Minimalism and Meaning: Lessons from the Art Gallery

by Nathan Cornelius

This week, I took advantage of a free afternoon in Washington to visit a couple of museums for the first time, and I felt several of the artworks spoke to my own process and philosophy as a composer of music. Here are three brief reflections on what I learned:

First, I visited the Phillips Collection, famous for its Rothko Room, with four large works by the great modernist painter. The first thing you notice about a piece by Rothko is its relative lack of content, not so much its abstraction per se but its openness, sparseness, and diffusion of visual information. Instead of filling the canvas with some variety and number of images (whether abstract or representational), Rothko deals with large, soft-edged blocks of subtly shaded color. The obvious response to a skeptic of this sort of art to say that Rothko’s work bears more than meets the eye. And this is indeed true: sitting in front of one panel for several minutes, I became increasingly attuned to the nuances of color, texture, and shading within each large shape. Much like the music of Helmut Lachenmann or Chaya Czernowin, Rothko’s paintings force the beholder to deconstruct their default habits of consuming art and learn instead to slow down and look (or listen) more deeply.

However, this fact by itself does not differentiate a Rothko work from any other great painting. In the best representational art, there is more than meets the eye as well, and a closer look permits appreciation of the work on a deeper level beyond “what it’s a painting of.” Of particular interest to me are artists like Monet, who can be enjoyed as an Impressionist, painting water lilies, or as a proto-Abstract Expressionist, painting swirls and daubs of color. The situation is similar in music: “modernist” styles allow composers to focus on elements of music such as timbre, rhythm, or dynamics that have been traditionally been neglected in favor of pitch. But all these elements still pertain to, and can be used expressively in, tonal music as well. The only limiting factor is the composer’s own breadth of imagination.

But breadth of imagination can be both a blessing and curse, as I realized at my next stop, the impressive exhibition called “Wonder” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Here, I was first drawn to a very different sort of minimalist art in Patrick Dougherty’s installation Shindig, a series of curvaceous structures woven out of willow branches, like giant birdhouses, big enough to hold three or four people. What struck me about the installation was that, despite its massive scale, it consisted entirely of a single material, built up into multiple similar forms. On the spectrum of unity and variety, Dougherty tips the balance strongly toward unity.

For some reason, this seems to go against my usual way of thinking about musical form. If, as Mahler said, a symphony ought to contain the whole world, then conversely, a miniature ought to display the greatest simplicity and economy of means. In general, we are taught that as the scope of the work increases, the diversity of materials included should increase along with it. But here was a work on a massive scale, crafted with utter simplicity and repetition. I realize its counterpart would have to be a miniature collage, like the synthetic cubist sculptures of Picasso or Braque: a work that has one of everything, but never two.

I began to wonder if perhaps my striving for variety in my own music was actually superfluous and distracting from its larger structure. Perhaps I would be better off working with the same ideas for longer spans of time and not abandoning them in fear of boring my listeners. After all, even Mahler repeated the expositions in his symphonies, distorting them just slightly the second time. This also reminds me of a recent concert at which I heard minimalist composer John Adams conduct his majestic Harmonielehre, a symphony in all but name, in which he constructs large-scale musical spans out of numerous repetitions of a few ideas, with only the subtlest variation.

Finally, Janet Echelman‘s giant installation 1.8, based on the 2011 Japan tsunami, is also on display at the Renwick. Named for the 1.8 milliseconds by which the massive earthquake sped up the Earth’s rotation, the design of the work is based on a USGS map of wave heights in the Pacific in the aftermath. A wavelike constellation of mesh forms hangs from the ceiling like an inverted contour map, illuminating by gradually changing lights matching the colors of the map’s legend. The floor of the gallery is carpeted, and viewers are invited to lie down and contemplate the shapes from below.

Since my recent work has been exploring musical translations of shapes from graphs and maps, I was especially intrigued by this piece. The cartographer’s choice to depict a natural disaster with a color-coded map is fundamental to the existence of Echelman’s artwork, and a different style of map (say, using arrows instead of colors to depict the path of the waves) would have led to a completely different work. If in modern art, the form has essentially become the content, then when art imitates a functional or informative object, that object’s format or notation predetermines the meaning of the artwork. Similarly, the conventions of music notation and the choices composers make in creating alternative notation styles determine the expressive possibilities which can be notated in that medium. Therefore, composers seeking to break the bounds of traditional music notation should carefully consider the final effects they wish to achieve before even deciding how to notate the piece.

“Classical” music: Ah, you’re Indians!

Dinner parties with strangers are notoriously dangerous ground for me, and, I think, for most composers. Inevitably, as the group deals with the appropriate small talk, someone asks “what kind of music do you write?” This question seems innocuous to them; they really only mean it as a way of getting to know me better. They really don’t understand how difficult something like that is to answer. When answering that question, one has to judge not only how much or how little that person knows about music in general, but also how much or how little they actually want to learn about MY music.

My answer should probably be something like this: “I write texture-based chamber, choral, band, and orchestral music that often equally integrates both electronic instruments and acoustic instruments and which is informed by all of the compositional techniques and languages from the last century; the goal of which is to capture a moment, express an idea or emotion, and generally to cause an audience member or listener to have an experience of some kind.”

