Minimalism transports the listener to a place of contemplation – where new sounds can be imagined amidst silence. We explore its power in modern production.
In 4’33 “, Jean Cage posed an interesting challenge for the musicians and the audience. The score tells the player to k play their instrument for the duration of the three movements of the piece, totaling four minutes and thirty-three seconds. For many, this is the very definition of minimalism.
Is it good? The minimalism that refers to the particular school of avant-garde American composers that emerged in the mid-20th century can actually be quite loud. To take Applaud the music through Steve reich for example. There is minimal rhythmic variation and it is devoid of harmony, melody, or any kind of pitch information. Still, it’s full of sound.
Both of these forms of minimalism have been applied to modern production techniques. The fundamental stripping coat posed by John Cage has been picked up by artists like James blake and turned into something new. Conceptually minimalist traditions established by Reich were absorbed and sublimated by groups like War on drugs.
Modern artists have imbibed the mantras of minimalism and created new ways for this musical philosophy to live in new and original ways. Let’s find out how.
The catalog of minimalist and avant-garde composers of the twentieth century stands out clearly from the emerging pop style. Cage first imagined 4’33 “ at the end of the 40s, a favorable period in the history of music: the dawn of the revolution of the electric guitar. In the early 1950s, Leo Fender and Les Paul electrified music and ears around the world tuned in to the sound of rock ‘n’ roll.
The avant-garde persevered but was above all the prerogative of academia. With teenagers from all over the world screaming for the sounds of rock ‘n’ roller and later the British invasion, there was little room for Cage’s contemplations, with his music influenced by the principles of Zen Buddhism.
As popular music matured and diversified, Brian Eno bridging the gap between the anachronism of the avant-garde and the broad mix of popular music. Early in his career, he made a name for himself bringing synthesizer into the realm of rock as part of Roxy Music, a ’70s powerhouse run by Bryan Ferry.
He also collaborated with King Crimson guitarist, Robert fripp and together they pioneered ambient tape-looping, a technique dubbed “Frippertronics”. We had to wait for the seminal Ambient 1 – Music for airports that a new marker has been placed for the ambience domain. It is a journey with minimal variations in the concepts of harmony and melody, with phrases that are only connected by reverberating space. It was a perfect combination of the two interpretations of minimalism and moreover, it brought this meditative style to the consciousness of modern pop artists.
Of course, it would take a brave artist to follow Steve Reich’s path and compose a piece of music using only the body. The structure of pop music is rigid – verses and choruses are omnipresent – even if the order is altered, the section A to section B dichotomy seems inescapable. Minimalist and ambient trends tend to shine through in production techniques.
To take Duck for example. A successful hip hop artist at his level could afford to incorporate as many layers as he wanted into a lavishly maximum output. In its recent release, War, its sound is rather characterized by the absence of layers. The emphasis on her voice – with its rhythmic complexity and only minor variations in pitch is in itself a study of minimalism. The background layers contain repeating harmonic information, with no anchoring without recognizable bass vocals to much of the song.
This interpretation of minimalism – slow and delicately worked harmonic layers, which draw listeners’ attention to the intimacy of the voice is found in the work of James Blake, Radiohead, Beach house and more. But there are modern artists who have followed the examples of Steve Reich /Philippe Glass school of minimalism, that is to say a maximum sound with minimum musical concepts.
One of the most striking examples is Spiders (Kidsmoke) by alt-country icons, Wilco. The band’s usual MO – richly layered harmonies, lyrical melodic arcs, and unpredictable forms – is anything but minimal. But on Spiders (Kidsmoke), they took a sheet straight out of the manual.
For most of its ten-plus minute duration, guitars and bass pound incessantly on a single note, cradling the listener in a trance, periodically interrupted by the spaced vocal phrases and tortured atonal electric guitar of Jeff Tweedy. . The tension is not released until four minutes after the start of the odyssey, when the group explodes into a wordless “chorus”, returning to the relentless monotonous groove.
The same technique is exemplified in minimal house and techno, styles perfectly suited to the precision of electronic music. The same ripples found in Spiders (Kidsmoke) can be found in the club, only stretched to even more distant time extremes. The rhythmic increments supported by a higher tempo bass drum at G four can inject momentary energy into a room, but the long-term interest is sustained by the icy rhythm of the harmonic and bass layers.
Looking at modern music through a minimalist lens forces us to rethink our definition of silence. As for Cage, Eno or Drake, we can appreciate it for its literal lack of sound. But with Glass, Reich, and later Wilco, minimalism can be interpreted in another way – a rejection of foreign musical ideas and a clarity of concept, which is in its own way, just another version of silence.