January 25, 2007 By Kyle Gann
By Kyle Gann
It is undoubtedly the most heinously unpopular thing about me, that I will apply a generic term to my own creativity. No other cliche could possibly be as widespread in music today as the conviction that one should never, ever admit that one's art falls into any kind of category. ("Beyond category" is oft trotted out as Duke Ellington's highest compliment, and every grad composition student believes it already applies to himself.) And yet I not only refer to myself as a postminimalist, but embrace it as kind of a guideline. Perhaps it's a composer-critic thing: Tom Johnson, who freely called himself a minimalist, is the only other composer I've ever heard of self-applying such a term. But I did not get where I am today, wherever that is, by capitulating to widespread professional ukases, and although other composers urge it on me right and left, I have never considered conformism a very smart long-term career strategy for an artist. In this, as in other things, I flatly refuse to comply.
By postminimalism I mean something more specific than most people mean who use the term. In fact, for purposes of the current essay, perhaps the word should be temporarily understood as not being at all generic, but as referring solely to my own aesthetic - although ultimately I think there's more to it than that. I think the term describes a condition, an attitude toward the materials of music, that many have come to share, though I will allow the reader to be the judge of that. No other composers need be tarred with the brush that tars me.
The superficial understanding of the term, it seems to me, is that it refers to a kind of watered-down minimalism. For me, postminimalism is qualitatively different from minimalism, almost a reaction against it, or a deliberate misappropriation of certain elements of it. Minimalist music maintains a balance between concept and sound. The value of the music is in its literal fidelity to its concept, and it expands one's perception because of the cognitive dissonance between one's right-brain experience of the (often sensuous) sonorities and one's left-brain recognition of the extraordinary processes involved. Minimalism is inherently transgressive in venturing outside the perceptual conventions of concert attention, both in terms of scale and patent linearity. Minimalism aspires to the condition of natural phenomenon, and does not call attention to its "composed" quality.
None of this is true of postminimalism. Postminimalism is no more concept-related than any other body of concert-hall music, nor is it transgressive. Even less does it obscure its quality of being "authored." It inherited from minimalism one thing: the value of limiting one's materials, of composing within a circumscribed range. The postminimalists took from minimalism a lesson that was hardly intended - the contingent nature of musical elements - and ran off with it in a very different direction. Postminimalists noticed that the processes of minimalism did not depend on whether the harmonies were consonant (Steve Reich), dissonant (Phill Niblock), rhythmic (Philip Glass), or static (La Monte Young). The easy step from Reich's Come Out to his Piano Phase was a striking demonstration that materials don't matter. If you want to encourage perception of a process, piano notes and speech samples are equally effective. Minimalism had broken the traditional Romantic/modernist correlation between musical qualities and the external world.
And so, for postminimalism, an escape from modernism became also an escape from metaphysics. Sonata form had been considered, by its classic adherents, a natural form, something discovered in the processes of the mind; for postminimalism, there is no such thing as a natural form. The tendencies of tonal harmony were seen as conforming to natural laws, and 12-tone music was an attempt to draw music from an organic method; for postminimalism, there are no laws outside the composition, all tendencies are defined arbitrarily by a logic created within the specific piece of music, and organicism is understood as a constructed illusion. In traditional music, minor harmony and dissonance create tension, major harmony and consonance resolve it, in a tension-release pattern meant to mirror and elucidate emotional life; in postminimalism, one chord is as good as another, consonance and dissonance are equally acceptable, all being defined contextually rather than via reference to the outer world.
And the postminimalists had help: with his delicately gorgeous dissonances, Morton Feldman discredited, single-handedly and forever, the traditional correlation of dissonance with violence or even anxiety. The cord connecting qualities of musical materials to aspects of the outer world was snipped in two. Julia Wolfe's dissonances, William Duckworth's consonances, John Luther Adams's tone clusters, Art Jarvinen's pencil sharpeners, even Joshua Fried's radio commercials, all became neutral markers for the various logics in which they circulated. A harsh piece no more suggested the world was a vale of tears than a consonant piece exhorted everyone to be happy. For an entire generation, the battles of our teachers' generation - tonality versus atonality, consonance versus dissonance, harmonies versus tone rows - ceased to carry emotive force. "All art is artificial," wrote Stravinsky (the proto-postminimalist par excellence), and the postminimalists, hearing in serialism and minimalism the ultimate failure of an attempted musical metaphysics, embraced that slogan with open ears.
