REFLECTIONS ON MINIMALISM

by danielgoode

REFLECTIONS ON MINIMALISM

It is bracing and refreshing to read the dialogue in Musicworks #89 between Tom Johnson and Jim Burton who’s experimental music of the ‘70’s has recently been reissued. It is obvious that both of them are minimalists of good writing and speaking, though it may not be not the same use of the word, minimalism, as in the arts, but seems apt anyway. Both Johnson and Burton embody concision with maximum concentrations of idea and expression. These are characteristics of some musical minimalism as well. The question of whether Jim regarded himself as a minimalist in music, though, is answered by him in this quotation: “In the larger view…. Where I part from minimalism is that my structures are open-ended; I prefer to play with hints of structure and fleeting, incomplete structures that we sense around us.”

There was in the late ‘60’s a ‘70’s a kind of hard-nosed (perhaps machismo) emphasis on “rigor”, and it involved the minimalists in a proofs or demonstrations that they could be just as hard-nosed and rigorous as any serious serialist, chance-operationist, contrapuntist, or whatever was out there. There were of course real formal and contrapuntal—all sorts of—innovations floating around among us. These were duly noted, but not everyone’s cup of tea. But for some reason the systematists got to inhabit the word minimalism to the exclusion of the non-systematists. Even though Steve Reich and  Phill Glass eventually disavowed that they were Minimalists (why? was it a “career move” to disavow? or more like: “I am not, nor have I ever been a Communist), the fact that they and others got associated with the term, left outside of the minimalist universe all those passionately minimalist composers who didn’t use exactly these hard-wired processes, or used them tangentially. Jim Burton’s music sounds minimalist to me in the best sense of the term, even if his self-description as parting company with minimalism, quoted above, is equally true of his music.

Observation of natural processes, uses of these processes in part or whole (a stream flowing, wind blowing, natural echo chambers, etc.), these are part of the minimalist universe. Many composers were not interested in marching eighth notes with phase changes or cyclic overlaps. And even these seemingly cultural products: phasing, and superimposed cycles of different lengths were quickly noticed as being found in nature, or agricultural and industrial environments. The films and music of composer/filmmaker, Phill Niblock put non-systematic minimalism into a one grand opus that keeps growing every year.

What was and is still wonderful about minimalism is its saturation of the whole musical and aesthetic environment, and its connecting of cultural determinants of style with new observations of nature and physical processes. Even mental processes such as auditory illusions, hallucinatory experiences should be included in the phenomenon of minimalism: the connections between music and various mental states. There was even a sense that the “trance experience” in Western music was, some have said, an underground stream that nourished various musics from early Greek times through the perpetuum mobile pieces that are part of the 19th and 20th century repertoire. Some would say Erik Satie was part of this underground stream. The various composers of vocal chant-like pieces such as Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations should be part of this universe (even if trance experience is not how that composer would explain her ground-breaking pieces connecting her idea of meditation and observation with so-called strictly musical processes).

When it becomes necessary to map minimalism in all its facets, one thing will become clear: how counterpoint and harmony are subsumed into more powerfully generalized concepts which eventually will overturn 2000 years of medievalism in music pedagogy. Just as an example think about how pitch extraction, doubling formulae, self-similar melodies, Javanese colotomic structures are all contrapuntal actions. Harmony sequences are open to many more patterning schemes than the accepted chord progressions of the last two hundred years. These “actions” as I call them multiply the structural possibilities. In fact, the minimalists could be considered to have pushed rigor further than the serialists and even the “new complexity” buffs. The accomplishment was not only to make interesting musical structures, but that minimalist structures, algorithms, process formulae—whatever you want to call them—were part of the perceptual realm; you could hear the process unfolding. Aren’t wonderful structural underpinning even more so for being audible as well as demonstrable in the score? Even so, that was not always literally true of every rigorous minimalist piece, nor should it be. But processes can be discerned if not totally understood, and can, when attended to, make the piece more interesting to the listener. And then, often the process was perfectly audible, perhaps both simple and elegant.

As I said, counterpoint and harmony were redefined and expanded. But also invented were: open-ended forms, documentary forms, endlessly repetitive form…. What makes them all minimalist could be, should be the big analytical question of the recent past. It would be good to get started with this study. It would show conclusively and easily that minimalism was not just the passing “style” of two composers both with five letters to their last name. It was and is a much larger world.

—Daniel Goode, March 2005

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