Pixelife on Post-minimalism


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Throne of Blood's Pixelife muses on the genre that shaped his formative years from Steve Reich to William Basinski, resulting in a choice little read and an excellent introduction to post-minimalist music.

First I must confess. I am in no way an academic scholar when it comes to this certain corner of the music spectrum. I am mostly a fan of this music and it provides a nice antidote to the beat heavy music I usually surround myself in, while having some formal and sonic similarities to contemporary electronic music. Hopefully you’ll find this music as inspiring as I do. This is not supposed to be read as a history lesson, but more an informal compilation with some musings by me. Some of these may be rather obvious, some not so much, but they are all favorites of mine.

During my formative years in the late 90’s about the time I moved to the NYC area I had an evening out that shaped a big part in how I thought about music. On one October evening in 1998 I went to a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. After that concert hall experience my girlfriend and I left Brooklyn and trekked over to Manhattan’s far West Side in Chelsea to a warehouse party featuring Autechre and Plaid amongst other big time acts. This was still the era of a completely deserted Chelsea warehouse district before the Highline, megaclubs and blue chip galleries moved in.

This party was celebrating the launch of the record store Other Music’s website and took place in a cavernous and dark space on 26th st. This gives you a sense of how much has changed since then. What that night did for me was to solidify a conceptual framework for the music I was going to find important and compelling in my adult life. Only 21 years old at the time, I cannot stress how mind-blowing it was to see these two sides of a coin back to back in a single night.

From there my tastes went in all sorts of directions and I continued to delve into all things electronic, rhythmic, orchestral and experimental.

One genre that I felt bridged the gap between art music, Classical Music and contemporary electronic forms of Dance and Ambient was Post Minimalism. Essentially spearheaded by Terry Riley in the mid 1960's, it fused psychedelia and eastern modalities to Classical concepts, creating something accessible to listeners, but was also totally contemporary and linked to the technology of the day. Something run of the mill classical and high art electronic music lacked.

Here are few choice cuts:

Terry Riley
Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) electric organ, electric harpsichord, dumbec and tambourine

Starting with the original and most obvious is Terry Riley. One of his master works is A Rainbow in Curved Air. Recorded in 1969, this recording had profound influence on the experimental music world and beyond into rock and later electronic music. Pete Townsend was even influenced by its phasing organ arpeggios when he wrote Baba O’Riley (with the obvious title homage). Riley’s extensive use of overdubbing was also revolutionary at this time. A working process so completely new in that era that it is almost impossible for us comprehend how groundbreaking this was in our DAW multitrack world of endless edits and reworkings.

A Rainbow in Curved Air and its B-side counterpart Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band are probably some of the purest forms of psychedelic/celestial music ever created. The B-side utilizes out of phase tape echo/looping meant to mimic the sonics of Riley’s epic all night concerts, with droning organs dopplering across the stereo field. Its influence cannot be understated. Very soon after in the following decade Brian Eno and Robert Fripp used similar sound manipulations on the seminal No Pussyfooting album and you can hear the influence on artists such as Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. You get the sense that when people first heard this LP in 1969 that it was quite possibly the first time anybody thought there could be a intrinsic connection between outer space and music. It is pure otherworldly psychedelia.

Ingram Marshall
Fog Tropes (1981) for brass sextet and tape

If there was a piece of music that embodied the sense of being on a cliff face looking towards the ocean in an early morning fog, this is it. Ingram Marshall’s work is unique for its time because he fully embraced beauty when the avant garde was still trying to shake free from its Modernist tendencies of structured atonality and extremes.
The work comes to you in impressionistic swells, where horns mimic the atmosphere of everyday life and tape looped voices recall dreams or spirits.

The essence of this piece is how restrained it is. I would call it lush minimalism; more interested in the spaces between the notes and the feeling they convey in that space than any proficiency of playing the sequences. You can definitely hear echoes of this work in the music of artists like Talk Talk and Radiohead. The hazy quality of this music makes me think that this is the first real hauntological music, to use a trendy term from the past few years. It fully embraces those ideas of memories, phantom tones, and melancholy in a cloud of impressions. However it is organic and made without synthesis, samples or huge sounding digital reverb effects. Also, where other types of music based in free floating ambient sound are reminiscent of outer space, this music is firmly planted on Earth and how strange or disarming that can be, too.

