That’s Why Me and KG are Classically Trained to Rock your Freakin’ Socks Off: Minimalism and Postminimalism, Part IPosted by Galen H. Brown in Uncategorized
Last week, the estimable Kyle Gann wrote a lengthy posting on the difference between Minimalism and Postminimalism, and while I agreed with a number of his key points, I also took issue with some of his more theoretical, sociological analyses. The prospect of disagreeing with someone as much more knowledgeable on this subject than I am is, I admit, somewhat daunting, but ultimately I think having the discussion is important and will be productive regardless of the outcome. Rather than fisking Kyles original posting, I intend to simply lay out my own narrative, which will naturally align in some ways, diverge in emphasis in some ways, and be incompatible in other ways with Kyle’s narrative. This will be a multipart series, with installments coming whenever I have time. Today’s installment begins the correct framing of Minimalism as distinct from Postminimalism, tying it to its cultural, musical, intellectual, and sociological roots.
The trouble with distinguishing between Minimalism and Postminimalism is that the boundary is so very vague. William Duckworth’s 1979 The Time Curve Preludes is often cited as the first Postminimalist work, but consider two counter-examples: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, composed between 1974 and 1976 arguably makes a significant break with his earlier more extremely process oriented pieces, and Philip Glass’s Einstein On The Beach, composed in 1975 and premiered in 1976, is similarly substantially different from his own earlier process driven work. I am not interested in planting 18 or Einstein in one category or the other – they live so much in the gray area that forcing them into one box or the other would be a mistake – but rather to illustrate that between about 1974 and about 1979 a dramatic shift was underway. Tom Johnson, critic for the Village Voice from 1972 to 1982, remarks in the introduction to his book The Voice of New Music that “. . . in my last article of 1974, I am already lamenting the decline of avant-gardism and showing how many individual composers were abandoning their most extreme ideas, and my writing seems to imply that anyone who changed was a traitor to aesthetic purism. But of course, the change was inevitable. Extreme minimalism just could not continue year after year.”
So what was going on before the change that led to Postminimalism? The best way to think about Minimalism proper is as a subcategory or splinter group of the Experimental Music scene led by John Cage and the Fluxus artists. The highly conceptual nature of Experimental Music makes its reception and appreciation fundamentally different from that of more traditional musics.
Take Cage’s 4’33″ as a well known classic example: whereas in, say, a Beethoven piano sonata the sonic content (placed within its cultural context, of course) is the entirety of the piece, the sonic content of 4’33″ is both different every time and no different in principle from the sounds of any other segment of time. The point of 4’33″ is the psychological effect of the recontextualization. Aesthetic appreciation of the piece is only partly for the sonic content, and largely for the idea behind the piece, and appreciation for the sonic content is entirely driven by that appreciation for the concept.
Indeterminacy works in an analogous fashion: For Cage, indeterminacy is used to separate the composer out from the piece and thereby remove aesthetic choices. Williams Mix, for example. The end result is effective in part because the audience understands that the sonic result is a deliberately de-aestheticised piece, and appreciation for that de-aestheticisation creates its own aesthetic. Other indeterminate elements are used to create a theatricality. Pieces which could easily have been written out once are left open for re-creation in real time, and the aesthetic appreciation for the indeterminate elements is again psychological rather than acoustic. Christian Wolff’s For One, Two, or Three People, for example. Knowing that a piece is being constructed in real time, and in some cases knowing the method of the construction, is aesthetically pleasing in itself to the point that music which might be boring if it existed only as a sonic package can be brilliant and riveting.
Indeterminate pieces designed for ensembles to work out as a team are another kind of philosophical exploration, and again that exploration is a part of the piece. A through-composed work could have the same sonic characteristics as the open piece, but the open piece creates the aesthetic pleasure of experiencing musical collectivism instead of the usual western composer-as-authority model.
Some pieces of “music” were even more conceptual, from La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No. 10 “Draw a straight line and follow it,” which he would actually perform, drawing the aforementioned line in chalk on the floor, to Takehisa Kosugi’s Music for a Revolution which simply instructs “Scoop out one of your eyes 5 years from now and do the same with the other eye 5 years later.” I think we can safely assume that Music for a Revolution is still waiting for its premiere.
I should be careful not to oversell my point here, however, since the other objective (i.e. aside from the aesthetic pleasure of participation in or witnessing of experimentation) is in fact to discover aesthetically pleasing sonic constructs which would not be discovered by any other means. Much of the music of the Experimental composers (Cage and Feldman especially, to my taste) is beautiful in a purely acoustic way. That relationship between the aesthetics of the psychological elements of music and the discovery of interesting sonic material will be crucial to our understanding of the relationship between Minimalism and Postminimalism.
Before I continue to Minimalism, I should also point out that I have been deliberately avoiding talking about musical and extramusical elements, tempting though that terminology may be. Ultimately, drawing the distinction in that way would be both condescending and inaccurate — the psychological elements of 4’33″ that make it interesting are integral to the musicality of the piece, in fact the sonic component is not music without the psychological elements, so calling those elements “extra-musical” would be wrong and would miss the point of the experiment.
My basic thesis here is that the aesthetics of the Experimental tradition are strongly based on exploration of ways of performing, ways of relating to the audience, ways of thinking, and ways of hearing which are themselves a dominant component of the aesthetic experience; that Experimentalism is about creating psychological conditions in the listener and/or the performer that are both aesthetically pleasing in themselves and that in turn create aesthetic enjoyment of the sonic elements of the piece.
Next time: how Minimalism fits into this model.