It is undoubtedly the most heinously unpopular thing about me, that I will apply a generic term to my own creativity. No other cliché 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.