A Summary Statement Against Minimalism from Satie to the Present

by Christopher Fulkerson
CF's Composition Desk
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The question of whether minimalism has any merit is so obvious that it would be out of character with the situation to develop a long disputation against it.

Minimalism is buncombe. It could only thrive in a society where personal patronage doesn't exist; where arts support has to rely on the popularity of the work to the exclusion of its merit; where education is poor; where educators are called upon to accept, or seem to accept, any artistic product or aesthetic whatsoever out of a neo-virtue alleged to accrue to "diversity;" where there is no awareness of taste as a common value; or where taste is denied for reasons that can only be described as jejune. Above all minimalism depends for its existence upon a public that cannot or will not distinguish between art and entertainment, and has only a catechistic experience with, and therefore no expectation of, the very idea of content in artworks.

Minimalism is not an idiom that becomes more interesting with greater familiarity; persons who grow to like minimalism more are simply enjoying the distance they are creating between themselves and Western Civilization and a wholesome human psychology. Of course this does not stop minimalism's advocates from recommending that its adversaries listen to more of it. This gives the pretence that there is substance to the stuff which might have been missed the first time, and such pretences feed the minimalist his own further recomendation to listen. The minimalist thus responds with the same recomendation a Modernist might offer to help understand his more sophisticated art, and this allows the minimalist the illusion that the playing field is thus leveled, and at the same time the minimalist gets to pretend that there is more there in his art. But it is not difficult to get at a glance not only the gist, but more or less everything there is to be said by a glacier, and so with minimalism. Being told to listen to more minimalist music is like being told to keep watching a perpetual motion machine. The recommendation is completely specious.

Criticism of minimalism depends for no more sophisticated understanding that that required to understand stories such as the Emperor's New Clothes, or the Pied Piper. Minimalists have sold the public, and arts supporters who don't want to work at (or pay the bills of) advancing art, the way the phony taylor did who designed the Emperor's invisible wardrobe, that no one but a simple boy would criticise, or even describe accurately, out loud; minimalist composers are Pied Pipers who draw off the public from participation in Western civilization, and it is the wise unheeded elders, demonized as style Nazis, who oppose it. Minimalists are frauds and only a fraudulent society such as ours could tolerate them.

Popular music is an evil thing, and should be viewed more as a weapon, or a cattle-prod, than a civilization-maker, but as an art it is far greater than that of the Minimalist so-called "composers" who have invaded the concert halls of the world, and should be thrown out on their ears. Let them fill stadia if they can; they should not be permitted in symphony halls and opera houses. Theirs is a decadent popular artform, not any kind of classical art. And when a popular art form is decadent, that is decadence indeed. From time to time popular artists from the Grateful Dead to the Soft Machine have used the materials of minimalism, but relatively briefly, never to the dreary interminable lengths as its so-called "composers." Would such popular artists be giving a greater endorsement to their minimalist friends if they simply played their minimalist-influenced pieces at greater length? It is highly unlikely they will ever try, since they know perfectly well that if there is one thing their audience is not fooled by, it is: blatant boredom. They get the point of a perpetual motion machine rather faster than your average minimalist, and getting the point, they want to move on to the next thing.

This is another way of saying that the audience for popular music, craven though it usually is, is at least more "aesthetically" genuine than any Classical audience that tolerates minimalism. This is evidence that the public at large is not duped by the minimalists, whose artworks are nowhere in evidence at the grossest level of popular media. This means that the public at large is tacitly and passively, by voting with its dollars, playing the part of the little boy who pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes on. Only that part of the "serious" public that acts like the fatuous courtiers participates in minimalism. Unfortunately, they have enough power, influence and money to keep the situation dire. There has never been a time in Classical music history when a worse state of affairs prevailed. Unchanging interminable repetition is a form of rigor mortis. Minimalism is the best evidence for the occasional claim that Classical music is dead.

A very revealing remark about minimalism was made by the fine musicologist Elain Sisman in her excellent article on "Variations" for the new New Grove's Dictionary of Music. She remarks that "The idea of repetition in combination with gradual change makes problematic the relationship between the minimalist musical style of the 1970s and 80s and variations. Very tiny ostinatos produce the feeling of pulsations rather than structures to be varied." Here, in trying to say anything truthful about minimalism, proper music criticism has painted itself into a corner. To the creative mind Sisman's remarks translate to mean "There is too little musically happening here to talk about structure that binds or even about events that occur." It is bizarre that Sisman has to use the Columbia-Princeton-Berkeley Uptown concept of "analysis of a problem" to justify the Counterculture Downtown notion that "everything anyone does is to be accepted and praised." It is like an arch-Republican justifying the very most wigged-out Democrat. It is like a doctor recommending trepanning as a means of keeping the mind open.

Buncombe is most certainly the perfect word to describe Minimalism. The term was coined to denote longwinded vacuous pontifications. In 1820, Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives, rose to address the question of admitting Missouri as a free or slave state during the Sixteenth Congress of the United States. This was after nearly a month of solid debate on the subject and right before the vote was to be called. To the exasperation of his colleagues, several of whom gathered around him, begging him to desist, Walker insisted on delivering a long and wearisome "speech for Buncombe." Eventually he was shouted down by his colleagues and not permitted to "complete" his statement. His persistent effort made "buncombe" (later respelled "bunkum") a synonym for meaningless political claptrap and later for any kind of nonsense. Especially nonsense that goes on unendingly without content. Minimalism is diarrhetic.

Some summary statements, like the equation "minimalism is buncombe," merit a simple repetition. When a point is not made because the minds to which it is addressed will not perceive it, it is, literally, pointless to keep trying. When the exponents of minimalism cannot or will not get the point - and to judge from the music they listen to, "getting the point" is not something they are any good at - then the wiser among us can only wish they would not be given the weapons of popularity in the forums of the great. We expect seriousness, hope for genius, but the minimalists are giving us a steady stream, indeed a stead state, of crap. I am reminded of something I once heard in my cab: a mobster con artist, speaking of a building scam on Nob Hill, said in a blithely scornful laugh to his moll, "They think they're water mains, but they're sewer mains." Anyone who allows minimalism is a fraud. Its popularity is deplorable and the resultant exclusion of genuine modern Classical music from programs is worse than a loss for Civilization, it is proof we are living in a time of its abject failure.

First published in 2009. Updated October 16, 2011.