Features | Retconning

I: Minimalism

By Mark Abraham | 1 August 2006

Conrad got some predictable flack for his superb Bedding the Sellout article here on the Glow (from readers and colleagues); I enjoyed it without entirely agreeing, but his argument certainly has at least one very powerful historical antecedent. Buoyed by post-WWII wealth, the nuclear obsession of the Eisenhower Cold War years fixated American culture on progressive technology. The money to develop potential aces for the military’s sleeve went everywhere: drug testing, nuclear energy, the space program, and communications and sound, which meant university sound labs across the country suddenly found themselves incredibly well-funded. Meanwhile, the simultaneous growth of advertising and increase of household television sets created a demand for the most cutting edge commercial jingles science could provide to satiate the atomically-aroused culture of the American public. Early sound-smiths like Raymond Scott found their experiments the soundtracks for commercials; these recordings had unprecedented influence upon composers who were themselves getting excited about the possibility electronic mediums afforded. Basically, minimalism and early electronica have their roots in the same culture of cereal box prize atomic decoder rings and appliance fetishism that propelled America to the forefront of global capitalism.

“But hold up,” you say! “Minimalism isn’t just fun to listen to; it’s a P.F.O. to hierarchical notions about the place of “high” art in culture. It’s radical music, right?” This is absolutely true, and yet another indication of how some of the most radical art can simultaneously be influenced by and directed against the reactionary power of a dominant order. Even more ironic, minimalists not only presented an affront to this nuclear culture by compressing notions of space and order; they represented an affront to other radicals from whose ranks they came. In abandoning the more difficult arenas of serialism, minimalist composers were accused of compromising the integrity of formal avant guard composition, and, hey — what’s better than “serious” composers getting into a pissing contest?

Serialism looked for ways to expand 19th century composition out of the rut of major Western or diatonic scales, assuming that all 12 tones could function (tonally or atonally) within a piece. The game? Start with one tone, and then use the other eleven before returning to your tonic. Instant fun at parties! Minimalists, on the other hand, adapted the paired-down structures of serialism (no “Ode To Joy”; ruptures, for example) to more accessible tidbits, preferring to capture often unexpected juxtapositions through the repetitive and cyclic performance of several different phrasings. That “more accessible” is exactly what got them into trouble with their “serious” counterparts; was “more accessible” an embrace of the populism of music or, as hardcore serialists felt, selling out? Either way, minimalism set the groundwork for all sorts of contemporary approaches to composition, and birthed several classic albums.

Terry Riley: In C (1968)

The open-source code of minimalism, Riley’s masterpiece (first performed in 1964) has been covered so many times its number should be retired. Over the “pulse” (two high C notes banged constantly on the piano, and cheers to Margaret Hassell, because what musician wouldn’t want that fucking job?) the other musicians (on the original recording, ten of them, playing a combination of reeds, brass, a viola, and melodic percussion) play 53 charted modules. The piece allows that each musician can play at their own pace, in order that new dynamics be produced through the varying relationships between modules; the piece only ends when all musicians have cycled through each chart. It’s like a “Row your Boat” roundabout realized at its illogical extreme. Intense listening, to say the least, its original performance brought together other prominent minimalists like Steve Reich, Paula Oliveros, and Morton Subotnik.

Alvin Lucier: I Am Sitting in a Room (1970)

Dude sits in a room. Dude records himself reading a paragraph that describes exactly what he is doing sitting in that room. Dude plays recording of himself talking about how he is playing a recording of himself back into the room back into the room. Meta-anything strangles itself with despair, decaying under the weight of metaphorical reverberations just as the physical words of the physical recordings decay underneath the physical weight of physical reverberation. Beautiful music is created from the most mundane speech ever set to tape, playing back on top of itself, playing back on top of itself, playing back on top of itself. It doesn’t work when you write it down, but when Lucier actually does it, he manages to create pure tones, noise that compounds itself with a ferocity that has George Martin’s double-track technique in tears. This isn’t exactly the most fun album to listen to, but in using only voice and space Lucier should be credited for creating the simplest powerful D.I.Y. experiment ever.

