Is Minimalism Great Art?

Go ahead. You try to play it with a group of your friends. Let me know how it turns out. "Minimal" is a misnomer.

Back in college the biggest musical revelation came to me in the form of minimalism. A close second would have been the ordered dissonance mixed with traditional structures of neoclassical music, but the paradoxical raw power and mathematical organization of minimalism gripped me more than anything else. The out-and-out dissonance of so-called "atonal" music and the free-form avant garde "chance" music hardly peaked my interest at all, but the minimalists gripped me from the start. (Note: I was so perplexed by Schoenberg's roll of the dice "12 tone rows" I forced myself to do a research project on him, which only managed to exasperate me further.) 

Recently I put on one of my minimalist favorites in the car for the kids to listen to, Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians. We listened to it all the way home one day and then all the way to school the next. With trepidation I kept waiting for them to complain about it but they never said a word until almost the very end: "Daddy, is this a symphony?" "Yes," I said, as that made the most sense to their 6 and 4 year old minds (lately, we have been listening to a lot of Beethoven). For most of the work's duration they sat there listening...in silence—a rare occurrence for my boys.

This is worth noting for me because to my knowledge I never managed to turn a single person I know onto minimalist music (there might be a few exceptions). Usually, every time I turned it on for someone, I only managed to stress them out or confuse them considerably. This is the most true for my wife, who absolutely abhors the music. I never even consider putting it on for her—it is simply not an option. If Philip Glass happens to be the composer for a film we are watching I will not even mention, as it might mean we have to stop watching it. Basically, when it comes to minimalism I am used to getting the same reaction as when I have someone watch Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. First, they let me know their disgust for having wasted so much of their time and then they all but ask "So...you really like this stuff?"

Yes, I do. I think it is brilliant.

But listening to Reich's 18 Musicians juxtaposed with the work of Beethoven, Bach, and Tchaikovsky got me thinking: is minimalism truly good music or did I only begin to like it at the time (in my early 20's) because of its novelty and supposed boldness? That is, did I like it because it is truly excellent and it truly moved me or did I like it because it was all some kind of grand musical prank?

Now, I have to admit, I never got as far into minimalism as I may have liked. The call of rock and pop was always stronger. I wish I would have immersed myself more into Steven Reich's later works, Philip Glass' larger works (e.g., the entirety of Einstein on the Beach), as well as the many less recognized minimalist composers. Instead, I discovered Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, and Arcade Fire, the former two of which incorporated a number of minimalist techniques into their songs. I remember trying to convince Mrs. Wanick, the incredibly excellent music history teacher who taught my 20th Century Music class, that Radiohead's "The National Anthem" was minimalism and her only half believing me (I still contend it is). I also remember having my mind blown when I realized Sufjan Stevens was completely aping the work of Reich on some of the instrumentals on the Illinois album (or a majority of Enjoy Your Rabbit). I too once tried to ape Reich on one of my albums. And why not?

But as I said, I have been listening to a lot of Beethoven, and before that Bach and Tchaikovsky and I have come to the definite conclusion that most of what is considered minimalism hardly compares to the works of those master craftsmen in harmony, structure, and general musical ideas. Rhythmically, minimalism requires almost unmatched technical proficiency, but often it is not that musically interesting, unless entering into a trance is one's primary goal. I think what sets the master composers apart is their ability to repeat a simple musical idea in myriad different ways, varying their rhythms, underlying chord progressions, and tonalities all while sticking to the initial idea. Beethoven is famous for doing this in his 5th, 6th, and 9th symphonies, and while those works have such enduring popularity as to have basically become music cliches, I would argue their unassailable brilliance has caused them to ubiquitously embed themselves into the mind of European and North American culture. In other words, they are famous works because they deserve it.

Listen to the above work by Beethoven (the 2nd movement to his 9th symphony) and tell me there are not elements of minimalism in it. The only difference is the amount of musical ideas is exponentially more than in most any work of minimalism. Beethoven's minimalism is incredibly compact and constantly varied; the work of a giant mind.

But as I have said in a previous article "art is not weightlifting," not a contest to see who can do the most and do it fastest. Music is not about having the most notes in your work or playing the most instruments, or, in the case of composers, having the most musical ideas. I am still working out how I discern what "good" art is, but put simply I believe a good work of art will leave an enduring impression on a body of people, it will move them in body, mind, and spirit, and it will evoke and illuminate beauty, truth, and goodness.

