The Geneology of Minimalism

A one word headline might be more minimalistic than this pretentious sounding title.  A friend cited Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals, and it stayed in my head like a verbal ear-worm I suppose.  Or I could have emulated Darwin, to call it The Descent of Minimalism but I don’t want to sound positivistic. This is speculation, not science.

I’m writing about a movement in music of the past century or so in anticipation of a concert at Toronto Summer Music.  In his recent interview Douglas McNabney said

I am particularly proud that we were able to manage to produce the concert with Katia and Marielle Labèque on August 1st entitled The Minimalist Dream House project.

Katia et Marielle Labèque (photo by Brigitte Lacombe): click on photo and then click “The Labèques’ Minimalist Dream House” for more information

Given that TSM’s program centres on “La Belle Époque” some may not see the connection.  Indeed, I was disappointed to see a reviewer who couldn’t see why Rachmaninoff’s 1893 Trio élégiaque should have been programmed even though its use of parallel harmonies & modulations resembled something a young Debussy might have written.  I see McNabney’s programming as creative and imaginative, but as with any art, we only get out what we put in. So perhaps in fear of that sort of negativity, and recalling the brutal literal-mindedness of some critics I want to offer my imaginative services, to attempt to help make the connection vis a vis La Belle Époque and minimalism.  The ambitious link McNabney and the Labèques are putting forward is the most exciting idea I’ve seen in a long time.  Would we call this “speculative programming”, wherein a hypothesis is put forward in music? What a lovely concept, whatever you think of the hypothesis.

I don’t pretend to know what the Labèques are actually playing.  I will simply make some connections, hoping they’re helpful.  I think it’s a very good hypothesis –connecting La Belle Époque and minimalism—and an idea whose time has come.

Let me simply put forward a series of compositions, as if to suggest a family relationship –as per the title—between composers & their ideas.

ONE: Erik Satie is not in my opinion a minimalist.  One might think of his quietly meditative piano music –such as his “Gymnopédies”—as prototypes for what came after.  I won’t quarrel with that.  I’d be more inclined to look at an obscure composition of his, a massive piece intended for an occult celebration, called Le Fils des Étoiles, or “the Son of the Stars”.  There are two aspects to this music that seem germane to minimalism:
1) Satie is known to have had metaphysical interests.  The spiritual aspect of
music is one I shall speak to later in this discussion, but please file that away in your mind.
2) Satie creates harmonic effects with no requirement of resolution, tonal ambiguities that are very advanced for 1891.  While Debussy would do much more with this concept, Satie was doing it first, and likely influenced Debussy (who was one of his best friends). At many points in this composition, the effect of the music is completely in the moment.

TWO: Claude Debussy is really where it begins in my opinion.  Debussy had heard gamelan music at the great Parisian exposition, music that would show him the same sort of thing his friend Satie was attempting, only better: music without any requirement of resolution or harmonic progression, music in the moment.

The two compositions that seem most pertinent to minimalism –and which sound very minimalistic in places—are the first two of his orchestral Nocturnes.  “Nuages” (clouds) is largely a series of patterns in eighth notes without any real melodic material; but it’s not Philip Glass, it’s Debussy.    This is such daring writing because there’s so little there, and yes, a fabulous invocation of its subject matter.

The next in the series, “Fêtes”, is as vibrant and energetic as “Nuages” is languid and, well, cloudy.   “Fêtes” may seem like an odd one to invoke as minimalist music.  There’s lots there.  But then again, what actually did Debussy give us? Mostly it’s energetic eighth notes, often as though it were accompaniment without any melody, resembling an abstract or even a Jackson Pollock.  If we’re to think of painting and figure-ground relationships, both of these nocturnes are all background-landscape with nothing in the foreground.

THREE: Bernard Herrmann? I mention him next, leaping ahead several decades because of his affinity –and let’s face it, imitation—of important composers. I love this guy, but his film scores are full of clear borrowings.  Herrmann’s not stealing, though, but being inter-textual: because his borrowings are referential and meaningful.  For example, when –after the opening credits—Herrmann paints the skyscape in Psycho he does so using something so similar to “Nuages” as to be a clear reference.  It’s not a happy place, as we’re to discover, a place of frustration, so the harmonies are skewed, as though the clouds were dripping with unhappiness & sexual frustration.

I wrote about Herrmann & Psycho before in detail.

But I can’t help hearing echoes of the second nocturne in Herrmann as well.  Think of all that energy, then listen to the opening credit music for North By Northwest

FOUR: After zipping from Debussy (late in the 1890s) to Herrmann (c. 1960) I’d like to backtrack a bit to pick up some Canadian content.  I wrote a bit about Colin McPhee, who’s recorded by Esprit Orchestra,  an under-rated composer whose influence is perhaps not as large as it could be.  But the Labèques have McPhee’s photo on their website promoting “The Minimalist Dream House project”; he’s the one in front of a British flag.  McPhee emulates some of those sounds Debussy heard in the 1890s, a bit of a throwback, but still worthy of mention.   Listening to that I already want to call it minimalism! …but he comes before anyone was using the word.

FIVE: Okay, since we reached 1960 with Herrmann, let’s jump another 20+ years to one of my favourite minimalist compositions, from Akhnaten by Philip Glass.

SIX: And now let’s incorporate another aspect of minimalism.  We’re thinking of music that isn’t driven to resolve –like Glass or McPhee or Herrmann or indeed, Debussy & Satie—but also that is reverent and even spiritual.  Recall the metaphysical aspect that Satie invoked.  If you go to a massage or aromatherapy session, the music you hear, invoking the “new age” is normally minimalist music.  It’s ambient, tranquil, and allows you to meditate readily.  What it does not do is insist that you decode its complexities.

Here’s a lovely example from Brian Eno, his Music for Airports.

I leave it to you to make conclusions & connections.  What minimalism does is leave space for the mind to create meanings & associations. In film scores composers such as Herrmann recognized that the older style scores –thinking of Steiner & Korngold for example—were full of thematic material that competed with the film.  From the beginning, Herrmann gets out of the way, as you can hear in his moody score for Citizen Kane.

Less is more.

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4 Responses to The Geneology of Minimalism

  1. Graham says:

    The genealogy of “geneology”: Evidently its ancestor was “genea”. 🙂

  2. barczablog says:

    Ha..! thanks for the geneal (genial?) response!

  3. barczablog says:

    It turns out there’s actually a book called “The Genealogy of Minimalism”. Who’d o’ thunk it.

  4. Pingback: Perpetual motion and minimalism | barczablog

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