Bowing to the Great God Usage

UPDATE below.

Listen to this excerpt of minimalist music, and then tell me what kind of music this is.

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

Terry Jennings

Dennis Johnson

Richard Maxfield

Pauline Oliveros

Steve Reich

Philip Glass

Barbara Benary

Julis Eastman

Jon Gibson; and

Music of that era and continuing up to the present time by

La Monte Young

Charlemagne Palestine

Harold Budd

Phill Niblock

Tom Johnson

Eliane Radigue

Tony Conrad

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.


  1. says

    Ever notice how just before you leave on a long trip you get in a really bad mood?
    Happens to me all the time and I’m not sure why.
    KG replies: I fail to get your point, sorry.

  2. Peter says

    I’m no musicologist, Kyle, but I have to disagree with you that less is going on in the music-formerly-known-as-minimalism. It strikes me that a great deal more is going on in some aspects (rhythmic patterns; the interactions between voices) than in mainstream music in the classical tradition. Our western musical education system has not equipped most of us to hear, or to listen-for, what is going on, which is why, to many people (not to me), this music sounds repetitive.
    Listen to a standard concert performance of Beethoven, for example, and you’ll hear the performers all in lock-step, and keeping to a perfectly-regular beat, except maybe for the odd rallentando at the end of a movement. All that harmonic variety married to a metronome: how boring is that to listen to!
    KG replies: I’m not sure why you think I’d disagree with that – right on!

  3. no stake in this one says

    As I read this post, it seemed to remind me of something, and I couldn’t quite place it until I got to the italicized word “specialist.” Then I realized that the unexpected echo I was hearing was from Milton Babbitt’s “The Composer as Specialist,” notoriously published as “Who Cares if You Listen.”
    KG replies: I usually don’t publish anonymous posts, but I’ll make an exception. Composing is an art. Musicology is an academic discipline. Academic disciplines need specialists. One person’s opinion of a piece of music is as good as another’s, but one person’s narrative of music history is not automatically as accurate as another’s. “The Musicologist as Specialist” is too trivial a title to ever use.

  4. says

    ah, kyle… putting the ‘sage’ back in usage, eh?
    i think you may be right that it could be time to come up with new terms. how much time ‘usually’ passes before -isms are anointed?
    KG replies: In the ’80s, we had it down to 20 minutes. But, you know, with computers, everything takes longer.

  5. says

    I hadn’t realized it was possible, but I seem to have beaten _myself_ to the punch. . .
    I’ll just add that my main reason for perferring the rather cumbersome big M small m terminology is that it’s already quite close to the existing usage and thus will likely be the least difficult to promulgate.
    A question, though: You say “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.” And yet you clearly have a great deal of interest in postminimalism and totalism, which leads me to think that you’re making an additional distinction that I’m missing. I think of Adams, for instance, as postminimalist. Are you saying that in addition to Minimalism, postminimalism, and totalism there’s a significant additional chunk of music that popularly gets termed “minimalism” but doesn’t fit into any of those three categories?
    KG replies: Well, probably, I’d have to think about it; I put John Adams in my American Music book as one of the New Romantics. I just find a lot of that Glass and Adams orchestral music, in particular, not as interesting as either early Minimalism or as the next generation who brought some other ultramodern and world music influences to mingle with the Minimalist influence. I can’t imagine, for instance, analyzing The Wound Dresser, or Short Ride in a Fast Machine, or any of the Glass Symphonies. They seem to me to have watered down the whole concept to create “classical-sounding” music that orchestras could play without much rehearsal.
    I don’t mean that as dismissively as it might sound. I’ve written one big chorus-and-orchestra piece, and while I think it’s a good piece, I had to simplify my usual rhythmic and harmonic ideas considerably, and, except for the last movement where I dared to let it hang out a little, I wouldn’t recommend it as the most sophisticated or characteristic example of my composing methods. I think, for example, that for European serialism, the orchestra was the perfect medium, and really flattered its coloristic possibilities; piano and string quartet seemed less effective media for that style. For minimalism and postminimalism, the orchestra seems to me an unflattering medium. There’s a certain motoric or mechanical quality to the lines that orchestras don’t negotiate very well. I well remember how much grousing there was from string players when Satyagraha was premiered (Glass’s first minimalist piece, I think, to use conventional orchestra). And while Grand Pianola Music is just about my favorite Adams piece, it always looks to me from the score that those endless strings of 8th-notes look ungrateful to play.
    I think it’s been smart of Reich to mostly avoid, in recent years, conventional ensembles that don’t show off his style well. I think it was smart of Adams to quickly move away from the minimalism of Grand Pianola toward a style that orchestras could negotiate more easily. I just about think that Glass’s worst piece for his own ensemble is better than his best piece for conventional orchestra (Koyaanisqatsi possibly excepted). And I think it would be folly to assume that the best examples of minimalism are to be found among the orchestral repertoire.

