Sunday, March 09, 2008

Minimal by Minimal

Lately I have been listening to the mixings of Richie Hawtin, who brilliantly shapes dance songs into an extremely minuscule format, bringing the experience of electronic music to a higher level. This style of mixing is called "minimalism", which is driven by a 4/4 beat,derived from house music and generally considered a standard dance rhythm. Because minimal techno tracks are so stripped down, the subtle introduction of one or two new sounds can have a tremendous impact.

Once an optimal beat-per-minute is found, all the tracks are matched and Hawtin is free to experiment with incredible spatial freedom. In the early days of techno there were no rules and DJs experimented immensely. But with new technologies even more possibilities broke through. The spatial transition, moving away from the traditional stereo field of music and into the 5.1 channels of surround sound, changed the dynamic effect of music. Richie Hawtin and others use this to their advantage, creating organic minimal and danceable sound environments, or a non-mechanical "downmix" as some would say.

Last week I listened to art Professor Elise Richman explain a bit about minimalism in art. From her perspective Donald Judd and others who developed this austere and very "American" form of art that was supposed to be geometrically perfect and immediately recognizable in its construction. Judd uses industrial manufacturing to create perfect solid-colored block shapes and other angular dimensions. I had seen Judd's work before, and the best way I could think to describe it would be "Euclidean escapism".

Minimal techno in fact has its roots in Detroit, home of the American automobile industry, and also in fact home of the techno movement too. Yet unlike Donald Judd's minimalism, the sound of minimal techno does not invoke the feeling of "industry". Richie Hawtin's style is often also called IDM, or "intelligent dance music" for its static effects and slow sound movement built on top of multiple "bed" layers of drums and kicks. When one thinks of "industrial" techno music, loud sounds that are jarring come to mind like electric synths and the high resonated kick drum of nRgY raves. Hawtin's minimalism is not jarring but instead feels incredibly smooth and well-rounded, and therefore very non-Euclidean.

Preferring to take everything in small bits in order to capture the full experience, the minimalists are the wine and cheese connoisseurs of the underground techno scene. Those who haven't developed an appreciation for the minimal style will listen to twenty seconds of minimalism and not understand what is attractive about it. It has been my experience that minimalism generally appeals to those who are older than the standard rave-going crowd. Having listened to a lot of electronic music throughout their lives, its subtle, steady sound provides a heady, almost intellectual, feeling of being in control. Not to say that minimalism can only be understood by those who have spent time listening to techno away from parties, but there is a bit of elitism or a "been there, done that" aspect to minimalism.

Just as the minimalist DJs themselves tend to have been around longer, the appreciation of minimalism builds over time. After listening to twenty minutes of a minimal session the logic of the rhythm surrounds your brain and becomes an advanced ambiance to dance to. Much like an art installation which cannot be experienced in two dimensional representation alone, minimal techno builds a sculpture in the mind that can only be understood through the dimension of time and change. That is also why the surround dynamics play important role.

Minimalism in the arts can nearly always be spotted through its austere repetitions and iterations. Yet all electronic dance music makes use of repetition and iteration. The development of minimalism simply takes this to a greater extreme. If there has been a post-minimalist movement in the arts, then maybe minimalism is actually the post-minimalism of techno. The Detroit techno scene of the mid-1980s is simply the critical reference point for all techno music thereafter.

You can listen and download Richie Hawtin's latest album DE9: Transitions for free here. (And being able to listen to the album did in fact convince me to purchase it even though I already had some of the music. I particularly like the very organic track "Where is Mayday?")


Life's a Beat said...

Thanks for the great write-up on Minimal.

Muser said...

Thanks for the post. One of the U.S.'s indigenous forms of music, the blues, is interesting from this minimalist perspective. It's a simple but endlessly flexible music and lyric form.

Acumensch said...

Interesting comparison! A lot of minimal DJing is endlessly flexible too, yet keeping a constant tempo and beat. Both blues and minimal are indigenous American music, so to speak. Although right now the minimal scene is growing in Germany, Detroit is still its home. Over the summer I listened to minimal at the famous Berghain club in Berlin.