Artforum FEBRUARY 2009 - by Damon Krukowski


"You really hate minimalism," sighed my friend Wayne, as he looked over the latest stack of CDs I had brought in for trade to his store. Do I? I had never formulated such an opinion. But if anyone knows your musical tastes better than you, it's the buyer of used CDs at your trusted local record shop. I looked at the stack he was busy sorting: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, as well as a group of less famous, but equally influential, minimalist and post-minimalist composers championed by excellent independent labels like XI Records, Table of the Elements, and Lovely Music. Could I deny it? "No, you can't. You've been bringing me these records for years!"

Fair enough. And yet there are recordings I treasure by Meredith Monk and Terry Riley - Key (1970) and Our Lady Of Late (1974) by the former; Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band: All Night Flight (1968) and Persian Surgery Dervishes (1972) by the latter - which might be considered classics of the genre. More recently, one of my favourite releases from the past year could easily be placed alongside them: Brian Eno's Bloom.

Bloom is, to be sure, anti-classic in most every sense. Written exclusively for the iPhone and iPod touch, and composed not as a fixed piece but as a set of possibilities enacted by each listener/player, Bloom is at the opposite end of the performative spectrum from, say, Adams's latest orchestral or operatic piece. "Turn off your cell phones" is likely the first thing you will hear at the symphony, whereas Eno is clearly urging us to turn ours on.

When we do, the glowing opening screen of the program seems an invitation to touch - and to act on the impulse is to be rewarded by a bell-like tone, something between the ring of a sharply struck piano string and the woody timbre of a xylophone, accompanied by a point of colour that spreads across the screen like a splash in a pond. The tone likewise dissipates into pulsing echoes, undergirded by a wash of overtones similar to a harmonium or Indian tamboura. Tapping the screen again adds a second tone, and an additional point of colour. But even if you do nothing else, the initial tone you played will repeat - and repeat - growing a bit fainter each time. Eventually, its echoes fade altogether and you are left with only the underlying drone, which seems to accumulate detail as your attention shifts toward it. Then, the drone itself shifts - accompanied by a change of palette on the screen - and another note strikes on its own. Is it yours, returned? It must be.

And yet - something about that note has changed. Or rather, everything has changed: your focus, your sense of time, your perception of a music that you yourself initiated with the whimsical touch of a screen.

Not that everyone's experience of Bloom will sound so spare. The program supports as many strikes as you care to add, and the resulting loop may go on ad infinitum, or at least as long as a piece by Glass. A loop made by a cluster of tapped tones can result in complex, overlapping patterns, as in a work by Reich. But regardless of the number of notes you choose to input, it's the re-emergence of the pattern, after its having vanished, that is the greatest surprise. For in the interim, the music has "evolved," as one of the few controls to the program puts it.

"Evolution" would seem a good term for the compositional strategy employed by Bloom. Indeed, Eno developed the piece with generative-music programmer Peter Chilvers, and together they also created the sound track for a video game based on evolutionary biology, Spore. And doesn't "evolution" express something fundamental about minimalism, which substitutes incremental change for large-scale development?

Or, to return to my surprise at the record store, might "evolution" articulate a difference between those minimalist works I trade back to the shop and the ones I keep? As Michael Nyman observed in 1974, almost as soon as minimalism first emerged, "Riley differs from [La Monte] Young and Reich who allow almost no room for individuality in their more rigourously organised music. Riley's allowances obviously derive from the fact that [he] is essentially a performer and improviser who composes, rather than a composer who performs." The same distinction would apply to multidisciplinarian Meredith Monk, whose works often originate with her own vocal improvisations.

Perhaps we might extend Nyman's observation and distinguish between minimalist compositions that "evolve" from the input of a performer - Bloom certainly fits that model - and those dependent on a closed system, resistant to the performer's deviations. That second model seems less like evolution and more like intelligent design - akin to the deist's watch found on a beach. (Einstein On The Beach?) Its systems often feel as detached to me as the academic serialism they were originally intended to contrast.

Listening to certain works by Terry Riley or Meredith Monk is for me like reading Kafka, Roussel, or, for that matter, Duchamp; in them I can trace the profoundly logical development of an idea that, at its start, may have been simply a bit of whimsy - a joke, a mistake, a mutation - that is to say, a mirror for the world as it continues to change. These are minimalist works I find superreal, and therefore as naturally a part of our present as the latest technology for communication.

That may be pushing the analogy too far. But Bloom does make me feel like the Terry Riley of the iPhone. It has also led to an even greater purge of my CD collection.