supposed to sound formless, without a beginning or end.  It is hypnotic, trance like music.  You are dropped into the middle of something infinite and flowing.  The rhythms shift and come in and out of phase as some musical elements are brought to the foreground and  others fade into the background.  The listener is supposed to lose their place as their attention wanders from bit to bit.

You can’t listen to this music in the car, or while doing something else.  It has to be in a live performance, or at least a recording playing in a quiet room with nothing else going on.  It is meant to be a formless, meditative experience.  As a matter of taste, one can still like or dislike this kind of music.  My point is that it has to be judged a success or failure as a piece based on how well it achieves the meditation that it was trying to create.  You shouldn’t fault it for not being a minuet, or a twelve bar blues, or not having the structure of a sonata.  It was never trying to be that.

John Adams is another composer that is associated with minimalism. (It is good to note that someone else came up with the name minimalism, not the composers.) One of his pieces I really, really like is John’s Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet and recording of prepared piano.  I don’t know if it is the best example of minimalism.  It is definitely a work I admire from a composer ACCUSED of minimalism.  I hope you enjoy it too.

– Rich

5 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Minimalism 2.0

Add yours

  1. I can really relate to the view presented in this post. I had negative feelings toward Minimalism because I felt as if people were making a big deal out of such a small amount of musical form and materials. Now I just try to appreciate the unique and hypnotizing experience of it.

  2. Dear Rich,

    You’re absolutely right in saying that we shouldn’t judge certain styles of music based on values that are not being pursued in that specific musical style. And also in saying that Minimal Music has a certain hypnotic effect which can send the listener in some sort of meditative state of mind. Your explanation of the formlessness of the music with its shifting rhythms, its foregrounding/backgrounding elements and its pure repetitive quality certainly offer some explanations on how this form of hypnotism is achieved. It would be interesting, though, to dig a bit deeper underneath these Minimal Music stylistic generalities. In taking in a more philosophical stance, I think that the hypnotic quality of Minimal Music is to be found in the radical different way it deals with our sense of time.

    We should certainly agree that music, as art, has a special relation with the concept of time. Music, as an art form, takes place in time. We cannot ‘grasp’ it in one instance. It therefore depends on time. Every composer makes deliberate choices on how to fill time, and how to make certain sense of this time. A musical piece functions, in a sense, exactly like time. We as persons live in the present, constantly generating a certain personal construct of the past as well as the future. This personal construct is by no means objective as we can be fairly biased in how we remember or anticipate events. Listening to music reflects this. We can only listen to music in the ephemeral present. We sort of remember what is heard some instances before and we anticipate on what we will hear next. This game of memory and anticipation is what composers deal with in their use of all kinds of different forms. We could say, very un-nuanced, that basically all music (or life in general) comes down to a sense of dynamic interplay between repetition and variety. And this is where Minimal Music gets interesting as it focuses so much on the repetitive side of music.

    Now I need some time to provide a philosophical support of my argument, so bear with me. The reading of time I discussed above is part of the two readings of time as conceptualized by Gilles Deleuze. I drew upon the concept of Chronos, the measurable side of time. Here “only the present fills time, whereas past and future are two dimensions relative to the present in time (Deleuze 1990, 162).” Deleuze’s other reading of time is that of Aion, where “a future and past divide the present at every instant and subdivide it ad infinitum into past and future” (Deleuze 1990, 164). It is a measureless present that ‘shakes up’ the eternal present of Chronos, making us think radically different about past and future.

    Deleuze also linked these concepts to music, borrowing two terms of Pierre Boulez. Deleuze links Chronos to Boulez’s idea of ‘pulsed’ time, and Aion to the idea of ‘non-pulsed’ time. Pulsed time, like Chronos, is measurable. Most musical pieces work with these pulses that divide time in a specific way, enabling us to count along with the music. Yet there are instances where music transcends this element of counting and where music becomes smooth (again a Boulez term). Messiaen’s way of dealing with rhythms that deny the existence of bar lines is a great example. As are the cadenzas for solo violin in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which are even written without bar lines. These instances make us perceive the present in a radically different way than in the present where we can actually measure time.

    Now, in returning back to Minimal Music, we find a very interesting paradox. At first sight, the highly repetitive music seems to be very much measurable, thus at the side of Deleuze’s Chronos or Boulez’s pulsed time. However, the extreme lengths of the repetitions of a piece on a macro level, as well as the tiny varieties of musical structures on a micro level produce a fairly different and distinct sense of time. The extended lengths of the repetition in the pieces that are lengthy as well, blur our chronological sense of time. Furthermore, in their music, Philip Glass and Steve Reich often vary the speeds of the repetitive sequences or vary accentiations on notes, distorting our countable sense of time as well. Time becomes much more smooth in this sense, placing it more on the non-pulsed, or Aion side of time. So here we have our paradox: highly repetitive music can very much create new senses of time.

    I would argue that this paradoxical aspect is an essential factor that contributes to the hypnotic effect of Minimal Music. Usually, when Minimal pieces start with its repetition, we can follow and count it fairly easy. Yet, the extremity of the repetition with its delicate variations or alterations distorts our perception of time drastically. The gradually blurring of Chronos into Aion, or pulsed time into non-pulsed time is what enables us to feel outside of the present.

