Minimalism

In The Ocean

Posted by PH on July 31, 2014
Music & Technology / No Comments

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Quote of the Month

The background to the organized sound of Gregorian chant, in a mediaeval monastic community, was not random noise. Silence—the silence of nature itself, in which the random noises of culture were swallowed up—was one of the facts of mediaeval life, outside the cloister as inside it. Against the quietness that enveloped the ear, and the tracts of unaltered nature—wood, bramble, heath, swamp—that made up its solid equivalent, any designed structure of sound or stone acquired a corresponding rarity and singularity. In an ill-articulated world, a place not yet crammed with signs, images, and designed objects, the impact of a choir heard in the vast petrified forest of a Gothic cathedral might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles of buildings from primitive nuraghi to the World Trade Centre, the ads in the street outside it, the desanctification of the building, its conversion into one more museum-to-itself, the secular essence of our culture, the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World, and so and so forth; while similar transpositions have happened to the matrix in which we hear music. The choir competes, in our unconscious, with jack-hammers, car brakes, and passing 747s, not merely the rattle of a cart or the lowing of cattle. Nor does the chant necessarily seem unique, for one can go home and listen to something very like it on the stereo. Because nothing could be retrieved or reproduced, the pre-technological ear listened to—as the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize—one thing at a time. Objects and images could not, except at the cost of great labour, be reproduced or multiplied. There was no print, no film, no cathode-ray tube. Each object, singular; each act of seeing transitive. The idea that we would live immersed in a haze of almost undifferentiated images, that the social function of this image-haze would be to erode distinctions rather than multiply the possible discriminations about reality, would have been unthinkable to our great-grandparents—let alone our remote ancestors.

Robert Hughes

We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time.

[…]

Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts—diary entries of individuals encountering those things—it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.

The surprising thing about it – I almost said the insidious thing, but I’m trying to be anthropological—the surprising thing, to me, is that once we have our gramophone, or iPad, or locomotive, we become that which has the gramophone, the iPad, or the locomotive, and thereby, are instantly incapable of recognizing what just happened to us, as I believe we’re incapable of understanding what broadcast television, or the radio, or telephony did to us.

I strongly suspect that prior to those things we were something else. In that regard, our predecessors are in a sense unknowable. Imagine a world without recorded music: I always come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to imagine that, because I have become that which lives with recorded music.

William Gibson

Minimalism in music is the avante-garde sound of absolute frequency. Listening to pulsed minimal music, hearing every repetition, is like having the experience not of one consumer, but of all consumers at once. You are the mass market, and you feel the entire pressure of the mass media’s power to construct desire—in other words, in a consumer society, the irresistible power to construct subjectivity itself—directly on your consciousness. The impossible attempt to represent that pressure directly gives the music its teleology, its content—and ultimately its shock and awe. It is not necessarily an unpleasant sensation; it can be quite literally entrancing, as the shoppers floating down the aisles of the local supermarket right now could tell you. In minimal music, the message is the (direct perception of the power of the) media. Or, more pithily, after McLuhan:

In minimal music, the media (sublime) is the message.

Robert Fink

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Composition Study #10

Posted by PH on June 01, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

This week: Minimalism continued. Having focussed on Steve Reich with the last study, and having had an intermediate lecture where we looked at the cultural context of the form, we concentrated this week on Philip Glass.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the compositional techniques of Reich and Glass are quite dissimilar. Reich’s fundamental technique is canonic “phase shifting” (notching parts in time against each other), whereas Glass’s basic technique is additive composition, an idea he derived from Indian classical music. A quick look at one of his early scores will clearly show how this works:

glass_mism

Figure 1 on the score is the “basic unit”. In Figure 2 the three middle quavers are repeated giving us an 8-quaver pattern. In Figure 3 the two first notes of the basic unit are added onto the end of Figure 2 twice, now giving us a 15-quaver pattern. Etcetera. Hence additive composition. Although this seems ridiculously simplistic it has some interesting consequences.

Firstly, the piece has no given time signature as such. It may have a basic pulse but effectively the additive process “automatically” changes the time signature as we move between figures: 5/8 to 8/8 to 15/8 and so on.

