The Boredom of Eventfulness:

A Keynote Address for the Minimalism Conference at the University of Leuven, 2011

By Kyle Gann

In 2009 I interviewed Robert Ashley for my upcoming book about him. He made a statement that astonished and delighted me. He said:

The only thing that's interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple of other guys, music had always been about eventfulness: like, when things happened, and if they happened, whether they would be a surprise, or an enjoyment, or something like that... And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. I mean, just literally, sound in the Morton Feldman sense.... There's a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me... A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it's very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.[1]

This brought to mind a remark I once received from La Monte Young in a similar situation, around 1992. I asked La Monte why the five movements of his early piece for string quartet were so much alike. He thought for a quick moment, and replied,

"Contrast is for people who can't write music."

It is almost needless to say that when I bring up these pithy remarks in musical circles, remarking that eventfulness is boring or that contrast is for people who can't write music, certain people freak out. They get very upset. I seem to be a barbarian, ready to turn the clock back to the pleistocene era. Counterintuitive and nihilistic, I am flying in the face of every assumption that some musicians have ever allowed themselves to consider about the nature of music.

And yet others of us - disproportionately represented in this room, I suspect - hear these phrases with a sense of exultant recognition, a relief of realizing that we are not alone. We've heard a gazillion musical events; we are jaded with them. That composers can string them together seems easy and obvious. To introduce frequent contrast into a piece of music strikes us weirdos as a failure of the imagination, the inability to follow an idea to its radical conclusion. We want the mystery to be sustained. We want to surrender to the music - not have the music surrender to us, and knock itself out trying to entertain us. We want to escape ourselves, and want the music, in its emptiness, to provide us with an opening.

What's wrong with us? Why do we find eventfulness boring? Or rather, why does eventfulness seem common and everyday, and non-eventfulness like an intriguingly exotic state, an escape from the quotidian? As Charles Ives asked about himself in some trepidation, "Are my ears on wrong?"

Events happen in time. In fact, they articulate time. Without events there would be no time. Events bring to our consciousness the perception that time is passing by. As the late Jonathan Kramer writes in his book The Time of Music (from which I will quote abundantly today), "Time is a relationship between people and the events they perceive."[2] In other words, our relation to events is how we judge that time is passing.

We musicians are educated to be aware of the articulated sections of a piece of classical music: exposition, development, recapitulation; first theme, second theme, closing theme. We also learn to recognize what we hear instinctively, that most music habitually goes forward: whether in jazz, classical music, or Broadway, the vi chord goes to the ii chord, the ii to the V, and the V to the I - never the other way around.

Most music we all hear embodies a sense of time for us that is analogous to what we unthinkingly consider the time of everyday life. Conventional music creates tensions which we know will be resolved, and must be resolved, for the piece to end: thus music reminds us, in advance, even as we enjoy it, that it will end. Each resolution of a tension, each creation of a new tension, is an event.

Certain aspects of life do follow this pattern. My flying to Brussels creates a tension in my life, because I know, unfortunately, that I cannot long survive financially in Belgium (even with a depressed Euro). This tension will have to be resolved by my flying back. And yet, we can certainly question whether this event-determined experience of time is the only possible one, or the only valuable one, or the only enjoyable one. Many aspects of life go on, day after day, unarticulated by events. Each of us has some tensions in his life that will never resolve until death, a resolution we ourselves find impossible to imagine. We all know that some of our happiest moments are when time seems to disappear.

Kramer supports this perception with a quotation from psychoanalyst Peter Hortocollis:

...when one is not concerned with time, one is likely to see oneself as happy - timelessness or the sense of eternity being identified with the condition of ecstasy.... The essence of [this] mystical experience... is in its complete freedom from any sensual or aggressive wish, the freedom from internal pressure and perception of the surrounding world as devoid of any exciting elements, threatening or promising possibilities. The concept of time as a dimension of reality that defines self from object ("succession of events") is canceled and replaced by a sense of unity.[3]

Interestingly, every year I have the same experience with my first-year music theory class. I teach them the "normal" chord progressions of common-practice music: iii, vi, iv, ii, V, I. Then, I play one of these chord progressions backwards, so that they can hear how wrong, how aimless and counterintuitive it sounds. And what happens? Every year, the students claim that they far prefer the backwards version. I’ve learned to predict it. It happened again last week. Turning time backwards, or rather suspending it without forward motion - making it float - seems so much more fun than making it run forward towards a goal.

