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.

2 thoughts on “Minimalism and Meaning: Lessons from the Art Gallery

  1. Pingback: The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form | deformingprisms

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