Secondly, if there is a “minimalism” at work here it is in the extremely limited amount of musical material being manipulated: in short, we’re not using many notes. There is no sense of any “teleological” harmonic progression towards some musical climax or cadence, and in fact in his early pieces (up to and including Music in 12 Parts) it is not uncommon for Glass to fashion a compelling and sometimes very beautiful 20-minute piece out of four or five notes.

Thirdly, Glass’s meticulous planning of the development of the Figures give his work that incredible sensation of rhythmic “wheels-within-wheels”. In fact it is exactly because he uses so few notes that this mechanism works so effectively: note how in Figure 4 the G-Bflat-C triplet in the top line changes position from the previous pattern, how the partial repeat of the next descending triplet creates a little rhythmic hiccup, and how the repetition of the opening two-note figure now closes the pattern. It is almost as if using the same notes over and over again in different combinations forces us to concentrate on their rhythmic interplay.

Finally, although you can’t see it from the example I’ve included here, even when you’re limiting yourself to just a handful of notes the patterns cycling against each other in their dizzying permutations generates the harmonic structure of the piece. In other words, as the parts layer up you effectively create a harmonic “stack” that changes configuration as the additive elements modulate against each other.

So it’s all very clever and incredibly hard to do well (and just how hard I found out for myself of course). This week’s composition specification read something like this:

Create a piece that has at least two distinct rhythmic streams:

  1. Fixed.
  2. Uses additive composition to produce polyrhythmic effects against (1).
  3. With a coherent harmonic scheme developed between them.

I decided to create a (synthetic) vocal piece, inspired by “Part 1” of Music in 12 Parts and the “Vessels” section of the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. Here it is:

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Composition Study #9

Posted by PH on May 25, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

Picking up the “story” in the late 1950s and early 1960s we moved on to consider Minimalism.

And before we go any further of course we’d need to at least mention in passing the dubious provenance of that moniker and the fact that it’s almost meaningless when one considers the diverse outputs of four composers normally associated with it (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). Admittedly they emerge from a common milieu and share at least one important conceptual frame—a rejection of both the straightjacket of serialism and Cage’s indeterminacy, and a subsequent embracing of the consequences of these rejections—but their solutions are all markedly different. Even the apparent family resemblance between the key Minimalist works (Riley’s In C, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and Glass’s Music in 12 Parts) is deceptive: as compositions and as musical structures they have very little in common. If there is a “minimalism” here it is at the most superficial level.

Steve Reich then. I chose Reich to introduce the subject because—accepting the genre stereotyping—his work seems most typical, and in it we can trace the music’s development most clearly. To start with then we have his early tape pieces (in turn inspired by his work in San Francisco with Terry Riley):

Having “discovered” the phasing process, the next step was to apply this to performances on “real” music instruments:

Experimentation with this limited palette was then developed to embrace his own ensemble and a wider (and by now typically Reichian) tonal palette:

Crucially, this was followed by the realisation that the actual “phase transitions” were unnecessary, and that is was both possible and preferable for parts to simply “jump” to the next beat. This, along with an expanded harmonic language and the introduction of strings and woodwind into the existing mallet-dominated ensemble sound, allowed Reich to produce his only bona fide masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians. This ECM recording remains the definitive version:

Following this piece (in 1976) Reich moved away from Minimalism, firstly by writing for standard orchestral resources and secondly by embarking on a musical investigation into his own Jewish roots (and all that implies). His later major works such as Tehillim and Desert Music are just not very good. Perhaps his most successful “post-Minimalist” piece is Different Trains, but even though this is musically and sonically successful it is hamstrung by the stubbornly undramatic nature of the speech materials that form the central armature the work (which, considering the almost cosmically tragic nature of the subject matter, is difficult to overlook).

***

Anyway. We created a set of compositional rules for this week’s piece:

  1. Create a modal pattern using quavers in 12/8.
  2. Build up texture and harmony using canonic “phase shifting”.
  3. Use substitution: rests for beats and vice versa.
  4. Try and experiment with dynamics to accentuate rhythmic interplay.
  5. Homophonic instrumental texture.
  6. Produce a ‘B’ section using another mode.
  7. No bass line or downbeat.
  8. Try and keep it under 5 minutes long.

Here’s mine:

This one’s in danger of being a pastiche—and I hate pastiche—but because I’ve had to jam the whole thing into two-and-a-half minutes and because it’s 2013 not 1976 I think I just about get away with it. You may disagree…

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