Friday, June 8, 2007

Minimal music is like advertising...

I love culture studies books. Robert Fink's recent book on American Minimalism, Repeating Ourselves, connects the works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich with a number of other, and unlikely, cultural practices. He organizes the book around Eros and Thanatos, mythological Greek figures of love and death, but avoids any kind of psychological overtones in his interpretations.

In the first half of the book, he collects three examples of minimalism and a culture that creates desire (Eros): disco music, whose repetitive nature shares linear and harmonic structures with concert minimalism; repetitive marketing strategies developed after WWII as a method to increase consumer desire, which was in turn brought about by the increase in mass produced goods; and the application of these repetitive marketing strategies to television, whose repetitive nature was most fully developed in the mid-1960s, exactly when American minimalism initially flowered. The juxtaposition of these concurrent trends in different segments of media makes for fascinating reading, even though my value associations for the two poles of the metaphor could not be further apart.

One of the appealing aspects of cultural studies books is how they examine how layers of our cultural life, such as television and advertising, actually work. Fink provides detailed examples that show the relationships that he describes. The two chapters on minimalism and advertising were the most instructive in this regard. I had not previously considered music as an instance of creating and managing desire, but it is an excellent metaphor for the experience of music. Fink is careful to point out that the minimalism in question is the particular kind of pulsed, rhythmic minimalism from composers like Reich, Riley and Glass, and not the more continuous drones from someone like La Monte Young. But Fink's interpretation will provide more nuance to the way I listen to music, minimal or not.

In the second half of the book, Fink relates minimalism to aspects of the opposite trends in our culture (Thanatos), controlling attention and mood regulation. Here he brings in music used for ambient purposes, concentrating on the barococo revival in the 1950s and 1960s; and repetitive music as meditation, using the Suzuki method for teaching violin as the primary example set. One of his theses is that the path to repetitive minimalism was prepared by mechanical performances of baroque music that was widely released on LPs, which shared some common musical parameters with pulsed minimal music. These includes not only the constant motoric rhythm, but the way that listeners developed repetitive listening habits for background to other life activities.

Another attraction to cultural studies books is that I have lived through a lot of the events they discuss, so the book helps provide a context for my own early memories. To choose one of Fink's examples, I remember the advent of long playing records, how many early music albums there were on labels like Nonesuch and Vox (labels that also released lots of new music), and that the sides were arranged for stacking on a record spindle for hours of continuous play. My parents subscribed to a huge Beethoven set that delivered box sets of five LPs per box, and the discs were arranged with sides 1 and 10, side 2 and 9, 3 and 8, and so forth, so that you could put all five lps on the changer, hear sides 1-5, then turn the whole stack over and hear sides 6-10. A fun part of Fink's examination is to understand how all of this fits into some larger picture (and with cultural studies books, every author has a different larger picture).

Repetition is a highly charged topic, one of the biggest points of tension in my life. How much repetition is too much? When I practice piano, I am most productive when I'm on a cycle, practicing for two hours in the morning and another one or two in the afternoon. In a practice session, I repeat certain passages over and over to get the sounds I want. But life has to reserve a certain spontaneity, or the productive repetition turns into unproductive habits. Time and repetition have a conflicting relationship, which I hope to say more about in another post.

The whole mood regulation discussion was another point of resonance. Mood regulation, for all the sinister sound that the phrase carries, is one of the primary uses I have for recorded music. I remember a big Wire interview ten years ago with Coldcut and the other electronica artists on the Ninja Tune label, where they discussed the ability of portable music devices (they mentioned the Walkman, actually) to enable us to have a soundtrack to our lives. The iPod does a better job of providing my own soundtrack than a mix tape ever did. I think a lot of people play music all the time. Virtually every issue of the Wire has a section on Office Ambience. When I wrote software, I wore headphones virtually the entire time I sat at my desk. On a good day, I would play five entire CDs, many of which were musique concrète and electroacoustic improvisation, two genres I found especially conducive to maintaining sanity in a multi-national corporation. (I listened to a lot of drones, too.) I never listened to pop because the lyrics got in the way of the words I had to write. This listening pattern was a major influence on the makeup of my record collection, which has only recently started including new and interesting pop artists.

Virginia Postrel wrote a wonderful, short book,The Substance of Style, about how we navigate the barrage of choices we face in the mass-produced consumer market using a personal aesthetic to construct our identity. Our aesthetic choices apply to our soundtrack as well as our appearance and the other material things that we choose to bring into our life. Another culture studies book -- ain't it grand?

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