29
Nov

Minimalism is Boring (and that’s OK)

Last May, I had the wonderful opportunity to present at a conference on time and the arts in Caen, France. A number of papers addressed time in contemporary music, but it became quickly apparent that most authors had a greater affinity for the music of Stockhausen or Boulez than Reich or Glass. Moreover, there seemed to be a general distaste for all things minimalist among many attendees, something that I forgot even exists outside my own circle of friends and colleagues.

I presented a paper on temporality as a means of analyzing Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano, the details of which I will spare you. It was generally well received, but at the same time there seemed to be a slight edge to some of the questions. I don’t necessarily think that it was incredulity at my findings so much as my interest in this music. (Easy for me to think, no doubt.) At one point, a questioner even went so far as to ask, “So you admit that this music is boring.”

My response: “Yes.”

Dull Sign

I don’t think anyone expected me to come out and say that. My point, of course, was that minimalist music is in some ways intentionally “boring” on the surface so that one’s attention is drawn to other details, that a different sort of listening experience becomes possible. If one does not allow for other possibilities, does not move beyond the immediacy of the notes and teleological listening, then naturally the music is frustrating and boring.

Since this conference, I’ve gradually come to embrace the term boring in reference to minimalism, because it is so remarkably productive, and this boredom has changed many non-musical aspects of my life as well. It has changed the way I listen, it has changed the way I approach the new, and it has changed the way I experience everday activities. In short, this boring music has changed my life.

I recently finished recording some of the music of Jürg Frey (Ed. Note, the album is here), and one of my favorite pieces on the disc is his Klavierstück 2 (2001). The bulk of the piece consists of 468 repetitions of a perfect fourth, E4-A4, which takes nearly 7.5 minutes to complete. This, by all accounts, is boring, but practicing this piece and working so very hard to maintain a steady tempo and dynamic has rewired my ears. In playing 468 fourths (with the pedal held down), a swirl of overtones becomes audible. The immediacy of the attack fades out of consciousness and overtones become steady drones, fading in and out with the subtlest changes in my playing.

Jürg Frey at a piano

Jürg Frey

Suddenly, I can no longer avoid the complexity of sound that surrounds me. Before, I was able to focus and listen this way when desired, but now sounds seem to leap into my awareness. The portable air compressor I own produces a shocking number of pitches, and when I’m upstairs and the house is quiet, I can hear a rather low hum, the source of which I have yet to discover. I am surrounded by complex, beautiful sounds, and while that has always been the case, I couldn’t avoid them now if I tried.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that there is “no such thing as an uninteresting subject, only an uninterested person,” and minimal music has opened me to the truth in that statement. If I know that beauty can be found in 468 fourths, then perhaps it can be found in other places as well—my disinterest more and more gives way to curiosity. Often this manifests itself in the visual arts, and while I certainly don’t claim to understand or even appreciate all that I’ve encountered over the years, I have also been blown away on many occasions.

This can of course be extended to general intellectual curiosity. For example, if you considered grass growing to be boring, think about the nuclear reaction that takes place millions of miles away that brings light in the form of photons (which like all particles also exhibit characteristics of waves) down through out atmosphere (filtering out much of the light in the UV spectrum) into the plant where a chemical process takes in those photons, excites electrons, and produces the energy by which most life on this planet is sustained. Boring.

Spiral ClockFinally, minimalist music has helped me to live in the present. By nature, I tend to be rather future-oriented. I see the end goals of a project, I constantly anticipate pitfalls, and when I find spare moments to let my mind wander, it is almost always to an imagined future. But minimalism doesn’t allow for that. For a variety of reasons, minimalist music creates a temporality that denies the past and future in favor of what some have described as an “eternal present.” Memory and expectation are irrelevant; it is only the moment which is important.

Now, unlike the seismic shift that took place with my listening, I do not live in a state of present-oriented bliss. (If nothing else, that would probably make me really bad at my job.) However, I can (sometimes) turn to my temporal training and enjoy individual moments. Most often, this happens when I’m playing with my young daughters. Yes, being a father can be incredibly challenging, but there are also moments that define what happiness truly is. When those moments occur, I can (sometimes) switch into that present-oriented temporality; I cast aside the past and the future and focus on my girls, and that can be so richly rewarding.

