Almost Nothing

Almost Nothing

Can you hear the difference between a pause and silence? Composer Tom Johnson explores recent trends in European minimalism and silent music.

A performance of 16 Trompeten, a work by Antoine Beuger in a performance by the trumpet classes of Corrado Bossard and Andreas Wulf conceived by Craig Shepard. Photograph: Betti Vock.

During my fifteen years living in New York, I believed, like almost everyone else, that minimal music was an American music. But now, after living twenty-six years in Europe, I feel that this genre is as much European as American. I am not a critic or a musicologist, and I don’t go to lots of festivals and receive lots of CDs, so what I know is mostly just things I run across in my life as a composer. I must also emphasise that I do not in any way feel that European music is better than American music. In recent years my trips to the US are extremely rare, so I am quite out of touch with things there and can’t make comparisons anyway.

The examples of European minimalism I want to discuss are fairly extreme in their minimalism, original in style, and of course, pieces that I like very much. I’m eliminating composers like Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars, and Michael Nyman, whose names are no doubt already familiar to you. After we consider a few cases of audible music, I want also to discuss silent music, a vast category that seems more important all the time.

I have to begin with Erik Satie, whom I regard as the spiritual father of all minimalist music for three reasons: Le Fils des Étoiles (1892), Vexations (1893), and Musique d’Ameublement (1917, 1924). Le Fils des Étoiles was published in Satie’s time only in the form of the overtures to acts one, two and three, but in fact, there was an entire score some forty-five minutes long, which has now been put together, and which you can find if you make the effort. It is not a masterpiece like Socrate (1918) or Danses Gothiques (1893) or so many of Satie’s perfect short pieces, but it is quite coherent, and if fulfills many of the basic criteria of minimal music. It is a static piece that never goes anywhere, and it moves steadily along, without crescendos, without tempo changes, and without departing from its few simple themes. I regard it as the first long minimal composition.

Vexations, with its 840 repetitions, is the first hypnotic music. I heard another performance just last March in Amsterdam, when five well-known pianists played quite seriously about four hours each, always in the same tempo, and there were listeners all night. It is meditative music, already a precedent for the many kinds of meditative music that have followed.

It is more difficult to explain why I regard the Musique d’Ameublement as a precedent for minimalism, because this music in itself is basically banal and jolly and not minimal at all. The important thing is that by telling us not to listen to it, to leave it in the background with the furniture, Satie was raising the question of how we perceive music. When is it in the foreground, and when is it In the background? This was certainly important for Cage, who was a great student of Satie’s music, and who later asked us to accept silence as music, as in 4’33”, and to listen to music and ambient sound at the same time, as in Roaratorio. It seems to me that the sound installations so many people make today, which sit there like furniture in a gallery or a public square all day long, churning on whether anyone is listening or not, may generally be regarded as furniture music, and thus as ambient sound and minimal music.

Satie’s furniture music was certainly well known by Luc Ferrari, who reduced music to almost nothing in Presque Rien No. 1 (1970), which you can find on INA Records (the label of Groupe de Recherches Musicales). Ferrari claims that he just put a microphone in the window one sunny afternoon and accepted every sound that came by. With closer examination, however, it seems pretty clear that he also did a bit of editing later in the studios of Radio France, where he worked with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and others. Their main concern was musique concrète, and one might think of this as a sort of concrete music, taken from nature, but it is also a musical landscape, ambient music, a piece of furniture, a piece of silence, almost nothing, presque rien.

Other early European examples of extremely minimal music come from a Spanish avant-garde group named ZAJ (pronounced ‘THAKH’), which is a comic book word meaning something like POW! or ZAP! Juan Hidalgo and Walter Marchetti had met Cage in Milan in the 1950s, and Cage’s influence on them was similar to the influence he had at the New School for Social Research in New York, which led to the Fluxus group a bit later. ZAJ was very different from Fluxus, however, mostly because they were living in Madrid under a dictatorship. A good example of their work is El Secreto, a score of Hidalgo. This began with Hidalgo, Marchetti and Esther Ferrer, who joined ZAJ in 1967, simply standing on the stage looking at the audience. Then one of the performers walks over to the next and whispers in their ear for 10 minutes. Then this performer passes the secret on to the third performer for another 10 minutes. This goes on for one hour, and the audience doesn’t hear a thing. You have to remember that secrets are particularly meaningful in a police state like Spain under Franco, where almost everyone has illegal books or newspapers in their homes, for which they could be arrested, and everyone has the possibility of informing on people they know. ZAJ was doing happenings or performance art very differently from the Fluxus artists, who were mostly busy destroying pianos and otherwise attacking traditional art.

