In Conversation with Robert Fink
An interview with the author of Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music As Cultural Practice.
Perhaps appropriately, considering our subject, Fink and I ended up on the phone for an hour and a half, looping around, over, and through the longest InPrint chat on record. Here’s just the first half of our sprawling conversation, in which we only skimmed his revisionist interpretation of minimalism. I’ll leave something for the book…
Molly Sheridan: This book seems much broader in scope than a traditional musicological text. What sort of audience did you have in mind when you were plotting it out?
Robert Fink: I am, of course, a professional musicologist and to some extent the audience for this book is people who study what we call “new” musicology, a set of people within the academic study of music who are interested in getting away from the really extreme kind of formalism that had tended to dominate people’s academic discussion of music in the middle of the 20th century. There has been a turn in the last 15 years to getting back to questions of what music might signify culturally. Not necessarily naive interpretations that when the melody line goes up, that means X, or this chord stands for Y. With the subtitle of the book, I’m actually using a phrase that has come in musicological discourse to signify, okay, we’re not just going to talk about this as notes, and we’re not just going to talk about structural relationships. We’re going to imagine that people do minimalism, yes, because they have been inspired to create certain kinds of sound structures, but they’re also doing something that has cultural significance.
Most of the studies of music as cultural practice started with the central-19th-century repertoire. Your readers are probably aware of a very large and noisy battle that broke out over the Ninth Symphony. Susan McClary propounded what you would call an interpretation of the Ninth Symphony as a cultural practice, in terms especially of people’s relationship to their body and sexuality and a complex set of issues around Beethoven and the violence of the musical rhetoric and the intensity of that style. And that got people’s attention because, of course, you don’t mess with the Ninth Symphony.
The truth is there was a lot of very good and controversial work that was being done, say, in the ’80s, and terrifyingly enough that’s sort of where this book’s genesis comes. It took a long time for me to write. There was also some discussion of a composer like Stravinsky, which is very interesting because Stravinsky’s own pronouncements about music were extremely formalist. He’s the guy who actually said, I believe, that music is by its very nature incapable of expressing anything at all. And in saying that, he actually cast a die in many ways for what a lot of 20th-century compositional ideology would be. There’s an argument to be made that minimalism is the most extreme version of music that appears, and I stress, it appears, to take Stravinsky’s pronouncement as a starting point.
Most musicologists have been really bad about studying post-World War II music. It’s getting better now. Especially the people coming up through graduate school, I know there’s quite a lot of work being done, but not in my generation. Within the world of minimalism, experimental musicians, the composers themselves or their friends or associates, or music journalists, they have tended not to be that interested in music as cultural practice. This seemed like one of the most challenging interpretive projects you could take on because the whole thing that’s minimal about minimalism at some level is meaning.
MS: You seem to have found quite a bit of meaning in it.
RF: There’s an argument to be made, and it gets made about minimalist art explicitly by the artists, that the whole point of reductionist minimalism is literally to make it so there’s no space for any interpretation to happen. Minimalism in the visual arts is often interpreted as the most extreme form of an artist attack on interpretation of their work, which would seem to preclude any discussion of art as a cultural practice—unless you’re going to argue that it’s a culture practice to deny that you’re doing a cultural practice, and there is an argument about that. At the same time, on the other side of the divide is pop art where artists are directly engaging with commercial culture. Minimalism was always thought to be the retreat away from that. So on the one hand you have musicologists, some of whom are interested in the fact that music might actually disclose really important cultural meanings. And on the other hand, you have a bunch of musicians whose aesthetic is both coming out of a 20th-century formalism and also whose art is being analogize to that form of visual art which is most hostile to any kind of interpretive reading at all. The challenge was to see if you could in fact bring those two things together.
