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Thumbnail Music Redux: Part One


Thanks to the Wayback Machine at Archive.org, I recently rediscovered a long feature on minimalism that I wrote for Urbansounds.com, a long-defunct web 'zine where I did my earliest writing about music.

As it turns out, the piece published almost exactly 10 years ago, in October 1999. Given current spirit for all things decadarian (or simply decadent?), I've decided to republish it here. (The texts can still be accessed on Archive.org, but you need to know where to look.) Over the coming weeks, I'll be rolling out all six interviews -- Steve Reich, Carsten Nicolai, Thomas Brinkmann, Taylor Deupree, Stewart Walker and Richie Hawtin -- plus the original introduction. (All told, some 14,000 words, for whomever is counting.)

From a 2009 perspective, it might seem like an odd list: Nicolai and Hawtin remain associated with the strategies and effects of minimalism, of course, and Reich remains a sort of patron saint of minimal music in general, despite the fact that the term is ultimately inadequate for the full scope of his work. Stewart Walker's subsequent work might be loosely covered to the broader umbrella of "mnml," but there's not a lot of self-conscious minimalism in it. And while Taylor Deupree and his label 12k continue to explore "minimalist hybrids of electronic and acoustic music," I think that the latter half of that description holds more sway in 2009.

But as I've written numerous times in the recent years, minimalism has largely become an empty term, at least within the context of electronic dance music. "Mnml" (where did the vowel-less spelling originate, anyway?) may have initially been intended to indicate a certain strain of techno that favored staccato, whittled-down sounds and a general refusal of melody or songform, but as a variety of approaches inspired by minimalism coalesced into a series of tropes, and those tropes themselves came to signify "mnml," the term largely became severed from its original, literal meaning, as though through a process of substition. Less easy to quantify, but just as surely, "mnml"/minimal techno became an element of subcultural capital—something to align oneself with, to identify as, to wield as a symbolic weapon against a range of enemies (progressive house, trance, electro-house). It became a lifestyle distinction, despite the fact that there was never really any "lifestyle" that could be exclusively associated with the term. To its adherents, it came to connote endless parties, drugs like MDMA and ketamine, and a kind of bubbling psychedelic affect. To its detractors, mnml was often held up as a sign of extreme bourgeois decadence—PLUR all grown up and squeezed into mylar leggings or a cotton scarf, both purchased at American Apparel, of course. To adherents and detractors alike, it connoted something essentially European, locus of either desire or loathing, respectively. With minimal's ascendance throughout the Easyjetset, from Berlin to Ibiza to Brooklyn and Miami, it also became identified with a particular scene. Clicks and cuts had become cliques and cuts.

Minimal is a little like concept of the hipster in its free-floating scope, having shed the ballast of its original referent; for as many artists and labels in the '00s that self-consciously aligned themselves with minimal (consider Areal's original slogan "Advanced Tech-Electronic Minimalism," or an array of project aliases from Chic Miniature to the MiniCoolBoyz), even more used the rejection of minimal as a distinguishing factor, from the "I survived minimal" printed on Mash's 2006 EP for Player's Paradise to artists like Boys Noize and Jesse Rose, who in interviews offer the specter of minimal as a kind of oppositional monoculture, against which they put up the heroic struggle for the "real" underground. (I'm not saying that minimal didn't engender a kind of underground monoculture, and I don't mean to parody their positions, but I think it's apparent that minimal becomes a straw-man in many of its disavowals, a false opposition.)


Just as very few people self-identify as hipsters, even minimal insiders felt the need to distance themselves with it. This usually took the form of a tongue-in-cheek rejection, from the pilloring of Richie, Ricardo, Magda and the rest of the "minimal scarf" set in the late, lamented Ubercoolische.com (which was clearly by insiders, for insiders) to Paul Snowden's "MINIMAL MY ASS" t-shirts. Self-identification as "minimal" was almost always a semi-ironic practice, or at least from the second half of the '00s—the "Minimal Nation" proposed so long ago by Robert Hood remained only as a kind of fantasy, or farce.

If mnml sputtered its way not just to irrelevance but virtual non-existence, does that mean that minimalism itself was a dead-end? Not necessarily. Kevin Drumm's recent Imperial Horizon is a drone record that's a masterful investigation of minimalism at its most musical, threading the air with a fistful of sourceless vibrations. The album bears striking similarities to Folke Rabe's What??, a Swedish album of electro-acoustic drones originally released in 1967 (and reissued briefly by Jim O'Rourke's Dexter's Cigar label). Rabe's piece is more dissonant, but both make use of the same kind of wavering tones and untraceable harmonic movement. You couldn't really call Drumm's album groundbreaking or innovative, but who cares—it's done so well that it immediately justifies its existence; it's drone as a virtuoso performance (without necessarily calling attention to its own virtuosity). Perhaps the mistake of mnml was to assume that minimalism was somehow new, or progressive, or that it led teleologically to a "better" kind of music. As Drumm's album makes perfectly clear, minimalism only means as much as what you do with it.

In any case, on with the archival material. First up is Thumbnail Music's original introduction, followed in my next post by the lead interview, with Steve Reich.


