Lavrenty Mganga :

Minimalism and musical creativity

A bit of philosophy. Music is very rich in possibilities and very powerful in its influence upon the human being. Its essence consists of the conscious manipulation of vibrations: in quite high frequencies they seem to us as a color and sound, in low ones - as a rhythm and periods of macro-forms. It can be metaphorically stated that music is a manipulation of space and, much more importantly, of time - an art which is performed by the Creator and so when someone practices it, they are drawn closer to Him - because vibrations is all the world is made of.

Therefore, music affects all basic spheres or aspects of the human being: the sensual or emotional sphere (energy of the low order), the mental or intellectual sphere (logical thinking), and the spiritual sphere (energy of the highest order). In the sensual sphere its effect is accomplished through the well-defined pulse or through the presence of certain vibrations which are close to physiological rhythms of the human body; in the mental sphere - through certain more or less complex structures on micro- and macro-levels which are subject to some symbolic sequence or a metaphysical model or numerical manipulations; in the spiritual sphere - through the harmonious combination of the above-mentioned types of influence during the process of a spiritualized and energetically complete performance which opens up new qualities - symbolic information of the highest order being perceived in the highest spheres, where the love for God reigns and there is feeling of fundamental unity with the Universe. On each of these levels of influence numerous methods and devices are developed by mankind. Their description could be a subject matter for a separate book.

Ideally, all these aspects of the influence of music should be balanced, or be in harmony (i. e. in an equilibrium of proportion and in such high-organized relationships as to create the feeling of the perfection of Creation), and this ideal is worth aiming for. Very often we hear music in which either the aspect of sensual pleasure or structural intellect prevail. In fact, the bulk of music which is known and popular, widely circulates and is being propagandized now, is unharmonious from the above standpoint, i.e. it is characterized by a domination of coarse sensual energy or of intellectual constructions. Moreover, this music is very often being programmed for destruction, chaos and for the activation of the dark aspects of human nature. These tendencies have their deep reasons rooted in the process of the general evolution of our civilization (and this is a separate and large theme). Nevertheless, despite the powerful opposition to Nature, the designation of the human being still remains the same. Therefore, many people look for their spiritual path and appeal to the treasures of human cultures which were accumulated over the centuries, each jewel being an outstanding example of Harmony, in the above sense. Thus, the emergence in modern musical culture of the styles like new world music, world fusion, world beat, ambient or minimalism is very natural. It is induced by the awakening interest in the music of other traditions and epochs, which was and is more harmonious in our sense, than Western music of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

But why minimalism? This word may seem redundant in the list above, especially if we follow the narrow characterization of minimalism, which is given by some musicians and critics, e.g. 'the minimalist movement was and is a specific, conscious reaction against dogmatic serialism' (J. Warthen Struble) or if we take a description of minimalist techniques, which reduces them to the following: additive melody - this technique extends or reduces a repetitive pattern by increments of the smallest rhythmic value which thus affects the melodic content, rhythm etc.; rotation - this technique involves phase shifting; texture construction - this technique involves the ostinato fabric gradually growing more or less complex; isorhythmic overlap - this technique involves ostinati of varying lengths stated simultaneously (Claire Bowdler).

But even the works of the 'classics' of minimalism can by no means be fitted into such a framework. Moreover, it seems that in the minds of the vast majority of musicians and listeners this term represents something more capacious. Thus, such terms as 'repetitive music', 'acoustical art', and 'meditative music' are often used as synonyms for minimalism. As famous minimalist Wim Mertens has said, 'One can usually observe in this music a dominant equality of timbre and rhythms, a constant density and a very limited number of pitches.' But we discover the same properties in the ritual music, of say, African and Oceanic tribes, or in the ceremonial music of Asian nations, or even, in Gregorian chants! The musician considered as a founder of minimalism, Terry Riley, like many other 'classics' of this genre, do not accept this term as a useful description of their work (probably, because of the definitions above). He said in one of his interviews that 'essentially my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything just repeated patterns, musical patterns.'

What can be considered as a main source of the ideas of the first minimalists? All of them have been heavily influenced by non-western music from other parts of the world: La Monte Young and Terry Riley studied Indian music with Pandit Pran Nath. Philip Glass stayed in Tibet and India between 1966-7 where he paid particular attention to musical traditions based on additive structure principals. Steve Reich studied African drumming in Ghana, and also Balinese gamelan music and the cantillation (chanting) of the Hebrew Scriptures. As it seems it is precisely this fact that accounts for success of minimalism and interest in it among both musicians and listeners.

