Repetition is one of the most important techniques of reduction and is applied in art and music likewise. It mainly depends on the material, which will subsequently be discussed in further detail.
The philosopher and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno describes material as something which is a self-sedimented spirit, predetermined by society, in the minds of people. Although he is referring to musical material, this also holds true for the notion of the term in visual art. Based on this theory, the artist can only choose from a limited range of materials as dealing intensively with the material inevitably leads to a discussion with society. If an artist consciously tries to abandon this repressive paradigm he or she might only partly succeed since historical patterns will immediately be recalled.
Schoenberg’s early atonal music does not meet with approval because, among others, the radicality of the used dissonances is completely unknown at this point in time and thus the music seems dissociated from its historical context. Adorno adds that the disharmony openly reflects the state of the audience at that time which is why the music is rejected as intolerable. As a result a composer can never make use of all the note combinations, just like a painter and a sculptor must accept the limitations of colours, shapes and materials determined by their historical development. Adorno exemplifies the shabbiness and abrasion of the diminished seventh chord or certain chromatic passing notes in the Palm Court Music of the 19th century as musical taboos. According to him, these tones were not only outmoded but utterly wrong and did not fulfill their function any more. The truth or non-truth of a material is not decided on its isolated appearance but on its position within the prevailing standards of aesthetics.
In order to escape this historical dilemma, Minimal Art uses materials which are deliberately contrary to the idea of art in the 1960s and earlier. Industrially produced materials and everyday objects like Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes defy the traditional artistic materials and result in an understanding of art typical of Minimalism, which Flavin describes as follows: we are moving towards a complete absence of art – a common sense of psychologically indifferent decoration – we simply enjoy contemplating, something everybody is able to do.
Minimal Music in turn extensively eliminates atonality from its repertoire and implements forms by applying repetition not only to the composition as a whole but also to the material itself. It is undoubtedly remarkable that Minimalist tendencies in art and music develop around the same time in the USA, without clinging to historical material. The German composer Dieter Schnebel (born in Lahr/Baden in 1930) thinks that it is not by chance that this creative spirit comes from America: Once, and in its essence, at the same time New World and Wild West, America encouraged an orientation towards the future, without having to demolish existing structures, and it fostered a pioneering spirit that was not afraid to take on experiments.
In music there are only few compositions that consist of merely perseverative repetitions. The composers rather express themselves by gradual changes of certain individual notes or entire figures. Minimal Art produces several pieces which use repetitions whose components do not change. Initially the repetitive moment is the most striking feature of Minimalist music. Later on, this musical style also employs other techniques, which is also stated by the composer of the first serial piece Nummer 2 (1951), Karel Goeyvaerts (born in Antwerpen in 1923; died there in 1993).
At the beginning of their Minimalist-oriented period many Minimalist composers work with highly repetitive patterns, like Philip Glass, who concentrates basically on repetition and static harmony for the electrically amplified violin in his composition Strung Out (1967). While Glass tends to vary the repetitions, Steve Reich employs this musical technique for his audiotape compositions and his piece Piano Phase (1967) in a continually unaltered way.
The Englishman Michael Nyman and the founder of the Scratch Orchestra, Cornelius Cardew (born in Gloucester in 1939, died in London in 1981), are the most important European representatives of Minimalism. In his compositions Nyman primarily uses historic models and exposes them to never-ending repetitive procedures which vary only insignificantly. For his soundtrack for director Peter Greenaway and particularly for Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) Nyman gained recognition beyond the small circle of connoisseurs of Minimalist music. Nyman and Glass are united in that they both employ a tendential fusion of Popular with Serious music, considerably influenced by the repetitive moment. While in classical E-music the stringing together of the same notes is still disdained as uncreative monotony, this technique has already established itself as a legitimate composition mechanism in Pop music.
