A Foray into the Intersection of
Minimalism and Indeterminacy
Matthew Glenn Quick
Department of Piano Performance, Sichuan Conservatory of Music, China
Department of Piano Performance, Sichuan Conservatory of Music, China
I would like to thank Dr. Joengwon Joe for the inspiration to write music involving these 20th century techniques, as well as her helpful comments on reviewing the preliminary stages of this article.
Quick, Matthew Glenn. 2018. "'Junction +4': A Foray Into the Intersection of Minimalism and Indeterminacy." Accelerando Belgrade Journal of Music and Dance 3:2
The main purpose of this article is to examine the methods and philosophies behind a work that the author composed for piano, “Junction +4.” The piece incorporates elements of both minimalism and indeterminacy. The author has made an effort to ascertain whether these seemingly contradictory methods can successfully coexist in a single piece of music. In this way he challenges the fact that minimalism inherently involves a careful regulation of predetermined elements, whereas indeterminacy by definition relinquishes control. In addition to addressing this paradox, “Junction +4” also serves as a representation and critique of technology in society. This article also talks about prominent composers and works that represent the categories of futurism, minimalism, and indeterminacy.
Keywords: futurism, minimalism, indeterminacy, piano music, composition
“Junction +4” is a piano work which the author composed that incorporates elements of both minimalism and indeterminacy in an effort to ascertain whether these seemingly contradictory methods can successfully coexist in a single piece of music. The challenge lies in the fact that minimalism inherently involves a careful regulation of predetermined elements, whereas indeterminacy by definition relinquishes control. In addition to addressing this paradox, “Junction +4” also serves as a representation and critique of technology in society. The title was chosen for several reasons. Firstly, this piece is an attempt at finding the “junction” where minimalism and indeterminacy can meet in a musical composition. Secondly, the title is a bit of word play, partly on Morton Feldman’s “Intersection” compositions which also utilize indeterminacy, as well as on the image of a railway junction since the piece incorporates “train” chords. Lastly, “+4” is an indication of the frequent use of tritones in the musical texture.
The Structure of “Junction +4”
The music itself progresses in a minimalist fashion, beginning with a simple idea and gradually building upon it, with the intent to mimic the swell of technological noise in the world. It is written for one piano four hands, which allows for more material to be compiled as the piece progresses than if it were merely a solo piano work. The rhythmic elements are strong throughout the piece to reflect the driving nature of a technological society. Technology is an inorganic concept, and in many ways causes a fragmentation from naturally human and direct interaction. To reflect this, the fundamental chords and rhythms are disconnected from any sense of longer melodic line or traditional harmonic progression. On the other hand, technology has also served to strengthen communication and broaden networks. Because of this, the motivic ideas are still musically sensible and aurally satisfying so as to maintain a sense of musical cohesion.
The piece begins with a single repeating note (Example 1) in the bass register, which soon forms a steady motor rhythm as it builds in complexity. This bass-line forms the atmosphere of the composition, creating a sense of inescapable churning that sets the backdrop of an unyieldingly technology-driven culture.
After the bass-line is established, chords (Example 2) are gradually interjected and layered on top of each other, adding to the rhythmic and harmonic intricacy. These harmonies form the sound of “train” chords. These are essentially chords or note clusters that often incorporate dissonance (particularly the interval of a tritone) and are frequently syncopated, creating an effect similar to that of a train horn.
This style of chord can clearly be heard in Big Band era music, such as “Take the ‘A’ Train." (Example 3):
One reason these particular melodies were used is because mobile phones have become one of the most influential elements of modern technology. In the piece, this creates a stark but appropriate juxtaposition with the “train” elements, as past and present use of technology are combined and set against each other. The other important reason for using cell phone themes pertains to the aleatoric nature of the work, which will be discussed later.
Music and Technology - Futurism
Admittedly, the use of music as a means for commentary on the nature of technology is not a novel concept. Neither is the incorporation of sounds that mimic technology, or even the use of technology itself in the place of traditional musical instruments. The category of music pertaining to the incorporation of and commentary on technology is often labeled Futurism. Futurism originated in the early 20th century and manifested itself largely in literature, graphic arts, and music. In music, there is a particular fascination with machines, speed, everyday noise in the world, and artificial man-made environments. The most prominent musical figures from the early Italian Futurist movement include Pratella, Fiorda, Casavola, and in particular Luigi Russolo (Redice 2003, 3). Russolo is credited for developing the concept of intonarumori (an “art of noises”) where mechanical devices, percussive noises, and the human voice substitute conventional instrumentation (Ibid.). In music that sprang from this movement, repetitive figures are often employed to evoke the effect of droning machines and the ongoing hum of technology. This fundamental concept of repetition was utilized for “Junction +4,” as it appropriately contextualizes the music for its commentary on technology, and it lends itself well to the aesthetics of minimalism.
