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Less is more...or is it?

Aaron S. Bayley

At some point in your life, there's a good chance that someone advised you that less is more. Maybe it was delivered to you didactically by way of public speaking feedback—we all know that people who talk too much usually have little of substance to say—or maybe you saw it manifested in the worlds of music, visual arts, fashion, or architecture.

The less-is-more philosophy comes from the minimalist movement of the 1950s. It was a response to and rejection of the abstract art scene. Inspired by the art studios of New York City, less-is-more is manifested in boutique retail stores displaying items—a purse or pair of heels—on tiered platforms, or fastidiously arranged racks of garments on either side of a brick-and-mortar store, with an emphasis on creating a light and open space. Apple, Adidas, Coach, and David's Tea are just some of the brands that have adopted the less-is-more mantra, where creating the illusion of scarcity causes consumers to value branded products more highly. Thrift stores are to frugality as boutique shops are to conspicuous consumption.

The curious thing about the "less is more" aphorism is that it compels us to scale back something that is quantified (the "less" part) for the sake of improving something that can only be qualified (the "more" part). For example, if you are a horrible public speaker because you ramble on and can't stop talking, then learning how to speak without going off on tangents—and using less words—may help you improve your ability. Hence, less is more. But more what?

In the retail world, if a company's strategy for increasing its profit is to have its brand perceived as a rare and desirable luxury, then it makes sense to set up its store or website to mimic the minimalist aesthetic of an upscale art gallery. In this case, less is more because having fewer items on display creates an aura around the product that enhances its uniqueness and prestige, which in turn compels customers to value and covet it. The "more," in this case, has nothing to do with pretty aesthetics, because what does a company care how great its stores look if it fails to sell its products? The "more" can only mean profit.

But what does "less is more" mean in the arts and entertainment, specifically music? A few years ago, I came across a video on YouTube of Swedish guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen questioning the philosophy of less is more. Malmsteen, if you don't know, is a product of the 1980s rock music scene, known as much for his lightning-fast licks as his excessive behaviour and ostentatious tastes. It should come as no surprise, then, that he lives in a sprawling mansion in South Beach Miami and owns five Ferraris along with an assortment of guns and guitars. In the YouTube clip, the guitarist recalls people telling him to slow down and to remember that less is more. Malmsteen's response is brilliant because it is simple yet completely rational. Less notes cannot be more than more notes.

"People kept on telling me to slow down. You know, 'hey, slow down...remember, less is more.' And I always said, 'How can that be? How can less be more? It's impossible. More is more.'"

- Yngwie J. Malmsteen

Malmsteen knows full well what his critics mean by "less is more," but he's not buying it. Blues guitarists like Eric Clapton and B.B. King are deemed more tasteful players by industry gatekeepers because of their economy (frugality?) of notes and tendency toward restraint. But does that make them better players? And what makes one guitar player better than another, anyway? The baby boomers who put Eric Clapton on a pedestal deem him one of the greatest of all time because the criteria they use to measure greatness does not value speed and extravagance; moreover, it assumes an inverse relation between the number of notes played and the ability to play with emotion. This is why Edward Van Halen, with his two-handed tapping histrionics, was never taken seriously by the boomer music magazine Rolling Stone. But to say that Van Halen or Malmsteen don't play with emotion is foolish for two reasons. First, why is playing with emotion characterized only by playing slowly or at a moderate pace, instead of by note selection, vibrato, varied tempos, and creative melodies? After all, it's these elements, when combined, that resonate with the listener on a visceral level. Second, both guitarists have countless songs in their catalogues (Van Halen's "Eruption," "Cathedral," "316," "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love,"; Malmsteen's "Rising Force," "Far Beyond the Sun," "Black Star," "Icarus Dream Suite") that are deeply moving and often profound. The criteria created by the gatekeepers of status is limiting, based only on their nostalgia for pentatonic-based blues, which tends to be mellow and moderately paced.

So, would Malmsteen be a better guitar player if he took the "less is more" approach to heart and played fewer notes and at a more mellow pace? A more instructive question would be: if Eric Clapton could play more notes and much faster, would that make him a worse guitar player? Perhaps the answer to this question can help us see the futility of using "less is more" to criticize a qualitative experience. Musicians who play slowly, at a moderate pace, and lightning fast can all play with emotion, given they are able to hit the sweet spot when it comes to tone, melody, pacing, and song structure. Of course, the Van Halen clones of the '80s who played with speed, flash, and panache but without any feel (think Vinnie Vincent in 1986) could've benefited from being told "less is more."

So we know what less is—fewer products, fewer words, fewer notes—but what is "more"? It can only be something than can't be quantified. Maybe it's attention, or status, or style, or tact. For Malmsteen, "less is more" doesn't mean a whole lot. Nobody ever accused him of having tact, and he probably couldn't care less.


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