Let me take this one step further and then you’ll see why this is so interesting. The suspicion began to arise that all of that increasingly high-decibel denial that something didn’t mean anything was a kind of repression or cover up. Imagine a huge musical traffic cop shouting, “Nothing to see here, keep it moving, just listen to the notes!” I’m willing to believe that a very abstract piece by Donald Martino or Charles Wuorinen, if they say it doesn’t mean anything, in a way you’re willing to believe that because certainly no one is acting like it means a huge amount. It doesn’t hook into some larger cultural consciousness, whereas minimalism clearly did. It’s clearly important to people in a way that other contemporary music is not, but at the same time you’re being told that it doesn’t really mean anything at all other than as pure sound. So it seems like a space where cultural criticism of art could really do some work.
In a way, I wanted to bring the field in which I work to this music and also perhaps bring the people making the music some sense of what the audience in my field would be saying about it. The explanations for what minimalism is have never been super satisfying to me. Instead, you have invocations in a sort of optimistic way of a kind of multicultural hypothesis—that the reason people are attracted to minimalism is because it represents a fusion of the East and West. It’s European culture sort of taking the best out of Eastern religion; it’s a kind of slightly romanticized idea that minimalism is a kind of form of meditation or Eastern religious practice which really appeals to people because they’re trying to escape from, well, everything that my book is about.
MS: We’ve talked a lot about what minimalism is thought to be about, and the fact that you’re suspicious of that. But what are you arguing it is about?
RF: Well, the cover of the book, with people playing music in a very regimented way [as Suzuki students], and an analogy is being made of the repetition you see every day when you go into the super market and see the products on the shelf. And to be told that, no, this music has absolutely nothing to do with this—in fact, it is a style of art which is designed to be the antithesis of all that overloaded consumer stuff. There are people saying that minimalism is the castor oil for capitalist society, driving away from all the billboards and back to nature, or also the idea that yes, this may mean something culturally, but it’s not our culture. Instead, it will help you get over the nightmare of this capitalist Western world and go to a meditation place in the Orient where they don’t have this stuff. And you just want to point out, have you ever been to Japan?
Once you ask what minimalism might mean in terms of Western capitalist culture and the consumer culture that we find ourselves in, you’re actually dealing with things that normally get talked about in departments of cultural studies, in departments of communications, in departments where people actually take responsibility for talking about a society saturated with advertising and media. So to some extent, I also wanted to see if I could get an audience which usually thinks that art music has nothing to offer it, because when they want to understand contemporary society and, in particular, the way advertising and media makes us feel and constructs a subjectivity for us, it never occurs to them to talk about art music, because for them it’s always going to be about T.V. shows or maybe popular music. But certainly never art music, because art music has locked itself up in this ivory tower of abstraction and formalism. I wanted to show them, no, in fact, this music, because it doesn’t have explicit labels on it, is able to reflect structures in contemporary society in a very profound way.
MS: Is that really fair to say that it’s art music, though? One of your main examples, the works of Philip Glass, you hear him in the background of American Express commercials now.
RF: Well, let’s lay this down. I can quote you chapter and verse from Philip Glass, who does not accept the fact that his music is popular music and he probably doesn’t whip out his Juilliard degree and say hey, look, but the truth is that he thinks of himself as an art music composer. His hypothesis is that art music composers create new languages. He actually created a new language for music and yes, if his music sounds like popular music, it’s because they’re using the language he constructed. Now, I’m not endorsing that point of view, but he’s pretty clear on the fact that there’s a distinction between how he functions in culture and how a popular musician does. But the truth is that the fact that the music appears in commercials doesn’t make it pop music. Or does it? In a way, that’s my next book. It’s an interesting question to ask if it has the full status of what we call art music. And I think probably it doesn’t and I talk about that, especially in the chapters where I engage with popular music, like disco. But it’s not that minimalism gets kicked out of the high art club because it fails to play by the Stravinsky rule—it’s because it’s too rhythmic, it’s too groovy, and that argues that contemporary art music may have a problem with physical desire. Because the anxiety appears to be about a kind of repetitious groove based music that gets the body moving and a fear that that’s not an appropriate thing to do in a world where you’ve got Boulez and Webern.