I should add that I do not in any way believe that minimalist music is the only route to such experiences. I know a few electroacoustic composers whose powers of listening vastly exceed my own (and who are not fans of minimalism), I know that curiosity has an infinite number of sources, and I can think of several religious practices that encourage the present-orientation I learned from minimalism. No, I do not harbor any illusions about the supremacy of minimalism, but I do wish to share with you why I love it. Discovering and exploring minimalist music has changed me as an artist, and it has also changed me as a person. I just want you to know that.

So go be bored. You might enjoy it.

R. Andrew Lee is an avid performer of minimalist and postminimalist piano music and records for Irritable Hedgehog Music. Follow him on twitter: @andyleedma.

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee | Twitter @andyleedma

R. Andrew Lee is an avid performer of minimal piano music and records for Irritable Hedgehog Music.
http://randrewlee.com

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13 comments
Silas Rosenskjold
Silas Rosenskjold

Andrew:What a great article, I have listened to a lot of minimalistic music and I've never thought of the temporal aspect of it. However as you mention, not only minimalistic music encourages the focus on the present time, and it's certainly a big part of my life to remind myself to enjoy what's going on "right now".There's another aspect of minimalism that I've made my own little phrase for, and I thought I'd share it with you (and of course everyone else who reads this :), and maybe I can add a perspective to appreciating minimalism just as you have in my case. It's something I thought about when my composition teacher wanted me to justify starting a piece with an arpeggio of an A major (lasting 2 bars!! the horror!) Anyway he thought it was a waste of time and that it would make people lose interest in the piece before the melody even started.Quite simply my argument went something like this: "I think major chords sound very nice, and that even though they have been used for centuries, they still deserve to be played simply for the simple reason that they sound wonderful. Just like strawberries always taste good when we reach the summer, and we never get tired of them because we can't have them in the winter, so it is also okay for music to, sometimes, go back to it roots and to be appreciated, however often we have heard it before, just as much as the last time we went back."My point is that what sounds good, does not lose its quality over time. Maybe for the listener, but the empirical quality will always remain and what could be more rewarding than always be fascinated by the sound of a major chord in root position, or an octave, or a major fifth, or simply a resonating A flat etc. Maybe it's not so far from the idea of living in the present after all. If we appreciate things for what they are in the very moment we perceive, neglecting past experiences, then we will, hopefully, allow ourselves to be amazed over wonderful things that we have simply been exposed to so often, that we have forgotten that initial excitement.

Ewan Clark
Ewan Clark

Thanks for the great article. You've articulated the sorts of things I've thought for a long time but not quite put into words before. Perhaps people who like this article will like a post-minimalist composition of mine: https://soundcloud.com/ewan-clark/reverie (Sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but you won't be disappointed.)

Andrew Lee
Andrew Lee

Whew. Let me try to get to everyone here. Thanks for all the comments!Deborah: Discomfort is certainly not uncommon. What many find tranquil and/or fascinating others find difficult. We aren't used to pausing and contemplating much in daily life. Also, I'm glad to hear that something I said has been to your benefit!Luke: Awesome. Thanks for the link.HT: I think those are valid concerns, and there are certainly pieces and composers that fail to create a sonic experience worth exploring. You're absolutely right that repetition and technique are not sufficient; there has to be something beyond the immediacy of the notes worth exploring, and sometimes there's little there.CJ: I think we have quite a bit of ground for agreement. In considering Cage, his pieces that explore 'random' sounds or chance elements were in very controlled situations. I think with this post I was trying to help people understand that sometimes there is something more beyond the surface worth exploring, and that minimalist music engages a listener in a distinctly different way. At the same time, I was trying to simply relate what minimalism has done for me and why I love it (though not all pieces equally) in the hopes of explaining myself a bit - an attempt to answer the "why?" question when someone discovers what I do.Susan: I think I was getting at this with a bit with my comments to CJ, but I do place greater value (in general) to what composers and performers intentionally produce (even if through chance means) than simple ambient sounds. I didn't intend to create some sort of equivalency between the two, merely demonstrate the effect that minimalism has had on my hearing. I'm much more open to electroacoustic pieces, and find myself charmed by unexpected sounds in daily life, but can also be equally annoyed by sounds that are intrusive. As far as boring goes, well, I suppose I was trying to be provocative a bit and help others to see that (sometimes) what may initially seem boring can be a gateway to beauty.