In Minimalism repetition does not mean an approximation to inartificiality in the sense of Popular music, but rather creates a visual rhythm or specific motion models. This becomes especially apparent in Donald Judd’s Stacks (1966, 1968, 1970) which are composed of modular boxes with identical distances between the individual elements. In order to achieve the most exact repetition of all boxes, Judd, as in many other cases, resorts to the industrial production of the objects. This does not only create precise indistinguishable copies, but also makes it possible to see the artwork as what it really is, without distraction of their individual developing process.
He shares this view with Frank Stella’s approach of ”What you see is what you see”, which primarily refers to the relationship with a reduction of the conceptual background. If the principle of repetition is to be maintained and the Minimalist concept is to be replaced by a more complex one, the artists and musicians generally employ mathematical logical processes, which will be discussed in detail in the following chapter.
Repetition and chance
Repetition creates patterns either according to an exactly defined plan or by chance. The first way usually means employing mathematical logical processes and takes place in an environment of which the artist is fully aware, while the final result of the second way, a random process, is not directly predictable.
Morton Feldman (born in New York in 1926; died in Buffalo, NY, in 1987) represents a prominent example; he tells the four pianists playing his composition Piece for Four Pianos (1957) to each play the same piano movement in an individually chosen tempo. As expected, this individualisation leads to a delicately performanced composition and to an unpredictable result. Thus, Feldman challenges one of the fundaments of musical theory, namely the exact notation of a composition. Something similar happens in Minimal Art when the foundations of the traditional artistic establishment – the gallery as an exhibition site – are critically questioned.
Another analogy between Feldman and Minimalism can be seen in the clear withdrawal of the artist from his own artwork. What is the usage of industrially produced materials in Minimal Art is Feldman’s instruction to the four pianists to imperturbably play their own tempo in Minimal Music. By doing so he leaves the finalisation of the composition to the performers and thus attaches great importance to them.
Steve Reich commonly repeats longer tone units too, played by diverse instruments and for different periods of time. This results in a phase shift, extended to the timely component, which can, among others, be observed in his composition Four Organs (1967) The German Minimalist Erhard Grosskopf (born in Berlin in 1934) addresses the interesting development of the randomly developing tonality. He says, there can even be triads, but they do not fulfil a function, as they are just ‘visiting’ during the performance.
Criticism of monotony
Repetition is seen as one of the central characteristics of Minimalism but at the same time it is defamed as monotony or a consequence of a lack of originality. Minimalists are commonly accused of only seeking to disguise the centripetal force in music that inclines towards monotony.
By the end of the 1970s at the latest, the term Minimalist is used more frequently as a swearword than as an art term. However, in the following decade Minimalism and particularly Minimal Art, which is highly contrastive to painting in the 1980s, is primarily perceived as reductive and confined to rules. Nevertheless, retrospectively it is the expressionism that is to a large extent held responsible for the cultural setbacks during the Reagan era, while Minimalism in the 1960s, despite its restrictivity, allows for various cultural flows to develop.
By restricting the material and the possibility of its modification, the criticised repetition inevitably leads to a Minimalist principle, even if some artists regard repetition as an independent movement. The composer Louis Andriessen (born in Utrecht in 1939) argues that for him the repetitive moment is always more important than the so-called Minimalism.
In the 1970s the repetitive school turns against the serial composition doctrine and against Process Art, which is initiated by Robert Morris and basically concentrates on the development of the artwork or piece of music itself. The seriality, based on Schoenberg’s theory, rationalises the sensitivity towards a too early a repetition of the same note, unless it is repeated immediately. This clearly shows the objection to direct repetition.
Among the visual artists it is particularly Carl Andre who is said to have created monotonous works. Endlessly repeating formats like his brick arrangements Equivalent VIII (1966) exert a considerable obtrusiveness which is described as perseverant, motionless, meaningless and provoking. Andre rejects the criticism arguing that he sees his whole work as a representation of just these characteristics which lead from monotony to a higher self-contained unit.