    I conclude with providing a rather playful example of this aspect. It considers a personal favourite Minimal Music piece: Steve Reich’s Piano Phase. Here, two pianos start repeating a 12 melodic figure in unison. Then, gradually one pianist begins to play the figure slightly faster, until his second note aligns with the first note of the ‘stable’ pianist. Here, the pianists play the same tempo again, before one accelerates again until his third note aligns with the first note of the stable pianist. This process goes full circle until they play in unison again. Then, this procedure is repeated with an 8-note pattern and after that with a 4-note pattern.
    The overall effect demonstrates perfectly the paradox I mentioned above. It starts with a perfectly measurable and countable figure in unison, but when one pianist quickens his tempo, the chronological sense of time is being distorted tremendously. This happens several times throughout the composition, since after each speeding up the same tempo is being played before being disrupted by the acceleration again. With some creativity and imagination, we could say that the stable pianist represents the measurable present of Chronos, while the one that speeds up represents the present of Aion: The present that is not measurable and disrupts our eternal, chronological present of Chronos, creating a ambiguous sense of time and of consciousness which attributes to the hypnotic effect of Minimal Music.

    – Marcel B.

  3. Dear Rich,

    You’re absolutely right in saying that we shouldn’t judge certain styles of music based on values that are not being pursued in that specific musical style. And also in saying that Minimal Music has a certain hypnotic effect which can send the listener in some sort of meditative state of mind. Your explanation of the formlessness of the music with its shifting rhythms, its foregrounding/backgrounding elements and its pure repetitive quality certainly offer some explanations on how this form of hypnotism is achieved. It would be interesting, though, to dig a bit deeper underneath these Minimal Music stylistic generalities. In taking in a more philosophical stance, I think that the hypnotic quality of Minimal Music is to be found in the radical different way it deals with our sense of time.

    We should certainly agree that music, as art, has a special relation with the concept of time. Music, as an art form, takes place in time. We cannot ‘grasp’ it in one instance. It therefore depends on time. Every composer makes deliberate choices on how to fill time, and how to make certain sense of this time. A musical piece functions, in a sense, exactly like time. We as persons live in the present, constantly generating a certain personal construct of the past as well as the future. This personal construct is by no means objective as we can be fairly biased in how we remember or anticipate events. Listening to music reflects this. We can only listen to music in the ephemeral present. We sort of remember what is heard some instances before and we anticipate on what we will hear next. This game of memory and anticipation is what composers deal with in their use of all kinds of different forms. We could say, very un-nuanced, that basically all music (or life in general) comes down to a sense of dynamic interplay between repetition and variety. And this is where Minimal Music gets interesting as it focuses so much on the repetitive side of music.

    Now I need some time to provide a philosophical support of my argument, so bear with me. The reading of time I discussed above is part of the two readings of time as conceptualized by Gilles Deleuze. I drew upon the concept of Chronos, the measurable side of time. Here “only the present fills time, whereas past and future are two dimensions relative to the present in time (Deleuze 1990, 162).” Deleuze’s other reading of time is that of Aion, where “a future and past divide the present at every instant and subdivide it ad infinitum into past and future” (Deleuze 1990, 164). It is a measureless present that ‘shakes up’ the eternal present of Chronos, making us think radically different about past and future.

    Deleuze also linked these concepts to music, borrowing two terms of Pierre Boulez. Deleuze links Chronos to Boulez’s idea of ‘pulsed’ time, and Aion to the idea of ‘non-pulsed’ time. Pulsed time, like Chronos, is measurable. Most musical pieces work with these pulses that divide time in a specific way, enabling us to count along with the music. Yet there are instances where music transcends this element of counting and where music becomes smooth (again a Boulez term). Messiaen’s way of dealing with rhythms that deny the existence of bar lines is a great example. As are the cadenzas for solo violin in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which are even written without bar lines. These instances make us perceive the present in a radically different way than in the present where we can actually measure time.

    Now, in returning back to Minimal Music, we find a very interesting paradox. At first sight, the highly repetitive music seems to be very much measurable, thus at the side of Deleuze’s Chronos or Boulez’s pulsed time. However, the extreme lengths of the repetitions of a piece on a macro level, as well as the tiny varieties of musical structures on a micro level produce a fairly different and distinct sense of time. The extended lengths of the repetition in the pieces that are lengthy as well, blur our chronological sense of time. Furthermore, in their music, Philip Glass and Steve Reich often vary the speeds of the repetitive sequences or vary accentiations on notes, distorting our countable sense of time as well. Time becomes much more smooth in this sense, placing it more on the non-pulsed, or Aion side of time. So here we have our paradox: highly repetitive music can very much create new senses of time.

    I would argue that this paradoxical aspect is an essential factor that contributes to the hypnotic effect of Minimal Music. Usually, when Minimal pieces start with its repetition, we can follow and count it fairly easy. Yet, the extremity of the repetition with its delicate variations or alterations distorts our perception of time drastically. The gradually blurring of Chronos into Aion, or pulsed time into non-pulsed time is what enables us to feel outside of the present.

    I conclude with providing a rather playful example of this aspect. It considers a personal favourite Minimal Music piece: Steve Reich’s Piano Phase. Here, two pianos start repeating a 12 melodic figure in unison. Then, gradually one pianist begins to play the figure slightly faster, until his second note aligns with the first note of the ‘stable’ pianist. Here, the pianists play the same tempo again, before one accelerates again until his third note aligns with the first note of the stable pianist. This process goes full circle until they play in unison again. Then, this procedure is repeated with an 8-note pattern and after that with a 4-note pattern.
    The overall effect demonstrates perfectly the paradox I mentioned above. It starts with a perfectly measurable and countable figure in unison, but when one pianist quickens his tempo, the chronological sense of time is being distorted tremendously. This happens several times throughout the composition, since after each speeding up the same tempo is being played before being disrupted by the acceleration again. With some creativity and imagination, we could say that the stable pianist represents the measurable present of Chronos, while the one that speeds up represents the present of Aion: The present that is not measurable and disrupts our eternal, chronological present of Chronos, creating a ambiguous sense of time and of consciousness which attributes to the hypnotic effect of Minimal Music.

    – Marcel B.

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