MS: So, why is art music afraid of this, and why isn’t minimalism?
RF: If you imagine that goal-directedness does have something to do with a physical desire, that experience of tension and release that anyone from Freud to Dr. Ruth would argue is the fundamental physical reality of a body, that’s the rhythm of life and in some ways that’s the rhythm of tonal music as well. There is a sense that a lot of contemporary music has given up on goal directedness, and that’s a fundamental shift in the way music feels. For Leonard Meyer the key figure was John Cage. He had a very logically inescapable argument that if your piece is constructed by rolling the dice, you can’t possibly have a sense of forward motion. Where would it come from? And if Cage imagines music as able to be that, sounds that he doesn’t even control, he’s given up on the ability to create goal-directed narrative in music. Thus the history of music since the Renaissance, which is the history of music having directionality and being a representation of the self and our desires, is over.
A large part of the work I’m trying to do, especially in the beginning parts of this book, is to follow up on my intuition that it wasn’t music that had fundamentally changed that way, at least in the case of minimalism, it was desire that had changed. Minimalism is still goal directed in some very different ways. So it’s still in some ways a representation of desire, and that’s a large part of how it’s a cultural practice. If we’re representing how we desire, that’s a really important thing for an art work to do. One of the points I wanted to argue, at least implicitly, is that people care about minimalism because it does appear to have goal direction, just on a different scale, in a different way. It’s a metaphor for a different kind of desire than you get from Beethoven, and that’s logical because the culture we live in is radically different.
That was the point of doing an analysis of a Donna Summer song and a Steve Reich piece, where we obviously get that the piece of popular music is about sex, about desire, in a particularly troubling sort of late-capitalist way, sex mixed up with money and mechanisms and repetition. And the point was to sort of startle you and have you think, oh, damn, Steve Reich is sort of playing the same game. I start talking about recombinant teleology: the idea that it’s not that useful to imagine that there’s some music that has goal direction like Beethoven and Guns N’ Roses, and then there’s some music that doesn’t, like minimalism or disco, but in fact what you’re usually talking about is a whole spectrum of possible ways of organizing teleology. What you want to do is think about, well, what are the recombinations of that goal-directedness now that we live in the late 20th century. Instead of being surrounded by romantic poets, we’re surrounded by advertising executives. That was the center of this book in many ways—the idea that if you could get a handle on how desire had changed, you could get the metaphor that minimalism in music might represent.
MS: It became almost head-smacking obvious once you start talking about how we’ve been trained by society to always want more things, where the process of buying is where we find the pleasure, not in the actual object.
RF: I spend a huge amount of time in the book going over how fascinated cultural theorists have been with advertising, by the idea of what the relationship is between the desire for the iPod Nano and the desire for another human being. Presumably we would imagine that second desire as organic and natural, but what happens is that in trying to see if those two desires have anything in common you get into some really deep theses about how we actually experience our desires, and how, in fact, large parts of what we imagine to be ourselves are actually constructed through discourse. Advertising is a discourse and the French theorists, who I find very interesting, argue that consumption of goods is, in a way, a sort of discourse, like a language. We all understand that what car you drive tells people something about you and that you construct an identity for yourself out of an array of consumer goods. And one of the large theses of my book is that if there’s any contemporary art music that is actually dealing with this fundamental experience of the contemporary world, it’s minimalism.
MS: Do you have any evidence that any of the composers you cite intended that?
