Saturday, 31 October 2015

10 popular songs that deserve study.

All the following songs have at least one outstanding feature in their design. The focus is on mostly on instrumental techniques but leaving out words altogether in popular music is imprudent so two categories, word painting and the use of unconventional texts, are included.

A brief historical introduction will account for many of the techniques used in the table. After the invention of the electric guitar certain methods of sound manipulation became widely used, to mention a few we have the flanger, reverberation, filters, wa-wa and fuzz.  With advancements in tape recording further modifications were made to the sounds, long delays and echo; reversed sounds and the use of natural sources also became part and parcel of sound production. The use of tape brought about new instruments like the mellotron which expanded the popular sound canvas.
The process of sound modification accelerated with digital recording methods and techniques already available through recording on tape became considerably easier to control. The purity of sound available through digital recordings and the ability to microscopically select sections of music from a context led to a revolution in the form of sampled sounds.

The danger with rapid technological change is that many useful processes can be overused and then neglected.  This is particularly true for popular music where one well crafted effect might make the difference between success and failure.

The category "large scale" may seem contrived but the ability to use musical material over extended periods of time creates several technical problems, and understanding how to resolve musical problems is always a source of interest for aspiring composers.

There is no shortage of popular songs that have the potential to inform contemporary composers, there are many alternative songs that would have performed just as well.  I hope at least that some readers might agree that the choices are well made.


Carla Bley / Robert Wyatt
I'm a Mineralist

Hybrid: serious contemporary/popular
(minimalism and vocoder use)


Irregular time signatures

Sail to the Moon

Reversed tape effects
Strawberry Fields Forever

(in this instance in rhythmic cells)

Led Zepplin

Complex time signatures

Dream Theatre
The Dance of Eternity

Adapting ethnic rhythms

Paul Simon
The Obvious Child

Large scale composition

Duel with the Devil
(particularly from the 18th minute onwards).

Word painting
Joni Mitchell
Both Sides Now
(year 2000 version)

Unconventional use of text
King Crimson
Elephant talk

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Saturday, 17 October 2015


This blog concerns itself with a figurative account how inspiration and intellect create music, the allegorical material comes from Greek myth and involves Apollo, Hermes and Pan.
Hermes is the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. Hermes is known like Loki in Norse myth for his cunning and shrewdness. He is the messenger of the gods and is associated with poetry. 
According to legend, Hermes was born in a cave, Zeus had impregnated Maia at the dead of night while all other gods slept. His mother wrapped him in swaddling bands, and then fell fast asleep. Hermes, however, squirmed free and ran off to Thessaly where Apollo, his brother, grazed his cattle, Hermes takes part of the herd and returns home. Before returning to the cave he catches a tortoise, kills it and removes its entrails. Using the intestines and the empty tortoise shell, he makes the first resonator for his guitar/lyre. When Apollo realised he had been robbed he protests and brings up the matter with Zeus who states that Hermes should return the cattle. As Zeus speaks Hermes plays his lyre and enchants Apollo, and he offers an exchange, Hermes may keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre.  Apollo becomes associated with the lyre and it is recognised as one of his symbols.

Later  Apollo encounters Pan, the god of shepherds and nature and like Hermes a player of the (Pan) pipes. He challenges Apollo to a musical duel. Pan is supported by Midas who believes the nature god to be the greater exponent of the pipe.  At this point it is well to recall that Pan is the god of elemental nature, his temples are found in caves and in the mountains, his utterances are for shepherds and their flocks, his music is rustic.  Pan’s performance captures the attention of all who hear the music, the challenge is under way.
When Apollo plays every creature who hears the music is entranced, and when the music closes the listeners sense a great loss, such as the grief experienced after a person's death. Only Midas holds to the belief that Pan is the greater musician, and as his reward Apollo transforms his ears to those of an ass.

The contest may be understood as one between sound and cultured music, both have the power to influence us powerfully but in different ways.  When Hermes takes the shell and attaches the intestines he adapts nature to invent something new, it is a development from blowing down a reed, a wholly natural act. One thing is not made clear in the myth; Pan has to blow through the pipes so there is no question as to whether he sings with his music, but Apollo playing his lyre may well have.  The terms lyre and lyric are closely related, lyric poetry being an expression of emotion in which the musical accompaniment was integral to the form. It makes sense to me that Apollo sings and this makes the essential difference between the two performances.

