I think I’ve made a mistake. I’ve often written that the most essential characteristic of minimalism was obvious surface structure, but I’ve realized that that’s not necessarily what makes me most feel that a piece is minimalist. Taking the plethora of recent advice that Democrats need to argue from the heart rather rely on rational discourse, I’m going to say, then, that what convinces me that a piece is minimalist is its low information content, the fact that what’s first noticeable about it is that less is going on than in conventional classical (or pop) music. A piece starts, and you pause expectantly for a certain number and frequency of syntactical units to tell you what’s going on, – and they don’t arrive. You can decide a priori that that’s unacceptable, declare yourself bored and the piece boring, and turn it off or leave. Or you can quiet yourself, lower your expectations, and hone your attention to the subtle, slow, long-term changes that some of us find fascinating to listen to once you let that music into your psyche. Minimalism, for me, was always a different kind of music, requiring (to misquote John Rockwell) a different kind of listening. It wasn’t for everybody. It acquired a cult following of unusually patient listeners. It was, and is, a different type of listening experience than the attention-holding narrative of conventional classical music.
I was on John Schaefer’s WNYC Soundcheck show yesterday with Times critic Steve Smith, and we discussed a little of this, but radio time flies by so quickly that you’re lucky if you can get 500 words, cut into five or six soundbites, into a half-hour show. The point is, as keeps coming up over and over again, most people no longer define minimalism the way I always have. They think of minimalism as connoting the orchestra music of Glass, Reich, and John Adams. The Death of Klinghoffer is, as everyone but me now knows, a minimalist opera, and what’s Strumming Music? Who’s heard of that? No one. So every time I make one of my quixotic attempts to limit the word to what it meant in the ’70s, I get a rash of “Let usage prevail!” comments.
Well, just so. Let usage prevail. The large, record-company-owning corporations have won, as they always do: they have redefined minimalism for the mass public. Let us prostrate ourselves before their infinite PR resources. Our musicology is no match for their press releases. I am nothing if not pragmatic. I would even volunteer to write the new Wikipedia article on the genre:
Minimalism: a rhythmic, wildly syncopated, rambunctious form of orchestral music with lots of repeated brass chords and propulsive percussion, usually tonal but sometimes atonal, and often breaking into 19th-century style Romantic melody; almost always found on a Nonesuch CD, but the only essential quality is that the composer’s last name must be Reich, Glass, Adams, or Andriessen….
Everybody OK with that? Fine, we can polish up the details later, but we’re all on the same page, and everyone should be happy.
However, one problem remains. Those of us who love that near-eventless, attention-compressing music I described in the first paragraph, need a name for it. We need to be able to refer to it, and by “it,” I mean the following specific repertoire:
Music of the 1960s and ’70s by
Jon Gibson; and
Music of that era and continuing up to the present time by
La Monte Young
The co-optation of minimalism was, after all, to a considerable extent, a deliberate move to marginalize all that boring old drone music that the classical people never liked anyway and the musical academics were embarrassed by. You could sense their relief when John Adams and Louis Andriessen started funnelling those repeated notes into big orchestral gestures, and breaking into actual melody. “Oh, thank god,” all the classical mavens and music professors sighed in chorus, “we couldn’t take another minute of those endless repetitions, those drones moving by infinitessimal degrees. Let’s call this stuff minimalism, and hopefully everyone will forget about that old boring minimalism.” Even the title of Jon’s show yesterday – “The Maturing of Minimalism” – seemed to imply that the ’60s minimalism wasn’t the real stuff yet, that the real flowering of minimalism came in the Nonesuch orchestral music that is now so popular. But – the old boring minimalism was exactly what many of us loved and still love, thank you very much and keep yer damn mitts off our musical proclivities, and what some very important composers still produce.