Wendy Carlos: Sonic Seasonings (1972)

Better known as the woman who scored A Clockwork Orange, Carlos’ best album doubles as a crucial milestone in ambient work. The relationship between ambient and minimalism should be obvious — if minimalism hinges on short phrasings and an economy of means to produce sound, ambient minimalism strips those means even further, dwelling on single notes and pulses for excruciating periods of time. Carlos combines sounds of the environment with fractured whiffs of expertly manipulated electronics, fluctuating expertly between the organic and the synthetic, the calm and hair-raising. Some might glibly dismiss this as the first New Age Soothing Sounds of the Environment disc, but Carlos never lets you relax for too long before lobbing another tense moment in your direction. See how she allows a raging thunderstorm to be the most harsh noise in “Spring.” With a cyborgian union of field recordings and moog patches for every season, it’s going to be an excellent year, even if “Summer” does sound like the most excruciating death ever.

Tony Conrad & Faust: Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973)

Speaking of death, we get the most obvious link between minimalism and the krautrock of Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Faust when the latter band teamed up with Tony Conrad in 1973. Conrad was reportedly never happy with the tone of his cello here, but fuck if it doesn’t sound like it’s going to eat you, all scaly arms and puckered lips; poisonous. Faust’s members do not, apparently, remember much about this session, and if “From the Side of Man and Womankind” was the only piece, I’d understand, given that their work basically amounts to the very occasional fill on a two note bass line and a kick/hat riff while Conrad works out his cello overtop. The piece is nauseatingly intoxicating, but I can’t imagine how mind numbingly boring it would be for a drummer to perform (although, to be fair, I guess the drummer wasn’t asked to bang on two piano keys repetitively for forty minutes straight). But how could they forget “From the Side of the Machine?” Because of course it sounds infinitely more organic than the one with organisms in the title, making Conrad’s union of electronics and humanity clever commentary on society as well as the first full-bodied example of industrial music.

Charlemagne Palestine: Strumming Music (1975)

Palestine explores his own pulse here, playing repetitive hypnotic figures on the piano for forty minutes, banging out two notes at different levels of force. He keeps the sustain pedal locked down, and by slowly clustering variations on his patterns together, he allows the growth of harmonic resonance and the natural detuning of the piano contribute to the progression of the piece. For those of you enchanted by Disintegration Loops, it’s sort of the same principle except analogue and in real time. On the recording there is audible coughing and shuffling; this is barroom art, and the noises of his audience become part and parcel of the ideas of sound Palestine so relentlessly pursues. I mean, seriously, where else are you going to find a piece for which it is suggested that any muscle spasms occurring from the strain on your arms should be employed to modify the intensity and tempo of “Strumming Music.” This is the Yogalates of minimalism, and as far as “rigorous” goes in music, you’d be hard-pressed to find a piece that tops the concentrated musicianship displayed here. Plus it’s great for dancing, and I ain’t gonna qualify that.

Brian Eno: Discreet Music (1975)

Coming off of his “enossification” of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), his work with Robert Fripp, and his own Another Green World (1974), what better “what’s next?” for Eno than reducing music to its ones and zeros? The title track here is basically two compatible loops playing through an effects route while Eno occasionally adjusts the timbre through the EQ. Using pre-set delay patches and reverb, Eno creates a sonic environment that changes based on unchanging source material. As a result, his “passive” role achieves a similar affect as Palestine without the concomitant potential upper-body paralysis. The B-sides, variations on Pachelbel’s “Canon,” are themselves worth the effort (and Gavin Bryar’s conducting is inspired), but “Discreet Music” is a monolith of concept and form, and the far-reaching effects of the track on all manner of ambient music cannot be overstated. Even the legend leading to its production is fascinating: the piece was originally meant as a backing track for Robert Fripp, but Eno was inspired by a too-soft recording of harp music that a friend had given him to listen too while bedridden after a car accident. To weak to turn the stereo up, Eno observed how the music became simply another element in the room — the space — rather than its focus. “Discreet Music” was and remains as interesting an attempt to express space sonically as anything you’ll hear.

Gavin Bryars: The Sinking of the Titanic (1975)

