Going Nowhere with Alex Mincek
The timbres are assaultive without being histrionic. The rhythms are propulsive yet stuttering, eluding easy dissection. And everything just keeps repeating, hesitantly, as if the music itself has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. An encounter with Alex Mincek’s music is nothing if not memorable. Isolated parts of his pieces are identifiable as being influenced by free jazz, minimalism, the European avant-garde, or even late German Romanticism. However, when all these disparate elements are evoked in his works, they create an aggregation that’s completely viscerally compelling.
The first piece I heard of his was To Nowhere From Nowhere for chamber ensemble and voice, performed by Wet Ink, which he participates in as a founding composer and saxophonist. The most affecting and interesting thing about the music was the use of the voice, which spends most of the piece singing staccato notes constrained to a range of about a major third. Mincek explains, “The idea was to take something, but have it be unrecognizable. And actually have the way that the singer is being used also be so confining that you can’t tell if it’s actually even a singer. It can be an actress; it can be somebody who has no involvement in the arts at all. Something that’s just so confined that it makes ambiguous the whole bel canto idea.”
Mincek’s process in this piece—taking a classical Italian idea, filtering it through German modernism, and repeating it obsessively in a sound world belonging to neither tradition—is itself emblematic of how his music often works. His melting pot mentality creates something very American, but also distinctly individual.
Intense, opinionated, and articulate, Mincek the man is certainly reflected in his music. Both find impish delight in playing against assumptions on how things are supposed to behave. Listeners might get caught up in the improvisatory energy of his music, fueled by Mincek’s jazz background, only to find themselves unexpectedly entangled in a web of repetitive sound blocks. He explains that “there is something about just getting an idea in your head and letting it spin out as if it was an improvisation. But then the next step wouldn’t just be writing those [ideas] down. I would try to see, within that kind of superficial piece that I created in my head, if there were connections that I didn’t detect while I was thinking about it. So then I’ll start writing down little ideas and seeing trajectories on a less improvised level.” The result is a music that so constantly subverts expectation that the arrested flow becomes completely organic.
Mincek resists easy categorization at every level. Since he is doctoral candidate at Columbia University, listeners might be tempted to pigeonhole him as an ivory tower academic. But, like many composers of his generation, Mincek grew up not with the Three B’s, but with jazz, musicals, and… teenie pop. “I definitely find myself maybe just strategically trying to go against what people would think I’m interested in,” Mincek says. “And I’m not lying, I honestly like these things, but I can’t tell if there’s some kind of subconscious motive I have to be contrary to the expectation people have. So when people hear my music and categorize it as some kind of avant-garde new music, and then they take the iPod headphones away and hear that I’m listening to Tiffany, it gives me a little pleasure.”