Friday, December 04, 2009

Repeating myself: a few thoughts on minimalism

A.C. Douglas set forth a mini rant after listening to a maximal amount of minimalism on WQXR Q2. Too much of anything (especially repetition) can get on anyone's nerves. Staying in the same key for too long can make a few minutes seem like an eternity. Minimalism is a good tool for messing with our sense of time, kind of like repetitive patterns used in decorating can mess with our sense of space.

I have used minimalism, but only in context and for specific purposes. In the case of this moment in my Snow Queen opera, Gerda, while en route to find her friend Kay, is stuck for what might be eternity in a magic garden. The concept of eternity looms large in the opera, and the above excerpt happens in the opera's temporal center. The text comes from a passage in Richard Jefferies' The Story of My Heart, which was published in 1883.
It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now.
The idea here is to make a minute and forty-four seconds seem like a huge amount of time: to mark the moment of now in music that, by its very nature, consists of a series of events that take place over time. This is, of course, distinctly different from the real (or imaginary) moment of actual "now."

Minimalism can be hypnotic, and minimalism can be abused. Repetition can be effective, and repetition, if it isn't used in a context where it serves a purpose, can be downright boring. Repetition, however, has always been a part of the heart and soul of all music. Consider (in Western music) the song forms from the Middle Ages, dance forms from the Renaissance and the Baroque, the major classical forms, and dance forms (from all over both Eastern and Western Europe) used in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ostinato was (and still is) an important element in music of the early 20th century (consider Bolero and the Rite of Spring). Perhaps ostinato might have even spawned the technique of minimalism, at least in Western musical practices. Perhaps minimalism, which could be viewed as a kind of hyper-tonality, was an appropriate reaction to the dominating dodecophonic music (which restricts repetition of pitches) that only a few composers have had actual musical success with. Many composers have had huge amounts of success (deserved and otherwise) with minimalism, so I believe it is best not to throw the musical baby out with the musical bathwater.


A.C. Douglas said...

Just a quick clearing up here.

My mini-rant was NOT a rant trashing minimalism, but a rant trashing two of its premier practitioners. Minimalist processes, like all processes of music, have their place in a composer's toolkit. The problem arises when process is treated as an end rather than a means as it is in the "music" of both Reich and Riley; ergo, my rant.


Elaine Fine said...

I agree completely about the problem of treating minimalism as an end rather than as a useful technique.

There is some Reich I like (like "Different Trains"), which incorporates minimalism. I have also heard music by Reich that I have found unbearable. I haven't heard much Riley that I like, but, then again, I haven't heard all that much.