In the Pan myth there is more about the set of pipes he plays; it regards Syrinx, a water-nymph.  Pan is mesmerised by Syrinx's beauty and desires her, but the nymph runs away from him, being pursued until she meets her sisters who immediately change her into a reed. There is no way around the fact that Pan is not attempting to court Syrinx, his intention is rape, and the sisters act to prevent the bestial act.  We are dealing with raw nature, and let’s remember that Pan is only half-human.  Pan hears the air blowing through the reeds, it produces a sad tone, Syrinx has lost her power of speech. The infatuated Pan takes a handful of the reeds, and being unable to identify which one was Syrinx cuts seven pieces and joins them side by side in decreasing lengths.  

Apollo has many roles as a Greek god but his association with song and poetry as well as music shows the importance of culture and the relationship between music and the word.  

On the personal level most creative artists will recognise that drawing on intellect alone is not enough to produce music that communicates with an audience, and while improvisation may produce fascinating music most of it adheres to well established rules and works within musical restrictions.
This blog will not concern itself with revisiting the arguments about absolute music, and whether music with or without words has the greater meaning, though having taken the topic of the dichotomy of instinct and intellect one could easily become entangled in its net.  However, before returning to Apollo and Pan a brief glance at Kant might prove stimulating.  Three points may be considered.
As I understand, Kant regards our response to art as the interplay of imagination and understanding.
His concept of “form of finality” states that when there is a purpose to a structure, even if it does not serve a practical function, it may be found to be beautiful. He expresses the view that systematic order is important to the appreciation of structure. The argument develops when Kant states that Nature cannot be separated from the appreciation of artistic endeavour:

“art can only be called beautiful if we are aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature” (KU 5:306, p. 185).

Kant expresses the view that while the product is governed by rules the artistic inspiration (the imagination) must remain free.  

There is a duality in both Kant's view and the Greek myth. For me both sources imply that one can make an instrument, one may play with that instrument but to make it sing requires a level above the functional.

How can we understand the contest between Pan and Apollo in the light of the creative process? I would suggest that a parallel exists between myths and dreams in that on one of many levels they inform us about ourselves.
In dreams if we visualise say the death of a relative, we may well wake up with a panic and worry that a premonition has taken place, yet the situation should be understood by the dreamer in relation to his or her own self.  Let us apply the myth of the two gods to ourselves; do we recognise the action of creativity arising from our experience of nature and another part of ourselves intellectualising the experience and transforming it into art? 

Moving briefly into the world of words poets have always worked on this theme, you may like to consider this opening stanza for Emily Dickinson:

A Bird came down the Walk
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw

Some see the bird in the poem as a symbol of the gap between nature and man’s desire to tame natural forces. In dreams birds often act as the carriers of ideas, the source of inspiration (flights of fancy). 
Ted Hughes also takes a bird for poetic inspiration. His “Crow” is savage, and reworks the Genesis story putting woman (Eve) in a different light, man is taken from his dominant position. Crow gives life to the formless human beings by biting the Worm in two halves,
Adam receives the tail, and Eve the head, that is to say man is dominated by the sexual drive and woman controls the intellect.  A detailed account of the "Crow" poem may be found at:

However you respond to that reversal of gender roles in "Crow", the majority of mythic literature promotes mother nature, raw nature, as the indispensable aspect of the creative process. 

If all of this is no more than hot air perhaps a more practical suggestion about music making is in place. Let us take another apparent dichotomy which links to the above; some may consider that today’s music is gradually becoming over dependent on technology (still regarded by the less enlightened as the male’s territory) and that the human aspect is being eroded. On a personal level I cannot agree with that view.  If one works at home, manipulating musical materials on a computer, the musician will lose out on certain significant elements, the interaction of minds being a significant one, whether in performance or e.g. improvised dialogues.  However technology also permits interaction over distance.  

For each argument that states electronically produced music is de-humanising there is a counter-argument.  The interplay between electronic technology and creativity making is only a small part of the history of music, the last 70 years being the most significant.  In successive posts I hope to draw on some of the highlights of musical works which have explored this mix, and should any reader wish to discuss their exploration of the medium, particularly involving the voice, we would be more than pleased to hear from you.
I am certain that philosophers may argue against the standpoint that I have taken regarding the Greek myths, and too many people have argued the problems with Kant’s statements for me to say anything definitive here.  The important matter for me is to chew over the idea that art deprived of its roots is barely art at all, and the root of “inspiration” is something we have less regard for than ever, nature in the raw.