  6. Dan Schmidt says

    Luckily I know one Phill Niblock piece. Do you consider Morton Feldman’s music minimalist by your definition? (I would like to, but I always feel like I would have to qualify the statement so much that I shouldn’t bother making it in the first place.)
    KG replies: Well, *I* tend not to, because I usually think there’s a lot going on in a Feldman piece. But some people make a case for it, and I can imagine thinking of For Samuel Beckett as being so difficult to hear into that it achieves a listening experience pretty close to minimalism.

  7. says

    New ism: absolut minimalism (then you can get a corporate sponsor!)
    It makes sense to me, chronologically, that any new system of organization proliferates and complicates itself through the impulsive needs of expression.
    Schoenberg’s free atonality soon evolved into the more structured scheme of dodecaphony. Likewise, a seemingly minimal system will resist the rigidity of its method as composers choose to become expressive with it. In this sense, expression is the chief impetus for formal upheaval.
    I would also like to propose a circular theory in terms of musical aesthetic values. It is no surprise that we find ourselves in this neo-Romantic environment. Minimalism and Romanticism are pendularly linked.
    Consider the opening of Das Rheingold: one static chord that gradually swells and subtly changes through its orchestration.
    It seems that our notion of minimalism grew out of a reaction to complexities imposed by serialism. Whereas Wagner’s Romanticism grew out of the decadence of chromatic hubris, which trampled notions of classical formalism.
    Romanticism and Minimalism are cousins. One shy and quiet, the other brutish and vulgar. The leading defense for neo-Romanticism is the composer’s sensual enjoyment; often coming across aesthetically as chromatically virtuosic flashiness.
    The defense for minimalism was more rooted in interiority (for the listener) and spirituality for the composer, but was no less immersive and ambient than its Romantic counterpart.
    KG replies: I like the argument, but which is the shy and quiet cousin, and which the brutish and vulgar?

  8. Richard Mitnick says

    I have been a fan of John Schaefer and WNYC for a long time. New Sounds was as far as I can see the venue which allowed Glass, Reich, Riley to gain traction. Who else? Charles Amirkhanian at KPFA? John cost me a lot of money, as I have tons of Glass, Reich, Part.

  9. richard says

    I have an idea, why not take a page from Prince, and call it “The music formery known as miminalism”.
    KG replies: Perfect…. PERFECT…. BRILLIANT… It’s genius….

  10. says

    I would suggest the retronym “protominimalism.”
    KG replies: Oh no, not a name that implies that the music I love was just a runner-up to the “real” stuff.

  11. says

    Oh, I thought it was obvious!
    Wagner = Brute
    Reich = Monk
    Maybe shy and quiet was a romantic way of saying “inward-looking.”
    I don’t think either umbrella will cover all kinds of either music. But to get a grip on things, we generalize, which seems to be the ultimate problem facing a definition of minimalism.

  12. says

    1. As a software guy, I know how you feel: our beloved honorable term “hacker” has been utterly hijacked in the popular language, and “operating system” doesn’t mean to me anything like what it means to the software-buying public.
    2. Can you demonstrate that the semantic drift of the term “minimalism” was initiated by marketing considerations, or do you admit the possibility that marketing follows and reinforces popular categorization that is already underway?
    3. To what extent can the phenomenon you observe be attributed to your professional habit of attending to the music versus the wider human tendency to follow the artist? Over forty years after Bob Dylan started performing and releasing rock music one can still find him tagged as a “folk” artist in places…

    It would be nearly impossible, I think, to separate commercial influence in this case from the way the music was distributed and marketed. From almost the very beginning, starting with DGG’s 1974 Reich set, classical labels picked up the more “mainstream” minimalists and made them well known, while the hardcore minimalists, who in some cases had been around longer, remained on small labels if available at all. Until Einstein came out on Tomato, Glass was issuing his own (and Jon Gibson’s) music on his own Chatham Square label, pretty analogous to what Phill Niblock, La Monte, and other minimalists were doing. Had the big labels not seized on Reich and Glass, one can imagine that the entire scene might have developed in the public consciousness more as a unit.

  13. says

    I actually thought about the notion of terminology quite a lot before we did the show, especially after I came across the Johnson bit that I cited.

    The thing that struck me most, when I really got down to considering the effect that all of this music has on me, is that the early, tonality-based minimalism (or Minimalism, as Galen points out), is that there’s actually rather a lot going on at just about any given time, but you have to adjust your way of listening and perhaps even thinking about music in order to perceive it. This, I thought, was precisely the point you made on the air. I keep coming back to Radigue, but it’s just as true of Lucier, Niblock and Palestine.

    The term that I’d wanted to propose for the earlier form(s) of Minimalism was “Essentialist,” as in music that went back to the essential fundaments of sound and explored them in really concentrated ways. But then I realized that Essentialist is the name of Rhys Chatham’s current heavy-metal band, and he might not approve the theft.

