In Defense of Minimalism   Leave a comment

Someone on WWU’s online forums once asked what music the rest of the student populace likes to listen to while they do homework. Unfortunately, much of my “homework” consists of writing, playing, listening to, and/or analyzing music, so most of the time I can’t listen to background music the way most students do while they work. Nonetheless, I answered with this. I may actually have answered with another tune by Loscil, but no matter; a different student answered back with a scathing review of the track, saying “You may call that minimalism; I call it boring, trite crap.”

This actually surprised me a bit, given the context. The original poster was asking for music for homework. Sure, I might accept that answer as a valid opinion if that was music played at a dance party, or a talent show, or a hardcore punk show (though that would be pretty hilarious). But the expectations there are different. The audience is expecting the music to be worthy of a keeping their attention, and the audience is expected to have an average span of attention.

Minimalist music (not just the “classical” kind; any music that uses minimal material developed at a relatively slow rate) rewards deeply close, meditational listening, but it also works exceptionally well as background music. Textures tend to be relatively static for longer periods of time than other forms of music, making a more consistent sort of pleasant white noise that can be tuned out of the listener’s foreground perception. This makes it perfect for homework and the like.

This concept of different musics having unique purposes is not a new one. David Byrne, in his TED Talk, discussed how architecture and space has helped inform the evolution of music over the years, from the large cathedrals of the Gregorian era to the radio early 70s punk rock in small clubs to the stadium rock of U2 to the music we hear on our iPods. Context is an important part of how we listen to and judge music, but I think it is often overlooked when listeners judge unfamiliar music without considering context, which certainly isn’t fair to the music and those that created it.

I think the primary problem with people’s general attitude towards minimalist music is their approach to it and their expectations. People tend to go into minimalist music expecting it to be worthy of a lackadaisical attention span, one where they don’t have to pay too close of attention to be impressed, when in fact it requires one of two extremes; nearly completely tuning it out, or paying as close attention as possible to details. Contrary to what some “opponents” to minimalism and other “challenging” music might think, this kind of listening can be learned by anyone, but they have to be willing to put in the effort. This can be the most difficult hurdle in spreading one’s love for this music. Even as minimalism is often considered to be one of the more accessible forms of “art music,” the challenge of convincing others that the music is worthwhile is one that listeners are struggling with today perhaps more than ever with the onset of MP3 stores and instant pop music gratification (which I believe has its place in our musical landscape, but that’s a discussion for another day).

The bottom line is, it’s not boring. And if it is, good, because I don’t want to get distracted while I’m doing homework.

Speaking of which…

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Posted 9 January 2013 by jonbash in Music

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