I want to speculate today that the pleasure some of us derive, and that others seem unable to enjoy, from unarticulated music is a tug-of-war between the two halves of the brain, and consequentially from two different ways of hearing sound, or music. It is well acknowledged in recent decades that the two hemispheres of our brains process experience differently. I will spell out the differences between left-brain and right-brain experience as given by Kramer in The Time of Music: where

The Left Brain is:The Right Brain is:
thought as informationthought as emotion
splits the world into piecesconnects the world into wholes
sees cause and effectsees correspondence and resemblance[4]

The great achievement of European music was that it invented and developed large-scale and small-scale musical logics to mirror and reinforce the right-brain perception of sound in motion. The development of circle-of-fifths chord progressions and sonata form created a type of musical narrative, based on antecedents and consequents, that sent clues to the left brain about where we are in the music. The right brain registers that a piece of music is slowing down and getting softer; the left brain registers that the chords are spelling out a final cadence on the tonic. The right brain feels the common atmosphere drawn by two themes of a symphony; the left brain keeps track of which theme came first and which second. Even in a less abstract form like a Tin Pan Alley jazz song, the forward-directed chord progression keeps the left brain satisfied while the right brain soaks up the specific mood of the song.

It was such a magnificent achievement, this vast and expressive harmonic and motivic logic. Surely those who balk at our wanting music without contrast are right in thinking we're crazy to want to throw it away.

But, as has often been recognized, the harmonic and motivic logic were synchronous with a certain social paradigm of music listening that arose in the 18th century: the practice of audiences sitting in rows of chairs and listening to music while looking at the performers onstage. That situation doesn't seem to have been normative before the mid-18th century. Pictorial evidence suggests that in the 1720s and '30s, symphonies were played in the background as listeners wandered around and made conversation. In the 16th century, great masses were sung while churchgoers meditated on their spiritual state.

It is of interest that the history of sonata form started more or less in synch with the advent of public subscription concerts and ended with the fall of the European aristocracy that resulted from World War I; or, we could say that, in its extended, modernist form, sonata form lasted just about until the invention of the long-playing record. Was it a happy coincidence that sonata form arose just at the moment that audiences started paying money to sit quietly and hear concerts? Or did a new kind of music arise because a new social situation demanded it? We may not be able to ever say for certain, but we might be able to see a parallel in the rise of minimalism in an age of recording.

The modern symphony kept people happy in their chairs by giving both the left brain and right brain something to listen for. The left brain keeps track of time, and if it can't make sense of what's going on, the sense of time passing becomes oppressive. We get bored.

Compare, in this respect, a Beethoven symphony or sonata with a mass by Johannes Ockeghem (and I'm very happy to bring up Ockeghem here in his homeland). Beethoven gives us lots of before and after to listen to, which we hear as metaphors for cause and effect, harmonic tensions that don't get wrapped up and "normalized" until much later in the piece. On the other hand, he also gives us plenty of rhythmic energy and brooding atmosphere. The right brain enjoys the atmosphere in the way music has always appealed to music lovers; the themes and motives and harmonies also give the left brain the illusion of a narrative to keep us diverted, our total minds occupied.

