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Bryce Churchill

Minimalism Towards Transcendence

Minimalism Towards Transcendence

ENTROPY: the tendency for a system to dissolve into its smallest, most stable elements. A highly ordered system can be described using fewer bits of information than a disordered one.

Music can be thought of as a living system, similar in many ways to the human mind. It has a syntax, a grammar, and is capable of communicating human experience. More strikingly, it evolves and adapts to its surroundings. As new genres are created and combined, a process of erosion occurs, the “system” of music seeks to reach a point at which only its most essential elements remain.

Eras of rapid progress in science and technology are marked by parallel developments in music, literature, and art. Ideas are introduced through experimentation, and artists incorporate elements of those ideas into their works. In many ways, music is a tremendous library of ideas that are passed on by methods similar to those of ancient oral traditions. Each generation molds what came before into something new, extending the past out into the future like the limbs of a tree. Branches may intertwine while others fall off completely and are left to decompose. Attempts to exhaustively classify and define this process are, of course, doomed to fail, but we are curious to understand the process, to swim upstream and discover the source.

Stagnation is poisonous to the creative spirit. This isn’t so much a curse as it is a stimulus to keep us moving in new directions. Music has the mysterious capacity to resonate the entire spectrum of emotions. Unfortunately, most of the means yet devised to map out the terrain of human feeling are of limited use in the face of modern technologies and musical forms. Standard MIDI has replaced sheet music, and few artists emerge from the militaristic territories of classical music instruction with their creative instincts intact. To say nothing of the ideological motives of conservatories, much of modern music has grown beyond the scope of traditional music theory. Textures of sound are impossible to describe accurately, and modern compositional practices have transformed the recording process itself into a musical instrument with its own properties and range of applications.

To better understand the evolutionary behavior of music, we might first examine and compare its structure to that of other syntactic systems — language, technology, and the creative process itself.

Language: Parallel Motives

During the late 19th century, Ferdinand de Saussure studied the relationship between Indo-European languages, and was later recognized as the founder of semiology, the science of signs. He developed an analytical view of the structure of language and the significance of the correspondences in the functions and positions of sounds throughout the system. As comparative linguistics had already recognized, the Indo-European languages — English, French, German, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit — evolved from a single core or root language. What changed was the pronunciations of the sounds; as Saussure pointed out, the overall structure had remained more or less the same throughout the ages. This led to the modern view of language being defined as a system of internal, or structural, relationships between elements in a system.

The influence of structuralism during the early part of the 20th century extended into painting, literature, philosophy, architecture, and, eventually, music. Resulting initially in the abandonment of traditional compositional structures, structuralism led many artists to rethink the goals and methodologies of their disciplines. Thirty years later, abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky contemplated the radical new view of art as a system of communication, and painted with the sole purpose of direct emotional expression. Kandinsky’s ideas were in stark contrast to those espoused by realism, the dominant form of the time. Following Kandinsky, the content of an artist’s work was no longer required to be the representation of the world. Feeling was content. Kandinsky develop his own vocabulary of emotions in his paintings using color and shape. He also rejected what he considered the soulless materialism of the 19th century and envisioned a spiritual revolution in all areas of art. In 1912, Kandinsky and fellow artist Franz Marc published “On the Spiritual in Art,” a manifesto of their work:

“We believe that we stand today at the turning point of two long epochs…There is a new religion arising in our country, still without a prophet, recognized by no one…But the artistic style that was the inalienable possession of an earlier era collapsed catastrophically in the middle of the 19th century. There has been no style since…The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define. Who can clearly see what their aim is and what is to come? But just the fact that they do exist and appear in many places today, sometimes independently of each other, and that they possess inner truth, makes us certain that they are the first signs of the coming new epoch — they are the signal fires for the pathfinders. The hour is unique. Is it too daring to call attention to the small unique signs of the time?”

These artists’ goal was to define the primary compositional elements of visual art, and to integrate these elements into their paintings. Through Kandinsky’s connection with Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, and other artists, architects, and industrial designers associated with the German Bauhaus, many of these ideas became the basis of graphic design and communication arts.

Mindfields: Minimalism In Thought

The drive to refine the human mind has always been a deep instict in us. The spiritual traditions that survive to the present day in Eastern Asia are primary examples. For thousands of years they have explored the deepest regions of the intellect and mapped out its inner structure. The methods are similar in most of these traditions; intense introspection and transcendence of the erratic habitudes of ordinary consciousness. Yoga and meditation are central practices in Hinduism, Buddhism, and similar schools. Once the restless mind reaches a state of serenity by slowing down the rate of breath, the Yogi focuses onto an image or an idea. This loosens the knot of the Ego, or the child-like selfish instinct of the psyche. Layer by layer, and after much practice, one removes the cloak of the conscious mind and experiences unity with the divine consciousness- and freedom from all limiting thoughts. Some of the states are undescribable in common terms, much like the feelings we get while listening to music. The goal is spiritual attainment, but the immediate effects are calmness, increased mental capacity, and heightened awareness. They gradually experience more refined and subtle states of trancendence. Ultimately one reaches a point of complete mental stillness, a point in which only the absolute minimal and primary thoughts persist.