Esther Ferrer did some radically minimal pieces too, like the Concierto ZAJ Para 60 Voces. In one version of this piece a performer stands looking at the audience for one minute and then says ‘one minute.’ A second performer comes on and the two of them look at the audience for two minutes and then say ‘two minutes.’ This continues, and if they go all the way to sixty performers, the event lasts thirty hours. They never went on for that long, but the piece sometimes lasted quite a while.

My favorite piece by Marchetti is a recording he did for Cramps Records in 1985 (CRSCD 033), after going back to live in Milan. It is called Per la Sete Dell’orecchio (for the soft part of the ear), and it consists exclusively of a sequence of extremely resonant little splashing sounds, one every few seconds. The recording was made by suspending a microphone at the bottom of a very deep resonant well and then dropping pebbles one by one into the water. The piece goes on for some thirty minutes, completely repetitive, except that each splash is completely different from all the others.

American repetitive music had a big impact in Europe, of course, peaking with the Festival d’Avignon presentation of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach in 1975. Around this time groups all over Europe were learning Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, and European composers were beginning to write similar things. This European reaction seems best symbolised by Hoketus, written by Louis Andriessen in 1975–76. This was also the name of the ensemble that played the piece, and which had a huge success all around Europe for a couple of years until the group broke up. The group also played music of other composers, and it became the focal point of a genre often referred to as the Hague School, whose basic interest was to play very loud and very fast for a very long time.

Hoketus is played by two ensembles, exactly the same, one at the far left and one at the far right. Each ensemble has six musicians: pan pipes, alto sax, piano, electric piano, electric guitar and congas. Everyone reads from the score, where the down stems are one sextet and the up stems are the other. In general I don’t see a basic difference between European minimalism and American minimalism, though the harmony in Hoketus is more dissonant and complex than in the repetitive American music, which mostly turns on white notes. Hoketus is also harder to play than most American repetitive music, and one reason the piece tends to be forgotten is that after the original ensemble folded, no one could play it really well.

Another Dutch composer began to write repetitive music in 1976: Simeon ten Holt. If you listen to a piece like Canto Ostinato (1976–79, available on Brilliant Classics 7795), you will probably think you are hearing normal piano music, but if you listen closely you will hear four pianos, and you will note that the music is constantly darting from one player to another. Some people say that the orchestration of the four pianos and the rich harmonies of five-note chords make ten Holt’s music especially European, but of course, many American composers also write subtle orchestrations and fancy harmonies.

Let’s consider a very minimal and very original music from Italy: Hora Harmonica (1983) by Albert Mayr (Ants Records, AG02). Mayr has a German name and some German blood, but he has spent his life in Florence, where he has taught and done musical performances that might be considered conceptual art, though they are always music too. Mostly they have to do with measuring time. This piece was made in the Centro di Sonologia Computazionale in Padua, and it begins with a sequence of digital sine waves that sweep up from the first to the twelfth harmonic. Following this we have a five-minute silence, which you will find very strange unless you open up the score inside and see that the pause is essential to the logic of the piece. The twelfth harmonic comes back at exactly five minutes because one-twelfth of an hour has passed, then the eleventh harmonic comes back at five minutes, twenty-seven seconds, when one-eleventh of an hour has passed and so on.

Perhaps the liveliest and fastest growing category in all new music in Europe is sound installation, which in my opinion can generally be considered minimal, since installations just sit there like furniture all day, not going anywhere. When I was living in New York, sound installations were extremely rare. Max Neuhaus, who died a year or two ago, was about the only person who was doing such things regularly. As far as I know, this genre has evolved very little in the US, but beginning with a large exhibit in Berlin in 1980 called Augen und Ohren (eyes and ears), it has developed a great deal all over Europe. By now most museums of modern art in Europe have had shows of ‘sound art’, as it is often called, and in Berlin, which seems to be the centre of this activity, one can see and hear sound installations in at least three different galleries or art centers almost any afternoon. What are these projects all about?

The Dutch and Belgians have always been the leaders in music boxes and calliopes and carillons, and all sorts of mechanical instruments, and now they also make mechanical marimbas and tubas and drums and violins. They even make installations where vacuum cleaners blow into resonant tubes, where cans drip water into resonant bowls, where little motors flip cords against guitar strings, just to mention a few things I have seen. All over Europe one can find sound installations animated by wind or water or bicycles, and I have not yet mentioned any kind of electronically synthesised sound.

Of course, analogue devices, such as those American pianist and composer David Tudor loved, continue to be plugged in, or more often connected to batteries, and much more sophisticated systems are set up with computer programs, photo cells, internet connections, wireless messages  and all sorts of sound samples. Sometimes a computer programme turns the sounds on and off, but more often the sequence is interactive, with exhibition visitors controlling what happens, either consciously or unconsciously.