Much like 'impressionism' (another very ambiguous term) which acquainted Western music with other traditions and achieved great success in the beginning of the 20th century, minimalism of the 60s has continued this acquaintance, although mostly in the indirect form. In both cases it was something like a 'breath of fresh air': Western music over the past few centuries has often been built under the laws of the classical dramaturgy; the development of the musical ideas had to be accomplished through the conflict in which one of the parties had to win and the listener had to go through catharsis (purification through the deep experience of the passions). So a great emphasis was put on the rendition of the passions, emotions, affecting the sensual sphere. That is, this music was inharmonious in our sense. In the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries the emphasis has been shifted to the intellectual sphere, and the academic musical art has become extremely formalistic. Apotheosis of this tendency was in such forms as 12-tone technique, serialism, stochastic technique, conceptualism etc. Again a lack of harmony. In the pop-music which appeared then, emphasis was put on the sensual pleasure.

In this context the acquaintance with Eastern classical music which represents an example of supreme harmony had inevitably brought about the attempts to recast the paths for the future evolution of Western music. And, because the language of ancient Eastern music appeared too complex and strange for Western musicians and listeners, a need emerged for 'translators' or 'cultural mediators'. This role was played by the first impressionists and minimalists (though they often were not aware of this themselves).

Anyway, besides other traditions, minimalism can also be traced back to medieval times with the repeated phrases of choral liturgy. It can also be heard in Bach fugues, Ravel's Bolero and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (heavily reliant on rhythm).

It would seem, minimalism as an ideology or framework for musical creativity embodies very high potential, with a great mission and constitutes a very important possibility for Western musical culture. The minimalist piece is characterized primarily by repetition which can, on the one hand, bring delight and curing to the physical body, on the other hand - carry highly organized melodic and rhythmic structure which fixes the reason in a condition of contemplative quiescence; finally, it can put us in touch with God and tune one for transcendental meditation (higher spiritual states). This repetition contains gradual changes. If you want, by these changes you can distinguish minimalism from meditative music (maybe it is not necessary, though) which has an applied role and, strictly speaking, is not an art, but a means of achieving a certain state (like a prayer or breathing exercises). As my teacher, V. Gaivoronsky, says, 'there is a rule, according to which, the repetition of anything more than three times brings us to a meditative state.' Anything can be subject to this gradual change: pitches, durations, density etc. Another characteristic property which is related to the first, is conflict-free development, in other words, the absence of contrasts. The task of the author is to develop the material as completely as possible with a minimum of means or changes. Finally, the piece in its macro- or micro-form should rejoice in some 'laconic aura'. If we don't use patterns with distinct rhythmic content, we apparently get what is called ambient or relaxation music.

The key factor of the evolution of the minimalism should be the study and use of the musical experience of other cultures, where all the above properties or some of them had been discovered long ago and evolved organically. For example, in Indian music, like in the classical music of many of the Islamic countries, literal repetitions are practically absent. Meanwhile, the development of the musical ideas is highly homogenous and determined - conflict-free. Incredibly rich expressive means are used in the development of melodic and rhythmic material. However, because of the high attention to the melody and rhythm and due to the improvisational character of the performance, there is no vertical dimension(simultaneous stating of several voices). In the music of some African, American and Oceanic tribes there is a polyphonic vertical dimension and pattern-thinking without any development in macro-form. Such music can bring us into trance, though, it mostly emphasizes the vibrations in the sensual sphere. Patterns and polyphonic texture of the vocal parts can also be seen in the music of the Slavic nations. Indonesian gamelan gives us a unique example of manipulation both with dynamics and with musical time, preserving a homogenous character of development. Some experience of the early European music may also be quite useful, both spiritual and secular.

One of the notable tendencies of the evolution of modern minimalism is its spread into pop music, most notably into strains of 'techno' music (trance, ambient etc.). Now the term 'minimalism' is increasingly often used to designate these genres, and those who use it do not even know the names of Terry Riley or Philip Glass. The rave scene abounds in minimalism - after all, it would be hard for a DJ to create melodies for eight hours straight. There was even a collaborative album between Philip Glass and Aphex Twin. Unfortunately, practically all of this music seems to be inharmonic in our sense and often destructive, much like the pop-music that uses elements of the ancient traditions.

The true potential of the minimalist principle still remains to be discovered and realized by ours and subsequent generations. Possibly, this will make the mankind closer to perfection.