This de-charging of materials, so to speak, was reinforced by the more explicit aesthetics of the period. Philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906-98), the most influential aesthetician of my youth and one closely aligned with the then-new, more humanistic trends in analytic philosophy, denied in his influential Languages of Art of 1968 that perceived correspondences between art and reality were more than conventional. Artists, in his view, pretend to only document the world, but in actuality they shape our perceptions of it and create a new reality by conditioning us to reinterpret. "Realism" is never innocent. "That a picture looks like nature," he wrote, "often means only that it looks the way nature is usually painted." Drawing Wittgenstein's insights to their logical conclusions, philosophers of the '60s concurred that there is no ultimate reality to which all statements, and by extension all works of art, refer: "there is no such thing as the way the world is." As I've written elsewhere,the more [composers] portray the world as chaotic and formless, the more chaotic the world becomes. There is no such thing as ontologically neutral art. The artist cannot escape responsibility: no matter how innocently he "paints what he sees," he is toying with our perceptions. (Music Downtown, p. 150)
Oscar Wilde had articulated the same insight in a light-hearted but profound essay that strikingly anticipates Goodman:...[W]hat is nature?... She is our creation...Things are because we see them, and what we see,and how we see it, depends on the arts that have influenced us... At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist until Art had invented them... That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is [Art's] latest fancy, and... Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she now gives us exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. (Intentions, 1889)
Had the world taken Wilde's topsy-turvy formulations at face value, the early Modernists might have approached their task with a little more self-conscious irony. At first eager to portray the new Machine Age in noise, then concerned to warn mankind of the dark forces that threaten human freedom, modern music began as a heroic attempt to capture in sound realities that classical form had banished to the world of nonsense. Le Sacre gave us the relativism of non-Western society; Wozzeck gave us psychological reality; Ionisation gave us musical atomic physics. In the troubled but comparatively innocent 1920s modern music had seemed part of the solution, but by the '70s it was part of the problem. The harshness, violence, and complexity of modern music, it turned out, had not been simple depictions of reality, but had helped condition us to perceive reality as harsh, violent, and complex. And when modernist music, dragged into a scientific dead end, suddenly yielded to minimalism, the relationship of music to the world stood exposed as contingent, not determinate. The collapse of what had seemed like the open-ended and unidirectional history of music faced composers, for the first time in history, with true freedom to write any kind of music they wanted.
Now the interesting question becomes, given absolute freedom to compose dissonantly, consonantly, complexly, simply, linearly, repetitively, noisily, melodically, structurally, intuitively - why did so many composers (not a majority by any means, but quite a few dozens) gravitate independently toward the same small set of ideas? Fittingly enough, part of the answer is simple historical accident. Not only serialism and minimalism but the American experimental tradition had tossed up phase-shifting, tone rows, isorhythms, arithmetical rhythmic structures, additive processes, echo and delay, polytonality, tempo canon, cross-rhythms, and many other devices, toyed with in seeming haste and then abandoned, begging for further exploration. Add to this that the sudden wealth of information about other world musics, plus increasing acceptance of vernacular traditions, made Gamelan melodic cycles, Indian ragas, African rhythms, bluegrass melodic patterns, boogie-woogie harmonic progressions, and five hundred other musical artifacts available. All of these have gone into postminimalist music, a variety so vast that you'd think the external appearance of a unified style would have become impossible.
Nevertheless, the astonishing fact is that a unified body of music did appear, seemingly without much influence seeming to have passed directly from one composer to another. One of its chief strategies, derived from minimalism but here turned to very different ends, was an overall limitation of materials within any one piece. Nothing is more characteristic of postminimalism than an avoidance of dramatic sectional contrast, or dramatic change altogther unless it is achieved gradually. As I experience the style as a composer, the unity is not necessarily moment-to-moment, but global. One has a sense from the beginning what concise universe of sounds, chords, rhythms, the piece will take place within, and the challenge is to create variety without diverging. Often the most basic idea of the piece is a certain relation among a finite number of harmonies, or a restriction on voice-leading strategies. (For me as a microtonalist, this self-limitation serves a practical logistical purpose, to keep the number of pitches from proliferating wildly in process - a situation that makes me even more surprised that I seem to be the only microtonal postminimalist.)