Sound installation artists often start out as sculptors or architects or instrument makers or technicians, but I want to single out the example of José Antonio Orts, a fifty-five-year-old man from Valencia and a real master of sound installation, who is strictly a composer. His Ostinato Perpetuo (1997) is an installation that consists partly of organ-like sustained tones coming through pipes, and partly of soft sputtering sounds produced by insect-like battery-powered gadgets on the floor. Orts’ installations are meticulously orchestrated so that the sounds mix well no matter where you go in the space. Photos and recordings of this and other Orts installations can be seen in a 200-page catalogue published by the DAAD Galerie in Berlin (2002), and other published sources are not hard to find.

Especially in the US, the idea seems rather prevalent that minimalism has been completely replaced by post-minimalism, that process music was replaced by freer and more subjective music about the time Steve Reich wrote Music for 18 Musicians (1974–76), that the term ‘minimalism’ can now be extended as far as John Adams, and that the few musicians who continue to do extreme forms of minimal music, like La Monte Young and Phill Niblock and Alvin Lucier and myself, are basically anachronisms. It is obvious to me, however, that the word ‘minimalism’ still means working with truly minimal materials, and that quite a few composers continue to do this, often rigorously following logical processes. Moreover, I find that the most radical minimal music today is sometimes the work of musicians thirty years younger than La Monte Young. I want to give you two examples.

Luiz Henrique Yudo has a Portuguese first name because he was born in Brazil, and a Japanese last name because his parents are both Japanese. He studied architecture and earned his living as an illustrator in Amsterdam when I met him in 1992, but his passion was to make music – especially music derived from visual patterns. He knew my Symmetries for piano four hands, so he came to me. I can’t say I became his teacher, but I could give him some useful feedback, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. One of his compositions, On Words, is minimal especially because it is a piece that insists on one simple idea for a long time. Here the musicians play the words of a short English dictionary using three notes corresponding to the three-dot columns of the Braille alphabet.

The performers are free to interpret the Braille formations with any three sounds, changing sounds whenever they wish. I heard a performance of one letter, lasting some forty-five minutes, in which a singer and a harpsichordist played several hundred words, changing sounds every five to ten minutes. Of course, a vaguely defined notation of this sort would never be written by someone with a doctorate in composition, but like other self-taught composers, Yudo turns his lack of formal training into an advantage, coming up with a piece that is much more original and stimulating than most of the music of young erudite composers coming out of the universities.

Another composer about Yudo’s age is a Russian from Moscow named Sergei Zagny. Zagny was passing through Paris one day and gave me a telephone call saying that a mutual flautist friend told him he should do so. I had already heard about his piano sonata, which is very Slavic and very repetitive, so I told him to come right over. It was a pleasure to get to know him and to finally see some of his scores, and we have been in touch ever since. Unlike Yudo, Zagny has all the academic credentials you could ask for, and he is now a professor at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He has done many different kinds of music, mostly quite minimal, but the latest thing I know arrived as an MP3 file only a month or so ago: The Bells. This is another sound landscape, like Presque Rien, and the main thing we hear are church bells, rather far away, with a few extraneous sounds mixed in later, including someone’s rooster and a fly buzzing around a microphone.

It would be easy to make such a piece with synthetic bells or sampled bells, but Zagny did it the hard way. He went to a monastery several hundred kilometers from Moscow, where it was very quiet and where he could make his own noiseless recordings, afterwards doing the mix in his computer. When I first listened to this music, it was about 10 a.m., and I immediately forwarded the file to Antoine Beuger with the subject ‘Russian Wandelweiser’. Wandelweiser is the name of Beuger’s group, which does much minimal and silent music and sound landscapes, and I knew he would be interested. At noon Antoine sent me an email thanking me immensely, and that evening I got a call from Moscow saying, ‘Thank you. The Bells are already on Wandelweiser radio. But who are these Wandelweiser people, anyway?’

You are probably wondering that too, as Wandelweiser music is still not very well known, so I will answer by saying first of all that it is, in my opinion, the only truly avant-garde new music group in existence. To be more specific, I should turn to Beuger himself, who is the central character here.

The first time I heard Beuger’s music was at a little concert in Brussels some ten years ago. There were two musicians on the stage and about ten listeners in the audience. There are rarely more than ten listeners in the audience for a Wandelweiser concert, or for that matter, for any truly avant-garde concert. We waited for some time until the flautist at the left played a single note. We waited another five minutes or so and then the singer at the right sang the same note. After another five minutes the flautist played the note again. This went on rather boringly until after about thirty minutes, when I began to observe that I was actually hearing this note all the time in my head as I waited for it to be played again. In fact, the imaginary note in my head was more present than the acoustical notes. After one hour and twelve notes, the musicians took a bow, the ten listeners clapped politely, and we concluded an experience I shall never forget.

