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.

23 Responses to “That’s Why Me and KG are Classically Trained to Rock your Freakin’ Socks Off: Minimalism and Postminimalism, Part I”
  1. Daniel says:

    I’m all for adventurous explorations in music, but the conceptual “music” in your paragraph regarding the chalk and pulling out your eyeball, strikes me less as music (I acknowledge your quotation marks around the word), and more as conceptual art. I think it’s important to make this distinction. Is it helpful to group a Mozart piano sonata and Takehisa Kosugi’s piece for eyeballs in the same artisitic category? Why not call it “conceptual art” (not music) and be done with it. Art is a much more forgiving umbrella than music. Sorry for diverting the subject matter.

  2. Evan Johnson says:

    Is it helpful to group a Mozart piano sonata and Takehisa Kosugi’s piece for eyeballs in the same artisitic category?

    Well, for one thing, doesn’t it make one think about Mozart a little bit differently?

  3. Well, I don’t entirely disagree with you Daniel, but the relevant thing for the argument I’m preparing is that Young and Kosugi themselves called the pieces music. The fact that Compositon 1960 #7, widely considered one of the first Minimalist pieces, is part of the same series as Composition 1960 #10 is particularly relevant to Part II, which I why I brought it up here.

  4. Peter says:

    Interesting post. However, I disagree with one assumption you’ve made (one which puts you in the overwhelming — but wrong — majority). Cage wasn’t using indeterminancy, randomly throwing coins or cards to make music compositions. He was using the I Ching, which is as far from indeterminancy as it is possible to be. Indeed, the entire point of the I Ching is to uncover the true, underlying, not-yet-revealed, synchronistic connections between things. For that reason, his use of it imposed a very personal aesthetic onto his music – namely, the connections revealed by HIS use of it. Someone else instead of Cage throwing the I Ching to make his compositions would have revealed completely different connections. So he was imposing an extremely personal aesthetic on his music, not removing a personal aesthetic.

    This seems to be a difficult concept for modern-day westerners to grasp, given how many people wrongly confuse throwing the I Ching with chance.

  5. Kyle Gann says:

    I appreciate Peter’s point. But there have been those, like Earle Brown and Elodie Lauten (whose own music – Elodie’s, that is – is deeply indebted to the I Ching), who have criticized Cage’s (mis)use of the I Ching on exactly those grounds. After all, later in life he walked around with stacks of pages of computer-pre-determined I Ching numbers, ready to apply to whatever piece he was working on. Some have felt that that wasn’t really in keeping in the spirit of the I Ching as oracle. Not being an I Ching expert, I don’t advance this claim myself – but while Peter is right, Galen might not be wrong, depending on your views of Cage’s fidelity to the I Ching.

  6. Evan Johnson says:

    This seems to be a difficult concept for modern-day westerners to grasp, given how many people wrongly confuse throwing the I Ching with chance.

    All of what you say is well taken, but Cage was not “throwing the I Ching” in any meaningful way (as Kyle alludes to above).

    As far as I can tell, he never actually used the content of the book, only the form – he created hexachords with yarrow sticks, or pennies, or later computers, but the interpretations, precisely that which distinguishes the I Ching from a table of the numbers 0 to 63 in binary – had nothing at all to do with anything, except for a vague sense of Eastern mysticism-lite that Cage may or may not have seen fit to cultivate at various points of his career.

    This is not to say that Cage didn’t appreciate the cultural import of the text – that I can’t speak to – but he didn’t seem to use it as anything more than a name, and perhaps a justification, for his coin-tossing.

  7. I’ll refrain from commenting on the relation between I Ching and Chance – except to note that AFAIK Cage didn’t really interpret the hexagrams using the book but mainly using his own tables – and indeed, Kyle, computer-generated chance is, if you’re going to be strict about it, not chance at all but a mathematically generated type of semi-chance – but anyway, Peter’s point reminded me of a striking remark I found by Duchamp some years ago, which I used as a tag for my Usenet-posts for a period. Here it is:

    Your chance is not the same as mine, is it? If I make a throw
    of the dice, it will never be the same as your throw. And so an
    act like throwing dice is a marvelous expression of your
    subconscious.

    - Marcel Duchamp

  8. Evan Johnson says:

    (I should mention that I did overstate my case a little bit – I just remembered that Cage did preserve one aspect that differentiaties the I Ching from a 0-63 binary table, and that is the possibility of “mobility” in component strokes of the ideograms, that allows contingent change between their two possible states.)

  9. Walter Ramsey says:

    A question about performance in 4’33″: there are 3 movements. Are the movements attacca, or should the performer actually stop the clock in between them?

    Walter Ramsey

  10. Evan Johnson says:

    A question about performance in 4′33″: there are 3 movements. Are the movements attacca, or should the performer actually stop the clock in between them?

    I don’t know what this has to do with anything, nor if you’re even being serious, but of course you “stop the clock.” In fact, if you use the 4’33″-length published version (which is not the only way to perform the piece; any chance-determined length can be used, that length then being given as the title), the times are given separately for each movement.