By contrast, an Ockeghem mass is largely an opaque mystery for the average listener. It engages the right brain in a feeling of devout emotion and beautifully flowing lines, but for the left brain there are few events or articulations. We have little sense of where we are, time-wise, in the piece. If you're looking for eventfulness, it's pretty boring. As even Morton Feldman, of all people, once said in an interview, "Did you ever sit through a Machaut mass? You could commit suicide!"[5]

And yet, I've certainly known people who, trapped in the middle of a multi-hour Morton Feldman piece, wanted to slit their wrists. Perhaps we can retroactively intuit something about sonata form vis-a-vis concert hall etiquette by noting how we experience eventless music in a conventional concert hall setting. The orchestra piece For Samuel Beckett is one of my favorite Feldman works, and I listen to the recording all the time. But in 1996 I had the opportunity to hear the piece live at Lincoln Center. As I sat in a screwed-down orchestra hall chair and stared at the almost motionless performers, its monumental, unchanging eventlessness made me feel suffocatingly trapped in an endless and unprogressing moment. The only experience I can compare it to is that of going into an MRI machine without a blindfold on. I am rather claustrophobic, but this was my most intense experience ever with purely musical claustrophobia. I love that piece dearly. I found, though, that I do not particularly enjoy the experience of watching the performers while they play it, unable to direct my attention elsewhere.

Let's switch now to a piece that will doubtless be invoked many times this week, Steve Reich's electronic piece Come Out. The value of Come Out as evidence of a new listening paradigm, I think, is that its relation to left-brain and right-brain listening is so transparent. In your analytical left brain, you know, or will quickly realize, that there’s not much to the piece. The phrase "Come out to show them" is going to be played on two different speakers, starting at once but ever-so-gradually going out of phase. From a left-brain point of view, there's hardly any reason to listen to it, because you know exactly what's going to happen. There will be no events, no surprises. But of course, we all know that what happens in the right brain is very surprising indeed. Gradually we start to hear the phrase "Come out to show them" as a melody, and the piece as being in the key of C minor. The phasing process tonalizes the spoken phrase, abstracting pitches and contours from its verbal meaning, and changing our perception of the phrase in ways that were impossible to anticipate before Reich discovered them. The particular pleasure here is difficult to verbalize - which is our evidence that the right brain is involved. The process is physically and quantifiably gradual, but our perception of it turns out not to be gradual or even linear. Suddenly we hear the phrase as harmonic, or as a texture, and we can hardly believe that the transformations all stem directly from the simple phrase we heard in unison at the beginning. Our left-brain understanding cannot account for our right-brain fascination.

What is radical about this piece, I think, with respect to Beethoven and the whole body of classical music that came in the three centuries before it, is that our left- and right-brain experiences of it have become unhinged from each other. In a conventional piece of classical music or a pop song, left-brain and right-brain factors work hand in hand. Phrases are defined via a familiar and learned syntax, and at the same time by gestural contours, mood, atmosphere, heights and depths of register, a visceral feeling of stability or instability. (Or, rather, as Kramer documents at length, the left-brain and right brain factors can be separated out occasionally, to witty and imaginative effect: as when Haydn begins a string quartet with a gesture that we recognize as a closing cadence.)

What I want to suggest is different in minimalist music (to introduce the term of the week at last), is that our right- and left-brain listening experiences are no longer parallel, and no longer occupy the same time frame. In left-brain terms, we often know what the music is, and what is happening in it. What we experience with the right brain, however, cannot be entirely accounted for in left-brain terms. The music's process is sometimes too slow, or too gradual, or too large-scale for us to perceive in real time what's going on, and the experienced results of the process are sometimes not what we would have predicted even had we known the process in advance.

Lest it be assumed that I am primarily speaking here of what many of us refer to as "classic '60s minimalism," let me take my next example from 1991 and a younger generation, John Luther Adams's Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing. This is a 63-minute work for orchestra. The piece opens with a cluster of contiguous half-steps. In each new phase of the work the intervals widen: first major seconds, then major and minor thirds, then fourths and tritones, and so on up to major sevenths at the very end. The music shifts among five different types of orchestral texture in a symmetrical pattern that is simple to see when it's charted out. But the poor listener, hearing moment by moment within this monumental structure, doesn't perceive the symmetry, nor the overall logic. Sensuous aspects are accessible at every moment; the work's large-scale logic, however, is confined to rare changes, inscrutable at first but gradually revealing their trajectory over the course of an hour. The listener, or analyst, who knows how the piece was written can take left-brain satisfaction in tracking the progress of the form. But in the process of listening he must still submit to the vastness, the richness of the textures and patterns, the accidental coincidences of large-scale process, the uncertainty of knowing how long any particular texture will last. No matter how familiar one is with the piece, there is no humming along, no anticipating the next turn. Even if you know how many measures each section is, as I do, the layers of simultaneous tempos forestall any sense of absolute time. The complexes of unfolding tuplets become sufficiently absorbing that the attention is barely adequate to take in the pleasures of the moment. You lose yourself in the attempt to grasp the complexity of the phenomena - and by lose yourself, I mean, of course, that your left brain gives up trying to comprehend.

