Minimalist road trip

For the most part I resist writing about the actual music on eMusic, because I’m really not a very good musical critic. However from time to time I do feel the urge to recommend something, and this is one of those times. Courtesy of eMusic I’ve been listening to a lot of contemporary classical music (or new music to insiders), a taste I came by through listening to electronic music (techno, ambient, etc.). The most well-known and influential movement in classical music over the past half century is of course minimalism, and I think everyone interested in either classical music or (especially) modern electronic music should have an acquaintance with the classic works of minimalism. I’m referring here not to Nixon In China-style minimalism but rather to hard-core let’s play that phrase a few dozen times and then introduce a new element or two minimalism—or as suggested by someone in response to a Kyle Gann rant, the-music-formerly-known-as-minimalism.

Many people find listening to early minimalist works as unattractive a preposition as a trip to the dentist, but I think I’ve found a way to make them more palatable to those getting their first taste: Minimalist works go down surprisingly well as an accompaniment to long drives at high speeds. The typical pronounced beat encourages you to keep up with traffic, the music unveils new features at about the same rate as the landscape, and the relative simplicity of the musical concept allows you to reserve a large part of your attention for the basic tasks of driving.

So without further ado here’s a list of albums for a minimalist road trip, all available on eMusic and all road-tested by yours truly:

Here are some additional tips for rewarding listening:

  • Drive by yourself. You don’t want someone else in the car who wants to have an actual conversation, and you especially don’t want kids continually asking is it over yet?
  • Drive long distances. You want to get the full experience of minimalism, with pieces at least 20 minutes long.
  • Drive on non-congested highways. The virtues of minimalism turn into vices when you’re stuck in stop-and-go traffic breathing exhaust fumes and staring at the car in front of you.

If your trip proves enjoyable, you can try exploring eMusic for similar works. In this respect, note that the “Minimalism” eMusic Dozen contains lots of works that are really not minimalism per se (i.e., belonging to the 1960s movement and its continuation) but rather are music of the past that is sort-of-minimalist in nature (and some at least of which influenced the early minimalists).

A better approach is probably to search eMusic for particular composers identified with the minimalist movement. See the Kyle Gann posts previously linked to for names, as well as another post in which Gann compiled a personal list of the top five minimalist albums in reaction to some rather conventional (i.e., Glass/Reich/Adams-dominated) New York Times lists. (One of those albums, Eliane Radigue’s Trilogie De La Mort, is available on eMusic, along with the Tom Johnson work mentioned above. I didn’t include Trilogie De La Mort on my list because I haven’t yet road-tested it; however at nearly three hours it is definitely of suitable length for long-distance driving.)

One final thought: minimalism is usually conceived of as a reaction to serialism and related trends in 20th-century music. However given the (to me at least) great affinity between minimalist works and the interstate highway system, I find it interesting that the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was signed in 1956, while La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No. 7 (the beginning of the minimalist era, according to Kyle Gann’s definition) appeared only four years later. Coincidence or causality? You be the judge.

UPDATE: I’m currently reading Alex Ross‘s book The Rest Is Noise, and just discovered that far better critics than I have already noted these connections:

Eno once summarized minimalism as a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space. … [Minimalist] vistas are filtered through new ways of seeing and hearing that relate to the technology of speed. They evoke the experience of driving in a car across empty desert, the layered repetitions in the music mirroring the changes that the eye perceives—road signs flashing by, a mountain range shifting on the horizon, a pedal point of asphalt underneath. [p.475]

3 thoughts on “Minimalist road trip

  1. Mark Satlof

    Thanks for these recommendations…in terms of bang for download, this makes up for the Apples in Stereo album that got me for some 13 and 14 second “songs.” Not that I’m counting.

    And I’m glad I found this blog. My biggest “complaint” with eMusic is I can’t figure out how to buy an even bigger subscription than the one i already have!

  2. Ethan Bauley

    Another amazing, recent minimalist/new music album is:

    “Amid The Noise” by So Percussion.

    Steve Reich is a huge fan of their performance of his “Drumming”, but “Amid The Noise” is all originals. BEAUTIFUL, delicate melodies, + exquisitely subtle/funky beats.

    SUBLIME!!!!!

  3. hecker

    Ethan, thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check that out. Incidentally, besides “Drumming” and “Amid the Noise” So Percussion has a self-titled release on eMusic as well, with works by David Lang and Evan Ziporyn of Bang on a Can.

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