I’ll close today’s blog with a short section of text by Walt Whitman from the Sea Symphony by R. V. Williams, it has relevance to the nature argument but more importantly it is a wonderful read.

After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds.
After the white-gray sails taut to their spars and ropes.
Below, a myriad, myriad waves hastening, lifting up their necks.
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship.
Waves of the ocean bubbling and gurgling  blithely prying.
Waves, undulating waves, liquid, uneven, emulous waves.
Toward that whirling current. laughing and buoyant, with curves.
Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface.
Larger and smaller waves in the spread of the ocean yearnfully flowing.
The wake of the sea-ship after she passes. flashing and frolicsome under the sun.
A motley procession with many a fleck of foam and many fragments.
Following the stately and rapid slip, in the wake following. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Satie Vexations / Vexation (variation) s

A short blog for what is either a short or very long piece depending on your viewpoint.
I am not going to enter a discussion of the history of the Saties Vexations, though it makes a delightful story.
I will comment on the harmony and the reason why I made a variant on the music.
Looking at the score, written out below on three lines, we can see that there is a high degree of repetition in the chord types, they are nearly all 036 triads. It is not unusual to have minor third stacks at this time, far from it, but for these to form a chain and make the bulk of the music is less conventional. One of the features of the minor third chord is its ability to modulate, but in Vexations the music avoids this altogether, one could play the first 4 crotchet beats worth of music and cadence onto G, it would create an acceptable sound and a very dull progression. Once Satie has established the momentum putting a close on it becomes a much more difficult matter in terms of musical logic.
If I wanted to create a looping "ear worm" I would consider taking the final two chords where the melody note descends from A flat to G and link back to the third crotchet beat (G, C', B flat), that way the A flat G descent in the upper part matches the F, E, lead to the G in the first instance.
There are two alterations in the harmony, one incidence of 048 and one of 026, the first disrupts the augmented 4th 'flow', while the second chord (026) keeps the augmented fourth and the interval of a minor third.  It is possible that Satie found complete consistency unappealing, or it may be a miscalculation, those who have read the way the score was found will know that the reason probably died with the composer. There is harmonic repetition in the 2nd and 3rd lines where the music is arranged so that the second and third lines oscillate 0,9 / 0,3 with two alterations to  0,4 dyads. The second part of the piece transposes the melody down an octave so that in terms of harmony the scheme remains the same.

I have included a table of the pcs for those of a more numerical inclination to show the repetions within the music.
If we account for the intervals progressing from one pitch to the next (E flat to F, F to E natural etc) and count the number of semitones, tones etc. up to the augmented fourths, we get a clear account of the differences between the upper pair (which is very similar, but not exact) and the bass.
Taking the bass on its own one can make the case for a progression from A minor to E minor emphasised by the lower note progression from A through G, F sharp, F natural, F sharp, then rising the fifth for C sharp to B and E, this illustrates that there is an underlying loop in the progression between the start and close of each vexation.

The following commentary leaves Satie's original and outlines some of the thinking behind the arrangement of Satie's music as Vexation (variation)s which may be heard at:

In Satie's score there is a quaver rest between each statement, this breath before repetition is a break in the continuum which becomes (for me) a point of frustration if the 840 times of playing is observed,so going against the spirit of the music in Vexation (variation)s, the statements overlap.
The phrases are in 4 bars of 6/4 (plus the overlap), and each one explores a given aspect of the harmony.  When the groups have played out all combinations there are two 'variations' written for electric pianos and reverb. In the first the music is rotated (in the manner suggested above with the creation of a loop).  The second section takes an idea from Christian Wolff; many years ago I met with and played a composition of his which worked the same material with the tempo selected by the players, the main variation section takes the same idea.  The result at first sounds very like the music of the 70s/80s that could be found in jazz as well as contemporary serious music (e.g. Soft Machine 3), but as the ear adjusts the music takes on a different, more static quality.  This in part arises from the playing of the bass in augmentation, and is developed by the blending of sounds through the reverb unit.

