Minimal Music, Maximal Impact

Minimal Music, Maximal Impact

In Praise of Labels

Why use labels at all? Why classify music into minimalist, postminimalist, totalist, this-or-thatist? Isn’t music just music? Don’t labels and -isms erase the myriad differences between specific pieces and personal styles, blending everything into a superficial caricature?

No. Sorry, that’s my answer, and if it seems inadequate, that’s only because I don’t know a stronger negative than “no.”

I have never bought the case against labels and -isms. We say that Chopin and Mendelssohn were both Romantics, even though they were diametrically opposed by temperament, and Mendelssohn much more of a neo-classicist. Though radically different, Chopin and Mendelssohn inhabited the same world, inherited attitudes of the same generation, and dealt perforce with the same issues. By calling them both Romanticists, we create an intellectual conundrum for ourselves, and force ourselves to look for the underlying unities—which are there—between a particular Chopin Nocturne and a particular Mendelssohn Symphony, so superficially different from each other. There is no danger that a sensitive person will fail to hear the differences.

Are Chopin and Mendelssohn caricatured and diminished by being termed Romantics? Or do we realize that being represented by such different individuals proves that Romanticism was a huge, complex, self-contradictory worldview? I suggest that the answer to the first question is no, and the second yes.

Artists frequently don’t like labels, but the public does, and needs them. In the early 1960s, George Maciunas noticed similarities between the works of a large number of artists he was working among in downtown Manhattan. He decided a movement was afoot, and he called it Fluxus. Many, including Yoko Ono, resented and disavowed the term. But what would be our perception of that New York scene today if Maciunas hadn’t made his admittedly self-promotional PR move? Would the public remember the individual works of Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins? Probably not, but the public does have an idea what Fluxus was, and if you can relate an artist to the Fluxus movement, all of a sudden they have a world within which they move, much as Mendelssohn the classicist moved within the Romantic world.

We do not live in a world of isolated, unconnected facts and sense data. The human mind draws connections as part of its most basic survival strategy. Likewise, few artists work in isolation; almost all work in communities in which they hear each other’s work and respond, whether by stealing ideas, solving each other’s problems, or avoiding each other’s personal styles. Occasionally several artists find themselves working in an idiom in which, for just a month or a year or a decade, they seem to have more similarities than differences, as though driven by a common vision that they all perceived independently. When that happens, we have a collective style, an -ism, which can be a very good thing: it provides a point of crystallization capable of pulling artists to a new point and giving them the energy to push away again.

It is difficult for the public to become aware of that point of crystallization without a label. A typical audience member might hear In C, Phill Niblock‘s Five More String Quartets, and a Charlemagne Palestine piano extravaganza (actually, that would be a pretty bizarre line-up for a typical audience member to encounter), and, since those pieces are so different, draw no particular connection between them. But those of us who hear dozens, even hundreds, of new pieces a year can tell when commonalities are beginning to emerge and can let the audience know the context in which new music is arising.

There is something to be said for the defensive truism that “A piece of music has to be able to speak for itself.” But every Westerner who has listened to three performances of Indian classical music, fascinated but unable to make any evaluative distinctions between them, knows that music never takes place in a vacuum, but inevitably comes from a context. And while much music indisputably offers pleasures that are not context-dependent, our knowledge of the context of a Beethoven sonata does not subtract from our enjoyment of it, but rather adds to the subtlety of our enjoyment and the appropriateness of our reactions. Especially when encountering new music, there is a danger that, if the context is not known, the wrong standards will be applied and the wrong expectations held. This happened when I first heard Duckworth‘s Time Curve Preludes in 1980; at first I was disappointed because it didn’t fulfill my expectations of a minimalist piece, and I needed to learn to hear it as a separate genre.

This is what happened in the 1990s with totalism. I didn’t invent the word; I heard others use it first. But it did arise from an article I wrote (“Downtown Beats for the 1990s,” in Contemporary Music Review, Volume 10 No. 1, 1994) in which I pointed to common rhythmic structures being used in the musics of several of my Downtown contemporaries. Up to this point, it had been a kneejerk reaction on the part of critics of The New York Times to write off the composers of this music as minimalists, implying that they were doing nothing new. By coining and applying the term, we were able to assert that this new music was in fact a new thing, that a different language had evolved that did not fit the rules or expectations of minimalism. And it worked: I haven’t seen anyone at the Times make that condescending mistake in several years now. Labels are maligned as erasing individual differences between artists, but they can also do the reverse, and in this instance, they made critics and presumably the public aware that a new body of music had broken away from its minimalist parentage.

So we need not consign ourselves to an impoverished nominalism, a world in which only particular sensory data exist, a world in which intellectual discourse and scientific inquiry itself are debilitated by a paranoia about drawing connections. Of course labels can be misused. Of course stupid people will jump to silly conclusions that “all romantic pieces sound alike,” or “all minimalist pieces have a steady pulse.” Perhaps we should put a warning on -isms: “not to be used by stupid, unimaginative people.” But I assert that it is more constructive to challenge people, stupid and otherwise, by asking unanswerable questions:

What is romanticism?
What is minimalism?
What is postminimalism?
What is totalism?

The value of these questions is that they can never be definitively answered, and that the person who answers them one way at 20 will answer them a different way at 30, and differently again at 40 and 50 and 60, measuring the growth of one’s understanding with each definition. And the struggle to answer them, however provisionally, will bring us into renewing contact with both the music and the disembodied musical archetypes whose magnetic field we live in.

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