Beuger studied composition in the correct way at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, but he didn’t like the new music scene he found himself in after graduating, so he quit music to become a sort of stockbroker. Apparently he made some money, because when he decided to come back to music ten years later, and to explore silence, as he was doing in this piece, he seemed to be able to do so without worrying too much about earning money. He found some kindred souls who were interested in similar things, and they began to play one another’s music in Zürich and Aarau, and particularly in Düsseldorf, where Beuger got a space from the City of Düsseldorf to present concerts every month.

With only ten people in the audience, and zero interest from the press, you can imagine that it was difficult to keep performers performing and keep the energy going – especially since radios systematically refuse to broadcast anything with silences longer than ten seconds. They sold scores and records though, started twenty-four-hour Wandelweiser broadcasts on their web site (and convinced the royalty collecting agency GEMA to pay modest royalties for these broadcasts), and now, after more than ten years of activity, they are still going. Most music festivals have completely refused to programme Wandelweiser music, but ironically, the most prestigious German festival of all, Donaueschingen, invited Beuger to do a forty-eight-hour sound installation, which I had the privilege of hearing a few years ago. Mostly what happened was a sequence of digital waves coming out of the silence, remaining for three minutes, and then fading back to silence again, from where another similar but different wave would fade in a few minutes later. The remarkable thing here was that when an electronic tone ended one heard the street sounds much more than before, and when another electronic tone arrived the ambient sound disappeared and the room was ‘silent’ once again. So where was the silence and where was the sound?

The complex subject of silence has already come up several times, so to take that a little further, I want to mention some works I selected for an exhibition of Música Silenciosa that I curated at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid in 2001.

Funeral Music for a Great Deaf Man (1897) by Alphonse Allais is certainly the oldest score of silent music. The preface explains:

The author of this funeral march was inspired by the universal principal that the great pains of life can not speak. Since they are silent, the interpreters here must limit themselves to counting the measures rather than making indecent sounds that would destroy the solemn character of the best funerals.

Incidentally, it may be significant that Allais, who also made the first monochrome paintings in 1897, was born in Honfleur, the same town as Erik Satie, just twelve years earlier.


Another piece of Música Silenciosa was Last Notes from Enderich (above), a painting of Tom Phillips. Phillips is basically a conceptual artist, and he always researches things, a bit the way his English colleague Gavin Bryars did when he wrote The Sinking of the Titanic. In this case the subject is the death of Robert Schumann in the insane asylum in Endenich. Phillips read all the testimonies and correspondence regarding Schumann and the music he was apparently imagining in his last crazy days, and tried to represent it here. Apparently the note A was important, along with the sun and some whirling fast notes, which Phillips represented as well as he could in this painting.


The Belgian artist Baudouin Oosterlynck, who listens to the silences when he goes backpacking in the woods, records them with nice little drawings (above). The text can be translated:

Prelude du silence No. 13, April 2, 1991, Fort de l’Orme, France. A lovely little gorge two kilometers long winds for two octaves. A path on a dry bed. The reverberation is louder from the ledge.

Other pieces by Clarence Barlow and Walter Marchetti in the exhibition are silent because they are impossible to play. Dieter Schnebel’s Mono: Lesbare Musik and my own Imaginary Music are basically graphic music, but are intended to be regarded silently rather than interpreted by musicians.

Silent music, in all its forms, is probably the least explored type of minimalism, and it seems to be an area which American minimalists (and most European composers) have not yet even considered. There remain, however, a lot of problems in defining and limiting what silent music really is. A few years ago, for example, I sent Antoine Beuger a copy of my Organ and Silence. He was most interested and arranged a couple of performances of it in Düsseldorf concerts and on Wandelweiser Radio, but some time later I met him and he offered a most interesting observation:

You know, I like that piece a lot, but it’s really not about silence. The music is all metric, and I find that I am always counting the silences. That means that they are really just pauses in the music, and that the music has not stopped at all.

Can you hear the difference between pauses and silences? Do you agree that these examples are all music, even though they are silent?

Published on 1 December 2009

Tom Johnson studied privately with Morton Feldman and established himself as a composer of the minimalist group in New York in the 1970s, later settling in Paris, where he has lived since 1983. Among his works are The Four Note Opera, Failing, Narayana’s Cows and the Bonhoeffer Oratorio.