As this piece takes slightly longer than 10 minutes to play it cannot explore some of the physical and psychological effects of Vexations, however it offers an insight into another aspect of repetition, wholly different from the first Gnossienne discussed earlier.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Gnossienne 1
Having examined the Debussy Prelude from the perspective of repetition, the overall conclusion is that it is music that displays remarkable economy in its harmonic and rhythmic material.  It is possible to find a piece that is even more economical and repetitious, so much so that the whole spirit of the composition takes on a different meaning.
The first Gnossienne is a remarkable small scale composition, it continues to fascinate listeners, and fascination is the focus of the following discussion, regarding the term as synonymous with "enchanting".
The manuscript reduces the composition to the bare bones, there is no ambiguity about the key structure as can be seen from the long term progression marked at the bottom of the sheet.  It is worth noting that the highest note is B natural, the tritone from F, which 'hangs' in the air avoiding the progression to a resolution for some time.  The rise and fall of the fourth (E to B, C to F) is mildly hypnotic (the green ink marks actual repeats).
In my performance

This arrangement for voice, saxaphone, flute, synth pad chords and bass purposefully avoids rubato, enhancing the sense of stasis. The grace notes values take on a particular function, by using gradually increasing lengths they produce the slight variations normally given by the use of rubato. When played this way the final bar surprises us with its "cut-off" of the shortened coda, it is almost as if we are suspended in mid-air.  Many performances hold this final chord to near double its length though there is no pause marked.
What was Satie's intention in Gnoissienne 1? Could the music be intended to be played end on end, like ouroboros, another mystical symbol.  There are no indications of this in the score, and it would have been simple enough to do so.  There are indications in the score which we do need to consider, and they may have some indicators of a 'mystical' nature.  It is no secret that some of Satie's texts are puzzling, when I spoke with my wife who is a linguist and French speaker rather than puzzlement some thought provoking ideas emerged.  The title Gnossienne takes the term Gnostic, a religious word concerned with searching for universal truths, Satie adds the feminine ending, suggesting a translation of "the thing that she knows".  A mother goddess dedication? Satie's version of Wagner's Erda?  Later we have a passage that is "questioning" and later "more internally questioning" the notion of being drawn into the music is suggested.  Those who have studied meditation would know that light and the inner light are regular concepts (Harvey, a deeply religious man wrote 3 works named "Inner Light"), at bar 10 Satie used the term tres luisant, suggesting a glimmering, emitting or reflecting light.  My wife was also kind enough to cover the debate between those who held religious convictions and atheists at the time of this composition, I gathered that one did not touch on matters of religion lightly.
Is the simplicity and repetitiveness of Gnossienne 1 the equivalent of a mantra?  It is repetitious, but seems melodically complex (compared to a Buddhist mantra), yet when we bring the music to its skeletal form, as in the third stave in the example, we see that it is little more than a rising and falling scale.  Satie did involve himself with the Rosicrucian order and there are three pieces concerning the society (3 Sonneries Rose+Croix), which are share some characteristics of Gnoissienne 1, (the second has the characteristic of a reworked outline of plainsong, much as Messiaen would do in Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.  However the 3 Sonneries are rarely played, and far less often heard.

The power of repetition in ritual is a powerful tool, and Satie has explored this concept in Gnossienne 1, and it seems there is enough evidence to say that is was one of his intentions.  

Friday, 9 October 2015

Preparing to write for String Quartet, 10 suggestions

1.       Consider why you want to use this medium. 
2.       Write down a list of the techniques that you might use.
3.       Think carefully about where you have heard other composers using these techniques.
4.       Ask yourself which SQ piece stands out in your mind as a great work; is there a particular reason for your choice?
5.       Ensure that you are familiar with the capabilities of the string instruments and the people playing them.
6.       Consider your audience, what might they expect from your work.
7.       Select your method of planning, even down to the type of paper you use.
8.       If you make sketches, keep them all, even the most unproductive.
9.       Work out your best time of day for composing and keep to the routine.
10.   Have a critical friend, another point of view is more than helpful, it is vital.

