Non-motoric minimalism

Community Perspectives: on Subverting Repetition & Loops
November 2nd, 2012

Even though my music is greatly influenced by some aspects of minimalism, I usual prefer to avoid exact repetition. My avoidance of exact repetition has grown over time, so if you listen to my earlier pieces you’ll find a lot more exact repetition.

There are a lot of ways I might vary a phrase or other musical unit: timbrally, texturally, by re-tuning or altering the collection of notes present in the sequence and/or harmony. But the biggest way I try to vary ideas is by avoiding rhythmic regularity, particularly avoiding what some critics call “motoric minimalism” as popularized by Glass and Reich. “Motoric minimalism” is often still rhythmically irregular due to the use of phasing, additive and subtractive cycle lengths, overlapping cycles of different durations, or other processes. However, the hallmarks of style – the generally steady beat and the manner in which the phrases repeat and gradually change in this style – have become too commonplace and predictable for me to want to use regularly in my own pieces.

There are several ways I may vary rhythm in different pieces including:

1) Letting rhythm be “free” to improvise with, with or without a specified range or possibilities.

2) Using phrases of different lengths (sequentially, simultaneously or both).

3) Shifting meters, tempo, and tuplet values (or any combination thereof).

4) Allowing tempo and note duration to vary note-to-note, measure-to-measure, or phrase-to-phrase.

5) Fermatas and rests of variable duration.

6) Avoiding pre-compositional decisions that pre-determine the length of different formal sections of a piece.

7) Setting up a rhythmic cycle or process that I will intentionally undermine as desired (by ear).

Sometimes I’ll use a longer rhythmic cycle (which listeners might be unaware of) that stays the same length but the constituent parts will change durations. But sometimes I’ll change up that cycle too.

Drones and repeated pedal points can all be treated with similar options, even if they transform slowly over time.

One nice thing about constantly varying rhythm is that when I decide to use a steady pulse or exact repetition, it creates a striking contrast within the piece. This idea can also be applied to other aspects of the music.

Another technique I like to use is a tempo canon. Sometimes I will record 2 or more tracks of the same material with different tempi.  This is where I most often use more “traditional” musical materials with a steady pulse or other rhythms that could be easily conventionally notated.  But I also make use of MIDI sequencing and audio time-stretching to apply the idea of the tempo canon to more interpretive or improvised materials.

While none of these ideas is particularly new, collectively they help my music to sound very different from the chugging steady pulse of “motoric minimalism” and the styles it has influenced which seems to dominate the New Music landscape.

A few of my pieces that make use of the ideas above include:

For Melinda Rice and the collection Scrapbook/Landform Variations Book 1.

Community Perspectives is a moderated blog where you can post your music and thoughts in response to topics and discussion prompts as well as read and listen to what others post. You can view this as a virtual discussion, festival, symposium, conference, gallery, and round-table all wrapped into one. Learn more.

This entry was posted on Friday, November 2nd, 2012 at 10:00 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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