Maximum minimalism

In the past week, I’ve made three big musical discoveries: the pleasure of seeing minimalism performed live, the weird post-Orientalist electronica of Fatima Al Qadiri, and a new (to me) genre of music I’m calling dishwasher beats.

Minimalism is not exactly new to me. My grandmother was an avid listener of New Sounds on WNYC, so when I lived with her I got exposed to John Schaefer’s taste for Arvo Part, Alvin Lucier, Brian Eno (particularly My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), and the like. Nevertheless, I’d somehow never seen an actual performance of minimalist music, which is quite different from hearing it on recordings. (I might have missed this chance too, but my girlfriend is an artist who does things like 18-minute videos of lighting and shaking out matches, and she bought the tickets as soon as they went on sale.)

There’s a tendency, when listening to minimalism, to let it fade into the background. In my grandmother’s case, evenings of Terry Riley and John Adams served as a backdrop for reading The New York Review of Books or doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. A concert hall forces you into a different relationship with the performers and the music, even if you do let your mind wander (I did). And there is a theatricality to the performance of these demanding works — particularly the two pieces by Reich, Four Organs and Drumming. The former involved a surprising amount of headbanging and hand-waving by the musician leading the ensemble, while the former became almost a stark sort of Blue Man Group Goes to Indonesia mix of precision ensemble percussion and peculiar walking about. After the intermission, Philip Glass’s gaudy pieces felt positively lush by comparison.

Part of the charm of seeing these works performed live is recognizing both their influence and their anachronism. Steve Reich’s work in particular, going back to It’s Gonna Rain from 1965, prefigures so much of hip hop and everything after (Jamie xx and Gil Scott Heron, anyone?) that it’s almost impossible to imagine how weird it must have sounded when it was new. And I kept thinking of Suicide (the band, not the act) during Four Organs. But nobody today would think to phase two drum patterns, or three or four of them, by actually making musicians do it live on a stage. What was a necessity is now a stunt, a kind of artistic equivalent to having Rain Man do arithmetic really fast. There were wires and cables all over the stage for the electric organ amps, but no one had a MacBook, or even a Korg or a Moog. Contrast that with the enormous sound St. Vincent can produce with just four musicians (but at least two onstage computers), in a performance that owes a great deal to minimalism both musically and visually.

Earlier in the week, my girlfriend had complained to me that she needed new music to listen to, so I began digging around on various best-albums-of-2014 lists, and a name that kept coming up was Fatima Al Qadiri. Born in Senegal, raised in Kuwait, and now based in Brooklyn, she makes a kind of creepy Orientalist electronica that owes something to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and something to the spaciousness of minimalism. Her album Asiatisch opens with a piece that sounds like it was made for an international art exhibition because it was: a Chinese woman singing a song that isn’t quite “Nothing Compares 2U” in nonsense Mandarin. It’s as weird and as good and as bad as you think it is: Cremaster at the Beijing Airport. I’m not sure it’s actually a good album, but it’s certainly fascinating.

Even more fascinating, in its way, is what happens when you tell Google Play to create a radio station based on Asiatisch. What it plays is a genre I’m calling dishwasher beats. Last night we put it on while the dishwasher was running, and it was sometimes hard to tell which noises were from the kitchen and which from the stereo. Artists like Emptyset, Rashad Becker, Millie & Andrea, Andy Stott, and Logos make stark music that pulls together strains of minimalism, industrial, Detroit techno and noise rock to make background music for a post-industrial wasteland. (The album covers alone deserve some kind of genre designation; you can tell as soon as a track starts whether it’ll be genuine dishwasher beats by whether the cover looks properly abstract and art school. If the cover isn’t abstract or stark-black-and-white enough, you might find yourself with something actually danceable).

There is, as yet, no good way to share Google Play radio stations, so go try it out. It’s the music of a generation that has grown up with Kraftwerk and Steve Reich far in the past and dishwashers all around.