And it is on these terms that I am trying to figure out whether minimalism is "good" art.

Here is what truly leaves me ambivalent about minimalist music; ambivalent in that this is what I simultaneously find most compelling and most aggravating about it:

1. Minimalism often feels like a grand musical science experiment. In fact, you could almost call it "music for scientists." Take a lot of Reich's early work for instance, which to their core were musical experiments. First he looped audio recordings and then he looped musical ideas live in performance in a series of what he called "phase shifts", where two or more instruments would play the same phrase and then slowly get out of sync with each other, one beat at a time, until they worked back into sync. It is certainly fascinating, but is it compelling? Does it work as art beyond the surface experiment or is it an impressively mind-boggling novelty worth hearing but then forgetting? 

Reich's work, along with his contemporary Terry Riley, is paradoxically enigmatic, at once controlled and yet left to chance, it's predetermined rhythmic and melodic structures which are intentionally improvised and varied in a live setting. This is why the numerous recordings of their works are often so diverse in their length and overall interpretation. Reich's phase shifts and Riley's multitudinous layered short motif's intentionally allow the listener the chance to hear the "same" work performed millions of different ways, the potential variations seemingly infinite, a multiverse of sound. Controlled spontaneity spontaneously controlled. This is why some of us find minimalism so compelling and others find it maddening.  Riley's In C is one of the more infamous examples:

2. Minimalism is soulless and unconscious music (even though one has to be fully conscious to be able to play it!). It is the music insects would make. It is the hum and pulse of nature. It is vibrant and alive and yet it lacks consciousness. It is not aware of its own existence. Hence its trance-like qualities. I often feel intensely while listening to minimalist works and yet the works themselves seem emotionless, detached from their composers or any human context. They are the aural equivalent of a lamp or a sofa—beautiful in their own right and yet lifeless. They simply are. Minimalism is strange that way.

The most accessible and famous minimalist composer is Philip Glass. His works have the most emotion in them to me, the most human touch. Glass has spent most of his life parodying his own sound, with so much of his music sounding like all of his other music it becomes hard to tell which of his works actually stand out from the rest, which should make it into the Glass canon. An obvious place to start is Glassworks. This was the first minimalist music I ever heard, from a friend in high school: 

Again, it is strangely compelling and moving, while somehow mysteriously lifeless (or at least soulless), despite all its movement—at once brilliant and detached.

3. It is thrilling and relaxing—again, all at the same time. Minimalism, at its best is utterly transcendent, taking the listener into uncharted areas of their consciousness. Personally, it puts me at ease, and yet, oddly enough, it increases my heart rate. It kind of stresses me out, even as it relaxes me. It is like running along the very edge of a great mountain cliff all while enjoying the glorious view. You could fall at any moment and yet you are utterly transfixed in wonder.  I do not know how minimalism does that, but that is why I love it and also why I can seen how many people hate it.

But here is what I know: Steve Reich's work (which I have just been listening to) has been in my head all day. It has also stuck with me through the years, drawing me back to it several times since college. I find something new each time, and even though it appears to lack consciousness it is still beautiful to me. Do not the crickets, with their monotone chirping, sing a beautiful song? Will not even the rocks cry out in praise to their maker? They cannot help but do so. Minimalist music then too, in its starkness and unrelenting repetition, carries a profound depth of beauty all it's own, undeniably so, though its beauty may not be palatable to everyone, just as the unyielding chirp of crickets drives some people mad and not into rhapsodies of the sublime.

I acknowledge most will gladly leave minimalism right where it is on the shelf and not pass it on to the next generation, but I hope my kids catch the bug and ask to listen to it more and more. The rhythms and hums and pulses are calling...

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Anonymous said...

Your comments on schoenberg are very ignorant, especially since you did a project on his music. There is nothing 'roll of the dice' about his tone rows. They were chosen specifically for their intervalic quality and intrinsic potential.

Perhaps you should reasses his output. Why not try his piano concerto or orchestral pieces which are masterpieces, full of emotion and colour. His work is highly refined art and he sounds undoubtable like only Schoneberg can.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Sure, I'll admit to general ignorance. One can only listen to so much music and if an artists or type of music doesn't grip you at the time or you out and out don't like it, then you are most likely to put it aside and not come back to you.

There are many times I have come back to music at a later time and ended up liking it.

I don't know if this will happen for me with Schoenberg, but I appreciate your recommendations.