It is not enough just to say I want to write for string quartet.  If you have been instructed to do so, or it is the case that you won’t be paid unless it is a string quartet then that is another matter.  The medium is not a matter of it will do.
Point two follows on from the first, you can use a particular medium in a simple way, e.g. in this instance one might just use bowed and pizz. textures. If you listen to Jonathan Harvey’s quartets you might be astonished as to the variety of sounds available, and most composers hunger after new sounds.
For most of us the Beethoven SQs are the main source of study, then Bartok but why restrict yourself, try one or two of the Maxwell Davies Naxos quartets or go outside the accepted range and listen to string quartets playing Bach’s Art of Fugue.



I write out my own manuscript paper, it takes time, but I love the process of using pencil on paper.  I also have my own paper made up on Word using the lines on Insert, it saves money especially with a laser printer, but again that is not the reason, it is the comfort of familiarity.
I am terrible at organising paper, I have boxes of music paper that I should throw away.  Slowly I am cultivating the habit of scanning sketches and have the computer file them.  If only I could have done this 30 years ago.
Morning time is best for me, between 8.00 am and about 2.00 p.m. anything after this is less productive, and one has a life to live.
It has been less than a year since I got to know Nurtan Esmen, we have the luxury of being continents apart, but through the medium of the internet we can be as critical to each other as we like!  Seriously though having a person who is kind enough to listen to your music, and it may sometimes be bad music, is a luxury.  We forget all too often to say thank you to those who help in this way.

I have helped composers and people sitting exams in composition for a number of years and I know that for every suggestion I make somebody else will have two better ones.  If you are reading this and have such suggestions, please add them to the list, that way everybody wins.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Bells and repetition

Think long enough about musical repetition and sooner or later bells will work their way into the mix.  Bells are heard at significant times in our lives and mark the hours of our existence.  Whether in the form of wood or metal they have been a part of our aural landscape for thousands of years.  They range from a single tolling bell to carillons, from the old fashioned school hand bell to the great cathedral and Buddhist temple bells.  The sounds they produce are complex, and the science of tuning bells has been a long and difficult process.  They are a source of inspiration to many composers, ranging from the incidental programmatic touches in The Fountains of Rome to the complex organisation of Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco.  (Jonathan Harvey introduced this work on "Hear and Now" some years back, but I do not know if a transcript of the talk is available, I would be pleased to know if anybody has information on the matter).

We would expect references to bells to play a significant part when Debussy took the theme of the sunken cathedral in his 10th prelude.  I am not going to enter the argument about music and representation though it is fascinating, this blog is concerned with repetition. However I am tempted to refer to a short section from Music and language available here:

Every input to our senses is a stimulus, available for us to interpret as information, and from which we can derive further information. Our physical sensory receptors--our ears, eyes, etc.--can well be thought of as information "transducers" which convert external stimuli--changes in air pressure, light, etc.--into nerve impulses recognized by the brain. Scientists and philosophers have advanced many conceptual models of what the brain does with these nerve impulses to derive knowledge and meaning. Regardless of the mechanism by which our brain accomplishes it, it is clear that we generate (interpret, deduce, recall, or create) information ourselves, stimulated by external information.
For example, when we hear a lion's roar, our ear drum simply receives continuous changes in air pressure. The cochlea, so we are taught, responds to the frequencies and amplitudes of those changes and conveys those responses to the brain. Our brain, by means largely unknown to us (past experience, instinct, deduction, instruction in roar analysis?) evaluates those time-varying frequencies and amplitudes as a lion's roar. Our brain then derives further information about the actual source of the sound and its meaning. A person in one time or place might interpret the sound to mean "My life is in danger. I must run away from the sound source immediately as fast and as far as I can." A person in another time or place might look around calmly for the electronic recording device that produced the simulation of a lion's roar. A person who had never learned to associate that sound with any particular source--e.g., a person who had never heard a similar sound before--might attempt to compare it with other known sounds, or might even remain unconcerned as to what produced the sound.
When we hear a strange sound--thinking "What was that?"...we try to identify it....Occasionally we pay attention to the sound itself. Then it is more than a cue, and we are listening in another mode, music mode, regardless of the source of the sound.

To return to the matter at hand, Debussy’s treatment of La cath├ędrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) is fascinating from the aspect of recurrence, and one sheet of analytical notes cannot do justice to the degree of repetition.  There is an account of the music on Wikipedia which goes into some detail on the representation of the legend of Ys (if you want to consider the illustrative nature of the music).