Thumbnail Music: Six Artists Talk About Minimalism

Originally published October, 1999

Minimalism, in a certain sense, is where you find it. Lying in bed in my San Francisco apartment, I can hear twin foghorns rolling out over the bay. Almost equal in pitch and slightly out of sync, they create a cyclical pattern, shifting gradually from unison peal to call-and-response and back again. Even when sounding at once, their pitches vary just enough to create a subtle tension -- the opposition at the birthplace of form. It's a simple configuration, but all of the elements of music are there -- pitch, rhythm, tension, resolution. That it's not intended as music makes no difference; I've come to regard this occasional performance as a reminder of the skeleton of form behind every musical work, a skeleton that minimalism lays bare as a kind of abstract. A thumbnail sketch.

If you go looking you'll find less accidental forms. In the conservatories, there is capital-m Minimalism: the historical, formally defined genre associated with the work of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, and others. There's also the early ambient work of Brian Eno, whose drifting tones opened up expansive spaces unexplored by academic or underground composers. More recently, there's the dancefloor-oriented minimal techno exemplified by Jeff Mills, Surgeon, Christian Morgenstern, and similar artists whose propulsive, melody-free productions brought bangin' into the techno vocabulary.

It would be easy enough to list minimalism's many faces over the past 30 years. The fact is, throughout the '90s, minimalism has been running on maximum overdrive, and far beyond the confines of academic, experimental, or dance music. Everywhere from the pages of Wallpaper to the runways of Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein, less-is-more has emerged as an aesthetic imperative. Strangely enough, in boom times like these, minimalism has displaced '80s baroque to reign in a white-out of regal proportions. In neo-classical music, Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki have left behind the hidden complexities of Reich in favor of a sparkling simplicity. Even rock has been affected in some ways, from the monolithic drone of Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth to the deliberate infirmity of lo-fi indie rock. Minimalism has been embraced by dominant and oppositional cultures alike, a signifier of both efficiency and refusal. Indeed, it's arguable that minimalism is capitalism's privileged monoculture -- sleek, clean, and sans-serif. Bare-bones messaging; all signal, no noise.

That said, these are all different kinds of minimalisms, occupying different spaces in culture. While much design of this decade has taken minimalism for granted as a stylistic trope, another school of thought has gone about exploring the internal workings of a more rigorously formal -- yet still stripped-down -- exploration. This is minimalism not only as aesthetic, but as machine, powered by internal conflicts. If the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey was a structural summation of simplicity's power, it is worth remembering the sound that accompanied the object in the film: a vast, swarming howl, overwhelming and disorienting. In context, it suggested the impenetrable interior of the object, the unfathomable locus of its power. Here, it cues to the Other that minimalism carries within it -- the hidden complexity behind a fixed, interlocking beat; the adverse physical effects accompanying panning sub-bass frequencies; the paradoxical unlistenability of a simple repeating loop, the Chinese water torture lurking behind every pop song.

This varied exploration is certainly tied to academic music, but also to desktop DIY and underground DJ culture, including some of the artists mentioned previously, and representing a variety of forms. They might differ more than they relate, but in opposition to both canonical classical music and conventional pop, they cohere enough to suggest a descriptive shorthand. There's the drone minimalism of Conrad and Riley; the pulse minimalism of Reich's early works; the heavily repetitive structures (which tend to dominate the genre) of Surgeon, Thomas Brinkmann, Mike Ink, Pan Sonic, and so on; and, finally, there's what American producer Taylor Deupree has labeled "microscopic." This last begins to erode as soon as it's named, but it includes the gestural sounds of Bernhard Günter and Ralf Wehowsky (RLW) alongside the particle-sonics of *0, Miki Yui, Frank Bretschneider, Fennesz, Ryoji Ikeda, Ivan Pavlov, and many more.

Why lump together these diverse experiments? For one, they comprise a sort of unity-in-opposition. But they also share certain characteristics. In distilling these ideas, the question persists, "What does minimalism do?" Is minimalism -- are minimalisms -- qualitatively different from other forms? Minimalism involves something like a shift in the traditional arrangement of form and content. If we generally conceive of the content of a piece of music as the melodic component contained by a certain form (a rhythmic structure, an instrumental container), in minimalism content per se is reduced to the verge of disappearance. Where we expect to find the core of the piece, there's instead empty space, bounded by the repetitive chugging of form. Said differently, the unity that would make the form meaningful -- harmony, rhythm, "coherence" -- disappears, and we're left with a scattered scree, a broken, formless shell. This amounts to a tectonic shift in the traditional relationship between form and content. At its most extreme, form becomes content as the latter is minimized, extinguished, evacuated -- toward a new invention of harmony.

In the interviews at left [a reference to the original layout], six artists -- some of whom are happy to call themselves minimalists, at least one of whom has been running from the term for decades -- discuss the workings of minimalism through their work and the work of their contemporaries. Needless to say, no consensus is reached, yet certain themes emerge -- modes of listening, ties to the visual arts, the question of expression vs. experimentation, and the pleasures of pop.

Stay tuned in coming posts for the remainder of interviews. Next: Steve Reich.


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