RF: No. Not really. Well, is that 100 percent? Well, let me just concede the point and then see if I can crawl back up from the pit. The point you have to concede is no, I really don’t, not in any depth. And the truth is I would imagine that if you handed my book to Philip Glass or Steve Reich, or certainly Andriessen, whose music I talk about, they would probably be horrified by the thesis, and this is where we started at the beginning of our talk—that even to make this argument contravenes this sort of post-Stravinsky formalist idea of what an art music composer is supposed to be. So let’s just walk it down. On level one, a lot of them would be horrified that their music is about anything at all. Now some minimalism is imagined as a kind of programmatic music, but then it’s always about counter-cultural liberal good things, so, at the level of conscious intention, anti-commercial, anti-consumer. They imagine their art as a kind of retreat or a critique of consumer culture, So, yeah, I can’t imagine they intended this.
When I first start talking about advertising, if you notice the structure of that chapter, it’s a whole series of flanking maneuvers as I deal with every possible objection that you would have to what I characterize as a sort of perverse hermeneutic. Isn’t this a perverse reading, Bob? Vivian Perlis, a very passionate defender of contemporary music, was infuriated by a talk I gave on this subject. She got up after the talk and said that I must hate this music. I think the composers themselves probably imagine themselves as either simply opting completely out of the consumer society we find ourselves in or, if you want to talk about that, their art is an implicit critique if that. And I deeply admire the politics of most of these guys and in some ways share them, though I might be a little more Gen X about it—I still want my iPod Nano. But I have a very different attitude than most composers do about what would be the most interesting thing for an art music to do when faced with the reality of consumer culture. Most people imagine that its job is to stay aloof from that, and in fact to maintain its autonomy, and if deals with it at all, to provide an alternative. But my idea is that what’s really impressive about an art music is if it engages with that really overwhelming reality outside of the compositional studio.
There’s a little quote from an art critic in the book, and the critic is trying to defend pop art and argue that it is as serous as hard-edged abstract art. And she ends up saying that she’s interested in art that has the strength to avoid tasteful choices and avoid getting soiled by mass culture. I think we’re all trained if we go into the arts, and especially if we go into music, and especially if we get interested in experimental or avant-garde music, that you’re being praised to some extent for what you don’t let yourself do. You can caricature this, right? I won’t write a triad. I won’t use an electric guitar. I won’t put a funk rhythm in. I won’t try to make people like me. And those are all, to some extent, more extreme versions of tasteful choices. And I believe that most of the composers, even of the music I’m studying in this book, are really striving for that. And look, I can’t criticize. That is certainly a perfectly valid way to organize your creativity and I am not a composer. I don’t presume to know what energizes people to do that very difficult work. But on the other hand, I’m actually interested in championing a view of minimalism that celebrates it for the same thing that this critic thought about, which is that it has the strength at some level to avoid some of those tasteful choices. We live in a mass consumer culture where our identity is powerfully mediated through consumer goods. Its size and intensity just dwarfs everything else. It appears that, whether intentional or not, this art has actually allowed itself to get caught up in the rhythms and the structures and the desire mechanisms of contemporary mass culture. In doing so, you could argue, it’s doing the single most important thing that any art music in America could do—actually engaging with the fundamental reality of our lives.
There’s a moment where I say all those repetitions in minimalism, those pieces that go on for hours, the pulsating sameness and the kind of sublime terror of it—oh, my god, this piece is two hours long and uses one chord!—has something to do with becoming aware of, in a kind of primal and physical way, the amount of desire production and advertising that’s just all around. That’s much more important to me than a composer sort of saying I hold myself aloof from this world. That’s a nonsensical statement. You are advertised to. That’s like saying I refuse to breath air. You can’t do it. We’ll see what people think. To some extent the book is designed not to be a deliberate provocation, but it’s a revisionist account of minimalism, isn’t it? It’s trying to turn on its head a whole way of thinking about minimalism that champions it for being abstract, formalized, meditative. I’m in fact celebrating it because it appears to me to be an image of all that excess, of everything in contemporary culture that actually frightens us. It sort of puts that back in our face and in a sense says look, you can surf this. That to me is a fascinating moment, you can actually get off on the repetitions, you can figure out how to deal with this and become more aware of how artificial any desire actually is.