In his book Human, all too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote:
Without Melody: There are people who repose so steadily within themselves and whose capacities are balanced with one another so harmoniously that any activity directed towards a goal is repugnant to them. They are like music which consists of nothing but long drawn out harmonious chords, without even the beginning of a moving, articulated melody making an appearance. Any movement from without only serves to settle the barque into a new equilibrium on the lake of harmonious euphony. Modern men usually grow extremely impatient when confronted by such natures, which become nothing without our being able to say that they are nothing. But in certain moods the sight of them prompts the unusual question: why melody at all? Why does the quiet reflection of life in a deep lake not suffice us? – The middle ages were richer in such natures than our age is. How seldom do we now encounter one able to live thus happily and peaceably with himself even in the turmoil of life, saying to himself with Goethe: “the best is the profound stillness towards the world in which I live and grow, and win for myself what they cannot take away from me with fire and sword.” (#626, translated by Hollingdale)
Most of us long for melody in music. Melody is one of those factors of music that enable the music to say something to us. It is often through melody that music can appear to us as, to use Roger Scruton’s phrase, an “image of the subject”: a free subject, moving according to its own laws, unencumbered by the necessities that undermine so much of our freedom in life. This subjectivity can be expressed in melody so well because the line of a melody, with its metaphorical risings, fallings, and so on, can imitate human action as it works towards a goal. When you add rhythm and harmony you can establish a world in which the journey takes place and one that can provide an ideal analogue against which we can understand our own less ideal efforts.
But what if we take away melody? Can we still have an image of the subject? Many would say it is difficult to see how. Perhaps rhythm would help. But what if we take away rhythm as well and only leave harmonious chords? Can we still have an image of the subject? Some minimalist works, for example John Zorn’s moving work Redbird (dedicated to Agnes Martin), are primarily chords (for more info on the piece go here). One way we can think of why they are so moving is given by Nietzsche: instead of looking for an image of the subject directed toward a goal amidst the turmoil of life, we can catch a glimpse of a subject that is elevated above worldly goals in a transcendent stillness. Now many artists associated with the minimalist movement wanted to present paintings with no transcendent meaning (e.g. Frank Stella). But Agnes Martin was trying, through her minimal grids and their subtle nuances, to offer an experience of transcendence (see this MoMA link for some examples). Rather than a negation of the subject into meaningless, repetitive mechanisms, we have an affirmation of the self as a “deep lake” as Nietzsche put it. Martin herself has a work called Dark River and John Zorn has a work entitled Dark River dedicated to her as well: both, I think, express this deep and mysterious equilibrium that the self can reach which cannot, as Goethe said, be taken away from us with fire and sword. Some minimal works, to be sure, may negate subjectivity, meaning, and human dignity; but some works can, even without melody, elevate us in a spiritual direction. It is wise to keep our eyes and ears open for such works.