A similar type of example would be Arvo Part's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, in which we sense but cannot aurally define or follow the large-scale tempo canon formed by the lines moving at different rates of speed. A more forceful European example is the series of 144 identical fortissimo chords which open Louis Andriessen's De Materie. In the first moments the educated left brain can analyze that chord, confirm that all the repetitions are identical, and measure to some extent the fact that they are speeding up. But after a few seconds the left brain has done everything it can, except count - and by the point of that realization it's too late to start counting. And who wants to sit there and count chords anyway? That would be really boring. So the left brain bows out, and we are left with a right-brain submission to the temporally indefinable repetition. Even though in a sense we know exactly what is going on, we can only experience the music during that long moment - quite pleasurably, in my view - as an irrational, unexplainable phenomenon.

Another clear example is Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. In some scenes of that opera, the repeated patterns change in a regular, sometimes linear way that are easy to chart out in the score - analyzable, that is, by the left brain. But in the ongoing rush of repetitions, successive repeated patterns often start with the same notes, so that one can't determine while the music is playing when the patterns change, but only notice it in hindsight, often with a kind of surprise. Analysis of that piece has convinced me that the effect couldn't be achieved with any fewer repetitions than Glass uses. I think he calculated the proportions brilliantly. Our right-brain experience of the music moves along helter-skelter, but our left-brain understanding of what's going on kind of limps along in a halting fashion, unless (as I suspect usually happens) we give up trying to track the process altogether.

One peculiar pleasure offered by this sort of minimalist music, then, is that we draw our sense of the passage of time not from events as they happen, but by realizing only afterward that events have happened that we couldn't recognize as such at the moment. This sometimes occurs as well with the music of Phill Niblock, whose drones, moving slowly in and out of tune with each other, can create gradual changes that we aren't aware of until minutes after the change. We get caught up in the chaos of beating overtones only to realize at some point that they completely disappeared some time ago, as the drones moved into pure consonance.

Another highly individual paradigm is that of Paul Epstein, whose music makes intricate patterns from the simplest possible materials. His Palindrome Variations is based entirely on a 12-note figure using only five pitches, put through a series of permutated rotations. The attraction of this music, for me, is that it is so clearly process-based that makes you think that if you could just listen hard enough you could figure out what the process is, and yet the process itself is impossible to capture by ear. Such music irresistibly encourages very involved listening.

And let us finally take as an object lesson the tape composition 9-Beet Stretch by the Norwegian composer Lief Inge, who turned a recording of one of the most rational musical experiences possible - Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - into an almost totally right-brain and minimalist listening experience merely by slowing it down until it lasts 24 hours.

For the sake of argument, I would like to propose that this is one potential core definition (or hard-core definition, if you will) of minimalism: that it is music which causes a divorce between our left-brain and right-brain experiences. From the standpoint of a conventional listener accustomed to classical or popular music, the music seems to "go on for too long," to "stay in the same place," to change rarely and seemingly arbitrarily. Who says it goes on for too long? The left brain, which keeps track of time. Who says the changes are arbitrary? The left brain, which can't figure them out. Our left brain gives up the attempt to analyze, and we surrender to right-brain sensuous experience.

Minimalist music, of course, is not the only music to resist left-brain analysis, nor is it the only music that is about, as Ashley puts it, "sound in the Morton Feldman sense." There is, for instance, Morton Feldman's music. Iannis Xenakis expresses an interest in aspects of music that lie "outside time," and Kramer includes Xenakis's musique concrete works among those that give us an experience of what he calls "vertical time," time that seems to consist of an extended moment, without significant movement or progressive contrast. Likewise with the chance music of Cage, and arguably quite a few serialist works.