Theoretically one could have argued that, if all materials are equally acceptable, then a piece of music could include anything and everything. This has certainly been the message and strategy of some of the so-called postmodernist composers such as John Zorn and William Bolcom, and one might even include the more traditionally Ivesian Henry Brant. But to allow and include everything in your music flirts once again with the idea of representing the world, reviving the illusion of non-artificiality. To see the world as a cacophony of fragmentary signifiers, and represent it that way in your music, is to attempt to influence others to see it that way. Self-limitation, by contrast, is the most obvious sign of postminimalism's embrace of artificiality. And not only formal limitation: postminimalism's habitual reliance on steady pulse and the diatonic scale signifies a stepping back from naturalism, a deliberate and knowing acceptance of artifice.
One might as well admit, too, that overpopulation probably exerted its own pressures on postminimalism. If every piece includes everything, then all pieces become in some sense the same - a phenomenon that was fairly observable in the era of ambitiously massive, all-embracing serialist works, which inevitably came to resemble each other. There are so many tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of composers now, and without self-limitation on each one's part, they all end up exploring the same territory. Minimalism had created a model in which, paradoxically, although materials didn't matter, the focus on a specific element held so much power that, say, a piece based on a major third could have a very different profile from a similar one based on a minor third. Self-limitation enabled a composer to mark off territory different from that covered by other composers - or, put differently, it made pieces recognizable, it gave them profile.
And thus, in an era pervaded by increasing awareness of ecology issues, postminimalism felt like an ecological approach to composition, a refusal to hog more resources than one needed. Concomitantly, rather than a going-outward to say something about the world, it represented a going-inward, a focus on a certain small repertoire of sonorities and processes. Like Mahler, the postminimalists agree that a composition should be a universe: but not the universe, rather a possible universe, a created universe small enough to serve as a controllable model. To take a telling instance, the extreme limitations of John Luther Adams's 75-minute In the White Silence for orchestra - only "white" pitches used, only a handful of gestural types, a linear and self-limiting intervallic process - does not indicate an attempt to portray the magnificent vastness of the Alaskan landscape (for which some technicolor means such as those of Strauss's Alpine Symphony might be called for), but rather an attempt to create an inward stillness through a model that that one's experience of that landscape suggests.
And so, given the realizations that 1. there is no necessity linking a style of music to its period, and 2. the perceived character of a society is more a product of art than art is a necessary effluent of society - the postminimalists came to a logical conclusion: that the purpose of art is not to represent the present, but to envision a future. And given the harrowing state of the world, that future needed to be the exact opposite of the picture given by modernist music, just as the postminimalist language is the antipode of the serialist language in almost every detail. For instance, man's expansive appropriation of nature had brought us so close to disaster than music needed to show us a process of self-limitation and expansion inward, not outward.
Thus, nothing is more characteristic of postminimalist music than that it avoids the representation of anxiety. Even when postminimalist music is partly dissonant, harsh, or rhythmically complex, it has a sustained, continuous character that gives an impression of overarching calm. Dissonances and conflicts appear, but virtually never disrupt the musical surface. The first art-music style to arise from a collective perception of relativity, in total freedom from social mandates, postminimalism used its freedom ethically, to paint visions of a calm, less aggressive, and more sustainable future. Listening to postminimalist music attunes one to processes not marked by anxiety and disruption, but by variety without appropriation, a universe of activity within contained limits and controlled by logics that may seem intuitive or strict, but always multi-leveled. At its best it can be, I would submit, a blueprint for a more meditative mental state hitherto uncharacteristic of Western society.
To give what by now should be a classic example, take postminimalism's first ambitious essay, William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes (which I'll undoubtedly be writing more about in coming months). Of 24 brief movements in that work, about half follow some rigorous process or arithmetical structure, and the others are freely, more intuitively written. And listening, you can't tell the difference. The distinction between rigorous structure and free intuition, such a bugbear of modern aesthetics, sits nestled there in the Time Curve Preludes as a distinction without a difference, and as you hear more into the piece you become more aware of the differences without it making any difference in the result. The piece is really an astonishingly suave statement about the illusory quality of artistic dualities.