An example of the use of non-conventional and mechanical instrumentation can be found in George Antheil’s 1925 “Ballet Mecanique.” Antheil’s first version had a score for sixteen player pianos, intended to accompany a movie by Fernand Leger. After difficulties with synchronization of the pianos and timing with the movie, he decided to orchestrate the ballet, and included air-plane propellers, sirens, and electric bells (Bijsterveld 2002, 129). According to Antheil’s autobiography Bad Boy of Music (Antheil 1945), he was not content with being grouped in with the Italian Futurists. He felt that their use of machines “had no mathematical dimension at all, nor claimed space, but just improvised noise…which is ridiculous and had nothing to do with music” (Bijsterveld op. cit., 129). He considered time, rather than tone, to be the most crucial feature of music. Some important elements in his music include the use of both silence and repetition to make ‘loops.’ Antheil himself describes “Ballet Mecanique” as the first work on earth composed out of and for machines, tonal nor atonal, just made of time and sound, without the traditional contrasts of piano and forte (Idem., 128). Indeed, we can hear this fascination with time, effectively bringing the listener into a precise and mechanically mesmerizing world.
Another composer interested in technology, albeit expressed through more traditional means, was Arthur Honegger. His symphonic movement entitled “Pacific 231” is particularly relevant for placing the context of “Junction +4.” Although he used more conventional orchestral scoring, his music utilizes a similar method of using repetitive figures and loops to reflect machinery, specifically the direct representation of a train. The piece was named after one of the fastest American locomotives of its time, but Honegger insisted that it was no mere program music. His goal was to translate not only the visual impression of a train, but also the physical sensations of train travel and its joy into music (Braun 2002, 107). It is not a reflection of something lifeless and cold, but has an organic quality as it gradually builds to full speed and back down again. While “Junction +4” has no alterations in tempo, the sound of a train permeates its initial building blocks. Its repetitive bass-line starts not unlike the churning of train wheels, and then “train” chords are added to set up the technological context of the music.
The next composer to mention is Frederic Rzewski, who effectively commented on the perils of technology in his “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” Written for piano, the piece conveys the environment of a North Carolina cotton mill and the brutal working conditions created by the factory. It begins with a simple repetitive ‘looping’ figure that gradually builds in a minimalist fashion, creating the effect of droning machines in a strenuous environment. Later in the piece, Rzewski interjects a section of blues music, perhaps as a recollection of more traditional means for expressing suffering. According to Jack Sullivan, “a kind of non-tonal allegro barbaro suggestive of cotton mill cacophony is gradually subverted by a blues tune that turns terrifying dissonance into melancholy serenity” (Sullivan 1998, 189). This serenity, however, eventually devolves yet again into cacophony as the soulful blues music is distorted and dehumanized in the midst of the inescapable factory machines.
Music as a Perceptible Process - Minimalism
Although the music of these composers such as Antheil, Honegger, and Rzewski employ minimalist techniques, they are generally not categorized in this way. Some of the most recognized names in minimalism include LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. The concept behind minimalism, as stated by LaMonte Young, is essentially “that which is created with a minimum of means” (Schwarz 1997, 2). Generally speaking, the interests of minimalist composers lie in the process of music rather than its complexity. Minimalist music often begins with a simple motivic idea, and then very gradually builds upon that idea, allowing even the slightest changes to be perceived by the listener.
From the writings of Steve Reich, we can glean the true intentions of a minimalist: “I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music. To facilitate closely detailed listening, a musical process should happen extremely gradually” (Reich 1997, 55). He also comments on diverging paths with one of his contemporaries: “John Cage has used processes and has certainly accepted their results, but the processes he used were compositional ones that could not be heard when the piece was performed….What I’m interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing” (Idem, 56-57). Much of Reich’s music is focused on aural effects and the progression of sound, but he has also ventured into social commentary. His opera Three Tales, for instance, is a response to technology, specifically concerning the explosion of the Hindenburg, nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep.
Philip Glass is another important minimalist, having intended much of his work to reach beyond the concert hall. His music encompasses mediums such as opera and film, and often serves as a larger commentary on history and society. As stated by the musicologist Mark Radice, “Glass has demonstrated a remarkable ability to touch the psyche of his audience. He has identified issues and topics that are of the time, and he has addressed them through art – not just music” (Radice op. cit., 290). One of Glass’s most famous collaborations in film is the Qatsi trio, which depicts the impact of technology, globalization, and the war on human culture (Maycock 2002, 138). The first film Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance,” begins with scenes of nature, and then gradually introduces humanity and the development of technology. The film exaggerates the overwhelming transformation of human life and the environment through image juxtaposition and time-lapse footage. The musical score utilizes many looping effects and repeated figures that seem to spin endlessly as the world is frantically caught up in the rush of modern humanity. Director Godfrey Reggio stated that "these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry, on people. It's been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it's not the effect of, it's that everything exists within [technology]. It's not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe..." (Essence of Life 2002).