Thinking about repetition bells under water may be a more common cultural theme than we think, Cantre’r Gwaelod is a Welsh ancient sunken kingdom and inspires artistic endeavors amongst my Celtic brothers.
Here is a little information, again from Wikipedia:

I hope the manuscript will provide the argument for repetition rather than explain each detail as text.  When I was making a study of using MIDI I made a version of this Prelude which I listened to with embarrassment before finishing this blog, I mention it only to note that the arrangement brought out a powerfully oriental character.  Yes of course there are pentatonic references in the music, but it goes further than that, and reminds me powerfully of sections of Ma mere l’Oye (the “Mother Goose” suite).

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Minimal music past and present.

It would be a strange state of affairs if a music blog concerned itself with repetition and failed to discuss minimal music.  It must have a place in such a discussion but there are many caveats to consider before considering the main points. 
The first is that the music is written about extensively and there is little point going over material that is well documented. Many people take great delight in identifying a composer’s working technique; they can then say that they understand e.g. how Glass works, where in truth we are back to the old notion of recognising a Shakespeare play by its character’s names.
The second problem is that the term minimal can refer to many aspects of music outside the American “minimalist school” and one is likely to end up justifying why one example is taken over another or whether a piece by Stockhausen is minimal or repetitive.
Minimal music has evolved at a very rapid rate in its 50 plus years of development, what one can describe as a rule of the earlier music may no longer apply today.  There is a parallel with the Mannheim school where there were several considerations in place for writing a symphony, the music was explorative, fresh, exciting and it too had 'rules' to follow, the most important of which was the process of changing key.  The evolution of this symphonic music is still being followed by some composers today; one can only imagine the sense of wonder that Stamitz would have experienced listening to Glass’s 9th symphony.

The very process of listening to minimal music requires consideration.  If the music of Webern still has the power to raise eyebrows in the 21st century, minimal music has the power to stimulate open warfare.  Claims are made as to the effect and the purpose of minimalism that require deliberation, and the role of the audience and the preferences of the listener have to be taken into account.

Some musicians may take a negative approach to minimalism simply because the music is popular, and some types of popular music have identified themselves with minimalist techniques.  I listened the other day to collaboration between Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, “Evening Star”, it is aging well, and while it is indebted to minimalism it is in not a minimalist composition.  This You Tube clip has a 7 minute section from the work:

The fact that minimalist composers recognise Moondog (L. T. Hardin) as an influence on the early development of the style speaks volumes about shared values. 

Whichever composer we choose to represent aspects of minimal music there will be certain stylistic traits that recur, and we must be careful to listen to the whole context in which these traits are heard otherwise confusion may arise.  Many years ago I attended a concert in which Kagel's "Ludwig van" was performed and one of the main features was the replaying of the opening bars of the Waldstein sonata which is certainly repetitious, but in context the repetitive units establish the tonality and their length is in keeping with the movement's tonal shifts, as we would expect.  In some Stockhausen pieces repetition plays a significant role but even in his very repetitive works like Stimmung the music presents non minimalist traits, the erotic poems being one of many.

What then are the trademarks of minimalism?  The basics of reduction affect several parameters, there is a restriction on the type and variety of chords (possibly one reason for the common ground with some types of popular music). Modes and pentatonic scales are frequently used.  The rhythmic units from which the processes are constructed are often simple.  The structures of minimalist music are based on stacking a number of units together, hence the oft repeated observation that there is no hidden structure.
There is an absence of long term harmonic design such as progressive modulation or key change, what some writers refer to as harmonic drama.  Similarly the conventional notion of the regular development of motives has little or no part to play in early minimalist pieces.  In many minimalist pieces dynamics are very regular, crescendo and dim. being of minor importance, there is less variety in e.g. Music of Changes by Glass than in the terraced dynamics of the Baroque.

While Bach worked repetition into the Goldberg Variations by means of a short bass line, his intention is the decoration of the harmonic progression by a series of canons at different intervals, such a concept is of no concern in minimalism, nor is the creation of long and highly decorated melodies as characterises Bachs 13th variation.  Minimalism is concerned with the opposite of Bach's elaboration, which is reduction.
As stated repetition plays a significant role in Bach's music, particularly in terms of pulse and rhythm, but what makes minimalism different to say the Bach Prelude No. 5 in D major or the second C minor prelude from Book 1 of the WTC is the fact that these examples consist of a high level of similarity rather than pure repetition.