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As you can see if you've read this far (and if you have, it is my duty to inform you that spending too many hours hunched over a computer screen is bad for the vertebrae, and may cause back problems), I've started my book on music after minimalism, and, like so many other authors, am using my blog to write it. There will, I fear, be a hell of a lot more where this came from. My goal will be not merely to outline the technical features of postminimalist and totalist music, which is a fairly straightforward task I've already assayed in many venues, but to place this music in the world of ideas, and explain what urgency it has for the people who write it - possibility even why it remains invisible to the people who pay no attention to it. The way I've explained it has much to do with the way in which I arrived at my own composing idiom, but I think that something of this train of thought infected dozens of composers of my generation, many of whom I've listed elsewhere, more than once. Because I really think that postminimalism is not just a derived style that piggybacked on minimalism, but a philosophical departure from the hitherto linear history of music, and an ethical attempt to envision an inner world that will carry us through the fearful times that undoubtedly lie ahead.
UPDATE: Responses lead me to think I should clarify a point. By "The cord connecting qualities of musical materials to aspects of the outer world was snipped in two," I do not mean to say that postminimalist music is somehow merely self-referential, that it refers to nothing in the world. To say that, and also to say that the music encourages recognition of certain mental states would indeed involve a self-contradiction into which I don't think I fell if you read me literally. What I'm saying is that postminimalist music does not rely on or refer to the traditional emotive associations of qualities of music elements: consonant, dissonant, noisy, musical, etc. For example, of Adams's two largest orchestral works, In the White Silence uses only the "white" notes, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing employs the entire chromatic scale, though both use roughly similar textures and processes. But while the colors of the pieces differ somewhat, the chromatic scale is not used for a different expressive purpose than the diatonic scale, the way Beethoven uses the chromatic to make the second movement of Les Adieux anxious and the diatonic to make the third movement happy, or even the relative eeriness and stability of the first and last movements of Music for Strings, Percussion,and Celeste. The processes and form of postminimalist music encourage a certain kind of attention; the materials are often treated, from piece to piece, as more or less interchangeable, as in Come Out and Piano Phase. Anyone who sees a logical contradiction here has perhaps misread the word materials as referring to the totality of a piece, rather than the constituent elements.
Al says: January 25, 2007 at 10:46 am -- I am a composer and no category applies to me. It's not because I'm great- it's because I don't know what the hell I'm doing.
David Toub says: January 25, 2007 at 11:30 am -- Thanks, Kyle, and for the ergonomic warning as well. To be honest, I never had heard the term postminimalism until you applied it towards my music, which I appreciated. I'm not sure I see my music as a reaction to minimalism, but certainly the other elements you mention would apply. I would see postminimalism more as an evolution of minimalism, in which the repetition isn't the thing itself, but merely another tool along with serial elements, consonance, dissonance, complex rhythms, etc.
That long string quartet I sent you is an example; there are repetitive elements that could have come from any minimalist work of the 70 s, but there are also parts that are 12-tone, serial, and even all three together. There was no process per se, which is where I think all of the postminimalist works you cite truly diverge from a minimalist work like, say, Two Pages or Reed Phase.
Very nice post--I'm looking forward to more.
Paul H. Muller says: January 25, 2007 at 11:35 am -- Interesting reading, but do you really maintain that the catastrophes of the 20th century had no effect on its music, but rather the other way around? If, by 1970, having been through 50 years of wars, totalitarianism and nuclear fear that the dissonances and pessimism of "modern" music was somehow not reflective of this? That this music was responsible for shaping our perceptions to a greater degree than was the terrible reality? Seems a lot to ask of any art form. I wonder if minimalism was the point at which art aspired to shape its own reality. By going back to basic structures and materials, music was trying to disengage itself from a terrible reality and create a more optimistic universe. Do you see any connection to Pop art? Simple materials, bright primary colors, repetition and an optimism in contrast to the reality of the age.
KG replies: Of course not. But I'm saying that after awhile the music ceased to ameliorate the problem and started reinforcing an unfortunate status quo.
Galen H. Brown says: January 25, 2007 at 12:07 pm -- "Tom Johnson, who freely called himself a minimalist, is the only other composer I've ever heard of self-applying such a term." Actually, Tom Johnson is the only other _reputable_ composer you've ever heard of self-applying such a term I'm definately a Postminimalist composer, and for reasons I've detailed elsewhere on a variety of occasions I find the common resistance to genre naming understandable but ultimately silly and counter-productive. When you describe postminimalism as a "deliberate misappropriation of certain elements of [Minimalism]" I think you're dead-on, but I actually disagree with some of the later stuff. More when I have time to put my thoughts together coherently and write them out. In the meantime, a simple terminology question: Which do you find more correct in the writing of the name of the genre in question:
Or do you care? They seem to have somewhat different implications, although that may be in part related to the fact that I have recently taken to drawing a distinction between Minimalism and minimalism -- the former being a subcategory of the latter.
