Daniel Goode

Composer & Performer

Tag: minimalism


Somewhere in his ground-breaking book, “The Tuning of the World” R. Murray Schafer wonders aloud why music tends to be an anchor to the familiar, rather than an antenna receiving new exciting information from “out there.” There could by a one-word answer to Schafer’s question: ‘lullaby.’ But instead, let this whole essay be an answer.

           vibrato – buzzing in the ear (even damage) – low frequency weapon (WWI)
           “meditative making out:” RIP Hayman’s kissing/humming action
           low E on the clarinet vibrates her/his trusting body
           compare sound frequency to light frequency: you can feel one, not the other: the
           scale is different
           rock music is high amplitude, especially the bass which is felt in the body
           visual art is “cold,” pop music is “warm,” what is classical music?
           question of modernism and anti-romanticism
           the pomo reactions
           the mindless neo-romanticism of e.g., “the derriere-garde,”or movie sound
           the role of tonality in warmth? There may be, but considering tonality’s widest
range from drone music to highly chromatic music in the post-Viennese school or the
new complexity music, there is no correlation to anyone’s style
           tendency of forgetting duplicates of previous styles as if they had never
           serve [as] memory and also mark the spot previously occupied by so-and-so or
such-and-such: in that, we are like a “traditional culture,” that only revives, re-stages,
replays, but doesn’t innovate consciously
           consciousness feels like it is in the head, not the torso or the limbs – is that
because of voice, ears, eyes?
lack of parallelism between sound (music) and light (visual arts)- there is no touch

until infra-red and heat lamps, but then it is not in the visual range

Still, heat rays are too fast to feel as vibration. The warmth of vibrational frequencies is obvious. Both metaphorical and literal. The spectrum of orgastic vibration makes heat.

Vibrating one’s body to keep warm is as rock-bottom as you can get to warmth. Sound begins at the high end of that frequency range. You can get warm by singing. So, harmonic relations probably have warmth encoded within. Quotients (of warmth!) may be measurable. This could lead to a dumb or a very smart critique of serial music (and the “new complexity” type). But not Alban Berg’s, which is why the dumb critique won’t work.

Warmth is not just a direct conversion of physical vibration of something bound into temperature of the receiver’s body. The transmitted, culturally determined melodic/harmonic/rhythmic shapes of a certain tradition (pick your culture) stir the emotions somehow (pick your theorist), and warmth results. Even sadness, maybe especially sadness brings warmth. The constant exercise of emotional organs is what it feels like. Emotional aerobics? Music can stimulate emotional aerobics.

Warmth and tonality:
Given the over-determined causation by both acoustically generated warmth and by historical styles of melodic and harmonic shapes that trigger emotional warmth, it seems an obvious connection to link warmth with tonality. There are strong counter-examples in Schoenberg and Berg, though: that the emotional gestures are there and effective without their being based on tonality. Also strong counter-examples in the “Polish School” of ‘60s tone-color music, and also in the decades of Phill Niblock’s tape music for his films. In both these, and others of similar effect the rubbing of dissonant tones to create “beats” is a source of acoustical warmth not from tonality, though (as Schoenberg might protest these are the result of TONES, so cannot be called “atonal music.”)

Let’s consider what I’d call the “Appoggiatura Mime,” (mime, the short-hand formula, mental “radical” around this musical term). Originating in harmonic practice going back to the Renaissance, and flowering through the Baroque and Classic periods, it emerges in the late Romantics and early 20th Century composers, of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg as an increasingly intense, complex, and over-arching phenomenon. In this figuration warmth is both acoustic (dissonances rubbing frictionally) and emotional —made up of layers of association with the music that pushes through to the listener with this mime.

A more subtle emotional mime might be the sequence: the melodic-harmonic repetition at successive pitch levels. Many, many passages from Vivaldi through Bach’s Brandenburg concertos (his 3rd has a doozy one), on through Bruckner have a way of building excitement through varied repetition that can lead the listener into a kind of emotional response I’d call restrained frenzy—sometimes to tears. The sequence is the basis of my long minimalist symphony, Tunnel Funnel. Warmth generated.