  14. says

    …For minimalism and postminimalism, the orchestra seems to me an unflattering medium. There’s a certain motoric or mechanical quality to the lines that orchestras don’t negotiate very well. …And I think it would be folly to assume that the best examples of minimalism are to be found among the orchestral repertoire….
    For the past few months I’ve been back in an Adams world listening to his more familar orchestral works – every day on the BART and back home again. The problem for me with his music isn’t so much the attributes of minimalism in it as much as it is his response to ideals in form and transition that seems to make these works rather pastiche.
    It seems to me he grasps or panics to find a means to transition or conclude. Its as if in his head he says “OK now what do I do?” and then grabs the first cliche he can find. I not only see the seams but I also get this regurgitation and derivitive romaticism that almost becomes comical. I mean, why does he always end a piece in the brass? Why does he always go into a deceptive resolution (not harmonically as much as in form)? When I first heard SHORT RIDE, the final brass entrance made me roll on the floor laughing because it sounded so banal. Moreover, if you look at SHORT RIDE, the last movement of HARMONILHERE, and the last movement of SENTIMENTAL, they seem to be structured very closely. Theres nothing structurally that really has meaning to me. If you are going to put it in a structre then make something new out of it…else leave it out completely. Adams does neither.
    I guess the analogy is you have mixed some really tasty minimalist wine with some really good hamburger, and now you throw in some heavy BBQ sauce or Tabasco which destroys everything.
    In contrast, I’ve been listening to Reich’s 18M this last week every day. Now, I’ve never been a very great fan of minimalist music in general mainly because I confess I dislike Glass both as a person and as a composer – cant stand his stuff. And so, I didn’t particularly haave an inclination to get into that genre. However, Reich, which I don’t have much memory of, I’ve been really enjoying from an education experience for my own aethetic…which I can see now is closely aligned and can be enhanced.
    So, the bottom line here is yes, I do believe smaller ensembles can carry the day…but also believe that orchestra music could also serve the genre quite nicely IF something new is made in it instead of relying on very hard references like Romanticism.

  15. richard says

    I have an idea, why not take a page from Prince, and call it “The music formerly known as miminalism”.
    KG replies: Perfect…. PERFECT…. BRILLIANT… It’s genius….
    Aw shucks, you’re making me blush. Though my wife just told me to get over myself and that even a blind hog can find an acorn!

  16. says

    If Perceptualism weren’t a slur in art theory, I would propose it for That Music Formerly Known as Minimalism. In art theory, it means, more-or-less, uncritical retinalism, as in Duchamp’s usage of “retinal art”; namely, that which seduces the eye uncritically and unreflectively (in other words, romanticism).
    If it weren’t for this art-theoretical negative undercurrent, I might like Perceptualism as a name for the music you’re talking about (such as the lovely Notminimalism piece you excerpted), because the music makes fully conscious the process of perception.

  17. Eric Bruskin says

    It’s hard to beat TMFKA Minimalism, but if you need something with a little academic pedigree, I’d suggest
    (1) classical minimalism, by definition of the word classical
    (2) core minimalism, as in Lakatos’ theory of conceptual development (plus, it leaves the slightly provocative and intellectually imprecise “hard” unspoken but available to anyone who wants to think it)
    Neither is sexy, but perhaps useful?

  18. Michael says

    Firstly, I would say that Feldman is a true minimalist.

    Secondly, I think the big schism in minimalism terminolgy has much to do with the rhythmic orientation,
    the idea of “floating time” versus “evident-beat time”. How the horizon of time is percieved is key here.

    This sense of evident-beat time is the most identifiable “trait” in post-minimalism (although it can still be obscured through metamorphsis of process), and in the corollary minimalists like Adams and Andreissen.

    The Distinction might be easy to describle as A and B Minimalism…

    aminimalism – John Adams, Phillip Glass, Louis Andrissen, Tom Johnson

    (this music is “a”minimalist in alot of ways (specifically in how we percieve time), “not really that minimalist”)

    bminimalism – La Monte Young, Phill Niblock, Elaine Radigue, Charlegmagne Palestine, Morton Feldman,
    Giacinto Scelsi, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Julius Eastman, Terry Jennings, Dennis Johnson, Pauline Oliveros, Ellen Fullman

    (this much actually “be” minimalism”, specifically in how we perceive time in this slow unfolding process)

    Aminimalism is concerned with “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 Glass, Adams, or Andriessen…. ”

    Bminimalism is concerned with a timeless feeling or blurred sense of temporal experience. I have assigned Reich/Riley into this category of Bminimalism as they use “rhythmic, wildly syncopated, rambunctious form” but allow them to fall out of sync with one another (by using process (phasing / tape loops) to create this kaleodscopic feeling in musical time. Although, Riley and Reich frequently worked in realm of pulsating time, it was obscured into a constantly modulating rhythmic canon and created a sense of floating time (which can also happen in post-minimalism). This was also accomplished by Feldman’s use of polyrhythmic dots and permutation of space, and the music begins to hover, like as in La Monte Young’s cloud music. Even Scelsi, who is never really given such “minimal tags” really created a music that extended time beyond the conceptual horizon.

    Follow my “drift”??