A similar method to induce a trance-like state is to repeat a phrase, or mantra, until mind becomes completely absorbed in the rhythm and tone of the words. “Aum Ma-ni Pad-me Hum” expresses the whole course of the universe from zero to one, but when repeated enough times it begins to sound like a 4/4 techno beat. It is the repetition of the rhythm in dance music that forces the mind to surrender and allows the spiritual essence in us to take over our body. Some ancients teach that this same powerful energy is stored within us and released in the form of art and emotion. By discovering the simple elements in music that evoke this, we may tap into the source of this incredible current of creative force in ourselves.

In Western culture, a close parallel can be drawn to systems of technology. The mantra of technology is efficiency. In order for the amount of energy consumed by the machine to equal the amount of energy being used for work, friction (waste) must be eliminated. Unnecessary components in the chain are removed, and those that remain are streamlined. The ultimate goal is the absence of resistance.

Creativity: Comprehending Minimal Structure

There are several factors that make up the musical experience. We’ll concentrate on just four: composition, arrangement, texture, and context. By looking at each of these and comparing, we can begin to notice the parallels between musical structure and that of other systems.

Composition is the combination of melodic, rhythmic, and other musical materials. In the recent past restless guitar solos have given way to monochromatic drones, and recognizable drum patterns have become intricate arrays of pops and clicks. Melodies have become less complicated and more in balance with the other elements of the song. Since the advent of digital recording the skills of the performer are no longer showcased; the more valuable skill is to use as few notes as possible to convey the feeling of the song. Percussion depends less on the limitations of live drumming, and rhythm has been allowed a larger portion of the composition. Sampling techniques even use the pitch of the percussion to achieve subtle melodies in the rhythm. Composition is the set series of infinitly possible combinations of the “words” in the structure.

Arrangement involves the organization of the compositional elements described above. In recent years, arrangement has shifted away from strict formulas, such as the “verse/chorus/verse” scheme traditionally used in rock and pop music. Alternate formulas have been created, but strategies of discontinuity and surprise have replaced predictability and anticipation as guiding principles. Techno often does this by building slowly, adding layer upon layer before reaching a dramatic climax. This is similar to the waxing and waning arrangements of Indian raga music, which are themselves modeled on the natural flow of the cycle of life. Other styles aim for a sort of compositional degree zero, arrangements reduced to the elemental dynamic of presence and absence such as in the static drones of ambient isolationism. Arrangement is the grammar of the structure — a predescribed formula that tells the story in a linear timeline.

Texture refers to the qualities or characteristics of the sounds used in a composition. Previously the domain of timbre in acoustical instruments, texture now includes the sculpted output of synthesizers and digital signal processing. Texture is where the most visible results of erosion can be seen. The explicit features of familiar sounds have been made strange, disintegrated into their ghostly remnants. Percussive sounds might be derived from the standard drum set — snare, kick, hi-hat, symbols — but they’ve been simplified almost beyond recognition, abstracted to clicks, bumps, hisses; mid-range treble used as a snare, muted bass as a kick, discrete blasts of white noise for cymbols. If we look at texture in terms of density, the spaces between the sounds become just as important. Texture is the phonetic pronounciation of the composition, the dialect of the language.

Context is the purpose the music serves for the listener. It’s the dancefloor, a working environment, a filmic environment, or psychological topologies of chemically altered states. The idea of music as a tool is not new, but we’ve only recently adapted its use to areas other than elevators and discotheques. This was the departure point of ambient music as it was conceived by Brian Eno, Robert Rich, and others. We can more accurately measure a song’s value in the context of its potential in a specific listening environment. I have albums I only listen to while traveling, others while working, and several albums that never fail to lull me into a relaxing state of reverie.

Conclusion: Concentric Systems

The value of music’s progress towards minimalism is in the closer examination of the elements that make up the whole, and the discovery of the connections those elements have to the things that drive our inner processes. When we attempt to construct the basic materials necessary to convey a particular idea or emotional state, we also learn more about how our minds are composed. This process is increasing in velocity and momentum as the opportunity to create music shifts from the hands of the few and privileged to the many and able. Home studios are now becoming affordable, and the internet has opened up new routes of independent distribution. Any model we construct to define the basic structure of music may be a direct diagram of our intellectual and emotional processes. Each sound can resonate sympathetic areas of our brains like wires in a piano. The organic nature of music is its ability to mutate and adapt to an environment. Its meaning is determined by its relationships to the other elements in the system. Its goal is to understand itself; and transcend.