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.”

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.

Minimalist music creates a temporality that denies the past and future in favor of what some have described as an ‘eternal present.’

Finally, 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.