“Junction +4” reflects some of the musical styles mentioned above, particularly the use of minimalist elements with the aim of commenting on technology. Much of this music, however, is either a portrayal of technology’s function (like “Pacific 213”) or a representation of the negative impact of technology (like “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”). One goal of “Junction +4,” however, is to subvert some of this negativity, showing how certain technology which at first may seem problematic can be used in a creatively positive way.
The use of cell phones, in particular texting, can be a notorious distraction. We often regard texting as an important method of communication; it can also, however, have the opposite effect of isolating us and disrupting our connection to the people and environment directly around us. It can be obnoxious and disrespectful, such as texting during a lecture, meeting, concert, or during personal time with friends and family. It can even be dangerous, such as when driving. The idea with “Junction +4” is to reverse this situation, shedding a positive light on texting by making cell phone use a necessary and productive component during a musical performance. Texting ultimately becomes a creative element of the concert, and in effect it strengthens the sense of community in the room as the audience members use texting to work toward the same goal.
This is where the aleatoric component of the piece is introduced. Each step in the minimalist evolution of the piece is divided into separate segments encapsulated by repeat signs. The performers repeat each measure indefinitely, but the control of when to move forward to the next segment is guided by the listeners and their use of texting. Before beginning, one of the performers offers the audience their cell phone number and invites them to send texts during the piece, preferably describing their thoughts that arise during the performance. Also, a phone alarm should be set to go off after 5 minutes and 55 seconds to ensure that the piece stays within a reasonable time limit. The playing should begin when the first text is received. Whenever anyone in the audience wants to move the piece forward, they can send a text, and the performers must move ahead to the next segment. If multiple texts are received close together, that would be considered a joint desire for just one move ahead. With each successive text ‘disruption,’ the music reflects the added noise by incorporating an additional compositional element to the progression of the piece. If the performers reach the end of the material before time is up, then they should loop the last measure, gradually decreasing the dynamics with each text until it fades away. Afterwards, it would be appropriate to read the text messages to the audience and share the audience members’ thoughts that came to mind during the performance.
The choice of minimalism in the composition, as described earlier, was chosen in part because it works so well to characterize the hum of unrelenting machines. In addition, the way that minimalism gradually shifts and gains in complexity is perfect for the representation of how technology builds on itself over time. “Junction +4” could have, in fact, represented technology through minimalism alone without introducing chance elements. One reason to include chance is to stimulate participation from the listeners. One can argue that a true representation of technology must not be static, completely predetermined, or frozen in time. By incorporating active participation using cell phones, the piece is stimulated by technology as it is being played, and the sounds of current technology as the texts are received actually become a part of the performance. One advantage of the particular technology chosen (trains and cell phones) is that they already have their own form of musical sound, which proved helpful to ensure that the composition doesn’t abandon the listener.
Relationship between Minimalism and Indeterminacy
As mentioned, one important purpose of “Junction +4” is to take what at first seem to be very opposite schools of composition and philosophy, and then push them together to work in conjunction. Minimalism could be defined as an attempt to increase the control of a composition and its effect on listeners, since it slowly feeds the audience in minuscule changes regulated by the composer. The musicologist Simon Shaw-Miller in his Visible Deeds of Music (Shaw-Miller 2002) states that in minimalism, “because the material itself is simplified and the formal constraints to which it is subjected are considerable, the end results remain focused within a relatively narrow range of possibilities” (Ibid., 194). Philosophically, however, minimalism and aleatoric music do share certain aspects. In both schools of composition, temporality is often altered from traditionally goal-oriented linear writing to something that celebrates the present moment. The use of repetition in minimalism often results in the loss of the ability to track time, blurring any sense of standard meter and form. It is more about the process of change rather than how long it takes, how fast it moves, or where it arrives. Aleatoric music by nature often leaves timing up to chance. Without predictable beginnings and endings, the present moment becomes the focus, and in a sense forms the only part of identifiable existence. Both of these schools of composition in effect draw the listener’s attention away from concerns about direction, and into the current and immediate instant in time.
Again, “Junction +4” is not the first composition to explore the intersection of minimalism and aleatoric music. Terry Riley’s “In C” is based on minimalist elements, but also involves chance since the performers may select any segment of the music to play at any time. It could be argued, however, that although “In C” may use minimalist elements, it doesn’t quite fall into the category of minimalism as defined by someone like Steve Reich. One can certainly hear the repetition and loops created with simple material, but because the order and phrase lengths are mostly left to chance, the result is not true minimalism in the sense of gradually altering small elements to allow the listener to follow a clear evolution. When listening to an audio recording of “In C” without seeing the individual performers activate their part, one may be able to hear a general sense of the piece’s evolution, but it would be difficult to tell exactly how the texture is changing. In “Junction +4,” although control of when to move forward is left to chance, the compositional progression is ultimately very clear, one step at a time. In addition, there is no set duration for Riley’s work, whereas “Junction +4” has a determined cutoff.
Chance Music and “Junction +4” - Audience Control Over