Most of society now understands the credo “Less Is More” to the point of cliché. It has become a mundane term easily summoned in the modern vernacular to signify purity of intention and quality of manifestation through the economy of form. And despite such ubiquity, it remains one of the most viable approaches to creativity. With this especially restrictive moment, it seems appropriate to strip things back and see how Minimalism can be modified for today’s musician, or at least re-examined in usable contemporary terms.
Minimalism glided from being a mid-sixties underground art movement into an elevated near-religious way of managing our collective gluttony of belongings and aesthetic residues. The refined premises of the practice are simple (remove excess stuff) and easily carry over into the design objects we covet. From how we arrange our homes, our streamlined athleisure clothing, and even when communicating with quintessentialized emoji and abbreviated text, it is fully integrated into our transactional digital and manmade physical landscape. In a culture of constant over-stimulation, Minimalism offers a message of directness and clarity indebted to Japanese creative practices with the simple question of “Is this really necessary? Is this essential? Is this the highest offering?
The reduction of excess to the most concentrated and most legible elements works for most creative endeavors and has echoed through musical history before the term was applied to works by American composers La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Much has been written about ancient tribal rhythms, monks chanting in repetition and other fundamental expressions spiraled into what would be the most virtuosic elements of modern music. The Groove phenomenon in the drum and bass interplay of early Rhythm and Blues and Motown locked our hearts in its steady pulse and made us dance endlessly.
And from this consensus, humanity’s love of repetitive easily comprehended rhythm-centric music went from the accidental lo-fi hypnosis of punky synthpop and acid house, via the swinging samples of freestyle and hip hop, into the synth-heavy reductions of modern techno, or genre mutating EDM and directly into what is now considered contemporary POP music. The recently passed artist Sophie being a prime example of this intersection of streamlined audio as object music, who even the likes of Madonna and Charlie XCX have enlisted to clean up and futurize their sound. Part of this moment’s current reduced tendencies has to do with how much our art has become “content’ to be consumed on our phones and other electronic devices. There is no headroom for excess noise or superfluous clutter and little attention span for overwrought ideas. Understanding this can offer freedom in arranging imaginative yet concentrated musical statements that translate well over a variety of playback sources.
If we investigate this approach from the producer’s standpoint, one could apply the observations of music journalist Philip Sherburne who proposed two approaches to minimalism in modern electronic music. Skeletonization and Massification. He states, “In skeletal minimal techno, only the core elements are included with embellishments used only for the sake of variation within the song. In contrast, massification is a style of minimalism in which many sounds are layered over time, but with little variation in sonic elements.” These two observations are a clever way to adopt a kind of workable Minimalism that won’t easily fall into tired dullness.
From here, we will suggest a few approaches to yield quality through essential quantities, albeit in a seemingly simpler more managed way.
- Limit the number of elements within the arrangement to as few as possible or at least in what appears to be obvious.
- Explore richness of tone through the stacking of voices played in unison over time. (Massification)
- Determine a key to write in and stack sounds from there. When assembling an arrangement and the corresponding elements, having an idea of what note range each element assumes is a valuable technique to get things into a workable structure. A variety of voices can fall up and down the octave range within the same melodic pattern without cluttering the message. Even drums can be pitched in key for harmonious results.
- Start the foundation by writing a solid bass line and drum pattern or a melodic phrase that is dynamic and expressive. This can help gel the other elements more naturally.
- Apply reverb, filtering, and pitch modulation delays on simple synth patterns to breath dimension and character to the passage. This is also great on synthetic drum sounds.
- Try recording a sketch of a melody, bass line, or groove with a voice recorder. Sometimes it’s far easier to express things with our mouths than our minds. Figure out the exact notes afterward.
- Become aggressive in your subtractive EQing and get familiar with EQ shelving. Most audio signals have frequency information that muddies the overall arrangement. Don’t be afraid to cut away everything but the core range.
- Experiment with gating. This is another technique that adds a sense of precision to your recordings and can offer dynamic control over most sound sources.
- Use Sub Bass plugins to add additional sinewave bass to your melodies when extra bass lines aren’t necessary. This will fatten the audio spectrum with harmonic tones that pair with the main melody.
- Mute channels in your arrangement and listen to see if they are actually important or just exercises in ego.
- Go light on the effects unless really necessary.
- On the flip side, effects-wise, sometimes a whole tune can be as simple as one synth, a couple of drum sounds, and a multi-effects chain.
Committing to a reduced approach is not exactly the easiest route. It will challenge your ability as a songwriter and producer to come up with the best quality ideas and performances possible and present them with the highest fidelity. With any luck, your music will have a timeless appeal and a longer shelf life, which is always the ideal consequence of hard work and a discerning ear. In the end, it will be less about restriction and more about quality choices and elements.
Double Scape: Dual Filtered Delay with Reverb