The connection of music and mimes is the basis of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game [Das Glasperlenspiel]. It is the idea that discreet units of culture: music or word-based complexes, visual, mathematical formulae (Hesse is brilliantly vague in describing what these cultural modules are exactly) become the “glass beads” in a chess-like game of friendly competition among the intellectual elite. This is the most seductive use of ideas as palpable serious playthings I’ve ever found. And it contains within it, as the novel shows, an elitism that burns out on its own decadence and self-defeat, told in its last page by the death by drowning of the hero who has become the master of the Game.

But if we extrapolate to Minimalism: I once had an imaginary conversation with Tom Johnson (at least I think it never happened, but maybe it did) in which we agreed that minimalist typology could stay implanted in culture as firmly as traditional genres of composition like the canon or fugue or variation procedure.

One-tone composition
Phasing of various parameters
Meditative sound concepts
Pulse composition
“Deductive Music” (Tom’s self-description of his style)

These would be on-going genres as confident of continuance as the high Baroque seemed to be.

An aspect of these genres would be their warmth quotient. Not as an evaluative thing, but as one aspect of style.

Open Letter to Dean Rosenthal

Below is my letter to Dean Rosenthal, composer, a follow-up to my post about Tom Johnson’s new book, Other Harmony:

Well, I think my non-review was really quite simple-minded. Yes, the important issues were raised in very basic terms. But the incredible interweaving of intellect, feeling, aesthetic standards, not to mention history and tradition is very hard to get beyond, thus we have to write theory books, and have to compose (I hate to say write, that’s the nub of it—writing is what we do when we compose, but composing is not about writing).

I see the two poles of minimalism as being something like: trance-music vs. systems music. Minimalism spawned both at the same time. The “counting pieces” of Charlie Morrow (no, never Tom) were in the trance music direction, as much as Tom’s were in the systems direction. True, Tom, if you pressed him, would grant the theatrical reality of the performance, but I never felt he would admit the Dionysian reality of repetition. Freud was certainly correct in trying to incorporate both in his “Id, ego, superego” trio, completely condemned as unscientific by all future scientists of the field. But essentially he was right to “square the circle.” The incorporation of drugs into music was basically an admission that music and intoxication were brother/sisters, and everyone knew that. The early music of Glass and Reich, and many OTHERS was essentially trance music. People in my circle vacillated about trance and system, or tried to just avoid the issue by keeping to technical ground, historical precedent or whatever. But everyone knew that minimalism was “dangerous.” I was fired at Rutgers for practicing “minimal music requiring minimal preparation” by the Harvard trained head of the Rutgers Music Department. (BTW I won my grievance and got tenure because of this man’s dumb move of putting that phrase in writing. Choice of style was sacrosanct even in the academy: it was FREEDOM of SPEECH!)

But he, the head of the tenure committee, knew minimalism was “dangerous.” He even was smart enough to say that it went one step beyond Satie (=repetition) by adding trance. You have to give Wagner credit for knowing that intellect and trance or “swooning” or being transported (as in Dionysian frenzy) had to be combined to get a really great art. (Of course not every piece has to be a masterpiece of swooning logic! What about some little ditty like “This old man, this old man…”).

Even Cage understood, but couched it in kind pseudo-zen: if something is boring, do it for 4 hours. If it’s still boring do it for 8 hours, etc. The music world would never admit into music this Zen saying, either before, during or after minimalism. And I can agree that pure trance without music is not as satisfying as with. Zen was never about artistic satisfaction, or even bodily satisfaction.

My non-review of Tom Johnson’s book also didn’t take on its content. And as of when I wrote my non-review, I still haven’t finished it, though I’ve skimmed ahead to see where it’s going. An actual review of Tom’s book in its own terms would have to be by someone other than me. There probably already is one someplace in the academy.

You [Dean Rosenthal] are the only one who responded to my request for comments, except for Phil Corner who sent me a set of beautiful calligraphic scores. And I wrote back to him this:

‘Your beautiful scores say here and there: “no redeeming musical value.” This seems to buffer you from being thought “music” if it’s “theory” and theory if it’s thought to be music, so you get out of it free—of the controversy. Yes? No?’ He said that was very well put!



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