On Minimalism and Maximalism


When I’m working on music I alternate a lot between what I call minimalism and maximalism. In addition to its meaning from avant grade music (as the repetition of short phrases that gradually change to create a hypnotic effect), minimalism for me means working with a single sound and finding much of interest in that. This was the approach I took for several recordings which I began making in 2014. First I made music for singing bowls, the sound set of which was derived from a bowl tone I played (not especially well) and recorded. I did something similar with a pair of finger cymbals for Finger Cymbal Music, with a gong for Gong Music, and with a piano/dulcimer instrument for Quietudes. This kind of minimalism suits me when I want to limit myself to discover a sound’s timbral and compositional possibilities. And also this: working with a single sound made my music production process quite simple. 

Maximalism is working with a multitude of sounds and finding what feels like endless interesting timbral-textural combinations within those sounds. This is the approach I took for my most recent recording of marimba music. In contrast to the singing bowl and gong musics, this recording is deeply multi-timbral, with each track containing over twenty  sounds. Some of those timbres come from spinning the marimba in various ways (though re-sampling and effects processing, etc.), and some of them are different electronic sounds which complement the marimba. While minimalism is an excuse to see what you can do with the minimum of materials, taking a maximalist approach is a chance to see how far you can multiply or otherwise augment your materials into plentitudes. I find the maximalist mindset exciting in that each thing you try inspires you to try more ways of working—from thickening the texture, complexifying the rhythm, making the timbres more subtle, to playing with the music’s perceptual aural illusions. These ways of working are most enjoyable when your experimentation coalesces into moments that create effects you weren’t anticipating, but gladly accept.

But throughout my maximalist experimentation, my sense of minimalism never really goes away. As I add parts, I’m also thinking What would this sound like if I took the part away? As I thicken textures and edit in micro-complexities, I consider alternatives for thinning and simplifying the music. Basically, I keep adding and then subtracting a bit. Deep into the marimba project, at a point where I thought I was almost done, minimalism took center stage again and energetically suggested that I consider trimming accumulated fluff from the music:

you don’t need that beginning (I didn’t)
all those parts don’t need to happen at once (they don’t)
you don’t need to use gradual volume fades everywhere (guilty)
you can delay the entrance of that sound (you’re right)
mute that (okay I will, promise)
you can incorporate a simpler beat (ok fine!)

So I started cleaning up the tracks by getting rid of what seemed extraneous as well as adding simple things here and there. But, surprise surprise, then maximalism slid back into the mix, whispering into my ear as if now I were the sound engineer for some wacky duo’s concert:

the beat is good, but I’m getting bored by that repeating high sound—
Can you tweak it a bit and make it more interesting, for me? (ok fine)

And so it went, as I simultaneously made the music simpler and more complex. Now minimalism and maximalism were in dialogue—talking to one another through me and making their respective cases. By listening to each of them I made adjustments to the music and grappled with one of music’s essential balancing acts: less versus more.

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