Wim Mertens – Basic Concepts of Minimal Music

La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. These four American composers were the first tp apply consistently the techniques of repetition an minimalism in their works. Their music developed in the 1960s in America, and during the seventies became very succesful in Europe as well. /…/
The use of repetition is not new at all What is new is only the global musical context in which it is used, and it is only this situation that allows us to distinguish between American repetition and repetition in classical music. In traditional music, repetition is used in a preeminently narrative and teleological frame, so that musical components like rhythm, melody, harmony and so on are used in a causal, prefigured way, so that a musical perspective emerges that gives the listener a non-ambivalent orientation and that attempts to inform him of meaningful musical contents.
The traditional work is teleological or end-orientated, because all musical events result in a directed end or synthesis. The composition appears as a musical product characterized by an organiz totality. By the underlying dynamic, dramatising construction, a directionality is created that presumes a linear memory in the listener, that forces him or her to follow the linear musical evolution. Repetition in the traditional work appears as a reference to what has gone before, so that one has to remember what was forgotten. This demands a learned, serious and concentrated, memory-dominated approach to listening. The music of the American composers of repetitive music can be described as non-narrative and a-teleological. Their music discards the traditional harmonic functional schemes of tension and relaxation and (currently) disapproves of classical formal schemes and the musical narrative that goes with them /…/

There is only a very tenuous polemical relationship between repetitive music and romantic-dialectical music – in fact, the guiding principles of the latter have simply been ignored. But on the other hand, it is clear that repetitive music can be seen as the final stage of an anti-dialectic movement that has shaped European avant-garde music since Schoenberg, a movement that reached its cilmination with John Cage, even though his music has a very obvious polemical-intellectual background and orientation completely absent from repetitive music. /…/

For instance, one finds that in repetitive music the concept of work has been replaced by the notion of process, and that no one sound had any greater importance than any other. /…/
Traditional dialectical music is representationa: the musical form relates to an expressive content and is a means of creating a growing tension; this is what is usually called the “musical argument”. But repetitive music is not built around such an “argument”; the work is non-representational and is no longer a medium for the expression of subjective feelings. /…/
La Monte Young has removed finality, the apocalypse, from his music, and what is left is mere duration and stasis, without beginning or end: eternal music. In fact, Young has said that his Dream House project is a permanent, continuous work that has no begining and goes on indefinitely.

A work becomes a process when it relates only to itself. The most important characteristic of musical proces as defined by Reich is that it determines simultaneously both the note-to-note details and the overall form. /…/ Subjective intervention is strictly ruled out in favour of a complete determinacy. Reich calls this a particulary liberating and impersonal ritual – he nominally controls everything that happens in the compositional process but also accepts everything that results without further modification. Like Reich, Glass rejects any structure that exists outside the musical process – the process has to generate its own structure: “My music has no overall structure but generates itself at each moment.”
In process music, structure is secondary to sound; the two coincide only in so far as the process determines both the sound and the overall form. Repetitive music is mono-functional and sounds are not programmed to achieve a final solution of the opposition between material and structure. In dialectical music the real rama les in the opposition between form and content and the final resolution of this opposition. But with the removal of logical causality sound becomes autonomous, so that in a process work no structure exists before sound: it is produced at each moment. /…/

In repetitive music perception is an integral and creative part of the musical process since the listener no longer perceies a finished work but actively participates in its construction. Since there is no absolute point of reference a host of interpretative perspectives are possible. So that goal-directed listening, based as it is on recollection and anticipation, is no longer suitable and must be in favour of a random, aimless listening, traditional recollection of the past being replaced by something akin to a “recollection into the future”, actualisation rather than reconstruction. This “forward recollection” removes memory from its priviliged position.
Stoianova called this a game of “iterative monadism”: what matters is not what the sound may stand for but its physiological intensity, or, as Young puts it: “One must get inside the sound”. /…/

What is most important: freedom or manipulation? Liberating the listener does not seem to be a major concern of repetitive composers. Since each moment may be the beginning or the end, the listener can choose how long he wants to listen for, but he will never miss anything by not listening. /…/

To what extent the adoption of a mystical ideology is an inevitable by-product of the use of repetition is not too clear, though the use of non-European musical elements has certainly led Riley and Young to come under the influence of Eastern ideology. To Riley and Young the aim of music is to get “far out” /…/
Bu the continous variation in Riley’s accumulative process negates itself because of its emptiness and leads one to perceive passing time simply as stasis. /…/ The extended static sounds of La Monte Young’s music suggest an anti-apocalyptic time as pure duration. /…/
For Glass and Reich, the removal of dialectical content from music is in no way connected with mystical ideology. Reich’s music assumes neutrality of values as a matter of principle. And while his attempt to use Western sound material in the context of non-Western structural methods seems at first sight to be merely a technical procedure without ideological relevance, the fact that both his and Glass’s music takes place in non-dialectical macro-time, brings them very close to the mysticism of Riley and Young. Glass has expressed his opposition to traditional clock-time and denies structured time-relationships and intentionality. In Western music, the musical argument is the result of a dialectical subdivision of time. Yet both Riley and Reich have eliminated this historical negativity: their idea of time is an empty one, and because of this no real change can take place in their music, so that a higher level of macro-time, beyond history, is reahed, which has been called now or stasis or eternity. It is in this non-historical character of repetitive music that is the real negation of subjectivity.


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