This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Making mountains out of molehills - minimalism in music

Like a lot of people, I first heard minimalist music long before I knew what it was. In fact, I suspect that minimalist music was composed long before anyone knew what it was, too. That simple phrase, repeated over and over through gently, subtly changing harmonies, in the opening Prelude of the first book of Bach's Wohltemperierte Klavier would surely meet pretty well any definition any modern musicologist might try to give for minimalism.

But, of course, like all musical genres, minimalism is not something you can neatly define because it describes an overall style in an art where the boundaries are never all that tightly guarded, and where little bits of one patch of land are always slipping through and leaving their mark on another.

But, insofar as minimalism involves taking just the barest handful of notes, or of musical ideas, and building them into something big and interesting, by making them multiply and grow, it is something which has featured to striking effect in all kinds of music, from all kinds of places, in all kinds of times.

If you don't find it in Bach, then maybe you might find it in Schubert, like in his creepy, haunting, song Eine Altschottische Ballade, where, against a stark, naked piano, with empty minor chords, cloning and mutating in a steady, horse-trot rhythm, a simple, barren, hollow melody, gathered together from just a few notes, is repeated over and over and over as a son and a mother talk about murder. It sends shivers down your spine - more than anything because the music moves so little, because it is so icy cold as the son tells his mother that the blood on his sword is not from his hawk, not from his horse, but from his father. It's a story which, told in nineteenth century music, you would expect to swell with passion and drama but instead it just repeats its cold, callous handful of notes, again and again, and you are left both horrified and awestruck by its chilled severity.

But, of course, minimalism is really a term that came into its own in second half of the 20th century, largely through the music of people like Steve Reich and Terry Riley - but, for me, I first noticed it, and found myself looking up dictionaries to see what it meant, when I saw a performance of Philip Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach in Melbourne in 1992. It was a staggering work - something like five hours without an interval with little phrases of music, sometimes funereal, sometimes frenetic, that seemed to be being repeated a zillion times and yet you couldn't even tap your feet to it for more than a couple of seconds because the beat was changing so constantly - three beats to a bar, and then four, and then five, and then six, and then seven - music that hypnotised you by the very same breath that it used to keep you awake and alert.

Since that time, I have slowly learned to develop an enormous respect for the ways in which musicians use this concept of minimalism - this concept, that is, of making much out of a little - in so many different and interesting ways. Like the barren austerity of Arvo Pärt's Passio where a single sombre Aeolian chant weaves its way, serious and sullen, through a 75 minute piece of music, building around you its vast landscape of unrelenting sadness and gloom. Or like the way The Beatles, in 'Tomorrow Never Knows', which closes their album Revolver, allow a droning, unshifting tonality to draw everything back to it, like a gas giant. Or the way Krautrock icons like Neu! and Kraftwerk produce music that takes the tiniest fragments of rhythms and notes, repeats them again and again beneath a slowly, smoothly, subtly changing soundscape, until you begin to notice that it is the journey, not the destination, that is fascinating you so much.

Or Terry Riley's iconic In C, where the score consists of 53 little phrases, each anything between one note and 25 notes long, and the performers play them, repeating each as often, or as little, as they wish. They can drop out for a while and come back in later, but everyone has to listen to what everyone else is doing, so that no one is ever more than two or three phrases ahead of, or behind, anyone else. It can be performed at any speed by any number, or any kind, of instruments, although Terry Riley himself suggests that a group of about 35 performers works best. The idea is that a couple of times throughout the performance, which can last anything beteen about 45 and 90 minutes, all the musicians will come together in unison, and then veer off again, as their own individual choices of the number of repeats of each phrase varies. The end result can be absolutely mind-blowing, a fantastic celebration of sound, a great testament to the way minimalism can take such teensy-weensy little bits of music, multiply them, throw them in the air, and allow you to marvel at the kaleidoscopic intersection of melody, harmony and rhythm they produce.

Minimalism has probably had more than its share of bad press over the years, where critics have seen it as lazy music for lazy audiences, music lacking in ideas, the music of the machine age. And yet that somehow belies the enormous influence minimalism has had across music genres, being able to touch on everything from classical to 1990s electronic dance. And it belies the endless variety, the million and one different ways in which minimalist composers and musicians take the tiniest of molehills and, throwing in a mountainload of invention, turn them into things with so many more sides and facets and colours and textures than you would ever have thought possible.

It's amazing how complex simplicity can be sometimes.

1 comment:

  1. I guess minimalism is a step up from 'the allure of the drone!'

    You might just know Jeffrey Kluger's 2008 book, "Simplexity: why simple things become complex (and how complex things can be made simple)". It grows out of chaos theory (small changes at first create much bigger changes later) and also, to an extent, out of fractal geometry (in which a particular shape 'contains' increasingly smaller versions of itself).

    I've seen demonstrations of 'computer art' in which simple images are subject (via a computer program) to random variations, causing them to 'mutate' into increasingly complex images. (Comparisons are often made to evolution.)

    Much of Tangerine Dream's work consisted of creating complex 'soundscapes' (sorry!) out of simple initial phrases; and 'ambient music' does the same, although I find much of it pretty boring - maybe the rate of change isn't enough for me. (Especially true of Brian Eno's initial experiments.) Some of Raleigh Moncrief's work is OK, though - try his 'Combed over chrome EP' (delightfully categorised by as 'experimental hip hop').

    And that's all!