Sunday, May 06, 2007

Minimal labels, maximal coverage

There is something impressive, almost thrilling, about the capacity of a label like "baroque" to sweep a huge amount of repertoire together. While closer examination always starts to wear away at the accuracy of the label, however it may be defined - historically, materially, stylistically -, there is something useful to having a handle with which one can efficiently distinguish one large body of work from others. If we were, for example, to define the baroque by the presence of the continuo accompaniment, it would be roughly accurate as a beginning point, and more roughly accurate as an end point, as continuo survived, for a time, in orchestral, operatic, and a longer time, in several church traditions. Furthermore, it fails to account for genres that clearly belong to a baroque era but do not have basso continuo. Nevertheless, an identification of continuo with baroque does convey some essential quality of both the technique and a historical and stylistic identity. There is a real connection between Cosi fan Tutte and The Rake's Progress (or between Orfeo and Einstein on the Beach) and sometimes precision is less useful and no more correct than fuzziness in describing that connection.

The accelerated accumulation of repertoire has created substantial demand for label making, and the tension between sweeping and precise labels cannot be greater. Take the labels "minimalism" or "minimal music": at root, these labels indicate something about materials, and, in general, that something is quantitative. But in common usage, and derived from association with the materially minimal musics that have become best known, that label has come to be defined not only by the material state but also by other characteristics of those particular musics, thus taking a term that was originally applicable to a wide variety of musical environments or realizations and proprietarily narrowing the musics that can take on the label. Thus because one well-known minimalist restricts pitch usage to tonal collections or another uses generous repetition or another uses long sustained tones, each of these possible realizations of a minimal material state have become necessary conditions for a "minimal music".

(It is also interesting to consider that "minimal" was not the only term in circulation ca. 1970 -- "process" or "systems" were terms with considerable currency in both the US (the "systems group" around Johnson, Corner, Goode, and Benary should be mentioned) and the UK (likewise a systems group around White and Hobbs) -- it just happens to be the one to have stuck. The term process, in particular, makes connections explicit between the musics of Reich and Lucier (Come Out and I am sitting in a room), or even Reich and Cage (try Pendulum Music and Inlets) that would be irrelevant to a minimalism label depending upon pitch usage).

A particular irony here, in the case of musical minimalism, is that the group of composers around whose work the term is most narrowly defined have tended to reject the label, recognizing both the inherent limitations of the term and the problems with construing their work as a meaningful grouping. While some of these problems may be more of a personal, rather than musical, nature, it is also quite clear that the term, when used so narrowly, is used often critically or to create an aesthetic distance from another music, and in particular by other composers who wish to distance their own work from this group of composers, whether as direct competitors or as historical successors. (Marx made the same move against the "Young Hegelians"). Thus contemporary conservative composers of tonal music can simultaneously associate and distance themselves from a body of work that competes with their own, without ever acknowledging, let alone engaging, the progressive musical and intellectual foundations of that work.

None of this, however, does much to convince that the term minimal should be abandoned or replaced. It is useful to have a term that immediately captures something about the material state of a music, and it is particularly useful in making connections across repertoires or establishing distances within repertoires. It is very useful to have a term connecting Young and Riley and Reich to the music of Pauline Oliveros, Douglas Leedy or Harold Budd, some very different west coast colleagues. It also has to be recognized that minimalism's impact was far from parochial, and more simply than an Andriessen or a Ligeti recognizing kindred spirits in a bit of Reich or Riley. The Japanese composer Jo Kondo, resident in lower Manhattan in the early 1970's, began his mature work from a point of departure (the key work is Kondo's Standing) that was intimately connected to his American colleagues, and the music of the German composers Hans Otte or Walter Zimmermann or Ernstalbrecht Stiebler was both decisively impacted by minimalism, and is, frequently, decisively minimal in material content.

1 comment:

paul bailey said...

i think minimalism has been pretty useful for our listeners connecting a large group of composers with somewhat similar aesthetic ideals (painting with a big brush).
i'd consider myself in the "post-minimalist" stage with an obvious dept to glass, reich, and riley, but i think many would not consider my music minimalist in any sense.