But that’s a lot.

Maybe I’m underestimating the strangers with whom I attend dinner parties, but I’ve always assumed that’s more than someone wants to hear as an answer to that question. My real answer is this: “I write avant-garde classical music.” It’s short, it’s to the point, and it does, in some way, actually give a person an idea of what my music is like. Moreover, it leaves some openness for more questioning, if someone is actually interested in going down that rabbit hole with me.

Some people would have a problem with my usage of the term “classical” to describe my music. The technical definition of “classical music” is music that was written in Western Europe from about 1750-1850. That’s not my music. In fact, that’s not anyone’s music that has been alive for the last 150 years. But this means that there are several generations of composers who have no words to describe their music. The music that we write isn’t pop music, it isn’t jazz, it’s not rock, and if it isn’t “classical,” then what the hell is it? How should we describe it to potential listeners? What can we say that will give them some idea of what we do and also allow them the option of learning more without feeling intellectually alienated by an incomprehensible stream of music-specific terminology?

Several terms have been proposed or used over the years in an effort to remedy this situation. Some call this music “art music,” some “serious music,” even “legitimate music.” The rather offensive implication of these terms is that other genres are “not art,” “not serious,” or “not legitimate.” Some call it “concert music,” which, of course, absurdly means that no other music has ever or will ever be performed in a concert. “Orchestral music” is an attractive candidate, but implies a specific ensemble and excludes others. Can one really say that a piece written for string quartet is “orchestral?” Furthermore, the term “orchestral” tells us very little about what the music sounds like. Composers like Philip Glass and Arnold Schoenberg have both written for, recorded with, and performed with orchestras, but so have Ray Charles and Metallica.

The two most recent candidate terms that I have seen are “notated music” and “composed music.” These two terms came to me via blogs that were mentioned to me by colleagues. They certainly seem attractive at first, but I believe that, just like all the other terms mentioned above, neither actually does an effective job of telling us about the music they are attempting to describe.

“Composed music” comes from music journalist and radio producer Craig Havighurst. You can read his blog on the subject here. “Notated music” ultimately comes from Steve Reich, but is brought up again by Ethan Hein whose blog you should read here.

For those of you who are too lazy to do that (no judgement), here’s the abridged version: Havighurst likes “composed music” because it venerates the composer again. He says it implies music that comes from “a singular mind, fixed and promulgated in written form” as well as a particular restraint and “composure” that is expected of us when we listen to this music. Hein, whose blog is actually an excellent critique of Havighurst’s term, points out the reek of exclusionist privilege that permeates Havighurst’s concept of “composed” music. He also draws attention to the fact that, really, all music is composed in one way or another. Lastly, Hein proposes Reich’s “notated music” as an alternative. There’s actually a lot more to be said here, but it’s not entirely pertinent to this particular conversation, so it will have to wait until another time.

The creators behind these two terms are forgetting, or perhaps ignoring, two extremely important things about genre terminology. The first really has to do with the nature of language. Language is a means of expressing or describing something in the absence of that thing. In other words, the only reason that we use the word “chair” is because at some point in time someone had to refer to a chair without being able to point to one and say “this.” The word “chair” creates in us a series of definitions that we understand about chairs. Probably “a place for sitting” is number one on that list for most of us. But those definitions aren’t inherent to the word itself; they had to be taught to us over time. This is why if I say “chair” to someone who doesn’t speak English, it doesn’t mean anything to them, and similarly why if I say “get off the chair” to my cat, he does absolutely nothing.

This same concept should be applied to genre terminology. We create words to define the differences between different kinds of music. But the terms we create only have meaning if there is a common understanding of their definition. “Composed music” is meaningless to the layperson; as is “notated music.” If I have to explain the definition of the terminology I’m using then I’m back to square one. Why would I waste time doing that, when I could just as easily actually explain my music itself to them? In fact, the only people to whom “classical music” is not an effective descriptor are those with enough musical knowledge that other preexisting musical terminology, like “minimalist” or “post-serial,” is already meaningful and serves as a better descriptor.  These are academic words that only academics are arguing over.

To the layperson, the word “classical” doesn’t mean “music written by Western European men between 1750 and 1850.” It means “music typically composed for acoustic instruments from the orchestral families and/or voices and performed in a particular kind of concert setting.” The proof of this is the fact that the vast majority of people consider contemporary film scores to be “classical” music. Frankly, that description is pretty close to what I do. Adding the words “chamber,” or “electroacoustic,” or “avant-garde” gets the definition close enough that someone will actually know what I’m describing to them and that’s the only point of having words to explain genre.

The second point that those focused on creating new terms for music are forgetting is a product of the first. It is this: we don’t actually get to decide what our music is called. Debussy famously railed against the idea that his music would be classified as “impressionism,” yet every music history textbook that I have ever seen places him in that movement. In fact, John Adams, Arnold Schoenberg and Steve Reich have all attempted to reject the genre labels that have ended up being applied to them. Yet three quick searches for these composers’ names on iTunes reveal this gem:
UntitledIt’s probably also worth mentioning that Josquin Des Prez, and Gerard Grisey both come up under this same genre in iTunes.