Susan Scheid
Susan Scheid

Andrew: I have to start by writing that this is yet another thought-provoking and intelligent piece from you. I look forward to your opinion pieces and have been eager to get to this one. I'm not willing, though, to embrace the word boring to describe anything that is other than boring as traditionally defined. I suppose this comes from 15 years of reading and negotiating insurance contracts. I have a very definitive view of what boring is, and now that I've escaped boring work, I'm not willing to be bored ever again. (Your post here is the opposite of boring.)Some minimalism I find boring, other minimalism I find transcendent, and, a lot I find a bit like the curate's egg: good in parts. If I find a piece of minimalism boring, I don't go back to it. If I find it engaging, I listen again. And I like a lot of what composers now are doing in incorporating minimalist elements into their works.Now, on the subject of ambient sounds, while I have come to an appreciation of Cage, I have to say I cannot stand the intrusion of my refrigerator's hum on every single piece I listen to. This morning, I listened to a fascinating and strange new piece by Rolf Hind (The Tiniest House of Time, available for listening on BBC3 for the next 7 days, if of interest)—and the refrigerator’s hum did nothing but get in the way. I'm not at all interested in the refrigerator's non-intentional humming. I find it boring. I am supremely interested in what a composer, out of his or her sublime intentionality creates, and what performers, out of their own sublime intentionality, create. I know, call me old-fashioned.

C.J. Sperling
C.J. Sperling

I experienced the "interesting sounds everywhere" phenomenon when, for an installation project, I needed the sound of single cars running on the street, and went out for recordings. For many weeks after I wasn't able to get my listening away from the individual car sounds whenever I was out. Very great at the beginning, quite exhausting later.But...Taking the opposite point of view: if a piece of music isn't more interesting (or however one phrases it, "has not more content", "is not more valuable as", "isn't more art than", ...) than a random sound - why bother with composition, practicing, recording? Why spend all that effort? Consistently, it should be enough just to listen in "music mode" to whatever sounds might occur, wherever you are. (I remember a Cage quotation going in this direction - rather than attending a concert, he'd prefer to open the window of his room and listen to the outside sounds. Does somebody know this quote, and where to find it?)Mind you, I like minimal music as one of the many possible ways in music, and it's not boring for me. But I see a problem with the approach You describe.Nevertheless: very cool answer. I would have liked to see the listeners' faces...

HT
HT

"Minimalist sound" can be very beautiful. Sometimes it submerges into the background. We let our subconscious mind deals with it instead of the conscious one. We live in the moment. My problem with a lot of minimalist music, however, is not repetitions, but mindless repetitions. Mindless. The flow of water, the blow of wind, even the the traffic noise, is "boring" and repetitive, but every moment comes with a subtle variation and subsequently, revelation. I consider Scelsi's music to be minimalist, yet you know there's an awareness of something of greater depth beyond the repetitions. What's more insulting is when certain minimalists go to great lengths to intellectualize the technical part which isn't very substantial to begin with. And I'm afraid there are too many young American composers who blindly compose in this manner so that they won't have to exercise their imagination...

Deborah
Deborah

Really wonderful post. In my experience with minimalism, it tends to be more uncomfortable than boring. I remember reading through the handout as you played Tom Johnson's "An Hour for Piano" and realizing I had never before taken so much time to just sit... and think... and not think.Also, I just wanted to say that to this day, when I sit down at the piano I'm always reminded of some very wise words you gave me in a piano lesson when I was really frustrated and stressed: "You have nowhere else to be. It's just you and the piano."

Andrew Lee
Andrew Lee

Damian: It's interesting, because for those who are unable to sort of slip into the temporality of minimalist music, it can actually cause quite a bit of anxiety/stress.Rebecca: Glad you liked it, and I like your comparison. I think those that regard minimalist music as not serious or not worthy of academia are diminishing. They will always exist, but the books and articles continue to increase in number.

Rebecca
Rebecca

This is a great article; lots of interesting thoughts about temporality etc. (with which I agree 100%). Minimalism definitely gets a bad rep in academic circles, or so it seems from my limited experience ("haha drugzz lol"), but I find listening to minimalist music to be such a layered, engaging, and ultimately rewarding experience--like the sonic version of watching a building being built.

Damian Corbet
Damian Corbet

Boring? No way. I love it.I think minimalism helps us slow down and reflect on life in a calm way - it should be prescribed by doctors :)

Andrew Lee
Andrew Lee

Thanks, Chris. While minimalism is definitely becoming more acceptable in academia, it is certainly not without its detractors. I just try to share why I love it and let the rest fall where it may.

Chris
Chris

This is a wonderful article. I'm very much into the meditative, present-focused state of mind that minimalism can bring. My love for the genre has been the subject of numerous jabs from my friends and colleagues, and now I feel as though I have a better vocabulary for explaining its merits.