KG replies: Well, the Village Voice editorial policy never cared much for hyphens, and capital letters in the middle of a word look funny, as I'm always saying in PostClassic....
CM says: January 25, 2007 at 12:36 pm -- Fascinating blog, Kyle! But it begs the question, do postminimalist composers feel there are no universal truths to discover? For instance, when you say "the postminimalists agree that a composition should be a universe: but not the universe, rather a possible universe, a created universe", the implication to my ears is, the world is what you make it, everything is relative, there are no universal truths to discover, anything goes. And when you write, "even when postminimalist music is partly dissonant, harsh, or rhythmically complex, it has a sustained, continuous character that gives an impression of overarching calm", it sounds like you are describing pretty bland music, which is how I find most postminimalist music. This is the opposite effect of, say, a classical Indian evening raga, Tibetan overtone chanting, or a drone-based piece by La Monte Young.
KG replies: I don't want to speak for the personal beliefs of other composers, but I think postminimalist music does not pretend to be grounded in any universal theoretical truths. And personally, for me, calm and continuous (two of the qualities I most seek in my own music) do not translate into bland.
richard says: January 25, 2007 at 12:38 pm -- AMEN! I guess I'm a post-minimalist of sorts, though I part company with you the Idea of "postminimalist music attunes one to processes not marked by anxiety and disruption". At times, I like to throw a wrench into the works, so maybe I'm post-minimalist heretic.
mclaren says: January 25, 2007 at 2:22 pm -- This is great stuff. One of the best pieces you've written. I shall look forward to your book on music after minimalism with eager anticipation. You ain't the only microtonal postminimalist, though. Warren Burt has done a quite a few xenharmonic pieces that qualify as postminimalist; ditto Bill Wesley: and I've done a number of pieces that probably fit the bill. Of course all the above composers work in a variety of different styles -- but so do you, so the point stands.
m c maguire says: January 25, 2007 at 3:44 pm -- Kyle, Thanks for the great post-minimalist piece. I think the Pop art /Op art comparison can not be easily dismissed. Music language as representative of reality(expressionism) became too overburdened with its own tangled self-consciousness. So there was a kind of Jungian collective, psychic snap ---in both art and music, coincidentally, emanating from the same downtown, 25 mile radius. If I could indulge a further theory/observation--minimalism fled to the Baroque, sub-consciously bypassing the brooding, infant monster entirely (too recent European romanticism and post romanticism) . Music is doomed to pendulum between its' Hot and Cool potentiality. (Marshall McCluhan)
lawrencedillon says: January 25, 2007 at 8:18 pm -- I love this essay. Beautifully argued, rich premise. Help me with one logical leap I'm not quite following: "The cord connecting qualities of musical materials to aspects of the outer world was snipped in two," and yet "Even when postminimalist music is partly dissonant, harsh, or rhythmically complex, it has a sustained, continuous character that gives an impression of overarching calm." Do I understand you to mean that the materials of music are not expressive of extramusical concepts, but the way those materials are used - in a word, form -- is?
KG replies: Thanks Lawrence. I think that's fair to say, though I might have said "behavior" rather than form. You're right, even though the traditional associations are broken, I think it's a reductio ad absurdum to imagine a piece not expressing anything at all.
Jim Altieri says: January 25, 2007 at 8:34 pm -- Another way of looking at the connection between minimalism and post-minimalism is
John Shaw says: January 26, 2007 at 12:55 am -- I love the vision of music-as-social prophecy, which I first read in "Noise: The Political Economy of Music" by Jacques Attali. While I share your hope for an ecologically sustainable (and more economically equitable) future, I have faith in paths other than calmness and meditation. I appreciate that you're not saying that yours is the only path. It was nice to see the famous pasticheurs Bolcom and Zorn brought together; but while they do share something, their respective overall "moods" are quite different: I hear Bolcom's work (what of it I know) as more of an inclusionary, celebratoy eclecticism rather than harsh and cacophonous; also, both composers highlight artifice.
KG replies: Your last point is well taken. However, some of Zorn's notated pieces from the 1990s, like Carny and Cat 'o Nine Tails, gave me the impression of a grocery list of musical styles to include, as though, Stockhausen-like, he was systematically trying to include one sample of everything out there. Besides, Zorn uses as his explicit justification for composing the fast-paced world of video games and modern media.
