Massive (Electro)Minimalism: Dan Deacon’s America


Although a lion’s share of the music I discuss comes out of the popular traditional forms of Rock, R&B, Soul, Folk and combinations or variations of the foregoing, every once in a while I like to branch out from these conventions. Well sort of. For some time now, Dan Deacon has been composing and creating music in a genre known as EDM or Electronic Dance Music, a brand of music known mostly for its obsession with synthesizers, electronically created beats, sampling, loops, and sound collages. When pushed past the basic dance floor “hits”, EDM has the capability of creating a whole universe of sound with a simple computer and a single composer (and/or programmer). Deacon’s latest record continues in that vein but also evokes one of the more overlooked contributors to the canon of electronic and dance music: 20th Century Minimalism.

For those unfamiliar with Minimalism, it is a genre that evolved out of 20th Century Classical composition. [In all fairness, I cannot do justice in a short space to the evolution from what we conventionally call “Classical Music” to “20th Century Classical” composition so I’ll defer and refer you to The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross, an excellently written and informative book that I’m still working my way through.] Perhaps the most well-known, quintessential, and defifing work of the genre is Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians – an hour long piece consisting of a series of “simple” notes and themes repeated in varying degrees of length, time, volume, and range. I fully acknowledge that I lack the expertise or vocabulary to adequately describe Steve Reich’s work, but from a layperson’s perspective it sounds like a series of aural waves that ebb and flow in alternating rhythms and combinations. Musical themes and movements are repeated hundreds and/or thousands of times but in different sets, creating a sense of the almost infinite possibility that just a small number of sounds and notes can produce. Although the word minimalism itself conveys a sense of something “lesser”, in fact Minimalism in practice tends to give rise to the notion of multitudinous possibility, permutations, and re-combinations available in music (and Art). (Don’t take my word for it, listen to Steve Reich’s piece. I’ll post a link below.) (Also, as a personal (side)note, last year a local Chicago ensemble performed the piece in its entirety at the Pritzker Pavilion, which was designed by another 20th Century innovator Frank Gehry. I brought a friend of mine who by his own admission is not a fan of “classical” music and/or familiar with the piece to see the show. He said it was one of the most powerful and moving shows he had ever seen. I too thought it was awesome.)

Flipping the script around for a second… For those who are familiar with 20th Century Minimalism, you might hear the closing movement to Dan Deacon’s newest record America and wonder “is he is overtly mimicking Steve Reich?” or is he just doing some John Cage-like artistic hoax?” (speaking of Cage it is the 100th Anniversary of his birth, check out these cool series of clips courtesy of Pitchfork.) I’d forgive you (and myself) for confusing Deacon’s USA Suite (as I’m calling it) with Reich because he most definitely is making use of the musical motifs and methods that Reich used but in the context of a genre that “we” are far more conversant and familiar with: Electronic Music. Why would he do that? This isn’t a question I (a) can answer or (b) necessarily want him to answer. But, I’ll posit my own thoughts….

By virtue of referencing Reich and Minimalism more generally, Deacon foregrounds the massive debt that contemporary music owes to the innovations of Reich, Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, LaMonte Young, Brian Eno and other musicians of Minimalism, Fluxus or the musical avant-garde who experimented and pushed traditional notions of composition and orchestration starting in the 1950s and beyond. (Again, for a far more detailed and well researched exposition of this, read Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, an amazing book about the New York music scene between 1973 and 1977. Although I am prone to hyperbole, I will say this is a must read for any fan of music that was made in the last quarter century. It’s not just a history of the era but a love letter to the power and influence of music.) The “classical” avant garde not only changed “classical” music but they influenced a whole generation of rock, jazz, dance and hip-hop artists. Think about it, sampling, scratching and/or looping beats isn’t too far removed from the sound collages and almost drone-like repetitions that one finds in the works of artists like John Cage or Young. Also dance music especially techno and house is built around a series of very similar beats and rhythms repeated at high speeds (or bpms) that generate a visceral energy and a sense of expectation that eventually dramatically shifts into euphoric release or climax. Also, I’d argue, Deacon’s USA Suite seems to be purposefully juxtaposing his own work against the original, demonstrating how the two genres have evolved and melded (or enter into a discourse) with each other. In a sense he is both tying his work to a past and illustrating how it has transformed into something totally unique and different from what than what was originally conceived.

I acknowledge this is all a profoundly heady and over intellectualized way of saying that I think America and specifically the USA Suite – composed of four movements, “USA 1: Is a Monster”, “USA II: The Great American Desert”, “USA III: Rail”, and “USA: IV Manifest”, the titles alone suggest an impressionistic history lesson of the first centennial and change of US History – is an impressive, complex, complicated, and fascinating listen. But not simply because of the allusions to the past, but because Deacon manages to toe the line between transcendent and beautiful “instrumental” electronic bliss, see “Prettyboy”, and in your face noise-pop, sound collages, see “Guilford Avenue Bridge” or “True Thrush”. So if I haven’t totally bored you and/or turned you off here is some music (please don’t think of it as homework):

  • The USA Suite (again this is my name for it) by Dan Deacon
  • If you want to take the whole ride from sea to shining sea, listen to Dan Deacon’s America in its entirety
  • For the aforementioned ur-Minimalist piece, Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians
  • …and if you are still in search of more “minimalism” or similar composers check out the works of the aforementioned musicians: Terry Riley (In C), Phillip Glass (Music in 12 Parts or Einstein on the Beach), La Monte Young, John Cage, or some of the early works of the Kronos Quartet.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming next time…



One thought on “Massive (Electro)Minimalism: Dan Deacon’s America

  1. Pingback: Minimal art, a search of the essential | Yareah Magazine. Arts and writing

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