Society for Minimal Music Conference 2015: Finland

Helsinki Music Centre where I presented my research on Julius Eastman.
Helsinki Music Centre where I presented my research on Julius Eastman.

The Fifth International Conference on Minimalist music took place from September 23-27, 2015. This conference is put on every two years by the Society for Minimal Music. Some of the most important scholars on minimalism were in attendance; Kyle Gann, Jelena Novak, Robert Fink, Tom Johnson, David McIntire, and others. To be among so many fascinating people with a deep understanding of minimalism was an honor. Sometimes it is easy to forget how young minimal music is; it is still a small mark in the long history of music. My imagination and scholarly intrigue were thoroughly stimulated by all the wonderful music and informative presentations I heard at the conference.


Rock and Popular Music

John Richardson and Slow Floe performing the song cycle "The Fold"
John Richardson and Slow Floe performing the song cycle “The Fold”

If there is an academic event the greater public might feel comfortable at, it is certainly this one. This conference was certainly a gathering of intellectuals who spend a lot of time thinking about art, but the art form that was being addressed has its roots in a desire to rupture a code of the 20th century avant-garde. Letting the influence of the popular music of America seep naturally into their music was what set Riley, Glass, and Reich apart from the mid-20th century avant-garde. This conference began with a performance from a Krautrock inspired band from Finland called E-Musikgruppe Lux Ohr. They performed Riley’s Keyboard Studies II and then immediately followed it with Kraftwerk inspired variations on the same piece. The group consisted of three people on keyboards and synthesizers and a guitarist; all creating hypnotizing polyrhythms, loops, and ethereal drones. Afterwards, John Richardson (the chair of this conference) performed with his band. The music they played is what one could imagine a David Gilmour-led psychedelic folk band would be like.

Some of the presentations given at the conference discussed the explicit relationship between popular music and minimalism. Jedd Schneider and David McIntire co-authored research on Krautrock and other 70’s progressive rock acting as “tangible conduit[s] of minimalist tropes.” Mark Perry presented his research on the intersections of Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) with minimal music. IDM is essentially the art-music counterpoint to Electronic Dance Music (EDM). Some of the defining features of IDM records are ambient drones, repetitive musical structures, and atmospheric instrumentation. Dean Suzuki gave a presentation on Andrew Poppy and DIY attitudes in the New Music community, especially with the post-minimalists. Andrew Poppy formed groups that were part rock band part vehicle for the performance of new music. The first such group was Lost Jockey which formed in 1981, six years before the founding of Bang on a Can.

Robert Fink Presenting
Robert Fink Presenting

Robert Fink was one of the keynote speakers at the conference. His presentation on Musical Stutters was absolutely fascinating. Stutters are simply repetitions. Fink explored the implications of and diagnoses for stutters in art-music, EDM, and hip-hop. Examples he used were Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, old school hip-hop turntable scratching, and modern digital stuttering created by splicing together very short sound waves which are heard in most genres of popular music from the 90’s onward. Fink made some throught-provoking assertions about the connections between the capitalist cultures of repetition and the prevalence of all types of stuttering found in music.

Nature/Finnish Music and composers

A border patrol agent asked me a series of questions upon my return to the United States. The series of questions led the patrolman to ask me something I did not expect: “What is minimalism?” True story. In hindsight, that was a great teaching moment. At the time, I was caught off guard. Just the other day, I again had to explain what minimalism is to an inquiring mind that seemed to have a negative view of minimalism due to its sometimes repetitive nature. I explained to her some of the basic musical characteristics that define minimalism just I had done for the patrolman, but this I tried to give some historical context to the advent of the style. Minimalism fits in with the time in which it appeared. The early to mid-20th century was a time of rapid scientific advancement in which humans were able to begin to grasp the vastness of reality like never before. Most things that happen in the universe are on a scale of time or size too large for us to understand; minimalism reflects our expanding ability to comprehend or at least accept this burdensome fact. Sitting through the entirety of Dennis Johnson’s November may take just as much patience and mental strength as it does to comprehend the Big Bang or Darwinian evolution or the formation of the Grand Canyon. In the case of both minimal music and the large-scale workings of nature, the pay out of patience is a profound discovery of beauty. There was a lot of talk at the conference on how the beauty and vastness of nature effect composers of minimal music.