CM says: January 26, 2007 at 3:02 pm -- Kyle, maybe you've answered this elsewhere, but is there a difference between totalism and what you describe as postminimalism? And if these constitute two different responses to minimalism, are there other responses that can be described under a label like postminimalism?
KG replies: For the sake of argument, I'm somewhat lumping postminimalism and totalism together here, because the subject of the book is the entire body of music that developed from minimalism. But there are differences, and the interesting thing is that they happened spontaneously and are completely contingent. For instance, postminimalist music tends to use the diatonic scale and a steady pulse; totalist music tends toward more dissonance and a variety of tempos. Now, there's no reason you couldn't have the diatonic scale with different tempos, or dissonance with a steady pulse, but those combinations just hardly happened. It's almost like the two styles resulted from two different personality types, with qualities not driven by any particular musical necessity. And I'd be curious if anyone can suggest other directions minimalism has gone in (as opposed to other musics that just got influenced by minimalism, like the DJ uses of it).
otto milk says: January 26, 2007 at 3:15 pm -- I am not sure that this projected utopian ideal of introverted calm seems entirely fair. You take issue with the caustic nature of Modernist composition as reflecting or violently opposing what was undoubtedly an industrial and harsh period in history, and claim that it ultimately ends up contributing to it. When I read the writings of Ives, or Brant, or even more recent proponents of dissonance in the field of improvised music, from Ornette Coleman to Peter Brotzmann, it seems to me that their view is very much similarly utopian in aim as your ideas. The goal was never to oppress the listener by representing the violence of reality, but rather exercise an aesthetic freedom as the world became increasingly populated by pacifying machines designed to "make life easier." Xenakis would be another shining example of this. His works are among the most "oppressive" by postminimalist standards. They're rigidly mathematical and wildly dense, yet Xenakis felt he was making beautiful music. He felt that the density was a representation of resistance fighters, combatting the harsh circumstances of their political environment. Now, you don't necessarily disagree with this premise, but you do promote some sort of "ethics," that I'm a bit confused about. Yes, this movement hit a dead end in the 70s. On this, we partially agree. Obviously, the students of the students of Schoenberg didn't win this battle. The people in power remained in power. Your feeling is that Modernism created a situation where we developed a cultural tolerence for brutality, almost completely contrary to the intended Modernist agenda. Because it was possible in art, it was somehow possible in life. Yet, what I see in the world isn't the increased vernacular of violence. The violence has remained steady throughout the past hundred years. The thing that has changed most is the language of calm, collected promises of utopianism that surround it. This is why I'm skeptical of this postclassical view of utopia. We live in an excessively numb world. We, as Americans, remain calm when truly horrendous atrocities are being carried out all over the world. We compose on our smooth, futuristic Macintosh computers. We buy our earth-tone wardrobes. We are being broadcast mindless, impotent entertainment 24 hours a day on hundreds of channels. This is how we live in a world gone awry. I'm not saying a thoughtful alternative-form of calm isn't merited, but I'm not totally sure if I see why this "synthetic form" is somehow more "ethical" than the more explicit attempts at a transgressive music. I'm not saying that transgression is the answer either, but this linear view of historical development seems questionable to me.
KG replies: You're asking if postminimalist music will succeed in making the world better? Who am I, God? I can knowledgeably report that postminimalist music is shaped by ethical impulses; whether they are the *correct* ethical impulses, the ones that will truly and finally save the world, the jury may be out on until after I'm dead. What I'm saying is that there's a tremendous amount of music today - every bit as ethically conceived as postminimalism, I'm absolutely certain - that expresses anxiety and violence and turns audiences off, confirms their view that composers are only seeking ugliness, and adds to the ugliness of life. Obviously (I hope) I don't lump Ives, Messiaen, Brant, Ruggles, Scelsi, and a lot of other dissonant composers I love into that. Xenakis I'm not sure where to put; I understand he thinks his music is beautiful, but I have found much of it very ugly, which doesn't necessarily mean I don't love it. Messiaen's Turangalila is one of my favorite pieces in the world - but to some music lovers I know, it's just another onslaught of anxiety-provoking noise. Clearly good intentions alone are not enough, and results may differ. But I think - or rather I know, because I talk to them and read their statements - that there are a lot of composers writing anguished, angry, anxiety-ridden music because "these are violent times, and we have to wake people up to what's going on, and violent times demand violent music." And the postminimalist strategy rejects that kind of mickey-mousing of culture to attempt a music deliberately non-reflective of the culture, as an alternative. That's all I'll vouch for. I'm describing it, not claiming everyone else should do it, or that this is The One True Way. All these questions make me realize the difficulty of describing an entire body of music to people who aren't familiar with it. In the past I've started with specific analyses, with excerpts that prove what I'm saying. It's really, really difficult to argue this stuff in the abstract, without references to specific pieces of music. I haven't said a word yet, for instance, about what kinds of processes postminimalist music attunes you to, and so I end up having to defend just "calm and continuous" as a whole aesthetic. And it makes me think perhaps I should just write the book, rather than put these partial arguments up where they're vulnerable to a thousand challenges from people who don't know the music I'm talking about.
