Pendulum Music and Minimalism: The Avant-Garde becomes “Ye Olde-Garde” (Music to Accompany the Reading of Michael Fried)

Posted: February 20, 2019 in Uncategorized

For all you silent auditors, it might help your grade to make a well-considered comment on this post. Honors is not about sitting voiceless and passively sponging information. It’s about taking a risk and speaking up.

For example, a failure to register the enormous difference in quality between, say, the music of Elliott Carter and that of John Cage or between the paintings of [Morris] Louis and those of Robert Rauschenberg means that the real distinctions–between music and theater in the first instance and between painting and theater in the second–are displaced by the illusion that the barriers between the art are in the process of crumbling and that the arts themselves are at last sliding towards some kind of final, implosive, highly desirable synthesis. Whereas in fact the individual arts have never been more explicitly concerned with the conventions that constitute their respective essences.

–Michael Fried

Please feel free to comment on the music posted above or below. The more you join in and discuss stuff like this, the more willing I’ll be to take the time to make it available. Can’t say it will hurt your grade any either.

Rather than strictly Avant-Garde (above), these pieces (below) represent a newer school of music known as Minimalism. This music, which might rightly be considered anti-music, will sound very different than the works of the last group of composers, the Modernists. As you will notice in your reading for next, Michael Fried makes direct reference to this kind of music, attempting as best he can in 1967, when it was still relatively new, to figure out exactly what is going on here, whether or not he approves, and why that is the case. Give a listen and see if you can hear what Fried is hearing.

It may interest some of you to know that LaMonte Young, who is generally recognized as the father of the Minimalist school, is a direct descendant of LDS prophet Brigham Young, and grew up in a log cabin just off Bear Lake. The sounds of howling winds and droning high-tension power lines left a deep impression on him as a boy and had a profound influence on his music.

Finally, these composers, for what it’s worth, are currently considered by expert consensus to be the best thing he have. Whereas Philip Glass was once the most recognized Minimalist composer on the scene, Steve Reich has over the last decade or so taken the lead. Most recently, Reich’s work has has been broadly recognized and performed in conjunction with the celebration of his 70th birthday.

Interesting note: I can practically guarantee that, in addition to Kraftwerk, it was the guys below, in particular Reich, to whom David Bowie was listening when in 1976 he moved to Berlin, stopped making rock music, and tried to go “avante-gard”. The result was the trilogy Low-Heroes-Lodger, which he made with the help of Brian Eno. These “rock” albums were in turn converted into symphonic music by Philip Glass.

Anyone wanting to discuss this music but unsure of how to begin, might want to consider it terms of the very famous “masterpiece” below by Jasper Johns. What does this painting teach about what we should be listening for in the music posted above? Is it really a masterpiece, and if so, why?

Jasper Johns
Fool’s House, 1962
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

  1. Aleah Griffin says:

    In Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” he discusses how modernist painting tries to beat its own objecthood by being a definite shape, but as a contrast, literalist art tries to “discover and project objecthood” by existing as a definite whole; especially by having a defined shape. Just by definition, music generally has several parts that come together in order to make its experience what it is, with different instruments, notes, melodies, and more. However, the Minimalist composers you’ve listed here have shrunk this traditional idea of music into one whole sound, depending on the song, that almost matches Fried’s definition of minimalist (literalist) art. The pieces are very simple, often focusing just on one or two instruments, and using silence as well as sound to make the music come alive. These different interpretations of the possibilities of music are intriguing, especially when also considering them with the idea of Fried’s literalist art.

    • Your observations are quite perceptive. It’s the rare student who will listen to this music at all, much less say something insightful about it. Good for you.

      To follow on your remarks, what we might say about these pieces is that, while they do shape sound, it becomes increasingly difficult to consider them ‘composed’ in any traditional sense. Musical compositions have various sections, and these sections and articulated according to a ‘grammar’ of melody. They may not have any semantic content, but their feeling is very much crafted, like a sentence, out of a significant organization of parts, each part performing a significant function in relation to the others. However, they seems little to be the case with Minimalist music. Instead, these pieces closer to chunks or blocks of other pure sound, or stationary or shifting patterns of interference. They may change of time, but it would hardly make sense to consider this change to be any sort of development. The music may shimmer, oscillate, or drift, but it does not evolve.

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