My route to minimalism. Like many musicians, I began my musical career at music school. I remember how strange the classical pieces which I had to listen to and play seemed to me at my tender age. They often depicted the struggle of "adult" passions unfamiliar to my childhood experiences, or demonstrated a complex, but cold intellectual structure similar to a polyhedral crystal. The only pieces I liked and desired to play were arrangements of folk melodies. Altogether, music school left me with a negative impression because there was no space for creativity - either for composing or even improvising. Having realized that the higher stages of musical education embody similar properties, I decided to cease my musical education and even stop playing altogether.

I returned to music when I learned to pick out the different parts in the pop songs which were being played everywhere and began to compose similar songs myself. Then my interest shifted to rock music, at first Russian, then Western, and gradually I became interested in its more complex forms - art-rock, progressive etc. Our cassette 'albums' of that time, recorded as a part of the project the Soulbuilding Society (a duo with Vladiswar Nadishana), contained a kind of crazy parody music. It was influenced partly by what we listened to then (Frank Zappa, jazz-rock, fusion, and radical avantguarde), partly it was a result of our experiments with 'dermotronica' (lit. shittronics) - this was what we called the practice of using equipment (we possessed only cheap and primitive Russian gear) in unusual and unforeseen ways, the result being inconceivable sounds.

It was at that time that I first became acquainted with minimalism (Terry Riley, Philip Glass). Under its influence I began my own home-taping. Minimalism seemed to me then a very provocative and subtle dig at listeners. This coincided very well with my own ideas. Moreover, the features of 'dermotronika' made all experiments with it inevitably minimalist(limited possibilities to control the sound of home-made instruments and the primitive pattern-like nature of the pilot signals of the Russian synthesizer 'Polyvox' and our 'Lel' drum-machine) . Knowing that somebody else consciously limits himself in a similar way was exciting and inspiring.

One day in the music of Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Dead Can Dance I discovered the elements of folklore and jazz. Having discovered the modern forms of jazz (free-jazz, ethno-jazz, ECM-jazz), academic music, world music, the multifaceted folklore of different nations and of my own country, and having attended several jazz-festivals, I began to perform spontaneous improvisations (i. e. without any theme or genre or any other considerations) on bamboo flutes, clarinet, saxes, and percussion; later this improvisation became modal. At the same time I continued educating myself and home-taping.

Eventually, the possibility appeared to get the kind of education that I needed. Entering the St.Petersburg Academy of Theatre, Music and Cinematography (class of V. Gaivoronsky), I knew that teachers there would not teach according to traditional academic schemata, but under the unique methodology invented by Gaivoronsky. This methodology involved the studying of music not only in the Western classical tradition and not only from the standpoint of the latter, but using the experience of ancient and non-western musical systems. The same can be said regarding the theatre training. It is hard to overemphasize the influence which has been exerted on me by all people who took part in this unprecedented venture - indeed, the result of it would have been the first theatre in which the actors would have been the musicians at the same time, and with a professional command over the experience of many epochs and traditions.

Gaivoronsky's system combines in one non-contradictional whole, the vast majority of known musical systems of the world, from the simple meditative rhythm of primitive tribes (a so called single or monosystem, where the expressive means are bound to rhythm and the pitch is constant) to the complex scales of Indian and Arabic music (septenary and more complex systems). Besides scales and functional relations, there are laws for melodic and rhythmic composition of thematic and intermediate material (rules of building an accented-form or matrix and its 'filler' notes) and for the development of the macro-form. Despite its tremendous scope, this system is quite easy to learn because you move from simple things to complex ones.

Composing music in this system, gave me invaluable experience practically 'from inside' with the deep layers of the musical art of different traditions. I realized the existence of principally different types of perception of, and meaning in, musical phenomena. Having extended the horizon as far as principles of development of the musical fabric (in particular, conflict-free development) and the mystical aspects of music, I normalized my listening experience (it was then already huge) and consciously began to compose under minimalist principles. My album Ars Minimal is somewhat transitional, because during my work on it I was in the above-mentioned process (cogitation of my musical experience and elaboration of my compositional principles). So, my route to minimalism was similar to that of the 'classics' of this genre as regards the protest against certain aspects of academic Western music and the studying of music of other cultures, but it was less 'academic' and more self-styled and intuitive.

Another aspect of my creative work is the composition of 'archetypical' music, as I call it. According the archetype theory, there are some general principles or modes of thinking which underly developed cultures (this accounts for similarities in traditions, which developed independently from each other). Acquaintance with Gaivoronsky's system, which is in a sense archetypical, enabled me to perform experiments with composition both within the framework of existing traditions (not being an authentic bearer) and of 'imaginary' traditions, or experiment with the extrapolation to different stages of evolution of a particular tradition. This kind of music is played by Ensemble RI, of which I am a member.

Lavrenty Mganga. 2000.


2004 Lavrenty Mganga

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