andyleedmaandyleedma R. Andrew Lee
Recording artist for Irritable Hedgehog Music and avid performer of minimalist and postminimalist compositions
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How to Listen to Minimalism

Fact: Not everyone likes minimalist music.

As a lover of and performer of minimalist music, this is a fact that I have had to accept.  I do believe, though, that more people would enjoy minimalism if they understood a little bit more about why people like me love it.  Ultimately, I think much of it boils down to listening, and understanding how to listen.  With that in mind, I thought I’d outline what I think are important steps for listening to and understanding minimalist music.

Step 1: Forget the past and the future and focus on the NOW.

There is a general consensus among minimalist scholars (and enthusiasts) that this music creates a different sense of time than common practice pieces.  Common practice music operates almost exclusively in linear time (to borrow a term from Jonathan Kramer’s masterpiece, The Time of Music).  That is, there is some sort of interaction with the past and the future, or memory and expectation.  We understand this intrinsically.  We are constantly taking in information about a piece and developing expectations on a wide range of hierarchical levels.  After all, a deceptive cadence is only deceptive if you were expecting an authentic one.

Minimalism doesn’t do this, and that can be maddening.  If you listening to minimalism with expectation, you are bound to be disappointed, bored, frustrated, and maybe even angry.  That is because minimalism creates a different kind of time, which I’ve seen described as “an eternal now,” “timelessness,” “vertical time,” and “the time of being.”  It isn’t that everything slows down but rather that everything already is.  You have to let go of your normal listening and embrace the now.  To me, it feels like sliding into the time of the piece, and when you lock in, great things can happen.

Kramer describes this wonderfully, so I think it may be beneficial to quote him a bit here:

When I first entered the concert, I listened linearly.  But I soon exhausted the information content of the work.  It became totally redundant.  For a brief period I felt myself getting bored, becoming imprisoned by a hopelessly repetitious piece.  Time was getting slower and slower, threatening to stop.

But then I found myself moving into a different listening mode.  I was entering the vertical time of the piece.  My present expanded, as I forgot about the music’s past and future.  I was no longer bored.  And I was no longer frustrated, because I had given up expecting.  I had left behind my habits of teleological listening.  I found myself fascinated with what I was hearing.  The music was not simply a context for meditation, introspection, or daydreaming.  I was listening.

(The Time of Music, 379.)

Step 2: Listen to what you will

There is nothing that you are inherently supposed to be listening to with minimalism.  Tom Johnson, the remarkable composer, writer, and critic, described a lot of early minimalist music as being deliberately non-manipulative (See “Shredding the Carrot Climax” in his The Voice of New Music).  As a listener, you a free to build your own experience of the piece, and often that focus is on subtleties.  You may focus on submelodies, countermelodies, overtones, acoustics, metrical ambiguity, timbral combinations, etc.  The point that Johnson makes is that rather than being pushed and pulled through a piece, you are allowed to simply experience it.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you actively seek any of these things out, either.  Sure, when listening to Charlemagne Palestine you may initially leap to overtones, or with early Reich or Glass specific compositional processes, but that doesn’t always have to be the case.  Often the best way to experience minimalism is to let it sweep over you, to be passive and let your ear naturally become interested in some aspect of the music.  Then explore.  Probe that aspect a bit.  After a while, you may find that you’ve exhausted the information of that particular avenue, and you can let yourself wander until you find something else.

And by all means, don’t worry if your mind wanders away from the piece for a spell.  Yes, as Kramer noted, minimalism isn’t meant to be just background music, but maintaining a heightened level of listening for an extended period of time takes experience, and even then wandering is still likely.

Step 3: Don’t deny emotional content

I wasn’t quite sure how to word this final step, but the basic idea is to allow for the possibility of an emotional reaction to minimalism.  (Hopefully something positive.)  One aspect of minimalism that doesn’t seem to receive a lot of attention is that it is capable of creating a strong emotional response with the listener, often ecstatic.  No, this isn’t the emotional ecstasy of, say, Beethoven’s 9th, but it can be just as powerful.  There is something about settling into this temporal experience that, combined with certain aspects of minimalism, can create a remarkable experience of joy.  Hearing Palestine’s Schlingen-Blängen live was one of the most incredible and emotional musical experiences I’ve ever had.  My only regret was that it wasn’t a couple hours longer.  (Here’s a review of that particular concert.)

There are other emotional possibilities, of course, and it is important not to deny these.  Just because the music is “simple,” and just because “nothing happens,” doesn’t mean that is emotionally void.  It just means that the composer isn’t going to tell you what to feel.  You have to experience it for yourself.

Final Thoughts

Minimalism is far from a uniform, monolithic style of music.  There is a great variety between composers and between individual pieces.  (There are also many composers of the style beyond Reich, Glass, Riley, and Young.)  I say this because you probably won’t like every minimalist composition you hear, and it may take a while before you encounter a composer or piece you like.  Hopefully, though, by understanding how to listen, the genre might be a little more tolerable.  And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find something you love.

Dr. R. Andrew Lee is a recording artist for Irritable Hedgehog Music and has recorded CDs of William Duckworth's The Time Curve PreludesAnn Southam's Soundings for a New Pianoand Tom Johnson's An Hour for Piano.  You can follow him on Twitter @andyleedma

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