Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Understanding Minimalism

It's difficult to talk about music. As a friend of mine once remarked, "you're trying to put into words something that couldn't be expressed with words in the first place."

There are two videos, though, that may help folks understand one of the important underlying concepts of minimalism. When music is stripped down to its basics, what provides the conflict, the forward motion that we're used to with tonal music?

For some composers, such as Steve Reich, it's the changing relationship between musical elements as they gradually move "out of phase" with one another, and then back in. In the video below, this change is demonstrated physically. Note how complex and beautiful patterns emerge as the pendulums swing, each in their own regular, but unique arc.

Reich uses this concept frequently. "Clapping Music" is one of his simpler (and shorter) works -- on paper. It's scored for two musicians clapping hands. The patterns are simple quarter-note and eighth-note combinations that repeat. The video below shows the score in action.

After you watch it, try just listening to it. The sound is much more complex -- and engaging, then the simple patterns would suggest. And that's the point. Very simple elements combined in every possible way.

But don't think of this as just wind-up music. There are many compositional decisions to be made (instrumental combinations, timbres, durations, tempo, etc.) and one has to be able to  imagine what all these possible combinations will sound like. And it all has to elicit an emotional response. It's more art than math.

Minimalism has different aesthetic, perhaps, than older tonal music, but it's one that works. Both visually and audibly!

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