    The fundamental idea, as Cage freely admitted, was Robert Rauschenberg’s; 4’33″ postdates a Rauschenberg work involving three white canvases (painted white? unpainted? unprimed? I’m not sure) hung adjacently.

  11. The most complete account of the (rather more complex than people usually realise) history of 4’33” remains Larry Solomon’s.

  12. Walter Ramsey says:

    No need to be suspicious, I was just being curious – not ironic! I have a .pdf of the manuscript of 4’33″, but there are no times given for each movement, so I wasn’t sure. And there are drawn lines connecting each of the movements, which could be attacca indications. Thanks for the info.

    Walter Ramsey

  13. Peter — Are you claiming that the I Ching has mystical/supernatural/oracular powers? Or something else?

    If you’re claiming the former, I completely disagree, and it’s not that I misunderstand the nature of the I Ching but rather that I don’t believe the universe works that way. And if you’re claiming something else I hope you’ll elaborate.

    But the question of whether Cage himself, or any other composer using it, _believed_ that the I Ching was a magical oracle has some interesting possible ramifications. In pieces where chance is an Aestheticising Concept (i.e. the understanding by the audience of the compositional/performance strategy causes them to hear the sonic material differently and transfer the aesthetics of the concept onto the sonic material) the concept of pure chance would have different aesthetic implications than the concept of supernatural intervention would have, even though the actual sonic results would be the same (according to my metaphysics, that is). Similarly, if I were writing a piece and derived material from, say, the digits of Pi, the aesthetic experience of the audience, knowing my methodology, might be slightly different from the experience of an audience that was told I used a 10-sided die.

  14. Peter says:

    Galen — what you or I think of the I Ching is irrelevant. It is what Cage thought of it that is important. From the various biographies I have read of Cage, it is clear that he was well-read on the subject. Whether he was also sincere in his use of it (ie, using it as a believer in it would, rather than just collecting random number sequences), I am not in a position to assess. An interesting question is whether the I Ching reveals synchronistic patterns even when used in bad faith: I expect there are adherents of eastern philosophy who believe that even insincere use of the I Ching would reveal underlying personal patterns. Most Christians, similarly, believe that prayers have power even when uttered by non-believers.

  15. “The principle underlying all of our solutions is the question we ask”, as Cage later in life answered a theory question of Schoenberg’s. Cage always set up his questions so that chance procedures would give meaningful answers. In this, he showed his full craftsmanship and, the way I see it, sonic imagination – the strongest imagining you can do is to imagine that what you can’t imagine, and this Cage managed formidably.

  16. Evan Johnson says:

    An interesting question is whether the I Ching reveals synchronistic patterns even when used in bad faith:

    But all this is assuming that Cage “used the I Ching” in any meaningful sense. Aside from the idea of mobile vs. immobile hexagram components I mentioned above (which becomes a structural distinction in Imaginary Landscape #5 among others) I don’t see any evidence that he “used” the book at all. Seems to me what he did would be equivalent to opening the Bible, pointing at a random verse, and using only the number of the chapter.

    I am not skeptical of the results, by any means, nor do I doubt that Cage had a genuine and productive interest in Eastern philosophical traditions; I do doubt that his claims to be “using the I Ching” revealed any particular similarity in technique or intention to people (whoever they may be) who actually use it for divination, or insight – its actual purpose.

  17. Chris Becker says:

    “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.”

    This could be a description of jazz as far back as the beginning of the 20th century…jazz and its influence on the minimalists and post minimalists might be a fascinating essay since composers (and critics) have such wildly divergent opinions on the topic. How can you talk about the cultural and sociological roots of minimalism and not mention Charlie Parker?

  18. Peter — My understanding of Cage’s use if the I Ching (which clearly pales in comparison to Samuel’s and Evan’s knowledge of the situation) was that the kinds of questions he posed were “which pitch should I use next” and that the result of his query would be unambiguous — presumably numerical. If that’s the case, Cage’s beliefs about the nature of the I Ching are irrelevant because he wasn’t making his own choices after getting feedback from the I Ching but rather transcribing the answers verbatim. The possible exception here would be if he believed that the I Ching posessed oracular powers and chose questions to ask that he thought would be best suited to an oracle. On the other hand, if he was using the I Ching to find _suggestions_ and then making his own choices with the benefit of the altered perception provided by the answers, along the lines of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” cards, his belief or lack of belief in the authority of the I Ching would be critical to the outcomes.

    It’s still not clear to me whether you’re saying that the I Ching has oracular/mystical/supernatural/magical/divine/whatever-else powers or that Cage’s beliefs about the situation effected his psychology which in turn effected his work. Forgive me if you’ve been clear and I’m simply being obtuse.

