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Oh Reginald, you do go on... - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
dronon
dronon
Oh Reginald, you do go on...


Wikipedia defines minimalist music as "music which displays some or all of the following features: repetition (often of short musical phrases, with minimal variations over long periods of time) or stasis (often in the form of drones and long tones); emphasis on consonant harmony; a steady pulse." My concept of it is a little broader, so this post is going to stretch out towards other pieces of music that probably aren't minimalist, because I feel like it.

A lot of minimalist music is conceptual and annoying. I don't have much minimalist music, so I'm going to post bits from the ones that have caught my fancy. Either you like this sort of thing or you don't. I have a similar attitude towards rap music. I tried liking it, really, I tried. I listened to an online radio show where they did a retrospective history of rap music. At best, I liked some of the early Grandmaster Flash stuff, but nothing beyond that period. When rap musicians actually start to sing, my attitude changes. For example, I'd argue that Smash Mouth's All Star is a good singing rap-like song.

...I seem to have drifted here. If you find you aren't enjoying the sound clips ahead, for heaven's sake don't sour your opinion further by listening to them all the way through. Try the next clip. And if you don't like any of 'em, then that settles it - you don't like minimalist music, and can avoid it in full confidence forevermore!

What do I like in minimalist music? I like as a background when I'm working on something that's going to take a long time - it gives me a rhythm to work to. I like the beats and the melodies. I like humming along, creating deep harmonic chords. It's music I can groove to in the back of my mind without having to think about it while I'm doing other things.

The first person that people usually associate with minimalist music is Philip Glass, and rightly so, because he's written a lot of it, and indeed a lot of it is annoying. South Park parodied his style in their first Christmas episode. Minimalist composers seem to get addicted to re-using specific musical structures in a lot of their work. For example, Philip Glass is very fond of rapid up-and-down arpeggios. (0:14)

That last bit is a clip from a track called The Grid from the art movie Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio. MuchMusic (Canada's MTV) had it in almost constant rotation for a week back in the mid-80s. It's a montage of time-lapse and slow-lapse photography of nature scenes and city scenes, delivering an abstract message about environmentalism and the nature of modern urban living conditions.

One of Philip Glass' other musical structures he likes to re-use is going back and forth between two notes. Imagine the Jaws theme: DAAA-dum, DAAA-dum, DAAA-dum. Let's call the two notes A and B - the structure looks like this: ab ab ab. In the Jaws theme, one note is stressed over the other, so it's more like Ab Ab Ab. Phillip Glass often puts the stress on every third note instead: Aba Bab Aba Bab. For example, here's another clip from Koyaanisqatsi (the track is called Vessel) where he switches between "Ab Ab" and "Aba Bab". Actually it's probably not the best example, the switch is pretty subtle. I just like this track. (1:01)

Tangent: does anyone remember old Sesame Street episodes where there's nothing on the screen except multi-coloured circles with lines and triangles and hexagons moving around to the sound of a choir singing in a weird, rhythmical way? I've always been curious as to whether that's Philip Glass or someone else.

Here's some more Philip Glass. If you're sick of him already, skip down.

Cloudscape (1:26) - This is also from Koyaanisqatsi and has some of the same melodies as Vessel. One of the things I like in minimalism is that parts of the music stay the same, while simultaneously the music sounds different. I find that cool. This particular track is all done with horns.

Prophecies (1:25), again from Koyaanisqatsi. Don't bother trying to understand what the choir is saying, they're singing in the Hopi language.

I also like the fact that Glass composes stuff for the pipe organ. Mad Rush is not about Geddy Lee going postal; it's a piece that alternates between slow/calm and loud/fast. This clip (3:20) is performed by Donald Joyce.

What happens when you combine an orchestra, Davie Bowie and Philip Glass? You get a symphonic version of Bowie's Low (1:14) done with Glass-style music. When I heard this for the first time, I had never listened to the original Low, so I only recognized the Glass-like aspects. But a friend of mine (mr_sharkey?) had the opposite experience - he didn't know Glass, but he knew Low quite well, so when he listened to it, he recognized all the Bowie-like aspects. Later, Brian Eno collaborated with Bowie and Glass to do a version of Heroes - not as good, in my opinion.

Does this (1:20) sound familiar? It's from this movie. Actually, parts of the soundtrack are re-used music from earlier works of Glass' like Powaqqatsi. He's done a lot of soundtrack stuff, including work in A Brief History of Time, Candyman, The Thin Blue Line, Kundun, and I once saw him perform a score played over the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula.

I'll shut up about Glass now. I leave you with two tracks from his slightly more approachable album, Glassworks: Opening (2:01) and Island (7:40). The second one's long, but patience, it builds.

Another well-known minimalist composer that I like is Steve Reich. I haven't heard much of his work, but I find it a little more melodic than Glass. Something Steve Reich likes to do is play a repeating melody - but first he'll only play one note, then he'll play two notes, and he'll keep adding notes one by one, until the theme is repeating in a constant cycle and you're not sure where it started.

I have a CD of Reich's. It has only one track on it. The track is fifty-six and a half minutes long. It's called Music for 18 Musicians. The opening four minutes and the ending three and a half minutes are a pulsing thing than doesn't appeal to me, and I usually skip through it. The remaining 49 minutes has a repetitive structure that repeats itself about eleven times, and although each cycle is similar, there are differences.

