Thursday, September 10, 2015

Time to call time on minimalism?

Yesterday I composed a piece of minimalist music. Maybe I've heard one piece of it too many of late, and it occurred to me that perhaps Philip Glass should have patented his style so that other people couldn't pinch it and do it less well than he does. In any case, he has distanced himself from the term 'minimalism', and I don't blame him, and I rather wish others would do the same.

The recipe for my piece involves purling baseline going up and down in triplets across a minor triad, alternating tonic with subdominant, switching around every two bars though sometimes extending longer or contracting to a more rapid harmonic rhythm, pedal point at the bottom. Add a counter-rhythm - a syncopated pulsation a bit like Morse code (e.g., dit-dit-daa-daa-da-de-dit-dit-daa-daa-da-de etc). Place a few sustained notes oozing in and out high over the top. Then add a counter-tenor with his own line that woogles in and out. Ooh yes. Mustn't forget the counter-tenor. Mix in a sample of recorded read text or a line of a folk song and repeat at irregular intervals. Finally, place over beautifully filmed images that may involve urban blight or war damage. Continue for ten minutes. (Or maybe it just feels like ten minutes.)

I thought this up when walking home from the station (c 4 mins), and when I got in I tried parts of it on the piano, humming a sort of imitation counter-tenor bit and imagining the folksong addendum - for argument's sake, I picked Scarborough Fair, but only the first two lines of it, of course (any more might risk requiring actual thought) - while the news was on on TV, with sound off.

The stupidest thing of all is that it sounded, briefly, like a real piece, and it "fitted" many of the images we saw.

I am not a composer. I do not imagine music from scratch. This bald fact suggests to me that actually what I'd produced wasn't music and I didn't write it.

Isn't it time for a change? This style was flourishing in the 1980s and now it is 2015. It was at first, as some might put it, 'historical necessity'. It was necessary for the world of art music to re-establish a solid, immovable sense of tonal root after decades in which harmonic and indeed rhythmic structures ceased to exist; arid, disorientated decades in which the audience was basically told to naff off if they didn't like what they heard - and did so in droves. Then statement and restatement, mantra-like, soothed and bludgeoned us into knowing that we're here, now, repeating and repeating. Daily routine, ennui, chain stores, peace of a kind. We know where we are.

Some composers who started in minimalism have moved light years away from it; others have used it as a jumping-off point into far more interesting work. Others just keep on keeping on keep on keeping on just keep on keeping on keep on keeping on keep on keeping on just keep on keeping on just just just...

Please send chocolate.