Friday, November 19, 2010

The bride stripped bare

Minimalism was one of the most popular and compelling concepts to come out of the 20th century. It can befound in multiple movements of virtually every art and discipline practiced. It's been codified into an unspoken cycle of musical styles: tastes progress toward a lean minimal sound then swing back around to maximalist, psychedelic excess and back again.

Most of the styles of popular music that are frequently given to minimalism are instrumental. I'm especially keen on pop singers who move into this realm. Even more, there's usually one or two every cycle that take it to uncharted realms: a place so pared back that very little is left to even call a song.

It's fascinating to hear how a song can retain its songhood despite losing almost all the adornment of style--that it can still be catchy, melodic, compelling... These types of songs demand a language that is contrary to how we usually talk about vocal pop. If arrangement, accompaniment and structure all seem absent; how are we to talk about it in any sort of universal terms?

A peculiar effect I've noticed in these minimal pop songs is an increased sense of anticipation and hence a heightened awareness of time. It sounds weird to say that we often forget that music is a time-based art form. We are constantly reminded of the facts--just look in your media-player and sort the songs there by length. Yet, we often seem to enjoy music as it unfolds--occasionally we look a bit to the future as a choice part is coming up or discuss one that just passed with someone to savor it--but for the most part we listen to music in the present, accepting what it is giving to us there. Given a song with enough gaps to give an agoraphobic pause, you sit in these spaces leaning forward.

Though our sense of time is increased we are at the same time deceived by an illusion of space. Songs with this much space often let each sound trail in a dovetail of reverb and roomsound. This idea that the recording is unfolding in a space (especially in our world of computer editing and limitless overdubs) is neat little slight of hand. It's especially disorienting with noise-cancelling headphones: your little bubble of sensory-deprivation seems popped by an unseen world.

Most of all, it seems that this sort of extremist pop reintroduces a tension that is so easily lost in pop. The same way that some artists mix sickly-sweet melodies with viciously barbed lyrics, here we have the tension between familiar forms and abstract execution. They've left us enough signposts to know we are in the land of popular music but removed most of what we associate with it. Because of that we can't feel casual and at ease. Like that bustop in the middle of cornfield nowhere in North by Northwest, everything seems to be in normal, but it feels dangerous.

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