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When Less Is More

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One of my favourite line's in one of my favourite author's books which paraphrased says, I decided to take the winter off to read The Russians. Very funny. (If I have to explain this, you are lost.) The famous Russian novelists, while notoriously long -winded deserve scrupulous attention. The author is Richard Brautigan in the novel, A Confederate General From Big Sur. Brautigan isn't remembered much anymore except by a small but devout fan base who hail his genius in the brevity of a quiet humour infused with the gentle sadness that defines human compassion. Brautigan was a minimalist when it came to writing, so it's no surprise he started as a poet and honed his words as he progressed to novelist. 

Born into poverty which is scarcely imagined within Western countries (in an autobiographical book he describes his mother sifting rat feces from the flour with which she will cook a pan-fried “flat bread” for himself and his sister...going without food for days was not uncommon). Throughout his life Brautigan was plagued with depression and its woeful sibling, alcoholism. Eventually in 1984, when he was 49, washed up and all but forgotten as a writer he ended his life with a .44 magnum shot to his brain. Brautigan was often incorrectly linked with Beat and the Hippie life-style although he shunned both. Retrospectively, it's easy to see where this stemmed from; he embraced an alternative life-style which sought no reinforcement buffeted by followers. Brautigan was an outcast book-cased by the Beats and Hippies. Michael McClure, who went from Beat to Hippie icon, was a close friend (as was Thomas McGuane, 92 Degrees In The Shade ) and City Lights bookstore founder, publisher and poet, Laurence Ferlinghetti was a mentor, of sorts. Brautigan wrote Trout Fishing In America in 1961 a year before A Confederate General From Big Sur but his publishers wanted to release them in reverse order; Big Sur was released in 1965 and Trout Fishing in 1967. Trout Fishing made him famous. It may be apocryphal but it's claimed much of original sales came from avid fishermen looking for tips. The book containers no fishing although there are plenty of barbs and hooks. There is a Chaplinesque scene in Big Sur where high on acid the protagonist tries to stand up only to bash his head on an unforeseen object .... is it God, the government or is life itself knocking him back down on his ass.... no, he is sitting underneath a table. And you wonder why he's a legend. One of his books created a real life library for “unpublished books.” (A character in The Abortion  is the librarian for a library where people anonymously submit their deepest secrets, obsessions and desires in notebooks which will never be published and never read.... this is truly wonderful stuff.)

So, what does this have to do with music? Minimalism! In literature it's hard: Beckett? I love Robert Coover (Pricksongs and Descants) redefining reality with each repeated paragraph taken from a different perspective. But how do you feel about  Alain Robbe-Grillet (Last Year In Marienbad) pounding the same repetitive image into your brain. Barnett Newman may be the most controversial of the abstract expressionists because most of his paintings consist of enormous canvases of monochrome colour broken by a stripe. When the National Gallery of Canada purchased Voice of Fire for $1.8 million the uproar by the hoi-polloi shook the nation. Recently a Newman painting, Black Fire 1 sold for $84.2 million which tends to favour the expertise of the original curators.

But repetition is boring, particularly when it is unrelenting. Minimalism, particularly in music manages to embarrass this concept. In the entire genre, my own favourite, is Philip Glass. In his best pieces he equivocates his own name, falling from great heights, shattering, disintegrating into a chaos of raindrops falling in broken shards below. He takes a theme and slowly, religiously builds upon it.

Philip Glass – The Hours 

The point is, when things are repetitive they are indeed boring, because we recognize the pattern. Build in complexity, we still can recognize the pattern. The human brain is hardwired to make sense of the world by creating recognizable structures. When Holst wrote The Planets, as his religious beliefs inspired him, he went from “noise-chaos” to order as an homage to God creating harmony from the bedlam of the universe. (It is a beautiful moment in music.) But repetition like Charlie Chaplin's tramp in Modern Times leads to not only to a stultifying rabidity but true insanity..... when we believe we see the entire picture.... I understand everything.... the cosmos has unfolded and revealed itself to me alone.... now, unless you are founding a new religion, you're fucking crazy!

Conlon Nancarrow's  wrote piano music which cannot be reproduced by a single person. He painstakingly wrote it on metallic rolls to be played by a player piano. Player pianos were the luxury radio of their day prior to electricity. The owner didn't have to be a musician. Insert the pre-progammed roll and the piano would read and play the song. Each note is a punctured hole on a tin sheet; you cannot make a mistake in the creation. The advent of electricity and the ubiquitous popularity of radio and the market crash of 1929 put an end to the player piano. Nancarrow, with a singularity that defines genius saw the potential in the defunct instrument by implementing it in an entirely different manner. Take the simple and build it into an impossible but definable mass. Nancarrow is a great minimalist who explodes into a complexity which can on only be described as embodiment of life itself.

So what you think. It just seems to me when we head out to the clubs to listen to something that is as repetitive and akin to the sort of kettle drumming that Merian C. Cooper thought was exotic, luring King Kong out from the sanctity of Skull Island.... let's give equal billing to those icy Sasquatches, hairy old white guys, with no sense of rhythm.....  La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. David Byrne, Brian Eno, John Cale, Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa..... all the cool cats would approve. 

HM

 
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