Perfect Sound Forever

How minimal is minimalism?

by Philip Corner
(April 2012)

All 'isms' are political snow-jobs, and in this case, a way of putting American economic power behind a nationalist program of professional opportunism, exactly as was done, for instance with "Action Painting" and "Pop-Art" (God help me, there have been gestures towards perpetrating the same with Fluxus- but we have been able to protect ourselves, by being failures! hahaha).

The point here is that the use of severely restricted means, in the hope that "less is more." In music, this would apply principally to the dimensions of space and time- that is, rhythm and pitch (colour and intensity have surely their relevance but can be considered more as affective procedures than structural). In one way or another, repetition will be of the essence, more effectively as the elements in play are simplified. This applies to anything partaking of such forms in whatever time and place, and whatever the culture or history.

For me, "minimalism," even in the restricted sense of repetitively simplified music, begins with l'Ecole de Notre Dame in the 12th century- the medieval rhythmic modes as spectacularly presented by Leonin and Perotin. One could say that the French have continued to lead the field: Satie with his unsurpassable 'Vexations,' 'Musique d'ameublement' and the 'Cinéma-Entr'acte', not to speak of the ensemble of Rosicrucian pieces; from Ravel, there's obviously 'Bolero'; even some moments in Debussy. But these are precursors, as is the 'Canzonetta Spirituale sopra alla nanna' of Tarquinio Merula, Purcell's 'Evening Prayer,' 'Je Prens Congé' by Gombert, and the Pachelbel 'Canon' (what a marvel!), not to mention the fandangos of Soler and Boccherini. And the Coronation Scene from "Boris"! And the source of the Rhein... or of the Gold. Schönberg's Klangfarben; a one-note crescendo leading to Wozzeck. I "groove" to the underappreciated "Iron Foundry" of Mossolov and "pound away" away with pleasure at the piano Henry Cowell's "Tiger."

So, you see, there are not only the French. But don't they return with a vengeance with Ives Klein's 'Symphonie Monotone'!... ahead by years of the simplicities associated with Fluxus in the work of, say, Yoko Ono and George Brecht. The concentration on one note was of course anticipated by Scelsi, but his ecstatic surface may put him out of the game. But not La Monte Young, whose unvarying sostenuto (sustain) uses all of two notes, but they form the "too too perfect" 5th, harmonico-acoustically an almost-unison. You could always live in a room with an eternal sine-wave! You will appreciate "where I am coming from" when I tell you that my favourite piece of his is the, minimal yes, but decidedly anti-harmonic composition 'Two Sounds.'

I have been listening to Monteverdi's 'Vespre della Beata Vergine' and you could have "knocked my socks off" with that opening brilliant insistent prolonged single major triad- seems like since opening up that very small (some would call it minimal) "can of worms," this sort of thing seems to be "coming out of the woodwork."

And I pulled out my Fitzwilliams 'Virginal Book' innocently to play a bit of my beloved Guglielmo Uccello (Billy Bird---I mean Byrd, William that is) and what do I "stumble across," but 'The Bells'... they're "bonging me over the head" all the time "driving me mad, mad, mad" so "they're coming to take me away, away, away." Those two notes, C & D, over and over with just scalar bell-ringing patterns above it in C Major and it doesn't even modulate to E at the very end! (of course, it is not a Bolero). All those Renaissance one chord battle pieces! Vivaldi did it too. Add those Baroque run-on toccatas; certain preludes of Bach; the Couperin of "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" and "Le Tic-Toc Choc."

There's also 'Tranquility' by Ives, and also 'In a Cage', and his 'Question,' answered or not. When I did a bunch of radically pared down things in the '50's, Henry Cowell steered me to something he had published years before: unaccompanied songs by Imre Weisshaus. Curiously, although he is known for later turning away from this, John Cage's earlier metal percussion pieces, and the prepared piano, were not only repetitive but consciously cyclical, as is all Asian traditional music. Lou Harrison is to be mentioned here, his later devotion to Javanese gamelan a natural outgrowth (a good part of Cage's noisy and chancy compositions are pretty minimal too). Compared to these, a lot of what I am forced to endure as film music-I'd never listen to it otherwise (exception made for Bernard Herrmann)-strikes me as positively... no, negatively... vulgarly, maximal. Speaking of vulgarity, isn't the true father of this reductive form of semi-classical music Karl Orff? Let us not forget the 'Sabre Dance.'

And all this simply shows our provincialism, looking only within Western compositional models. So I mention the things I have listened to from other cultures which have infused my music: Yebechei chants of the Navajo; drumming from the Yoruba of Nigeria; Tibetan Buddhist chanting (with those great rough instruments which always play the same notes no matter what the context!); court music of Korea (Ah Ahk) and Japan (Gagaku); a visit to the Batak people in Sumatra, whole tribes with cultures so constant I cannot tell one piece from another (how wonderful!); Bismillah Khan's musicians' circular breath (their drones for hours, while he takes a long long time on the first note). You could get high singing some mantra of Indian inspiration, even if sometimes made a bit New Age silly. But we did sit and chant 'OM' for hours on end.

Closer to home, we find super blues: Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Richard and Bo Diddley taking off on a tradition where repeating one chord for a long time was not strange at all. I always appreciated, when dancing to rock music during the 60s, when a band came on with a two chord or even one-chord piece of music. I was directly influenced by "Rock Around the Clock" and Tito Puente and salsa, and all of Latin-American music. The Sanctified Church when I was down in Mississippi. How long can you too keep from laughing with Inuit nose-singing duets?

