‘But it goes on for so long!’; ‘it keeps repeating itself – are there no new ideas?’; ‘how can one listen to it without getting bored!’. All of the above are favourite quips and queries of both musicians and non-musicians who hate minimalism. All of the above are, on the whole, true. And all of the above can easily be applied to all other forms of music. For example, Anton Bruckner’s symphonies last hours, often repeat the same thematic material three or four times too many, and have been known to drive many a listener into the relative safety of sleep. The same could be said of ELO, Euro synth-pop compilations, or Mozart, though Bruckner serves as a perfect example in defence of minimalism because in all aspects of his music, he was a maximalist. Full throttle Bruckner – five French horns playing the same thing for sixteen bars as loud as they can, to take an illustration from Symphony no. 4 – can be criticised in exactly the same way as any minimalist piece.
Western music is built on recursion, reiteration, repetition, theme and variation. Its effects rely on familiarity. Take a typical night out in Oxford. After a few VKs in the bowels of Fever, it is not surprising that so many people cannot remember the location of the toilets, let alone where they left their jacket. But whilst the route to the stairs (for a whiff of fresh air and a taste of true freedom) may be blurred, it seems that everyone knows when the chorus of a song is going to return, or when the beat is going to drop. Whilst many may be already familiar with these songs, the worryingly large number of Oxonians who pride themselves on ignorance of current popular culture can easily take part as well. It is obvious to them that the chorus will be repeated after the next verse, and not midway through it; it is common sense that the beat will drop after 8 bars of incessant ‘hype’ noise, not 5, or 55, or 0.5. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno would call this regressive listening – the music becomes so predictable that almost anyone could guess what’s going to happen next. And by anyone, that includes someone who has never listened to popular music and has just downed 10 Jägerbombs.
So if repetition is so engrained into our subconscious conception and cognition of music, then why is minimalism scorned so much, and so often? Aside from the arguments mentioned above, the usual complaints centre around its bareness; the lack of change in texture, instrumentation, melody, rhythm, dynamic, harmony – just about every musical variable. At risk of pointing out the obvious, it is clear to me that, well, this is obviously the point. For aesthetic appreciation of music to occur, minimalism is the bare minimum. Yes, it is recursive, and yes, it can last a very long time, but really, minimalist music is all we need to be musically fulfilled.
Imagine listening to a piece of Mozart, and how the piece of Mozart makes you feel. It most likely feels familiar, like you have heard it before and thus know what’s coming next, even if you haven’t and don’t. People like being right about things – they like being in control. Listening to a piece of Mozart gives people the feeling of control that comes with having predictions of the future vindicated, and thus a sense of pleasure. It is for this reason that easy listening radio stations such as Classic FM exist and are popular with the elderly, who often seek comfort in routine.
Minimalism affords this same feeling of control and pleasure, yet dispels all unnecessary ornaments, be they musical or contextual. Take out the trills, the key changes, the contrast of loud and soft passages, and the ideology of imperial Austro-Hungary from Mozart’s music, and what is left is universal music. Michael Nyman achieved this with his album Mozart 252 in 2008, with refreshing results for both the classical music industry and the listener.
Musical minimalism, then, is instinctively human music, at least to Western ears and increasingly to all. Whilst not much might change, the time spent on each passage may drag on a little, and lethargy may overtake attentiveness a few times too often, any more variation would be to put an ideological brand on the music, and any less would be objectively boring. This is not to say, however, that composers and artists can not put their individual stamp on the genre: here are my top ten pieces which all share a minimalist core.
1) Michael Nyman – ‘In Re Don Giovanni’
2) Steve Reich – ‘Tehilim’
3) Julius Eastman – ‘The Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc’
4) Meredith Monk – ‘Earth Seen From Above’
5) Michael Torke – ‘The Yellow Pages’
6) Louis Andriessen – ‘Hoketus’
7) Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky – ‘Existence’
8) Michael Gordon – ‘Trance’
9) Arvo Pärt – ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’
10) Jocelyn Pook – ‘Hallelujah’
(Disclaimer: for those who read my deeply negative review of Ludovico Einaudi’s recent album, he may be minimalist, but he is also shit.)