The Happier Profession

Nervous as I get when I’m in charge of something, the minimalism colloquium I directed at Bard last weekend was nevertheless a continual pleasure. Eight of us musicologists got together to air the more-or-less-completed torsos of our chapters for the Ashgate Companion to Minimalist Music. The Brits (Keith Potter, Pwyll Ap Sion, John Pymm) were the energy behind this, and it seems a rather British way of doing things; I’d never been through such a process before. But we do want to make sure that the different chapters balance each other well, and that every aspect gets covered. We meet with the European contributors in Birmingham in a few weeks. We’ve already found that some of the people mining Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain for political resonance will have to find another example, or else truth in advertising will require that we retitle the book the Ashgate Companion to It’s Gonna Rain. For some reason, that piece is an unsuspected mother lode of semiotic treasures. Emphasis on Reich, Glass, and Riley is pretty overwhelming, and I realized in mid-paper that we have no one slated to cover Harold Budd, which would be an unforgivable omission. For some of my California composer friends, he was the Alpha Minimalist, and from afar he was a tremendous influence on me as well. A history of minimalism without him would be laughably incomplete.

Interesting insights arose. Jonathan Bernard wrote about minimalist influences on pop music (the reverse would be an equally worthwhile topic), and he pointed out that almost all of his examples were instrumental; because, he said, once you put vocals over a minimalist-sounding track, it ceases to sound minimalist. David First, who was in attendance because I had brought him in to punctuate the proceedings with a concert, murmured, “Same with minimalism.” David and I had already talked about his feeling that the distinguishing feature of minimalism is that you’re listening to a background, and that the moment you add a distinct foreground element, the impression of minimalism vanishes. This fits hand in hand, I think, with my own formulation that minimalism separates out and dissociates left brain and right brain aspects of music, leaving the left brain somewhat at sea because of the resulting lack of time-orientation. (I mentioned to Bill Duckworth the next day that David had said minimalism was all background, and he responded, “But there’s a transient middle-ground.” I’ll have to think about all this.) There are certainly different repertoires covered by different emphases of the word minimalist, which Keith Potter sums up by separating the “radical” minimalism of La Monte Young and Phill Niblock from the “conservative” minimalism of post-1975 Glass and Reich; it occurred to me to call these the “raw” and “cooked” forms. Wide as the cultural applications may ultimately be, there are those of us who still want our minimalism raw and difficult, and I had picked David to get that point across, which his growling music, pulsing in acoustic beats rather than notated meters, certainly did.

One more quote I can’t resist repeating came from Rebecca Eaton’s paper. She had compiled an exhaustive history of film music by the major minimalist composers, and cited a critic who wrote that minimalist music, once considered weirdly experimental, had by now become a kind of “spray-on gravitas” for Oscar-seeking films.

The occasion also confirmed what’s been dawning on me for a while: that, in general, musicologists are a lot more fun to hang out with than composers. Each composer sees most of the others as his or her competitors for the same small list of gigs and honors. I find these days that most composers come out of grad school with a long list in their heads of what composers aren’t supposed to do in a piece of music, and they use those don’ts to disqualify other composers, if possible, from serious consideration. When I walk into a room of composers I’ve come to expect to encounter a certain veil of resistance and disapproval. Musicologists, by contrast, are all in this together. When one publishes a book on Michael Nyman, it doesn’t step on the toes of the one who’s writing a book on Gavin Bryars, but rather provides welcome information. We’re all contributing to the same edifice of knowledge, and no one is expecting personal immortality to be the reward. As reluctant as many composers are to consider me a composer, the musicologists have unhesitatingly embraced me as one of them, even though all my degrees are in composition. No one tells me, “That’s not really serious musicology.” And I’m not the only one who feels this way; some of our minimalism mavens (David McIntire, Pwyll Ap Sion, David Dies) are also composers, and I’ve noted here before that I meet more and more young composers getting their graduate degrees in musicology. It’s a happier and more open-minded field. The realization is changing the direction of my career. Five years ago I’d determined not to write any more books and to concentrate only on my music, but I’ve since decided to keep musicologizing, simply because I like hanging out with those guys.



  1. says

    I wish I’d known about this sooner and I would have had my student, Jeff Zeiders, submit his paper on the influence of minimalism on rap, which he wrote for my Minimalism seminar at Peabody last semester. He would have to do some fleshing out, but I keep encouraging to have it published as it’s incredibly compelling (even for this skeptic on that particular subject).

  2. says

    Wish I could have been there :(

    One thing about the issue of vocals in popular music that’s influenced by minimalism, with the caveat that I haven’t read Jonathan Bernard’s paper:

    Some pop music that’s inspired by minimalism is about using minimalistic textures as backgrounds for traditionally structured pop songs, but there’s also minimalistic popular music that is more completely minimal, even if the superficial textural elements owe less to Reich and Glass. Take Kraftwerk’s “We Are The Robots”:
    which consists chiefly of “We are the robots” repeated over and over, interspersed with a few other phrases. Or, more extreme, their nine and a half minute “Autobahn” with just eight lines of lyrics:

    Consider Throbbing Gristle’s “Discipline” if you can get through it:
    Industrial music has a lot of this sort of thing.