James Chiappini says: January 27, 2007 at 7:31 pm -- As always thought provoking. Just an idea for you Mr Gann. Go to petetownshend.com and read Pete's Open letter to David Lister. See if something there rings true to you and your current thoughts. Keep thinking and typing. KG replies: Very thought-provoking, and indeed relevant.
Peter says: January 28, 2007 at 5:34 pm -- Great essay, Kyle. Personally, I hope you do keep posting sections of your book here. First a comment: It may profit your argument to consider Alfred Gell's anthropological theory of art ("Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory", Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1998.) Gell argues that art objects are always associated in the minds of their viewers or recipients with some idea of intentionality - that some entity (a human artist, a community, a spirit being) has intended the art-work to communicate some message to, or to have some effect on, its audience, the wider society, or the cosmos. This feature distinguishes art works from (say) beautiful scenes of nature, which modern audiences rarely ascribe intentionality to. Second, a small quibble: In your reply to the comment by CM you write: as opposed to other musics that just got influenced by minimalism, like the DJ uses of it. Were DJs influenced by minimalism or was it the reverse? Or did both musics arrive on the scene independently, due to some common underlying causes, sociological and cultural, as Robert Fink argues in "Repeating Ourselves" (2005)? I seem to recall 1976 as being the year when both repetitive disco and minimalist classical music were first hot, although to very different audiences. That both became prominent at the same time strikes me as strong evidence for some common underlying causes; influence usually takes much longer to become manifest.
KG replies: What I don't know about DJ music would fill a large book. I first became aware of DJ-ing as a new music genre in the late '90s. I have no idea what they were doing before then. But I've heard several of them incorporate pieces by Steve Reich like Music for 18 Musicians and Eight Lines. If that doesn't constitute minimalist influence on DJs, then you'll have to tell me something else to call it.
Peter says: January 29, 2007 at 6:05 pm -- In Chapter 1 of his book, Robert Fink has an extended musical analysis and structural comparison of Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" (completed March 1976, first public performance 24 April 1976), and Donna Summer & Giorgio Moroder's extended dance remix, "Love to Love You Baby" (No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, February 1976). The structural similarities presented by Fink show evidence either of disco influence on minimalism, or (Fink's view) the presence of a zeitgeist.
k says: January 29, 2007 at 10:13 pm -- Intriguing article! You asked for other musics that stemmed from minimalism: Lowercase music (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lowercase_(music) or http://www.wired.com/news/mac/0,2125,52397,00.html) If you're planning to write a book on music after minimalism, ignoring various realms of electronic music, especially the various strains of ambient, would be a huge oversight. Check out David Toop's books "Ocean of Sound," and "Haunted Weather," as well as "The Ambient Century," by Mark Prendergast. There has always been feedback loops of influence between musical genres. Minimalist music was one of the first styles to truly legitimize the use of and then burry distinctions between "art music," and pop, "world," electronic, etc.
Galen H. Brown says: January 30, 2007 at 2:17 pm -- I've just posted the first installment of my own alternate version of this history at Sequenza21, but I have a couple of thoughts specific to this comments thread: First -- Peter, I read and loved Robert Fink's book, and his thesis is going to play an imporant role in installment 2 or 3 of my history. I find the "presence of a zeitgeist" argument largely compelling, although I think of it more as the existence in the 60s and 70s (which continues to today) of a cultural ecology that in which the minimalism meme is highly successful. Kyle -- "And I'd be curious if anyone can suggest other directions minimalism has gone in (as opposed to other musics that just got influenced by minimalism, like the DJ uses of it)." It's hard to differentiate offshoots of Minimalism and strong influences in other genres, but Industrial music makes a very interesting parallel case. Early industrial music was a direct offshoot in Manchester, England, of avant garde performance art, and it arose in 1976 with the formation by Genesis P-Orridge of the band "Throbbing Gristle." Early industrial is highly repetitive (and acknowledges a kinship with Cage and La Monte Young), and 2nd generation industrial is essentially a co-opting of some of the surface effects of the more philosophical, anti-art motivations of the first generation much in the same way Postminimalism co-opts some elements of Minimalism. There's a Disco tie-in, too, especially in the music of Laibach -- their strategy is to put on the trappings of facism as a way of fighting against facism, and they claim that their music borrows from disco because disco is the most facist of all musics. I think there's a great deal of potential in analyzing Industrial music as it relates to the New York Downtown scene.