Both Baroque and minimalist composers share a common concern in that sustained exposure of the musical details creates the potential for monotony, in the former that element is to be avoided and in the latter, embraced.  I hope it is clear that this isn't a criticism of minimalism, monotony does not necessarily equate with tedium.

Concerning monotony we arrive at an important consideration, the audience and the effect of the music on those listening.  The word drama, as already stated, is not a feature of minimalism, so what is the audience to experience?  Are they there in a passive state of mind, subdued by the process taking place?  Nico Muhly's notes on minimalism, 2005, expresses the view that the audience were: "as if they were looking at the ocean or sky for an extended period of time".

Does repetition regularly have this effect?  Is it a by product of certain restrictions placed on music?  Parallels could be drawn with folk music, particularly work songs which have simple melodic and harmonic outlines, repetitive rhythms of a limited complexity and a restriction of texture to voices and simple percussive sounds.   Shetlanders have a good variety of work songs for milking, churning, spinning, rowing and beating cloth.  I understand that their lullabies are based on the rhythms of the spinning-wheel.  The intention of such music may well be to improve coordination and productivity along with improved safety. Of course while the muscles work the mind may roam and dwell on a different experience.

Some types of ethnic music have the intention of subduing the listener, particularly those involved with ritual; in some cases the music is supported by texts of a religious nature and psychotropic substances taken to alter perception.  In such cases the music assists the shaman directly towards a specific goal. Is it a step too far to consider that a minimal music concert music could draw an individual towards a similar experience?  In my own experience three pieces have had a profound effect on my perception of time and place, Bachs Goldberg Variations, the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony and Stravinsky's Rite.  There are many other masterpieces that have moved me to tears and affected my mood for days on end (e.g. Brittens War Requiem and Mahlers 9th Symphony) but have never altered my awareness in such a profound way.  Psychologists studying the effect of repetition on consciousness report the gradual sense of inclusion with a ritualised activity, indicated by a heightened sense of involvement, a desire to copy by movement or vocal utterance.  Looking back on the three pieces that had such a profound effect I came to the conclusion that for me the proportions of the music played a significant part in my response, and strangely enough I do recall that I wasnt sat passively listening at the time.

Returning to the listeners role, should we hope to open ourselves to some mystical communion or learn to appreciate intellectually the processes and traits of the music?  If we think about Indian raga concerts for a moment, the performers will improvise around cycles of rhythm and use restricted modes so the parallel is reasonable.  Audiences will often count the rhythmic cycles and may applaud at the close of a successfully improvised section.  I found that listening to Philip Glasss Music with Changing Parts recently I was participating in a similar way, making a mental note of the changes and feeling my way into the proportions of the music, and yes, I did find my foot beating along with the music.

We are well aware that the mind deals with repeated sounds in different ways, machine sounds can be shut out over a period of time, for example traffic in the city, while on another occasion the sound of a single car can move us to near madness.  If we are to listen to minimal music we should respect the composers judgement regarding its length and the demands on our attention and like running a marathon understand that there may be moments in which have us wondering why we took part, but then that is also true of Wagners Ring Cycle.  Permitting the mind to wander off track should be no more of an option here than in a brief Webern composition.

Finally, on the matter of absorption into a piece of music I would like to stray a little and consider visual art and take as an example Mark Rothkos work.  I came across a small number of his paintings in St. Ives many years ago and spent some considerable time gazing at these.  There is no suggested time frame to observe such paintings, one could pass by quickly or indulge oneself, but it is clear that in order to see the paintings demands are made that are not dissimilar to those of Music with Changing Parts.  Should Rothko have lived in a later age we might have been treated to a lengthy video of his actions of painting, and we might have sympathised with the ritual of his movements and felt the need to replicate these.

So the next time you attend a minimalist concert have a little sympathy for the badly behaved bearded audience member who is swaying and humming to himself, he is only tuning-in to the spiritual aspect of this non-emotive music.

Reflecting on these issues I recalled writing a piece, Game 1, which explored the potential of the Roland Sound Canvas, I include it to show how American minimalism affected those of us living many miles away from New York, even if we felt that it wasnt a style to follow in our own music.