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On Minimalism: Repetition and Change

Dictionary.com defines minimalism as “a reductive style or school of modern music utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, and often a pulsing, hypnotic effect.”

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the experience of hearing Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush” at a concert, and noted back then that this was music that could be extremely beautiful in its attractive textures, consonance, and hypnotism. On the other hand, I found it an extremely limited musical language. Lately, I’ve been thinking again about the appeal of minimalism, especially as I program John Corigliano’s “Fantasia on an Ostinato” for some upcoming concerts.

In trying to explain the rise of minimalism, Kyle Gann wrote that minimalism was an expected return to simpler forms after serialism, or music both extremely difficult to compose and hear, had run its course. But while serialism may be an extremely difficult listening experience, and a disorienting one at that, minimalism poses its own challenges to the listener even with all its seeming tonality. John Corigliano, who dabbled in minimalistic techniques in his 1985 piano composition “Fantasia on an Ostinato,” wrote:

I approached this task with mixed feelings about the contemporary phenomenon known as minimalism, for while I admire its emphasis on attractive textures and its occasional ability to achieve a hypnotic quality (not unlike some late Beethoven), I do not care for its excessive repetition, its lack of architecture and its overall emotional sterility.

I’ve listened to “Mad Rush” multiple times since then, and this piece seems to reinforce all the negative aspects of minimalism that Corigliano describes. While it does have an attractive texture and is undeniably hypnotic, the repetition is exhausting. The effect was exacerbated in the concert hall, where one at least feels implicitly expected to engage with the music actively, and that failure to do so is a direct reflection on one’s inadequate attention span and poor listening skills. Or could the music be to blame?

The piece cycles through four simple sections that are repeated over and over in various orders for about 13-15 minutes. The hypnotism makes it too easy for one to feel estranged from it. Is that too much to ask of the listener? Repetition may be a form of change, and some may find it delightful to listen to the nuances in a similar phrase for any length of time, but I think that repetition can feel like a sign of stasis, especially in a work where the sections seem to simply follow one another rather than leading into each other.

Minimalism works in a piece like “Fantasia on an Ostinato,” which uses bits of minimalism within the context of a more structured piece—a means to an end rather than mere cycles of repetition. The hypnotism is used in small doses very artfully.

“Phrygian Gate” by John Adams is another example. This 25-minute piece cycles through the various modes in the circle of fifths. It is more directionally oriented, with different motives and attacks. The sense of purpose keeps it varying enough for listeners to be attentive, though 25 minutes may be a lot to ask of anyone to listen with intent. How would one program such a work? By extension, would the idea of an all-minimalist program be realistic? Do we have the attention span?

“Repetition is a form of change.” This quote brings with it the implication that minimalist music can be an invigorating listening experience. Does this mean retraining oneself to be more mindful of the constant recreation involved in these repetitions?

Then again, listening to five different new releases of Beethoven sonatas for upcoming reviews, one wonders, what is the appeal in doing more of these?

About Sang Woo Kang