Minimalism

In his 2012 keynote at the CIRMMT Student Conference, music professor and computer music software developer Miller Puckette implicitly argues against the maximalist aesthetic previously exemplified through the “any sound you can imagine” convergence model of technological mediation, claiming that—despite the “democratizing” rhetoric surrounding new interfaces for digital audio production—there is a very “anti-utopian” aspect to the commercial development of music software: namely, that it actually limits creative options. To roughly paraphrase and summarize his argument: new software interfaces such as Live are useless for music composition, because in creating software environments you are ideally cutting out 90% of the possible algorithms that a computer is capable of. As an attempted solution to this issue, Puckette developed Max, a visual programming language designed to be as transparent as possible, in that it exists as a blank screen that allows the user to create his or her own interfaces. In contrast to the maximalist approach, which values the influx of creative options offered by embracing as many interfaces as possible, the minimalist design approach positions users in front of a blank screen with no preset options at all.

Through a critical examination of both the technical and practical aspects of Max, relevant to users, as well as the discourse surrounding its marketing, distribution, and use, this chapter details the emergence of a minimalist interface aesthetic based on the design principles of transparency, flexibility, and adaptability. I contextualize this aesthetic as part of a broader historical trend in computer art towards a sort of all-access, “open source everything” mode of practice, from the multimedia experiments of the 1960s avant-garde, to research at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in the mid-1980s that eventually led to the creation of Max, through the emergence of “user-generated” interfaces and “generative” applications for contemporary digital art more broadly. In terms of music and technological practice, this history highlights an ongoing conceptual shift from musical instruments, to composition systems, thus blurring the distinctions between the recording studio and the live stage, composition and performance, programmed code and artistic form.

While the maximalist interface is about a sort of fetishization of accessibility (think Flying Lotus’s optimistic statement, “we have the technology!”), minimalist interface design is about transparency, adaptability, and flexibility. Monome, an open-source grid-based hardware controller company, epitomizes these principles in their approach to design, distribution, and practice. As developers Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain point out on their website,

we aim to refine the way people consider interface. we seek less complex, more versatile tools: accessible yet fundamentally adaptable… achieved through minimalistic design… we see flexibility not as a feature but as a foundation. we create open source devices of undetermined use.

For the developers of Monome as well as Puckette, the concerns regarding adaptability and flexibility are primarily ecological, regarding technological sustainability in the age of digital maximalism. As Puckette argues, “if you want ‘interoperability’ (that is, sustainability of the software environment; timelessness of your work), then commercial software environments such as Ableton Live are not the answer, because they’re going to die eventually.” To claim these interfaces as “open source devices of undetermined use” simultaneously promises unlimited creative potential, and a structural flexibility that will allow the device to withstand technological obsolescence. In this sense, I suggest the distinction between maximalist and minimalist interface design perspectives really comes down to a fundamental rift between ideologies of consumption in the digital age: those who find creative potential in maximizing content within predetermined forms (maximalism), and those who wish to change the fundamental forms themselves (minimalism)—a desire couched in vaguely ethical terms.