Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Minimalism, once more

No, that's not it. -- N.O. Brown

I tried, in a few recent posts, to reclaim the term minimalism, a term that, to my mind has been hijacked by a revisionist view that seeks to define it narrowly as a musical style and limit it to a particular -- closed, historical -- repertoire. I didn't do a very good job, so let me try again:

Minimalism in music is the impulse to articulate or frame a musical work or performance so that the sounds themselves can be clearly perceived as distinct or composite forms and in maximum detail. To achieve this clarity, the number and variety of materials used will usually be limited, and any formal processes used will usually be efficient, evident, and carried out consequently .

This impulse may lead to, if not actively entertain, several, possibly paradoxical, effects:

  • materials or processes selected for their simplicity may reveal, through clear compositional articulation and focused listening, unexpected details, even complexity;
  • although an honest or realist approach, music so articulated may open up its own musical/acoustical illusion spaces;
  • this physical and experiential mode of production and listening may resonate with abstract or conceptual modes of understanding;
  • the materials selected may recall or be identified with known musical repertoire.
This is still rough, but it's getting closer. I do think it makes the right connection to and distancing from Cage, in that sounds are not, as Cage had it, "allowed to be themselves", but rather that listeners are encouraged to hear more closely what a sound may be. The connection between the acoustic phenomenon-oriented minimalism (of a Lucier, for example) and the minimalisms that are, outwardly, more traditionally "musical" is made. It makes a connection between the minimalism that's about "getting into a sound" and the more conceptual, even platonic, minimalisms. And I think that the definition is open and inclusive, including even those minimalisms that have re-encountered, if not re-entered traditional repertoires.

(image: from the score to Hauke Harder's 320 BPM "Why Beats?" (1991) for flute, piano and glockenspiel).

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