John Shaw says: February 1, 2007 at 1:50 pm -- Kyle, I've taken inspiration from your thinking about music, and in my pastiche-y, magpie, Ellington-mad fashion I thought it was OK and I was grateful. But now when you invoke ethics against the magpie approach, I feel sheepish and uncomfortable about it. Which probably explains some of the pushback. The ethically-driven, ascetic approach you are advocating reminds me of Kierkegaard's line: "Purity of heart is to will one thing." I find solace in some Kierkegaard too (haven't read very much; one book and stray passages), but my heart is impure. That said, the self-limiting approach can produce powerful results, and I look forward to your continuing work as a musician and theorist and polemicist. Thanks. (I'll send you the pieces I made under your influence one of these days. Thanks again.)
Ryan Tanaka says: February 1, 2007 at 9:14 pm -- Artists are often called the builders of mirrors of the world, because of its ability to enable society to self-reflect upon itself. Call me a pessimist, but I'm skeptical of arts ability to really "shape" reality in the way you might describe. The Three-Penny Opera did not stop the Nazis from coming to power, nor did art predict nor prevent 9/11, and all of the anti-Bush songs in the world did not stop him from getting reelected. Composer can be way ahead of their time and maybe predict future trends of the world, but I'm not quite so sure about actually shaping reality in itself. I think they're catalysts, at best. What minimalism largely did, in my opinion (and this agrees with a lot of your notions), was that it eradicated a lot of the unnecessary embelishments that allowed musicians to understand music in terms of its isolated elements. La Monte Young reduced his music down to a matter of rhythm and durations, while other composers focused on other aspects of the music making process. So now were left with are little chunks of "anythings", and you can see these sort of minimalist styles happening in recent animation and video game mediums. (Hey look, I'm a rectangle!) But it's kind of like drawing two dots and and line below it -- you can't help but think of it in terms of a face. Representation is still there, and I do think that that's really the primary way people get something out of music to begin with. People have just realized that you don't need all the ornate, fluffy stuff to provoke meaning from the audience, just that you need to be doing something with it...
KG replies: It seems to me that judging the effectiveness of music based on whether it alters historical events would be a simplistic way of looking at it. I mean, is there no incentive to act ethically unless you're assured you'll get results?
jmac says: February 2, 2007 at 5:47 pm -- There may be no natural form but there is surely biology. Music is a primary expression of our humanity, the nature of sound and it's perception can't ever be fully discarded. Technology and historical culture are also overriding factors, no matter how much appropriation takes place. Personally I would align post-minimalism most closely with abstract painting (an art movement Feldman kept dear to his heart). The artist collects influences, synthesizes them, and projects them in an idiosyncratic expression.
Tomá Bla ek says: April 29, 2007 at 12:25 pm -- I´m from Europe(Czech republic)and I´d tell you about the situation in music here. Here is still a tendency to wrote in neoclasicism style(as Poulenc,Milhaud,Martin ,Britten wrote)or styles combinating neoclasicism with avant-garde styles. I say it to inform you, americans,how are thing in contemporary music in Europe, because I´m young composer, who is looking for the right -ism ,in which I could express my ideas. I´d never continue in atonality or other avant-garde styles and methods as others in my country. But the typical modern neo-clasicism is also queer for me, so what shall I do? What music language should I use? I´ve discovered, that hardly anyone writes in minimalism in my country,although this style is so ordinary in USA. That´s, why I tend to write in my own natural style(similar to neo-romanticism)and put it together with MINIMALISM. It is a merger of these styles, so am I a postminimalist? If yes...You,american postminimalists,are NOT ALONE. Here we are, may be this is a time,when minimalism infiltrates Europe at last.
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