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Minimalist music

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Minimalist music

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Minimalist music is a genre of experimental music named in the 1960s which displays some or all of the following features:
  • emphasis on consonant harmony, if not functional tonality;
  • reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells, with subtle, gradual, and/or infrequent variation (no musical development) over long periods of time, possibly limited to simple repetition;
  • stasis, often in the form of drones, pulses, and/or long tones.

The term minimalist music is derived from the concept of minimalism, which was earlier applied to the visual arts. Previously the terms process music or systems music were used, particularly for music constructed using fairly strict rules.


Brief history

The history of minimal music can be traced back to the 19th century with Robert Schumann [1]. However, the word "minimalism" was first used in relation to music in 1968 by Michael Nyman in a review of Cornelius Cardew's piece The Great Digest. Nyman later expanded his definition of minimalism in music in his 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Tom Johnson, one of the few composers to self-identify as minimalist, also claims to have been first to use the word as new music critic for the Village Voice. He describes "minimalism" (1989, p. 5):

"The idea of minimalism is much larger than most people realize. It includes, by definition, any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes, pieces that use only a few words of text, or pieces written for very limited instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whisky glasses. It includes pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time. It includes pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams. It includes pieces that move in endless circles. It includes pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound. It includes pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another kind. It includes pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D. It includes pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute."

Many people, especially popular music fans, find minimalist music less difficult music to listen to than serialism and other avant-garde classical music. For some, especially romantic and earlier music fans, it is easy music to find annoying, due to the repetition, perceived lack of complexity, or rigidity of process music. The most prominent minimalist composers are John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley; while the less well known La Monte Young is generally credited as the "father" of minimalism. Female composers such as Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher and Laurie Spiegel have been said to have been as innovative and influential as the "big four" minimalist composers.

There is much variety in the music called minimal, in every regard from instrumentation to structure to technique. The early compositions of Glass and Reich tended to be very austere, with little embellishment on the principal theme, and written for small instrumental ensembles (of which the composers were members), made up, in Glass' case, of organs, winds--particularly saxophones--and vocalists, in Reich's case with more emphasis on mallet and percussion instruments. (These works would be scored for any combination of such instruments: one piece by Reich, the aptly named Six Pianos, is scored just so.) Adams' works have most often been written for more traditional classical forces: orchestra, string quartet, even solo piano. (Though all four major minimalists have written symphonies and quartets etc, none have written them so exclusively as Adams.) His works tend also to be much more approachable for the classical ear; there is a minimalist core to his work, but there is also a more traditional philosophy and stylistic diversity behind his compositions, and a phrase in an Adams work is less likely to stay unchanged and in the same instrument(s) for a long time than in would be in another minimalist's work. Some of Adams' orchestral works have been described as " maximalist", although this is not a word that would be widely recognized by reviewers as having a consistent meaning, for example serialist Charles Wuorinen self-identifies as a maximalist.

David Cope (1997) lists the following qualities:

  • Silence
  • Concept music
  • Brevity
  • Continuities: requiring slow modulation of one or more parameters
  • Phase and pattern music, including repetition

The minimalist movement in music bears only a passing connection to the movement of the same name in the visual arts. This is probably one reason why many minimalist composers dislike the term. Philip Glass, whose group initially performed at art galleries where his minimalist visual artist friends were showing, reportedly said of minimalism, "That word should be stamped out!"

The use of phase techniques and intense repetition may, in some cases, be seen as a broadening of the harmonic pallett through microtones (as in the music of Young, Riley, Oliveros and others), related to European spectral composers such as Scelsi and Dumitrescu. American and Japanese noise musicians often refer to this end of minimalism as an antecedent.

Minimalist style in music

The most identifiable traits of minimalism in music are the use of repeated motivic fragments, presented unaltered in themselves or in slow transformations, to establish a harmonic texture. While this is not unprecedented in itself--Richard Wagner would use an arpeggiated E-flat as the basis for the opening of his opera Das Rheingold--the pervasiveness of the technique and the use of layering and phase of these fragments which is identifiable as "minimalist". This is related to, but not the same as, repetition of whole sections of music, again not unprecedented but not made as pervasive a stylistic trait in previous styles. Layering often produces the major development of a section, as one voice is added on top of another to produce the final full effect.

Consonant harmony is a feature much noted - it means the use of intervals which in a tonal context would be considered to be "stable", that is the form to which other chords are resolved by voice leading. In mininalism this function of stability is ignored.

