Why I like minimalist art.

Kirk McElhearn, talking about minimalist music:

It’s easy to listen to minimalist music and dismiss it as boring and repetitive; and that’s what many people say. Leonard Bernstein said, about minimalist music, “…it’s finding another way to be tonal without being idiotic…but it sometimes does come out sounding idiotic…”

What is the thin line between fascinating and boring or “idiotic” music? I said above that I feel Terry Riley’s In C to be boring, if it’s too long; but I find Steve Reich’s Six Pianos, and many other minimalist works, to be fascinating. Much of this comes down to personal preference: some people just aren’t wired to appreciate this kind of music. Maybe there’s a right time and place to hear it, and there’s a click that occurs when that happens; or maybe some people will never like minimalist music, and just consider it uninteresting.

What I discovered that afternoon in the 1970s is that not everything needs to be interesting. There is a lot going in this kind of music which, on the surface, can sound like a broken record. Understanding minimalist music opened my mind to finding the beauty in simple things, rather than seeking out things that were always different. In minimalist music, I hear the beat of a different drummer, one whose stability and regularity allows for a greater variety than I had expected.

McElhearn is focused on minimalist composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, but his post made me think of the first time I listened to Richie Hawtin’s minimalist techno releases under the Plastikman name. If you have never listened to Hawtin’s stuff, I recommend Consumed:

The ten tracks on this album boil Detroit techno down to its bare essence, and if you can get over the knee-jerk “This is just the same thing over and over” response, you can lose yourself in it.

The other comparison that comes to mind is the work of painter Agnes Martin. I first encountered her work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I had a part-time job in the library there for several years in college. The museum was closed to the public on Mondays, but staff were allowed to wander the galleries freely. I found myself drawn repeatedly to Martin’s painting “The City,” a large canvas covered by a grid of pencil lines. A friend of mine derided the work as nothing more than graph paper, including the classic objection to modern art, “I could have done that!”

With Martin's paintings, as well as Hawtin's music, everything extra is stripped away, leaving just a simple pencil line, or a beat and some electronic glitches. If you take the time to focus on those essential bits, though, to dive down into them, you start to notice that the color beneath the grid of lines shifts subtly across the canvas. The glitch morphs slowly into something else, creeps from one channel to the other. Minimalist art, when done well, rewards attention, but doles out the reward very gradually. That's what sucks you in.

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