By Douglas Wolk
The smartest way to make music with a new technology or methodology is to start small. One way to look at minimalism is as a way of developing a musical vocabulary, or at least an alphabet, independent of systems that already exist--and that can be crucial to the development of a new instrument or style. If you use your new invention in an established context, it can become a gimmick (think of Switched-On Bach, or Clara Rockmore adding theremin woo-woos to classical favorites, and how campy they sound now); if you get too ambitious, the result can be as baffling or tiresome as a story written in jabberwocky.
Many successful musical innovators have started with minimalism: Anthony Braxton's massive Creative Orchestra Music couldn't have happened without For Alto, his single-voice testing ground for his compositional tricks. Hans Reichel's solo pieces for his "daxophone"--more or less a block of wood played with a bow--aren't as funny as his version of "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" might be, but they highlight expressive possibilities that standard instruments don't have, rather than the deficiencies of the daxophone within a traditional context. Even Steve Reich, for whom minimalism has a capital M, started very small, with pieces for two instruments slipping in and out of phase with each other.
Musicians have recently found themselves with a whole new universe of electronic tools at their disposal, and what have they made with them? At one extreme, cookie-cutter dance records; at the other, heartless academic music. The clearest route to the middle is minimalism. The German group Oval (whose sole permanent member seems to be one Markus Popp), for instance, works with a small but virile germ of an idea: the prickly hot sound of damaged and altered CDs. Popp has turned that into a series of very lovely, very strange records, clinging to familiar forms early on (Oval's first album, never released in the U.S., reportedly has singing on it), but more recently concentrating on microscopic permutations of a single technique.
What keeps Popp's work not just admirable but likable is the human logic of its organization: "Shop in Store," from 94diskont, comes as close to verse/chorus/verse structure as it's possible to get within Oval's formal constraints. The new album, Dok, is constructed, using Popp's own Oval-record-making software, from field recordings of bell tones by Christophe Charles. The compositions are full of fractal crannies and unexpected surges, but the sounds that make them up are simple, brief, and familiar. They're the lifeline for listeners just beginning to explore this territory--which is to say, all listeners.
Another advantage of minimalism is that it forces a certain level of concentration--it's all too easy to ignore a new idea when it's just one of many elements in a busy aural environment. The six long tracks on Carl Michael von Hausswolff's To Make Things Happen in the Bunker via the Micro Way (on the Icelandic label F.I.R.E.) are hyperminimal cycles, drones, or whooshes, so spare they're barely there; a single note would be an illusion-shattering intrusion. "Spirit Folio Lite Detector (No Positive Results)," for instance, consists of one series of evenly spaced ticks in the left speaker and another series, slightly faster, in the right speaker. That's it. For eight and a half minutes. To listen to it with your eyes closed is a mind-warping experience, though not one you'd want to repeat too often.
Finland's Mika Vainio loves that ticking noise--with his solo project ¯, he's made it dance. "Radium," recorded in 1992 (and reissued in June by the Sahko label on Tulkinta), is techno burned down to the bone: a steady tap, a single-note drone, faint oscillator sounds, and the microscopic skittering of digital spikes. On the records he's made as part of the trio Panasonic, you can hear him putting the tiniest bit of flesh on the bone. With his new Onko, released under his own name on the British Touch label, though, he's moved from clicks to another tiny building block: tones. He presents them one at a time--a note cluster or a noise texture--against a background of digital black, like a single flower petal on a velvet pillow. The slightest oscillation or variation becomes gripping. Even tape hiss sounds different when it's presented as a sound in its own right; the duo Rehberg & Bauer has made a neat, though less austere, album, Fasst (also on Touch), entirely out of recording mistakes and "unwanted" noises. If Vainio ever gets around to using more than a handful of sounds at the same time, the result could be astonishing.
Or it could be awfully dull. Reich's later, more expansive pieces don't have the focus and intensity of his simplest work. Acid house's mutating squelches sound like so much clutter when they're pasted onto pop songs, and who really wants to hear Daniel Johnston with a band? Oval's sound-processing techniques don't necessarily work well when they're applied to more familiar forms, either; Popp's remixes of the last Tortoise album sound like the spiky hum of Oval records, with only a few fragments of the source material left undigested.
Nonetheless, Vainio's ideas seem like they have room to grow. The closest kin to Panasonic's records, with their hailstorm of high-end clatter, is the early work of Todd Terry, a dance producer who single-mindedly explored his fascination with steady, chipping treble in a series of ultraspare singles, and eventually put it to use in a huge pop hit, Everything but the Girl's "Missing." Maybe Vainio's small violations of silence would get lost in a more elaborate setting, but his obvious respect for the essence of individual sounds suggests that he could present them as details in a larger context without compromising their power.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Oval photo by Grazella Antonini/ album covers.