    Take Laibach’s “Drzava”:

    When punk hit in the mid to late 70s, the critics often described it as minimalist. Ken Emerson, writing in the New York Times in 1977, observes that “In this respect, the music of these performers is much richer than most punk rock, which tends, like the ‘minimal’ art to which some of it has been compared, to the reductive. One song by the Ramones, for example, consists of 27 lines, 21 of which are ‘I don’t care’–and that’s not even counting the repeated descant, ‘We don’t care.'” Here’s the song:

    Here’s a famous eight and a half minute version of The Cure’s “A Forest,” extended to nearly twice its usual length in order to spite Robert Palmer, who wanted them to get off the stage. The lyrics are fairly repetitive, and the instrumental parts are mostly a long working out of a single groove. Note the “again and again” section and the improvised “it’s such a long end.”

    Here’s Grauzone’s 1981 hit “Eisbär” with about three lines worth of lyrics stretched over close to five minutes and a single chord progression:

    Einsturzende Neubauten’s “The Garden” has some interesting metrical stuff going on in the strings, and again repetitive lyrics:

    Not all of this is minimalist, of course, but there are minimalist influences and/or kinships in all of it, and that’s just some stuff off the top of my head.


    KG replies: We all came up with so many examples that we joked about having to eviscerate the rest of the book to make room for Jonathan’s topic. Thanks for yours, which bring up yet another aspect.

  3. says

    I think the idea of investigating the present and historical aspects of ‘minimalism’ is pretty cool considering most of academia spits out composers whose sole purpose seems to be to advocate the ‘Dresdin School’…

  4. says

    If you tout the Ramones in this context, you gotta give respect to the Troggs. Entire lyric of “The Raver,” from 1968:
    A boy’s not a boy and a man’s not a man till he’s been with a girl like my JoAnne.
    A stupid sentiment, but . . . great rock and roll.

    And I’ve always been partial to the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which even has a Glass-y abrupt ending in medias res.

    I once wrote a five-word song — “I should, you know, well . . . ,” but nobody liked my one-word song. (“Obsession.”) Alas. Maybe I should try again. (“Maybe” might be a good one-word lyric. Maybe.)

    The first time I heard Roscoe Mitchell’s sax-quartet arrangement of his piece “Nonaah,” I wondered whether it was a parody of minimalism. 30-second excerpt is the 3rd track here:

    And of course, there’s Duke Ellington’s indelible two-note masterpiece, “C Jam Blues.”

    Have any minimalist composers worked with minimalist poets, like Aram Saroyan? Still alive; I think he wrote most of his minimalist stuff in the ’60s. Here’s one from back then, copied from this review of the 2007 “Collected Minimalist Poems” :


  5. ben w says

    Even more minimalistic pop music that’s more completely minimalist:

    Anthony Moore’s ablums _Reed, Whistle & Sticks_, _Pieces from the Cloudland Ballroom_ and _Secrets of the Blue Bag_. The first of these is just the looped sounds of reeds and sticks being dropped onto the floor with an occasional whistle being blown. It’s more interesting to listen to than you’d think. Arguably none of these is really pop music, but Moore is a pop musician.

    Lots of music ultimately (I suppose) rooted in jazz has become pretty damn minalistic in some fairly literal sense: . I guess the more immediate precursor here is AMM.

    Tony Conrad & Faust’s _Outside the Dream Syndicate_ (and even more intensely _Outside the Dream Syndicate Alive_) (violin drones over a duh-rock background).

    Nurse with Wound’s “Cold” and “Colder Still”, along the lines of the Throbbing Gristle above (I admit to being more of a NWW partisan than a TG partisan).

    Orthrelm’s _OV_ (45 minutes of hypnotic drumming and shredding. It’s all on youtube. Here’s the second ten minutes: ).

    Tortoise’s “Djed” from _Millions Now Living Will Never Die_ (Tortoise also has a tune called “In Sarah, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Women and Men”, though it bears no resemblance to “.. Men and Women”).

    Richard Youngs:

    You could probably make a pretty good case for the almighty French band Magma, too, though Christian Vander didn’t come to his weird vision via minimalism.

    Noted psych band Acid Mothers Temple has gone so far as to perform “In C”:

  6. says

    Of course, the classic example of minimalist-background-music-turned-into-foreground is Bach’s Prelude in C major (WTC I) as sung over by Gounod’s Ave Maria.

    IMHO, much minimalist music seeks to focus the listener’s mental attention on rhythmic patterns and changes rather than on melodic or harmonic aspects. I wonder if these different aspects of music are processed in different hemispheres of the brain.

  7. says

    ‘We meet with the European contributors in Birmingham in a few weeks’.

    Kyle Gann in my own fair city, how about that?! (presume you mean Birmingham England not Alabama of course).

    KG replies: Yep, University of Wolverhampton. Go you Wolves (presumably)!

  8. says

    ‘KG replies: Yep, University of Wolverhampton. Go you Wolves (presumably)!’

    Ah Wolverhampton. Locals might get upset if they hear you saying Wolverhampton is part of Birmingham :-)

    It’s right next to Birmingham but it’s a separate city, common mistake (made by lots of Brits too).

    But yes, Wolves is the local football team (Wolverhampton Wanderers).