The sounds of silence

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By Andre Mayer

Amidst the burgeoning tension of life, the almost noiseless calm of minimalist music seems wholly paradoxical—and perhaps, the perfect tonic for our pre-millennial anxiety.

As a result of living in a highly modernized society, we spend most of our waking hours inundated by myriad aural stimuli: the unruing cacophony of rush-hour traffic, the obstinate din of industry, the highs and lows of simple conversation.

As the decibel level of everyday life increases, so too does our compulsion to try to outshout the next person in order to express our views. Modern music has come to reflect life’s ubiquitous noise; life in an industrialized society has provided a pretext for — amongst other forms — industrial music.

But as modern culture reaches a fever pitch, the ability to shock and surprise the masses becomes harder and harder. And therein lies perhaps the latent power of minimalist music: in a society forcing us to shout, perhaps to get people’s attention these days, one must whisper.

Minimalist music is generally defined by its lack of activity, emphasis on aural space and its liberal use of silence. In many cases, minimalism can also be equated with a philosophical approach.

Experimental composer John Cage (1912-92) suggested that even if were to erase “music,” we would still be left with “sound.” Cage’s most famous composition was “ 4’33” “, a live solo piano piece in which he sat down at the piano, intentionally did not play, and recorded the audience’s stupefied reaction as he sat hunched over the instrument for four and a half minutes.

There was no music as such, but there was sound—the sound of people coughing and shuffling in their seats, the subtle yet omnipresent hum of the concert hall. An unsuspecting audience had just witnessed an affront to their very conception of music.

Minimalist music can, as in Cage’s experiment, exercise a healthy measure of old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. But is there a loftier purpose? One rationale may be that minimalist music offers a sanctuary from the sensory overload of modern life, a calculated response to overstimulation.

But many current ventures in this vein concentrate on more than just playing quietly and sparsely. The trend in minimalism now the breaking down of music to its essential elements, a kind of musical devolution.

As such, minimalism might conceivably represent the next logical step in the evolution of music, a deviation from the high density of pop music.

Finnish electronic band Panasonic produce perhaps the most sparse music around — by turns ominous and creepy, their music represents the ultimate in sonic inertia.

A typical “song” will feature an eerily placid musical landscape punctuated by bizarre and seemingly random crackles and pops of sources unknown.

Such “music” may seem unpalatable (and pointless) to those reared on the emotional payoff inherent in pop music, but Panasonic’s music exemplifies sound at its most rudimentary, and the music thus becomes a physical force.

German trio Oval share Panasonic’s physicality, but craft music by entirely original methods.

The three members of Oval create their hypnotic transmissions by manipulating the technology that allows us to hear the music:  Oval make “music” by scratching and painting CD’s to induce skips when played in a CD player, by looping existing imperfections on vinyl or cassettes, and by playing with volume and pitch.

The resulting music approximates the sound of slow-motion replays and white-noise generators—on paper an entirely unappealing proposition, but in reality a strangely compelling listen.

Although not exclusively a minimalist, some of Brian Eno’s (producer of bands such as U2 and James) recent work has again taken that form. Eno’s minimalism took shape through his work with German electronic band Cluster in the mid-‘70s and ‘80s, and is reflected in some of his solo work, starting wthe 1975 album Discrete Music, through Music for Films (1977), to Necroli (1993).

Necroli is a single composition spanning approximately an hour that consists of little more than barely audible static and the intangible feeling of a song waiting to happen.

Never one to separate music from a philosophy, Eno has recently been toying with the notion of chance and indeterminacy in music (an idea first championed by Cage way back when).

Eno recently designed a computer program (currently being marketed) that actually produces music for you; the user inputs certain data, and the computer in turn assimilates the data and produces a set of random sound fragments—in other words, a “song.” Dubbed “generative music,” Eno’s latest album, The Drop, was written using this program.

Some would argue that music’s supposed to be fun. Not an entirely invalid point, but minimalism’s vitality lies in its austere nature and deceptive simplicity.

Finally, one might even argue that it is the latest adjunct in the progression of “the devil’s music.” If you think that the sonic assault of Marilyn Manson spells the ultimate in music rebellion, consider this: barely perceptible to human ears, minimalist music is perhaps the most subversive of them all.

Suggested listening:

Panasonic— Kulma                     Autechre—  Tri Repetae 

Oval— systemisch                       Polygon Window— Quoth(ep)

Main— Firmament II                  Brian Eno— Neroli; The Drop

Lull— Continue                            Microstoria— _snd


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