Louis CK makes this point well as he discusses how white people ruined America.

CK’s remark, “ah! You’re Indians!” has come to be my mantra when discussing new terminology for “classical” music. No matter what terms we invent to try and better define what we do, people are still going to call it classical music. People aren’t concerned with the start and end dates of a particular aesthetic movement when they ask what kind of music you write. To correct them about their terminology, or to try and teach them some new definition, is fundamentally disrespectful to the fact that someone just expressed an interest in what you do! If we ever want to make our music relevant to the world at large we need to meet people where they are by describing what we do in ways that actually mean something to them. We have enough battles to fight as living composers without fighting people about the name they call our music.

I don’t care if people call it classical music, as long as they call it something.

For more from Stephen Bailey, you can visit his website here.

The Need for Feedback


Thomas Eakins, Singing a Pathetic Song, 1881, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art

When I was a guitar student in college, I always practiced in the same room, facing the same direction. It almost became a second home for me—one of my friends eventually posted a sign with my name on the door. But when I had to leave these friendly confines to go perform in an unfamiliar hall, I always felt I sounded worse. Then I would start to make more mistakes while worrying about what had happened to my sound. Eventually I realized I wasn’t actually playing badly; my ears were just getting different resonance than they were used to from the room I usually played in. To cure myself of this perception, I set a goal to branch out and practice in spaces with the least reverb I could possibly find. I played outside on the patio, where the noise of a passing car could almost drown out my guitar. I found a space in the old cafeteria with a tiled wall facing up at a 45-degree angle and played into it so that all my sound would be reflected up into the atrium and not back at me. Eventually I just got comfortable that I didn’t sound like my usual self in a new hall.

Singers experience this same dynamic, as they often feel as if the sound echoing back to them physically helps to support their own vocal production. When my college choir went on tour, singing in a different venue every night, our director would always warn us about the acoustics of each new space. So it didn’t catch us off guard when we sounded so much richer in a traditional Scandinavian-style church with an all-wooden interior than in a low, flat auditorium converted from an old K-Mart. Then there was the musty old church in Muskegon that mysteriously amplified frequencies about two octaves below middle C, much to the delight of the bass section. If anything, it created a sort of feedback loop, as we growled away with even more gusto, knowing that our low notes were going to be heard.

It’s hard to perform well if the only evidence you have for whether anyone can hear you is whether you can hear yourself. Much of the pleasure of performing comes from hearing your own sound reflected back to you from the hall. My current school is spending over a million dollars to have a top acoustical designer revamp the interior of their main concert hall, not primarily to improve the audience experience, but to make it easier for performers onstage to hear what they’re doing. The reverberation from the hall reassures the performer that their sound really is traveling out into the world and not just vanishing into a void.

Composers need to hear the reverberations of their work too. The echoes that come back to us from the audience reassure us that our work is real and actually affecting the world. Milton Babbitt said he didn’t care if anyone listened, but I suspect he was, if being honest, clearly in the minority. Most composers will go crazy trying to persuade their friends to go out into the forest so that, when their tree falls, there is actually someone there to hear it. One snowy evening, a piece I had written played to an audience numbering exactly seven; the performance felt surreal, like it didn’t really happen. In order for our artistic endeavor to seem validated, there have to be people who hear and react to it, whether with pleasure, criticism, or simply acknowledgement. This is what drives me, in my weaker moments, to obsessively check the number of Facebook likes and YouTube views my recordings have accumulated. It reassures me that my work has become a part, however small, of someone’s life.

But these “echoes” can only come from individuals. Sometimes I run into trouble listening for them from things that aren’t people. A couple of years ago, I had a rather strange conversation about one of my pieces with a composer I respect. It ended with the person warning me, “You wouldn’t want them to think you’re one of those Kentucky people!” At that time, I recognized the falseness of the assumptions  that I would be mistaken for a “Kentucky person” (whatever that is), that this would necessarily be a bad thing, and that, even if it was, it wouldn’t be worth it. However, I failed to notice the more pernicious assumption hidden beneath them all, namely that the success or failure of my work depends on the evaluation of “them.” For the next year or so, concern for what “they”  would think I was—if not a Kentucky person, then what?—haunted and ultimately hobbled my work. For all my trouble, “they” never sent any echoes back my way, so I never knew if I was pleasing “them.”

I eventually decided I didn’t want to write for “them,” for some nebulous evaluating entity lurking out there in the music world. I want to write music to be heard, music for listeners, individuals who hear a piece and respond to it as it moves them personally. Trying to create work to receive a favorable impression with “them” will lead to artistic cramping and ultimately paralysis. “They” will tell you not to take risks, or at least to never, ever fail when you do. “They” judge you on your originality and forbid borrowing even the slightest bit of inspiration from others. “They” would rather you left your beliefs, memories, and personal quirks behind when you compose.

But listeners don’t mind. Most listeners would actually rather hear there’s a story behind the music. Listeners aren’t picky, simply asking for music that sounds good, nothing more. Listeners can show you grace and look past the occasional flaw in your work. After all, listeners are human themselves. “They” aren’t.