Gavin Bryars
The Vespertine Park (1980) for 2 pianos, 2 vibes, 2 marimbas and percussion

Gavin Bryars work seems closely aligned to Ingram Marshall’s in a way. They are contemporaries and work within similar sonic palettes. However, Mr Bryars work, to me, seems intrinsically more British, though I cannot really explain why that is.
The Vespertine Park on first listen brings to mind being in a town square with church bells going off in the distance. It then starts to sound like music coming through a wall, where on the other side a chamber orchestra has had too much to drink and is falling into a spirit influenced, sclerotic dirge!

That may sound like a put down, but it is not. To me it is entirely cinematic, Kubrickian even.
This piece seems like a small journey, which leads from an exterior at night in a small village to a candlelit Victorian space where a party is winding down into the early hours.
After the dirge-like section the piece turns into playful final movement with a light hearted piano line, almost like the band has broken out of their stupor and are ready to call it a night after a final hurrah.

Michael Gordon
Weather Three (1997)For string quartet and audio playback

Michael Gordon’s Weather suite

The entire Weather suite seems to be very much a product of the 1990’s. Gordon made his name as a founder of the Bang on a Can festival and ensemble. Their impressive catalog of music brings together influences from contemporary classical music, NYC downtown art+noise music a la Sonic Youth, to techno and beyond.
There is the definite influence from Aphex Twin on this suite of music. You especially hear it in Weather One and Weather Four. There are traces of I Care Because You Do and Selected Ambient Works lingering all over those violins and cellos.
However the piece I’d like to focus on is the least “orchestral” of the four movements in Weather.
Weather Three is an ominous dirge. It’s basically recording of a civil defense siren that is multitracked and looped and played at different frequencies and speeds to create strange oscillating close harmonies, like the horns of some horrible Greek god. It is completely apocalyptic and exhilarating at the same time. To hear this in a concert hall would be mind blowing, to hear it in nature would probably mean something bad is about to happen.

As a kid growing up in the 80’s at the tail end of the Cold War we sometimes took part in civil defense drills in our school. The bell would ring and we would all have to take a defense position and “duck and cover” under our desks or along a certain wall in the building. Of course, no one told us that these things were completely pointless if there was to ever be a nuclear attack, but the public took part anyway being good citizens of the West.

Walking home from school in those days I would see these old sirens posted on top of power and telephone poles. These were apparently for civil defense use but were never actually used, since turning them on would most likely create mass panic. So they sat dormant and silent, thankfully never turned on. I imagine Weather Three to be what it would be like if these were ever put to use, dozens of sirens in various states of functioning bleating oscillating cries all over the tonal spectrum, creating a sad and plaintive last orchestra. A warning of the worst kind of weather there is.

William Basinski
Disintegration Loop 3 (2001) Tape Loop

What can be said about William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops? There is so much lore and weight surrounding this body of work it is almost impossible to even get into. A part of me wants to even skip all the conceptual underpinnings and just talk about how it feels. It’s a massive body of work and it delves into so many contemporary issues that the only real way to fully explore all its facets would be in book form.
However I will give the synopsis from wikipedia here:

Loops is based on Basinski's attempts to salvage earlier recordings made on magnetic tape, by transferring them into digital format; however, the tape had physically deteriorated to the point that, as it passed by the tape head the ferrite detached from the plastic backing and fell off. Basinski has said that he finished the project the morning of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, and sat on the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn with friends listening to the project as the WTC towers collapsed. In 2011, Basinski corrected earlier reports where he described recording the last hour of daylight of 9/11 in NYC with a video camera focused on the smoke where the towers were from a neighbor's roof, then set the first loop as the soundtrack to that footage. Stills from the video were used as the covers for the set of four CDs.”

Besides the heavy back-story regarding 9/11, the work captures specific elements of our culture in transition. These music pieces are literally physical forms of media dying, slowly and almost imperceptibly. We zone out only to notice somewhere down the line that we are someplace else and there is no return or replay. This idea encapsulates, in the most minimalistic way, our gradual slip into the cloud, things becoming dust and intangible.