What would chemists do, if the public, motivated by whatever bizarre fad, decided that any blue, flaky substance should now be called aluminum? Well, first the chemists would protest, then they’d stick to their guns for awhile and maintain a secondary, professional usage, and if public opinion refused to budge, they’d probably eventually let the public have their blessed flaky blue aluminum and come up with some new name for the actual 13th element in the periodic table. It sounds ludicrous, but it’s not too dissimilar to what happened to the word gay. We still need synonyms for cheerful and carefree, and no longer have a word that means exactly what gay used to mean. Nor do we any longer have a word to specify what the Theater of Eternal Music, Phill Niblock, and early Philip Glass had in common, without falsely implying syncopated brass chords and big Romantic melodies.
So help me figure out what to call the-style-formerly-known-as-minimalism. I’m tempted to suggest something arbitrary like Cogluotobusisletmesism, or Btfsplkism, some ungainly, difficult-to-parse term that the critics can’t pronounce nor the public remember, so they won’t appropriate it again and make it mean something else. After all, fans of that music, and musicologists who study it, have a right to refer to it. The concertgoing public does not have the privilege of deciding what music counts as Baroque, nor what a fugue or a cantus firmus is. Musical experts do that. But when it comes to minimalism – let usage prevail! So now we need a musicological term, a specialist term, for the repertoire I describe above with which the public is not allowed to tamper at will. The list I give is, arguably, not closed; other composers and works could fit the definition (Zoltan Jeney and early Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars come to mind). But no one who can’t name a single Phill Niblock piece gets to argue which ones. We need a scholarly term such that, if you’re not an expert on the specific music denoted, you no more get to futz around with the definition than you get to redefine “quark” if you’re not a physicist.
For now, I’ll make do with an obvious back-formation, “hardcore minimalism.” But I’m not satisfed: I’d rather come up with a word as far dissociated from minimalism as Charlemagne Palestine’s drones are from Louis Andriessen’s bumptious brass climaxes. Steve Smith, on John Schaefer’s show, pointed out that Tom Johnson, in 1971, originally used “minimalism” to describe the conceptualist music of Alvin Lucier, and referred to Glass and Reich as “hypnotic music.” I don’t much care for that, since I don’t find the music hypnotizing. Maybe “compressed attention” music, or “slow change music.”
Once we effect this change of terminology, it will be evident that minimalism is a music I have no more particular interest in than I do in Ravel or Debussy or Shostakovich, which it greatly resembles. Hardcore minimalism, or compressed-attention music, or Cogluotobusisletmesism (if you like that), is music I care deeply about, listen to often, and continue to analyze, study, and write about. But minimalism is just another orchestral fad, a new wrinkle in neoromanticism. In fact, “minimalism” can go mean anything anyone wants it to mean: the Spanish Civil War can be minimalist, lovers can roll over after a hot session in bed and exclaim, “Wow!, that was really minimalist!”, the sentence “I have to minimalism a root canal next Tuesday” can be adjudged grammatically correct, since minimalism is apparently one of those contentless words that function as a Rorschach test, able to mean anything to anyone. Let usage prevail! But let’s come up with some ironclad musicology word, some word that will specifically and centrally denote the static, slowly-changing music of Young, Palestine, Niblock, Budd, Johnson, Radigue, Jennings, Conrad, and the ’60s and ’70s music of Reich, Glass, Benary, Eastman, and Gibson. Something besides “minimalism,” because who, in our wonderful world of strange and alternative and postclassical music, gives a shit about minimalism?
(I leave today to go attend the First International Minimalism Conference at the University of Wales at Bangor. Maybe some of the smart guys there can help me think of a new word.)
UPDATE: I just looked at the comments left to yesterday’s Soundcheck show, and liked this one from Downtown musician David Linton:
my particular generation of downtown musicians felt as early as 1980 that we were entering into a post minimal period…
in our current cultural phase it’s interesting to note that minimalism prevails as though this “post”phase had never happened…
i attribute this to a kind of perpetual cultural amnesia that occurs with every new generation (5 years) of young artists coming to ny in addition to the more obvious institutional cultural hegemony that has always been afforded the anointed biggies from the seventies
Also, Galen Brown repeats his distinction (which I had forgotten about) between “big-M Minimalism,” by which he means the original compressed attention kind, and “small-M minimalism,” by which he means the popular application of the term to Adams, Andriessen, and so on.