    Chris — You’re obviously right about the relationship to Jazz — and certainly almost any time Steve Reich talks about his influences he talks about Charlie Parker. I personally probably won’t be dealing with the issue in much depth in these essays in part because I’m trying to disect the differences between Minimalism and Postminimalism and the influence of Jazz is more of a similarity, and in part because I just don’t know much about the subject. If you or somebody wants to write the paper, I’d love to read it. As you say, there’s clearly some important stuff going on.

  19. Chris Becker says:

    Thanks, Galen. My comment came from rereading an interview with Greg Tate in The Wire and a brief conversation I had with him at the Langston Hughes House last week. To make things more confusing I believe there’s a lot of music that gets lumped into the “jazz” category that might have more in common with some of your post-minimalists than Charlie Parker!

    I’m not so sure jazz then has influenced the composers you’re talking about similarly – what Steve Reich got from Charlie Parker might be very different than what Cage did (Cage was very reactionary toward “improvisation” – but a reaction – even a negative one – is another kind of influence, right?). Part of my issue is I think unhealthy (or at historically inaccurate) divisions are created when we try to explain the differences between different named musics (I don’t want to use the word “styles”). I know that’s not what you’re intention…but this sort of critical discourse can, without some care, end up somewhat revisionist. That said, I think you’re doing a good job handling the tangents from the comments to your writing!

    And you’re right, maybe I should write my own paper if I feel so strongly about this issue! Good point.

  20. Peter says:

    Galen, you wrote: “My understanding of Cage’s use if the I Ching (which clearly pales in comparison to Samuel’s and Evan’s knowledge of the situation) was that the kinds of questions he posed were “which pitch should I use next” and that the result of his query would be unambiguous — presumably numerical. If that’s the case, Cage’s beliefs about the nature of the I Ching are irrelevant because he wasn’t making his own choices after getting feedback from the I Ching but rather transcribing the answers verbatim.”

    With respect, you are still mis-understanding the I Ching. If the I Ching is true (and I repeat that I have knowledge of whether or not Cage believed it to be true), then the mere fact that the numbers generated are produced by the I Ching means they are generated by some process which is not random. This is the case regardless of whether Cage did anything subsequently with the numbers produced, or read the standard hexagram commentary, etc. The theory behind the I Ching asserts that it is a deterministic process, not a random process, which generates numbers. The process is deterministic because the result of the process is a manifestation of the underlying patterns & relationships which the I Ching supposes to exist (and which we cannot otherwise ascertain).

    As I said, this idea seems hard for us westerners to understand, steeped as we are in ideas of probability and possibility, and not generally being believers in some underlying forces working unseen. If it is any consolation, I have found people in East Asia typically find ideas of randomness equally hard to comprehend.

    My comments are intended to challenge the conventional western interpretation of Cage’s use of so-called random processes. A believer in the I Ching would not consider these processes to be random, so any interpretation of his music or its aesthetics which relies on that assumption will be culturally contingent.

  21. Peter says:

    Apologies — there is a “no” missing from this statement in the above comment:

    (and I repeat that I have no knowledge of whether or not Cage believed it to be true)

  22. Peter–
    If by”true” you mean that the I Ching has special powers, then I’m not misunderstanding it but rather claiming that we live in a purely physical universe where such powers do not exist. The I Ching simply is not true. You’re free to disagree with me, but it’s a question of differing metaphysics rather than of me not understanding the I Ching.

    If on the other hand you mean that the structure of the I Ching (from a purely physicalist perspective) is such that outcomes are not equally probable — that it functions as a sort of black-box — then using the I Ching would indeed produce statistically different results from some other method of generating random numbers, and the end result of the music would be different. Cage would be making more decision himself (by assigning particular musical outcomes to more or less probable I Ching answers) but he is still relying on chance procedures to generate material.

    If you’re arguing that we live in a purely physical and thus deterministic universe (but deterministic without being driven by intent) — that we don’t have free will and that the flipping of a coin is predetermined but appears random because we don’t have access to all of the billions of causal factors, then we agree. But I don’t see that as particularly relevant, since in order to talk about art and decision making and so on we have to pretend we live in a universe where we have free will.

    If all that you’re saying is that the beliefs about the nature of the I Ching that are held by the audience affect their aesthetic reception of the piece, then we agree entirely (and have agreed all along). Hearing a piece that you think was composed through consultation with a magical oracle is a totally different experience from hearing a piece you think was composed with chance procedures. And while Cage may or may not have been deliberately trading on this fact, it remains true for the audience.

  23. T.D. Lake says:

    You know, while I understand that Cage and others are important to art music, I’d like to make a point about indeterminate music and experimental music that maybe people haven’t thought about.

    THE COMPOSER DOESN’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING!

    I mean, you conceptualize something, a chorus of recorders tooting the same note randomly while doing hand stands… let’s call that Tim Lake’s Suite for Recorders No. 1, and guess what, I’ve just completed a very interesting piece of experimental music! Didn’t have to study my counterpoint or orchestration or anything. I didn’t even need my expensive Finale Software. Didn’t touch the piano. Voila! Think anyone will publish it? Scary thing is that someone might!

  24.