However, unlike those musics, minimalism gives us a sense of a clear background organization, one that is often too slow, too gradual, too obvious, or too subtle to be followed in real time. This is distinct from, say, John Cage's Music of Changes, which, being entirely chance-composed, thrusts the left brain out completely, because there is nothing analyzable to hold on to. On another hand, Stockhausen's Gruppen is analyzable in detail, but it would take some kind of super-autistic idiot savant to figure out the piece's structural principles from listening to it. From the very beginning Reich, in his writings, distinguished his music from that of Cage and the New York school and the serialists this way, in that the left-brain process could be heard or at least intuited on some level.

Note that by stating it this way, I am not defining minimalism as a canon of works that fit a definition, but as a quality of which different pieces may partake to greater or lesser extent. All of us here are interested in minimalism, though the repertoire we love to theorize about is extremely diverse. It fits with our experience, I think, that while we may talk about both Nixon in China and Strumming Music as minimalist works, we would call Strumming Music a more minimalist piece than Nixon in China, as the piece throws up more barriers against left-brain comprehension and puts a greater emphasis on sensuous experience. Experimentally, let's consider for a moment that the more a piece throws left-brain perception and right-brain perception into different time-scales, with the left brain still involved but less continuously, the more minimalist it is.

Having gotten this far, we re-ask the question: why has eventfulness become boring? What is it about the spiritual virtuosity of avoiding contrast that makes some of us love this music so much?

Let's return to the idea that sonata form appeared roughly synchronously with the practice of having audiences sit quietly in concert halls and watch the performers. If you're going to sit there and not move, your left brain needs a narrative to follow, some intelligible succession of beginning, middle, and end. We can sit there because someone's telling us a story. In pop music, a simple pattern of verse, verse, bridge, verse, will do the trick, and of course the lyrics help (when they can be understood). Even in jazz, the expectation that the head of the tune will be followed by several instrumental solos, ending with bass and drum solos, followed by the return of the head, gives us a sense of expectation that satisfies the left brain.

T.S. Eliot famously said about poetry that "Content is the piece of meat the burglar brings along to keep the house dog quiet." What he meant, I presume, is that what the poet loves to do is weave the sounds and rhythms of words into a lovely pattern, but that he also needs to make the poem mean something so that the reader's left brain will have something definable to hold onto, so his conscious mind won't cry foul and consider the poem nonsense. What I'm suggesting is that conventional music's form and syntax were the piece of meat and that the left brain is the house dog. Eliot sounds almost wistfully like he wished he could get by without the piece of meat; and this, I'm suggesting, is what minimalist music learned how to do. We minimalists are burglars who show up without the piece of meat. We know from experience that, for some listeners, the dogs will start barking.

It is abundantly argued, at least everywhere in America, that the practice of sitting still in concert halls is a paradigm no longer as relevant to our lifestyles as it used to be. Some interpret this as a tragedy. But Kramer stresses how much our technology has changed our listening habits. "Recording," he writes,

has... made the home and the car into environments just as viable for music listening as the concert hall. The removal of music from the ritualized behavior that surrounds concertgoing struck a blow to the internal ordering of the listening experience. Furthermore, radio, records, and tapes allow the listener to enter and exit a composition at will. An overriding progression from beginning to end may or may not be in the music, but the listener is not captive to that completeness. We all spin the dial, and we are more immune to having missed part of the music than composers like to think.[6]

I know that I was being played music on records before I was a week old. I played records of Mozart and Rachmaninoff on the stereo when I was in elementary school, and I started buying my own records at age twelve. Today I own tens of thousands of recordings, and probably 95% of the music I'm familiar with, or more, I have never heard in live performance. I was born in 1955, and even though for many years as a music critic I attended four or five concerts a week - far more, I suspect, than most people even in New York City - formal concert listening has never felt like my default paradigm. Since I was in the Downtown experimental scene, many concerts I attended were ones where I listened standing up or walking around, or even lying down, or having a drink and not watching the performers. By contrast, I heard Einstein on the Beach live at BAM once, and, sitting in rows of chairs, I felt compelled a few times to get up and walk around the lobby. I want to hear that music, I even want to hear it live, but I don't want to hear it in a confined setting. On the other hand, I heard La Monte Young's Well-Tuned Piano at the Dia Foundation space in which one could lie on the floor and move around at will, and when it ended after six hours, I couldn't believe it was already over. I heard Feldman's six-hour Second String Quartet in a mostly empty Zankel Hall, where I was free to change seats, stretch our my legs and relax, whenever I wanted. It was heavenly.