Drone and repetition are features of minimal music, but these techniques are applied to both pre- and post-minimalism musical styles. One of the great humans I met at the conference was Juha Torvinen, adjunct professor of musicology at the University of Turku, and he gave a presentation on how composers and musicians from the Northern Hemisphere, particularly Scandinavia, are inspired by the “northern geography, climate, and environmental conditions, which are intimately linked to Northern mythologies and cultural traditions.” (from the abstract of his paper Nordic Drone Pedal Point, Static Texture, and the Norther Atmosphere)

Another wonderful professor I met at the conference, Susanna Välimäki from the University of Helsinki, gave a presentation on “Postminimalism in Finnish Art Music in the 21st Century.” This presentation exposed me to the music of the Finnish composer Juhani Nuorvala. Listen to this work of his for synthesizer and cello:

There was a concert at the Sibelius Museum in Turku that featured works by Glass, Gann, Feldman, Tom Johnson, and the Finnish composer Erkki Salmenhaara. The music of Erkki Salmenhaara was full of conversational counterpoint, romantic expressivity, and minimalist techniques.

Kyle Gann and Tom Johnson

The concert at the Sibelius Museum was my first chance to hear the music of Kyle Gann and Tom Johnson live.

Left: Veli Kujala and his microtonal accordion. Right: Kyle Gann.
Left: Veli Kujala and his microtonal accordion. Right: Kyle Gann.

Both Gann and Johnson had their music performed throughout the conference. What a treat this was; hearing the music of living minimalist composers who have been in the scene since the advent of what we now call “minimalism” (at least in the case of Johnson, Gann is a bit too young to implicate such a thing.) Gann’s music is expressive, rhythmic, and complex. So complex that it seems like process music at times; I may be mistaken about this thought, but process or not the music retains expressivity. One piece of Gann’s that was heard at the conference was Reticent Behemoth for quarter-tone accordion. After the performance of this piece, Gann was asked what he thought about the sound of the instrument. Gann replied: “It didn’t hurt as much as I thought.” When asked about the role emotions play in his music Gann replied: “If [the] emotive aspect isn’t strong, it doesn’t mean much to me.” This is especially interesting to hear after hearing a piece with an instrument that, to many people, sounds so foreign. What is strange and what is beautiful are, of course, subjective.

Left to right: Anna-Maria Huohvanainen, Tom Johnson, Orestis Willemen
Left to right: Anna-Maria Huohvanainen, Tom Johnson, Orestis Willemen

Some of Johnson’s music performed at the conference was definitely processed based. He talked about the ways in which he used processes in his pieces Eggs and Baskets and Counting to Seven. These pieces were extremely effective, entertaining, and in some instances, very funny! Johnson was asked about humor in his music and he said that he never tries to be funny; he just tries to be honest and sometimes the truth is very funny. One example of his honesty: His piece Eggs and Baskets was intended for children. The piece involves a process of liquidation of the possibilities of a particular motive played on guitar and violin; the pitches are the eggs and the instruments are the baskets. Johnson said that at the first performance of the piece, none of the kids were laughing but all the parents were. So he decided to not play the piece for children any more.

One of the other highlights of the conference was Jelena Novak’s presentation on minimalist and post-minimalist techniques in contemporary opera. One of the operas she addressed was The News written by one of the most interesting composers of the 20th and 21st centuries: Jacob ter Veldhuis.

There were too many interesting presentations to cover here, but some of my other favorites were Adam Cadell’s presentation on Nordic underground music including black metal, David McIntire’s presentation on the music of Ann Southam, Jason Rito’s presentation on David Lang, and James Andean’s presentation on how communities shape the musical output of its members and members create musical communities; he specifically addressed the strange fact that so much minimal music is by definition electroacoustic yet is rarely classified as such because of, perhaps, sectarian issues.

This conference was well worth the trip from Michigan to Finland. Our hosts at the University of Turku and the University of Helsinki were absolutely lovely, and the event organizers from the Society for Minimal Music gave everyone at the conference a stimulating experience. Kyle Gann wrote this following the conference: “The Sixth International Conference is now tentatively scheduled for June of 2017 in Knoxville, Tennessee, in connection with the Nief-Norf festival run by Andrew Bliss. It gives me something to look forward to. The passage of my life is measured out in minimalism conferences.” Check out Gann’s brief article, which includes much better photos the ones I’ve posted, about the conference here.