This kind of concentration seems to be more and more osmosing into a pop/rock underground drone music, environmental mixes, etc. In Bill Fontana's "sound sculptures," very often not much seems to be happening. And all sound seems to disappear in Steve Peters' fine-microphone ambient listenings.

Let us speak of stillness in the constancies of nature, when "music for my ears" is not merely sentimental, and not only found by meditating in a waterfall but, being attentive, in all the fullness of the world. Listen also to those human-made phenomena which are really music, though not always admitted as such: bells, with a single one pealing endlessly at noon in Paris, a scale ringing the English changes (but not harmonized hymns in 4-part disharmony as in Holland), a trinity of close pitches phasing in the Italian Veneto; and yes the 'campanacci' on herds of cows.

As for the younger contemporaries, here are some who are practicing a repetitive music I can feel for, with traditional sounding harmonies and scales which do not, however, sound reactionary: Meredith Monk (albeit with innovative vocal explorations); Peter Garland; Mary Jane Leach; Lois Vierk; Harold Budd; Rhys Chatham with his rock-inspired compulsions... which is to dispose of the Americans first. They are by no means better than Carles Santos (Spain); or Simeon ten Holt (Netherlands); Arvo Pärt (even with not quite achieving a Tabula Rasa). A couple of Englishmen in here: Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars. I hear occasionally some quite jolly pieces in this genre by some one of the less known younger composers, folksy stuff and such.

And, as if to return the favor, the creative members of (North) American gamelan ensembles, like Son Of Lion in New York, the Evergreen Club of Toronto, Gamelan Pacifica from Seattle, and the Berkeley Gamelan, not to speak of groups like the Glass Orchestra (only naming those with whom I am familiar) are finding ever new ways of integrating sensibilities, so that East does meet West. This reaches to Japan in works played by the "Marga Sari" Contemporary Gamelan in Osaka. "Reaches" did I say? Have you ever seen and heard the Noh Theater?

Although I am not a partisan of "progress," of particular interest are those who have carried repetitive processes further without sacrificing any of the achievements of modernism, and who are not exclusively typed by that stylistic consistency: György Ligeti; Karel Goeyvaerts is also important; the late works of Morton Feldman- so minimal in so many other dimensions, but already prefigured in earlier compositions; even Messiaen's harmonic infinities underlying those masses of sound; include even Stravinsky- his ostinati render the violence obsessive; and George Antheil, whose 'Ballet Mechanique' is a marvel of intelligent machinery; Gorecki, and not only the 3rd Symphony, and not only because he likes to go slow; Alvin Lucier's exquisite sonic experi-ment/ences; Richard Maxfield's electronic pulse-polyphonies; the way Annea Lockwood could take such Rhythms from the World; Charlie Morrow taking the New Wilderness back to something primeval; Pauline Oliveros' Sonic Meditations (Deep Listening!); what the voice does in Joan La Barbara's throat; Dan Goode's Thoughts Circulate; Jim Tenney (his For Anne, rising, an absolute masterpiece); Malcolm Goldstein with his John Cage homage "gentle rain preceding mushrooms"; Phill Niblock's overwhelming multi-pitched drones; Max Neuhaus' near inaudible sound distillations; Eliane Radigue with her analog electronic spirituality; Barbara Benary; Charlemagne Palestine strumming away; Radelescu; Claude Vivier; James Fulkerson and Hilary Jeffery on trombone; Robert Ashley's operas have quieted down from the "Wolfman"; Walter Marchetti still uses a few notes even if he hates music; Mieko Shiomi expands the definition of 'fluxus' by writing delicate piano pieces; Stan Kenton's 'Monotony'; Wu-Tang Clan raps with RZA et al; and John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards. Einstürzende Neubaten beats noise into a beat; how could one forget the 'N*gger' insistences of Julius Eastman?; gentle Beth Anderson. There is also a group called "Circular" in Argentina (and if I might mention myself). Ah, the pizzica of Salento- still giving life! You will surely note what names are, by well-determined intention, missing here.

With regrets to all those I also respect, and those with whom I am not familiar, who are just as deserving but cannot be noted here. Surely, this is enough to prove that there is tradition and an actuality out there, showing that our judgements need not be limited by a reductive conformity, enforced by commercial hype.

The winners of the super-star sweepstakes will be enough for those who get their culture-fix at the Philharmonic subscription series. A step beyond Brahms at least. For those who follow New Music, the world is elsewhere.

So, to be very clear about things: neo-tonal repetitive music has nothing to do with the legacy of John Cage (as the Michael Nyman book would have it), or any other pretence of avant-gardisme. I believe the current situation is well expressed in the title of one of Malcolm Goldstein's compositions, "Where are we when we are standing still looking backwards." No question mark needed.

If some of what I say may seem controversial, it is not to be polemical, but to direct music lovers towards some truly marvelous music. I have since writing this been correcting my ignorance- in the last few years, young musicians have been creating a veritable culture of a sort of transcultural mistico-meditative non-reactionary minimal"ism" which does not, however, renounce strong, noisy, and even uninhibited expressions. A goodly number of these are being offered publicly through the CD labels Wandelweiser and Another Timbre. And I have just heard the extraordinary music that Alma Laprida is making on, of all things, the medieval one-string Tromba Marina. How minimal is that?!

November 2010

Also see the 2012 PSF article on Philip Corner, a 2013 article which details a book about the composer and an article by Corner about gamelan music

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