It may turn out that the dogs barked not because we were listening to unarticulated music, but because we were confined to chairs.

It is easy for composers and classical musicians to underestimate, I think, how far the cultural practice of listening has evolved. I love Haydn's music and find it witty and often laugh-provoking, but to listen to it in such a way that its humor clicks into place, I have to pay attention to it on a very gestural level. I find that my students have a difficult time listening to it with any understanding at all: it quickly devolves into genteel background music. They don't get the jokes, and we all know what happens to a joke when you have to explain it. And I will add that even the 19th-century music I love most today is that which pushes the left-brain logic away to a large level and floats with a sense of staticness, like the second movement of Beethoven's Op. 111, or the adagios and scherzos of Bruckner symphonies.

Perhaps eventfulness became boring because the music that immediately preceded minimalism was inordinately event-oriented. Think about how many events there are in Stockhausen's Gruppen, compared to, say, a new theme every 10 or 30 measures in a Beethoven sonata. When we abandoned the continuous web of counterpoint and the large-scale architecture of tonal harmony, we arrived at a era in which a piece of music could often only be defined by its violent contrasts. People my age and older grew up at a time when contemporary music was saturated, even defined, by its succession of events. Coming at such a hectic pace, their very consistency of contrast could minimize perceived differences, and gray into a kind of background noise. Now when I hear a new piece and it is loaded with detail and contrast, I can feel something like a child whom an adult is trying too hard to entertain with shiny objects and funny faces. In our minimalist world, conventional modernist music can sound like the composer has no faith in his material and withdraws it very quickly, or else doesn't feel generous toward the listener, and so only gives us tiny portions.

Of course, in certain circles (and even periodically on Wikipedia, hardly a highbrow haven) minimalist music has been disparaged as simplistic or dumbed-down precisely because of its assymmetrical appeal to the nonverbal right brain. Talking is about all that we professors get to do, and if an experience is not susceptible to description, a professor cannot ply his trade. Obviously, it must be the music that is at fault, since the professor's credentials are impeccable. Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus with the words, "What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence." But the fascinating thing about these International Conferences on Minimalist Music, of which some of us are now attending our third, is that so many of us have defied Wittgenstein. We have come together to find ways to talk about aspects of musical experience that elude verbal explication. We have been collectively inventing a new vocabulary for musical experience, and even identifying new realms of experience to have a vocabulary about.

A couple of years ago I taught a seminar in the analysis of minimalism, going in detail through 48 years' worth of scores from early La Monte Young to recent Eve Beglarian. Frequently our 15-foot-long blackboard didn’t contain enough room for all the notes or shorthand symbols we had to put down to parse the structure of a dance from Einstein on the Beach or a percussion piece by Peter Garland. Sometimes the analysis was so exhaustive because the results were presumptively negative: in a piece by Peter Garland, or Janice Giteck, or even in a dance from Einstein, we would have to catalogue every note in order to confirm that there was no repetition, and no strict process. This, for me, has become a sign that the music is postminimalist rather than minimalist, but in terms of listening mode, the effect can be virtually identical. Either strict process, or a total absence of process, can result in the perceptual state of "vertical time," defined by Kramer as "a single present stretched out into an enormous duration, a potentially infinite 'now' that nonetheless feels like an instant."[7]

In a piece by Philip Glass or William Duckworth or Janice Giteck, one movement might be the result of a strict phase-shifting or additive or repetitive process, and the next movement might be completely through-composed without any repetition or process at all - and it can be impossible for the listener to tell the difference between the two types of structure. One of the wonderful things that analyzing minimalist music has suggested to me is that intuition is a kind of arithmetic, and arithmetic is a form of intuition, and that either route can get us to the same place.