Another trait of the minimalist movement established at an early point in time is the use of phase in consonant context to provide variety. A famous example is Terry Riley's In C which gives musicians fragments of music which they are to play at their own pace until they stop. The resulting texture varies with the different choices that performers make.

This means that the "texture" of much minimalist music is based on canonic imitation, exact repetitions of the same material, offset in time. Famous pieces that use this technique are the number section of Glass' Einstein on the Beach and Adams' Shaker Loops.

Over time mimimalist composers adopted more and more chromatic material for repetition, for example Philip Glass' Symphony No. 2, and the operas of John Adams. There was also an increasing movement to incorporate found sounds, tape, electric or electronic sources of music. Minimalsim in classical music often cross fertilizes with popular experimental music, such as the work of Brian Eno and Mike Oldfield, as well as electronica and house (music), where DJs layer different recordings on top of each other without regard for their source.

The development of minimalist music proceeds as a movement which was consciously aware of its being a post-serialist movement in music, drawing from the use of silence and layering in Cage, but seeking a more melodic basis for its materials. Many of the individual traits of minimalist music occur in serial works of the same period, for example the use of layering in Berio's Sinfonia, or the long suspended tones of Morton Feldman.

These traits were also the feature of composers who rejected 20th century chromatic harmony for other reasons, often liturgical or religious. These composers often went back to Medieval and early Renaissance harmony and practice more deliberately, producing works which had more formally worked out canonic imitation in a modal rather than tonal context. Among these Arvo Pärt is one who has gained a wide following and had numerous recordings and performances of his work.

Minimalism is sometimes associated with an ideology that justifies the moving away from the greater complexity of modernism by arguing from the point of view of postmodernism. Specifically, postmodernism states that progress in music is illusory, and therefore there is no need to have ever more advanced and complex systems of composing, that the purpose of minimalist music is repose, rather than "western" style development, and that minimalism embodies more "eastern" values of meditation, trance and concentration. Philip Glass specifically argues that there has been a disintegration of the concept of "high" and "low" music, and that music of this movement is important because it allows incorporation of, and dialog with, popular styles in a way that previous music did not. These arguments are far from universal among listeners, composers and performers of minimalist music, but are commonly cited in the struggles for performance, attention and acceptance of minimalist music.

Minimalist music is frequently used in movie scores and other media to provide a backdrop or mood for a particular scene or opening, or as an episode in a score. It has been adopted for sections of work by composers from other styles, including the late work of Lukas Foss.

There are those who argue, most notably Kyle Gann, that minimalism, as such, ended in music sometime in the 1980s, and that music since that point in time should be regarded as post-minimalist. According to Gann the breaking out of the strongly framed repetition and stasis of minimalist music represents a stark departure from previous practice.

Critical reception of minimalism

Criticisms of minimalism

Minimalist music has been controversial from its inception, and criticisms have been levelled from two other viewpoints specifically.

The first set of criticisms are from proponents of musical modernism who regard minimalism as a betrayal of progress, a banalization of modernity and backsliding into kitsch. They argue that minimalism represents a surrender of "high" art to the values of "popular" art. These critiques mirror other "late modern" critiques of postmodernity. Namely, there is no such thing, merely a backsliding counter-enlightenment impulse that seeks the lowest common denominator rather than pursuing the more rigorous, and important, project of advancing human knowledge and good.

The second set of criticisms is often levelled by those who are adherents of what may be called more "traditional" forms of western classical music, particularly as they had evolved through the 19th century. They criticise minimalism for being repetitive, boring, without movement, and shallow. There have been frequent jokes whose punchline involves repeating the name of a minimalist composer over and over again, with Philip Glass being a common target. In their view, this music goes nowhere, and lacks intrinsic interest.

Critical supporters of minimalism

(Will be inserted on completion of this section.)