Before you listen to this cycle (3:39), keep your ear open to the additive note thing that starts with a foreground xylophone at about the 17-second mark. There's an additional rhythm that I really like at the 1:33 mark. It's an alternation between two notes with a beat like this: 6-4-3-3-2-1-(5 silent). If you've got one of those music programs like Media Player that shows funky graphics while you listen to music, you might want to use it for this.

Still with me? The only other work of Reich's that I have is a collaborative piece called Electric Counterpoint. I like it a lot. It has three parts and is about 15 minutes long (I think there may be a shortened version, but I'm not sure). Listen for the additive note thing happening again with the acoustic guitar (1:41), whose notes seem to be coming from different directions if you listen to it with headphones on. Now why, you may ask, am I re-hashing something I already gave you an example of? Because I want you to compare it to this song. (0:36)

At this point I'm going to start tangenting wildly into things that probably aren't minimalistic at all. Experimental musician John Cage - notorious for his "silent" piece 4' 33" (and the extended dance remix version, 9' 28") - has a really sleepy, dreamy piece for piano called In a Landscape that I enjoy when I'm feeling a bit moody and want to close my eyes and float. (3:22)

I think I've featured the next clip before... When I was living in Toronto, I had a friend named David Scurr who had a radio show on a college station that almost no one listened to (two hours starting at midnight on Sunday night/Monday morning). Basically he played records at once, threw on various sound clips, and had friends come in and read random stuff. He insisted that it wasn't art. He was also a big Frank Zappa fan and, as The Onion parodied so beautifully, was one of those people who insisted that if you didn't like Frank Zappa it was only because you hadn't heard the right album yet.

In his spare time he composed music on an old Amiga machine - either works of his own, or bizarre covers of classical and pop culture music. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at a young age (it ran in his family), and I have a couple pieces of his but I don't know what the titles are. For my own purposes, I call this piece "Musicbox" (1:48). Part of its charm for me was watching it on his Amiga - seeing the notes play in his MIDI program was entrancing.

How about cartoon music? There's an anime series whose name I forget - it's nicknamed KareKano for short and is often translated as His and her circumstances. It's largely the inner emotional monologues of two over-achieving high school students who are starting to fall in love. Actually, there's almost no animation in the series - it's a lot of stills, pans, fade-ins and fade-outs. My friend pobig helped me track down a piano piece from it called Ichigoichie (1:33). Or how about a minimalist-like track called Shadow of a doubt (0:43) from the anime series Escaflowne?

There's also a nice piano piece by Vince Guaraldi called Air Music for one of the Charlie Brown cartoon specials. I have the sheet music for it. I think it's for the bit where Charlie Brown finally gets to dance with his favourite girl at school, and zones out and flies around through clouds, only to suffer from complete amnesia of the event afterwards (Grrr. Cop-out!). The best I could do was find a MIDI version. (1:30)

I'll finish off with Erik Satie, for whom I need to give some background first. IT IS EDUCATION. In the late 19th century, European music was dominated by Wagner. This was also a growing period of nationalism (WWI being the culmination), and artists in a number of countries wanted to come up with their own distinct national styles of music. At the same time, the art scene in France was getting really big. Claude Debussy, impressionist painting, poets... avant-garde took off in a huge way. All these artists hung out together and fed off one another and really got the creative experimental juices going.

Of that large, loosely-associated group of people in France, Erik Satie was the avant-garde of the avant-garde. He composed a lot of quirky piano pieces and named them strange things, like "Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog)". Imagine, if you can, an influential Russian ballet troupe dancing to Erik Satie's off-beat music while wearing cubist ballet costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. It was called Parade. I shit you not.

Satie composed some beautiful pieces - many sad (tragic love affair, etc.), some warm and happy (like Je te veux, "I want you"). His most recognizable composition is the first Gymnopédie (0:42). There were three of them, inspired by ancient Greek vases showing athletes doing gymnastic exercises.

Satie also experimented with what he called "furniture music" - pieces that weren't meant to be actively listened to. Instead, he wanted them to be played in the background while other things went on. Supposedly he was upset when he tried performing some of them and everyone sat quietly and listened. In retrospect, Erik Satie was a precursor to Brian Eno's concept of "ambient music". Somewhat more negatively, Erik Satie might also be considered the inventor of... elevator and shopping mall music.

That's all! Thanks for tuning in!

Current Mood: chipper chipper
Current Music: over and over and over again!

3 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
From: pobig Date: April 12th, 2005 06:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Woohoo!

When I read "Shadow of a doubt" I started hearing the cello line before I even seriously wondered what piece it was. The Kanno, it is rooted deep.
zrath From: zrath Date: April 12th, 2005 08:33 am (UTC) (Link)


Yoko Kanno?

Right now, I can't get the opening theme music to "Ghost In The Shell:
Stand Alone Complex" out of my mind.
If I spoked Russian, I would be singing it instead of humming it.

Help me Motoko!


From: pobig Date: April 13th, 2005 04:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

BLARP BLARP BLARP BLARP

Oh yeah, the full title of that anime series is Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou. One of these days I'll get around to watching my tapes of it...
3 comments or Leave a comment