Minimalism

Kristen Schaal is still a horse

One of my teachers in graduate school used to say the difference in repetition and reiteration is that repetition diminishes meaning while reiteration increases meaning.

The repetition in musical Minimalism (think Reich's Come Out or Glass's Einstein on the Beach) is my go-to example for evaluating meaning, or the change in meaning, in repetition. In my own experience, my perception changes gradually over time even when listening to this kind of music. First, I sense the repetition on a local level ("Oh, this isn't going to change, huh?"). Second, I become annoyed and impatient (this happens less now than it used to). Third, I give in and slip into a different mode of perception (some people think of this as a trance; it comes with practice)--a mode that allows me to connects dots that are farther apart, so to speak. The big picture comes into focus and time becomes less important--like I'm looking at a picture, with the freedom to direct my intentionality around a space rather than being locked in the moment, as in traditional goal-oriented music.

I heard a Radiolab episode recently called Loops that dealt with a couple of things that reminded me of musical Minimalism and raised a couple questions about the meaning of repetition. One of the vignettes deals with the composer William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, a series of recordings of old, decayed analog tape loops repeating until they literally disintegrate. This certainly follows one common model of Minimalism: A gradually transforms into B. In addition to the listener's perception changing over time, the music changes literally, though almost imperceptibly.

Kristen Schaal Is a Horse, which is dealt with the episode's first vignetter, on the other hand doesn't change. It is literally AAAAAA.... It's a comedy (or anti-comedy) bit she does with Kurt Braunohler (there's a video below, check it out). But unlike the musical Minimalists, Schaal and Braunohler don't change gradually (except as a result of the physical demands of the performance--hoarse voice (no pun), for example). They seem to undermine even the assumption that something must change, progress, evolve, etc. In the world of comedy this is an extreme version of jokes that run absurdly long on purpose (the giant chicken on Family Guy, for example). My perception of these too-long jokes is analogous to my perception of musical Minimalism (i.e. become aware of the repetition, become frustrated that it's going on too long, then give in), except in this case giving in means to laugh. The transparent, literal repetition in the Schaal/Braunohler gives us a good way to control for the change in perception that occurs (if any). My perception does change; in fact it does all the work. At the end* Kristin Schaal may still be a horse, but the viewer has just experienced a surprisingly rich perceptual journey precisely because nothing happened.

*I understand they have done this bit for up to 10 minutes or more in some performances (or maybe it just felt that way to some people--I haven't seen a longer video).


The sunken monadnock

Two weeks ago I didn't know what a monadnock was and now I'm thinking of using it as a guiding principle, if not the title, of my dissertation. In an epic coincidence of web browsing I happened upon something that could generate the music I'm going to compose. It all started when a high school friend posted an article from ESPN on Facebook, which links to City Prints Map Art, a company that makes monochromatic prints of maps with streets like look like veins. Here's a map of Appalachian State University (my undergrad alma mater):

I love minimalist monolithic art (is that a thing?) and I love maps. Add school colors and I would gladly drop $180 to buy this (my wife said no). When I shared this company's website on FB, I got a comment from a Texas friend who shared the online map archive at UT-Austin. After a few hours I got around to looking at the archive and realized they had historical maps from every state, so I clicked on North Carolina, and then found a more complete NC historical map archive and started looking at places I've lived and visited.

It was surreal to see what was missing one hundred years ago. Some towns weren't there. Many roads were dirt. I spent awhile looking at Watuaga County, where I've spent a lot of time over the past 16 years. I was fascinated that highway 194 was the main road from Boone to Avery County, not 105 as it today. Accordingly, the towns along 194 seemed more important on that map. 105 wasn't there, but a dirt road went as far as Shull's Mill. Shull's Mill is no more than a crossroads today, but on that map from the early twentieth century it was so important that, along with Boone, it was featured with an inset street map. One map of Charlotte pointed the way to Blowing Rock, though a dozen larger towns dot the highway to Blowing Rock today.

I spent several hours looking at these maps, becoming engrossed in how much I could tell about what life might have been like from them. At some point I was looking at western Watauga County, noticing that the road today still follows the same path out toward Watauga Lake. Except Watauga Lake wasn't there. I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that when the TVA dammed the Watauga River, they flooded the town of Butler, Tennessee. Suddenly images of a sunken town flooded my mind, as did memories of O, Brother Where Art Thouand my wife's phobia of dead bodies in large bodies of water (they got there, she claims, because old graveyards lie at the bottom of lakes). I ordered a book on the history of Butler because it was so intriguing.

That reminded me of some online browsing I had done recently on the geology of Pilot Mountain, a peculiar monadnock I saw every day as a child in my hometown of Pilot Mountain, NC. A monadnock, I learned, is a mountain that rises suddenly and in isolation on a relatively flat plain. Here is the picture (of Pilot Mountain, coincidentally) on the Wikipedia entry:

After several days these two ideas, the sunken town and the monadnock, started to interact with each other in my mind. I began to see a relationship: Both were connected by the flatness of their environments--the surface of the lake and the plain surrounding the mountain. Both deviated from their surroundings in some way--one rising above and one sinking below. The one jutting up, in view for miles and miles, the other completely hidden from view despite the people driving boats and skiing directly above it.

I really liked the inversional, yin-and-yang relationship between these two things and began to think of how this relationship might be abstracted musically. The more I thought about the sunken town, the monadnock, and music the more I started see this in my mind:

Which is an abstraction of this:

Which is a sound wave.

See. Everything has a musical application.

So the title of this blog is a conflation of the two in a way that makes syntactical sense, though semantically it's paradoxical. More on the musical development of this concept next time.

©2017 Joshua Harris