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mindful minimalism

As part of my final year at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire I undertook a module entitled ‘Composing Music of Minimal Means’. I had the pleasure of collaborating with four other musicians to create two separate pieces of music, one in the style of Drone Minimalism and the other in the style of Wandelweiser. The reason that I am sharing this with you today is because I realised that both pieces had a meditative and ‘deep listening’ quality, very much in keeping with quiet note. Having spoken with the musicians they kindly allowed me to share these pieces on quiet note. Both pieces can be found in the ‘exercise’ section on your home page or by clicking on the pieces below. It is there that you can access ways to listen from a mindfulness and meditation perspective. This article however focuses on the context and creation of the music.

When most people think of the musical genre minimalism, often Steve Reich’s name comes up followed perhaps by Philip Glass. Although these two men were large influences on this style of music, their output only scratches the surface of the stylistic depth in the minimalism genre. One particular branch of minimalism is Drone Minimalism. Drone music has been around for thousands of years and heard all over the world in nearly all cultures and societies. Therefore, in the late 20th Century America when people first heard the term ‘Drone Minimalism’ it was not a new idea but a reinvention of an ancient one. Drone Minimalism, like most drone music, consists of long immobile drones, where the musical harmonies change over long periods of time giving the impression that they are not even changing at all. The idea of structure is totally lost, and the performer begins to delve into the concepts of deep listening and meditative performance.

Whilst the Americans were getting their teeth stuck into Drone Minimalism over in Europe the Germans were questioning the role of silence in music thus giving birth to the genre of Wandelweiser. It is not too dissimilar from drone music, the biggest difference being the importance and presence of silence. Pieces of Wandelweiser can contain as much silence as they do musical material. The composition process seems to almost be a living process, there are no fixed points and performers have quite a large degree of interpretation and control over the music, almost to the point of improvisation. It may seem odd to use silence as a musical device but when performed well the silence can be utterly breath taking.

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The first piece is titled Middle Distance. Written in the style of Drone Minimalism, this piece is performed by Electric Guitar, Alto Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone and two Cellos.

Initially we wanted to compose our piece using some of the ideas of James Tenney – beginning with a few notes agreed upon between us and then improvising the rest of the piece. This wasn’t able to happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We then decided to work by recording singular sounds and bringing them together via an editing process piece by piece. This idea was enriched with slow dynamic changes and reverb, similar to some of Pauline Oliveros’ performance’s in large reverberant spaces (such as a water tank). The improvisatory feel allowed performers more agency over their part.

The instrumentation was a unique feature of this piece, using them abnormally allowed for different sounds to help increase the overall atmosphere of the piece. Like for example the guitar sound was plucked but didn’t decay as it would normally. Through the use of automation controls the harsh attack of the guitar was reduced as well as using a large amount of reverb to extend the guitars limited amount of sustain. Altogether this ensured that the guitar part blended into the tonality and sound world with ease without sounding too soloistic. We also purposefully left in some background noise, similar to Tony Conrad’s work. We had planned for two points of determined harmony but still kept the piece non-teleological. We focussed more on intervals than chord structure creating a gradual shift in harmony, as a result the structure is dictated by the material rather than a pre-planned form.

The title of the piece is in some ways a little bit of a joke, during the composition process we were discussing the difference between the background and the foreground in regard to allowing the instruments to blend together. What we realised in the end was that we wanted to find a middle distance between these two ideas, hence the title. We have always used visual drafts to accompany our playing and help us better understand our ideas. In the beginning we used a basic sine wave to dictate both a dynamic build and decay as well as a standpoint for harmonic movement, such as the quartal movement at the end of the first dynamic peak. Because this visual anchor has been an important factor in the composition process the piece will be accompanied by a finalised visual score.

The second piece is titled Sending Sounds into Space. Written in the style of Wandelweiser, this piece was collaboratively written and created for Alto Saxophone and Classical Guitar.

As part of our creative process, we wanted to have certain focal centres of inspiration for the piece. The first was that we wanted our work to be informed by a philosophical backdrop or a narrative thought within which we could explore the form of Wandelweiser. Eva-Maria Houben was a particular inspiration in this (in particular her work Breath for Organ), and we ended up finalising on the idea of an exploration of time & space.

Fortunately, despite COVID-19 restrictions, we were able to rehearse in person (in a safe, legal, socially distanced environment), and through exploratory improvisations between our two instruments, we settled on a form to the piece that involved some notation and some free improvisation, akin almost to Antoine Beuger’s Cantor Quartets.

We ended up on deciding for the first section that the saxophone would lead by inserting 4 notes into the silence and for the guitar to then respond with chords of an improvised manner. This was to capture the disparity in time between the saxophones sustain, controlled in this instance by a “full breath” compared with the guitars natural fast decay.

The second section was then more traditionally notated but performed in the context of the genre. The idea came from simple 3 – 5 note melodies which would be played over a vast amount of time to transform them into an almost drone like texture – a strong feature in Wandelweiser. The literal translation of Wandelweisermeaning to ‘change wisely’ was a big inspiration. Each note is purposely and thoughtfully performed with direction and respect for the silence that surrounds this piece in the hope of creating a unique timeless space.

While the piece is diatonic, importantly it is never in the purpose of playing to a goal or being functional. In essence, the focus is more on an exploration of tonality.

I would personally like to thank the following people:

Max Thomas

Who performed Baritone Saxophone in Middle Distance and Alto Saxophone in Sending Sounds into Space

Follow Max’s podcast on mental health and music here

Mikey Cooper

Who performed Alto Saxophone in Middle Distance

Matt Phillips

Who performed cello in Middle Distance

Follow Matt on instagram here @ma.fyew

Finley Spathaky

Who performed cello in Middle Distance

Seán Clancy

Tutor and Module Leader

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