Minimalist composers

Early minimalists include:

David Behrman
Gavin Bryars
Cornelius Cardew
Tony Conrad
Jon Gibson
Philip Glass
Terry Jennings
Petr Kotik (born in Czechoslovakia)
Douglas Leedy
Richard Maxfield
Robert Moran
Phill Niblock
Pauline Oliveros
Charlemagne Palestine
Steve Reich
Terry Riley
Howard Skempton
Yoshi Wada (born in Japan)
La Monte Young

Other more current minimalists include:

  • Australia
    • Nigel Westlake
  • Belgium
    • Wim Mertens
  • Czechoslovakia
    • Petr Kotik (based in the United States)
  • Finland
    • Erkki Salmenhaara
  • Germany
    • Peter Michael Hamel
      Hauke Harder
      Hans Otte
      Ernstalbrecht Stiebler
      Harald Weiss
      Walter Zimmermann
  • Hungary
    • Zoltán Jeney
      László Melis
      László Sáry
      László Vidovszky
  • Italy
    • Fulvio Caldini
      Giovanni Sollima
  • Japan
    • Jo Kondo
      Yoshi Wada (based in the United States)
  • Netherlands
    • Louis Andriessen
      Simeon ten Holt
  • Portugal
    • Ernesto Rodrigues
  • Serbia and Montenegro
    • Vladimir Tošić
  • South Africa
    • Kevin Volans (based in Ireland)
  • United Kingdom
    • Bob Dickinson
      Orlando Gough
      Steve Martland
      Michael Nyman
      Andrew Poppy
      Daniel Patrick Quinn
  • United States
    • John Adams
      Glenn Branca
      Harold Budd
      Rhys Chatham (based in France)
      Philip Corner (based in Italy)
      DAC Crowell
      Kurt Doles
      Paul Dresher
      Arnold Dreyblatt (based in Germany)
      William Duckworth
      Janice Giteck
      Daniel Goode
      Tom Johnson (based in France)
      Elodie Lauten
      Daniel Lentz
      Ingram Marshall
      Meredith Monk
      Tim Risher
      Mikel Rouse
      Frederic Rzewski
      Stephen Scott
      Wayne Siegel (based in Denmark)
      Carl Stone
      Morton Subotnick

A number of composers showing a distinctly religious influence have been labeled the "mystic minimalists":

Henryk Górecki
Hans Otte
Arvo Pärt
John Tavener

Other composers whose works have been described as precedents to minimalism include:

  • Jakob van Domselaer, whose early-20th century experiments in translating the theories of Piet Mondrian's De Stijl movement into music represent an early precedent to minimalist music.
  • Alexander Mosolov, whose orchestral composition Iron Foundry (1923) is made up of mechanical and repetitive patterns
  • George Antheil, whose 1924 Ballet Mecanique is characterized by much use of motoric and repetitive patterns, as well as an instrumentation made up of multiple player pianos and mallet percussion
  • Erik Satie, seen as a precursor of minimalism as in much of his music, for example his score for Francis Picabia's 1924 film Entr'acte which consists of phrases, many borrowed from bawdy popular songs, ordered seemingly arbitrarily and repetitiously, providing a rhythmic counterpoint to the film.
  • Colin McPhee, whose Tabuh-Tabuhan for two pianos and orchestra (1936) features the use of motoric, repetitive, pentatonic patterns drawn from the music of Bali (and featuring a large section of tuned percussion)
  • Carl Orff, who, particularly in his later theater works Antigone (1940-49) and Oedipus der Tyrann (1957-58), utilized instrumentations (six pianos and multiple xylophones, in imitation of gamelan music) and musical patterns (motoric, repetitive, triadic) reminiscent of the later music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass
  • Yves Klein, whose 1947 Monotone Symphony consisted of a single sustained chord, predating similar works by La Monte Young by several years.
  • Morton Feldman, whose works prominently feature some sort of repetition as well as a sparseness
  • Alvin Lucier, whose acoustical experiments demand a stripped-down musical surface to bring out details in the phenomena

Rock bands influenced by minimalism

Ashra (Manuel Göttsching)
Do Make Say Think
Gastr Del Sol
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
David Grubbs
King Crimson
Jim O'Rourke
Polmo Polpo
Sigur Rós
Sonic Youth
Spacemen 3
The For Carnation
Tirez Tirez
Union Wireless
The Velvet Underground
The White Stripes

See also


  • Cope, David (1997). Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, p.216. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0028647378.
  • Fink, Robert (2005). Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice. ISBN 0520245504.
  • Johnson, Tom (1989). The Voice of New Music: New York City 1972-1982 -- A Collection of Articles Originally Published by the Village Voice. Eindhoven, Netherlands: Het Apollohuis. ISBN 907163809X. Available for free download at: [2]

Further reading

  • Mertens, Wim (1980/1983/1988). American Minimal Music, trans. J. Hautekiet. ISBN 0912483156. "Still stands as the single extended culture-critical treatment of American minimalism" (Fink 2005, p.5).

External links

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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