As we will doubtless hear this week, there is a ton of analysis we can do on minimalist music, and many of the analytical challenges are quite new and exciting. But unlike most of the conventional music we analyze, minimalist music reminds us that what we love most in music cannot be isolated and captured by analysis. The pleasure we get from suddenly realizing that Come Out is in C minor, or from submitting to De Materie's accelerating chords, doesn't appear in any chart we can make of the work. On the contrary, what analysis of minimalist music frequently reveals is how brilliantly the composer structured the music to keep the left brain from getting too continuously involved. The analyzable structure of the work can either be so obvious that we quit paying attention to it, or so craftily hidden that we can sense it but can't quite put our mental finger on it. Either way, we are forcibly reminded that our pleasure in the music comes not from how it is made, nor even mostly from understanding how it is made, but from the ineffable experience of our sonic communion with it. And that is a good thing to remember in connection with any music at all.

What I want to suggest about minimalism is that, in a new era of environmental listening habits, it found a timely middle ground among the other musics we love. The chaos of Cage's late music and the complicated hidden structures of serialism both have their attractions, but they tend to push the left brain out of musical experience altogether, or else involve it only afterward in analysis of the score. Minimalist music engages our left brain, but limits its role. We generally enjoy meaning, order, and form, and minimalism gives us those - but we do not always want to keep track of time, and we do not always need to be told a story. Minimalist music provides our left brain with context and reassurance, not a running commentary.

We all, I think, want music to catch us up in a kind of ongoing mystery. As Steve Reich wrote in a famous essay, "Even when all the cards are on the table there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all." And elsewhere: "Obviously music should put all within listening range into a state of ecstasy." Jonathan Kramer writes, "Music in vertical time... gives us the means to experience a moment of eternity, a present extended well beyond normal temporal horizons, without forcing us to lose our grip on reality."[8] And he describes an experience he had listening to a performance of Satie's Vexations:

I found myself fascinated with what I was hearing. The music was not simply a context for meditation, introspection, or daydreaming. I was listening... After what seemed forty minutes I left. My watch told me that I had listened for three hours. I felt exhilarated, refreshed, renewed.[9]

Minimalist music, I suggest, has settled into a cultural space more attuned to the electronic, environmental, ambient lives we live now than 19th- and 20th-century concert hall music could provide. In another sense I would also claim that it has brought us back to what we wanted music to do for us anyway. Because most cultures - as in Balinese music, African music, Indian music, and so on - listen to music in less confined, more environmental settings, minimalism has moved us back closer to the world mainstream. That so much pop music today aspires to the state of minimalism, as Jonathan Bernard has detailed at earlier conferences, is not so much a sign of classical influence, I think, as a proof that our collective listening habits have become more right-brain-oriented, and musicians from all over are catching on. It may turn out that eventfulness was a brilliant solution to a social situation which has turned out to be temporary.

When I told my old friend Robert Carl, who spoke at the last conference, what my thesis was today, he said, "Then the next creative challenge will be to find what kind of eventfulness can be interesting in a postminimalist world." So I promised him I would leave that door open. Musical events can be wonderful, and we will continue to enjoy them, but we no longer require a steady stream of them to focus our attention. In fact, we find that they sometimes get in the way, and detract from what music can so preciously provide us: the chance to step outside of chronological time and experience eternity.

[1] Interview with the author, June 11, 2009.

[2] Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music (New York and London: Schirmer Books, 1988), p. 5.

[3] Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music, p. 377.

[4] Adapted from Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music (New York and London: Schirmer Books, 1988), pp. 9-10.

[5] "H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody): Morton Feldman in Conversation with Peter Gena," in TriQuarterly 54 (Spring 1982), p. 135.

[6] Kramer, The Time of Music, p. 45.

[7] Kramer, The Time of Music, p. 55.

[8] Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music, p. 376.

[9] Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music, p. 379.

Copyright 2011 by Kyle Gann

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