After abandoning jazz and soon-to-be out legend Derek Bailey Bryars turned almost immediately to composition. “The Sinking of the Titanic” was composed in 1969 and “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” in 1971, but their release on record would not happen until 1975 when pal Eno (and, if you look closely, both this and Discreet Music have covers overlaid with the same building imagery) would release them on his Obscure label. Bryar’s game always seems to be about evoking (or stirring up) memory through repetition. “The Sinking of the Titantic” revolves around a report from survivor Harold Bride that the ship’s musicians stood on deck playing the Episcopal hymn “Autumn” (which sounds more than a little like “Amazing Grace,” enhancing the semiotics) as they sank; according to Bride, it seemed as if they continued to play even as the water enveloped them. For Bryars, then, the piece is about what happens to music played near, in, and under water. The memoirs and other tidbits (a music box, stray melodies) that Bryars ghosts the main string section with collapse boundaries between song and sound, even as the strings become more drawn out and, for lack of a better word, watery as the piece progresses. Like all good minimal pieces, the score is fairly fluid, and requires only that artifacts from the sinking of the Titanic be used, without claiming any specific ones. In a sense, the open-intepretation allows this piece to function as a brilliant union of sonics and oral history—we are all equal in death and life, and any viewpoint can be related when related to disaster. Flip side “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” slowly adds a string ensemble to the hilarious sung musings of a street dweller; the strings get more intense and dramatic while the tramp just keeps vamping away, adding a lovely air of humor to wash away the haunting effects of the other piece.

Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (1978)

My personal favorite minimalist album (and I doubt I’m alone there), Reich’s piece is a clinic on how to do just about everything in music. When those reeds first begin to riff phrases out of the chiming pulse you will be fucked; everything that happens afterwards on this engrossing piece is absolutely phenomenal. Essentially, both in orchestration and composition, it functions as a more complex version of In C, hinging on transitional moments where one section calms down enough for another to begin. The interplay between musicians, however, is the real treat, since so many melodies and counter-melodies exist in the piece that it’s hard to keep track. The point isn’t so much to trace those melodies as it is how the interlocking gamut of voices, melodic percussion, and reeds fit together, collapse, and chase each other across time and space. Reich’s greatest accomplishment here may well be how it accurately conveys the insane and complicated vitality of life and the slow dismal decay of death at the same time. This is waves eroding cliff walls, insects feasting on crops, smog over a city. This is the sound of modern life; it’s rhythm, not melody, because the latter is imposed and ordered, and the former more clearly plays out the deconstructed cacaphony of walking to the market, or attending a block party. This is On the Corner updated as an orchestral piece. And while Reich’s intense intense approach to orchestration has obvious influence on Tortoise and all manner of electronica, you indie kids can recognize too: if Sufjan isn’t apeing his arrangements from this shit (“Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt From my Sandals as I Run” is open homage) and Einstein on the Beach, I’ll eat my hat.

Phillip Glass & Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach (1979)

First performed in 1976, “Einstein on the Beach” is a lengthy opera that revolves around vocal pieces combined with narrated sections (normally at the same time). Glass’s composition keeps things more precise than Riley or Reich, but the principle, using voice, is the same. If Reich employed four voices for Music for 18 Musicians, hearing minimalist techniques adapted for a full chorus is thrilling, and Glass works through a whole series of ideas that evolve minimalism from its initial anti-order enthusiasm into vast narrative structures. While definitely pretty, endlessly fascinating, and always rewarding, this isn’t easy listening, mostly because there is so much of it; at four CDs, trying to get through it in one sitting is an intimidating project (in fact, I think the only time I’ve actually done it is in preparation for this column). Fortunately, most of the pieces (especially those that riff on his main compositional themes, “Train,” “Trial,” and “Spaceship”) are just as interesting when standing alone, and it’s not hard to get into it, even if I’m not sure I could tell you what this is actually about. Um…something about Einstein remembering his toy trains while being on trial and worrying about spaceships which represent the nuclear holocaust? Hey — I’m sure Robert Wilson is a genius, but I’m only reviewing the music here.

Manuel Göttsching: E2-E4 (1984)

I’m including because it conforms to minimalist techniques, even if I’m sure some would argue it’s the hardest fit. For many musicians, this project could have been absent noodling; for Göttsching, it was an unprecedented success at realizing his ongoing goal to explore electronics through guitar, and indirectly helped stylize the burgeoning house and techno scenes. Essentially a series of looped synthesizers, percussion, and guitar (and eventually one lengthy guitar solo overtop), E2-E4 took minimalist-influenced krautrock micro-funk, severely regulated its patterns, and spread the sound across the space of one album-length track. People argue about the influence of this album on contemporary dance music, but however the arguments about where house was incubated play out just listen to how Göttsching’s adaptations of minimalist riffing sound. He builds conflicting measures into surging tempo-based clusters of music that directly anticipate the growth of techno and house, and does it mostly without making something that sounds dated. I’ve played sections of this while djing, and people have asked me if it’s a new track. It’s that fresh, that innovative, and yeah, it’s basically a rock junkie building towards an overwrought guitar solo. Which was just what everybody was hoping for, right?