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Minimalism (music)

This article is about a musical style. For other uses, see Minimalism (disambiguation).
Minimal music
Stylistic origins Experimental music, serialism, process music
Cultural origins Early 1960s, United States
Typical instruments Piano, orchestra, tuned percussion, electronic musical instruments, electronic postproduction equipment
Derivative forms Postminimalism, totalism
Drone music

Minimal music is a style of music associated with the work of American composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.[1][2][3][4] It originated in the New York Downtown scene of the 1960s and was initially viewed as a form of experimental music called the New York Hypnotic School.[5] Prominent features of the style include consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting which leads to what has been termed phase music. Minimal compositions that rely heavily on process techniques that follow strict rules are usually described using the term process music.

Starting in the early 1960s as a scruffy underground scene in San Francisco alternative spaces and New York lofts, minimalism spread to become the most popular experimental music style of the late 20th century. The movement originally involved dozens of composers, although only five (Young, Riley, Reich, Glass, and later John Adams) emerged to become publicly associated with American minimal music. In Europe, the music of Louis Andriessen, Karel Goeyvaerts, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Steve Martland, Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener exhibits minimalist traits.

It is unclear where the term minimal music originates. Steve Reich has suggested that it is attributable to Michael Nyman, a claim two scholars, Jonathan Bernard and Dan Warburton, have also made in writing. Philip Glass believes Tom Johnson coined the phrase.[6][7][8]

Brief history

The word "minimal" was perhaps first used in relation to music in 1968 by Michael Nyman, who "deduced a recipe for the successful 'minimal-music' happening from the entertainment presented by Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik at the ICA", which included a performance of Springen by Henning Christiansen and a number of unidentified performance-art pieces.[9] 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":

The idea of minimalism is much larger than many 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 whiskey 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.[10]

Already in 1965 the art historian Barabara Rose had named La Monte Young's Dream Music, Morton Feldman's characteristically soft dynamics, and various unnamed composers "all, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted to John Cage" as examples of "minimal art",[11] but did not specifically use the expression "minimal music".

The most prominent minimalist composers are John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young.[12]

The early compositions of Glass and Reich are somewhat austere, with little embellishment on the principal theme. These are works for small instrumental ensembles, of which the composers were often members. In Glass's case, these ensembles comprise organs, winds—particularly saxophones—and vocalists, while Reich's works have more emphasis on mallet and percussion instruments. Most of Adams's works are written for more traditional classical instrumentation, including full orchestra, string quartet, and solo piano.

The music of Reich and Glass drew early sponsorship from art galleries and museums, presented in conjunction with visual-art minimalists like Robert Morris (in Glass's case), and Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and the filmmaker Michael Snow (as performers, in Reich's case).[7]

Early development

The music of Moondog of the 1940s and '50s, which was based on counterpoint developing statically over steady pulses in often unusual time signatures, had a strong influence on many early minimalist composers. Philip Glass has written that he and Reich took Moondog's work "very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Juilliard".[13]

In 1960, Terry Riley wrote a string quartet in pure, uninflected C major. In 1963, Riley made two electronic works using tape delay, Mescalin Mix and The Gift, which injected the idea of repetition into minimalism. In 1964, Riley's In C made persuasively engaging textures from layered performance of repeated melodic phrases. The work is scored for any group of instruments. In 1965 and 1966 Steve Reich produced three works—It's Gonna Rain and Come Out for tape, and Piano Phase for live performers—that introduced the idea of phase shifting, or allowing two identical phrases or sound samples played at slightly differing speeds to repeat and slowly go out of phase with each other. Starting in 1968 with 1 + 1, Philip Glass wrote a series of works that incorporated additive process (form based on sequences such as 1, 1 2, 1 2 3, 1 2 3 4) into the repertoire of minimalist techniques; these works included Two Pages, Music in Fifths, Music in Contrary Motion, and others. By this point, development of a minimalist style was in full swing.

Minimalism in popular music

Minimal music has also had some influence on developments in popular music. The experimental rock act The Velvet Underground had a connection with the New York down-town scene from which minimal music emerged, rooted in the close working relationship of John Cale and La Monte Young, the latter influencing Cale's work with the band.[14]

During the 1970s progressive rock, experimental rock,[15] art rock, krautrock and avant-prog genres demonstrated the influence of experimental music, including minimalism, for example acts such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and Mike Oldfield. In the 1980s and 1990s, artists working in alternative rock, shoegazing, post rock, and other genres, including the bands Spacemen 3,[16] Experimental Audio Research,[17] and Explosions in the Sky, continued in a similar vein.[18]

Following the minimal electronic music of Brian Eno and the krautrock band Tangerine Dream, 1990s electronic dance music was influenced by changes in technology that lead to the use of production methods based on repetition, especially the genres of trance, minimal techno and ambient. Well-known artists include The Orb, Orbital, Underworld and Aphex Twin. In fact, Aphex Twin collaborated with Philip Glass for the song "Icct Hedral" from the album ...I Care Because You Do.

Sherburne (2006) suggests that the noted similarities between minimal forms of dance music and American minimalism could easily be accidental. Much of the music technology used in EDM has traditionally been designed to suit loop based compositional methods, which may explain why certain stylistic features of minimal techno and other forms of electronic dance music sound similar to minimal art music.[19] One group who clearly did have an awareness of the American minimal tradition is the British Ambient act The Orb. Their 1990 production Little Fluffy Clouds features a sample from Steve Reich's work Electric Counterpoint (1987).[20] Further acknowledgement of Steve Reich's possible influence on EDM came with the release in 1999 of the Reich Remixed[21] tribute album which featured reinterpretations by artists such as DJ Spooky, Mantronik, Ken Ishii, and Coldcut, among others.[20]

Minimalist style in music

Leonard Meyer described minimal music in 1994:

Because there is little sense of goal-directed motion, [minimal] music does not seem to move from one place to another. Within any musical segment there may be some sense of direction, but frequently the segments fail to lead to or imply one another. They simply follow one another.[22]

David Cope (1997) lists the following qualities as possible characteristics of minimal music:

Consonant harmony is a much noted feature[weasel words]: 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. 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.

Critical reception

Robert Fink (2005), offers a summary of some notable critical reactions to minimal music:
[...] perhaps it can be understood as a kind of social pathology, as an aural sign that American audiences are primitive and uneducated (Pierre Boulez); that kids nowadays just want to get stoned (Donal Henahan and Harold Schonberg in the New York Times); that traditional Western cultural values have eroded in the liberal wake of the 1960s (Samuel Lipman); that minimalist repetition is dangerously seductive propaganda, akin to Hitler’s speeches and advertising (Elliott Carter); even that the commodity-fetishism of modern capitalism has fatally trapped the autonomous self in minimalist narcissism (Christopher Lasch).[23]

Elliott Carter maintained a consistent critical stance against minimalism and in 1982 he went so far as to compare it to fascism in stating that "one also hears constant repetition in the speeches of Hitler and in advertising. It has its dangerous aspects."[24] When asked in 2001 how he felt about minimal music he replied that "we are surrounded by a world of minimalism. All that junk mail I get every single day repeats; when I look at television I see the same advertisement, and I try to follow the movie that’s being shown, but I’m being told about cat food every five minutes. That is minimalism." [25] Fink notes that Carter's general loathing of the music is representative of a form of musical snobbery that dismisses repetition more generally. Carter has even criticised the use of repetition in the music of Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives, stating that “I cannot understand the popularity of that kind of music, which is based on repetition. In a civilized society things don’t need to be said more than three times."[24]

Ian MacDonald claimed that minimalism is the "passionless, sexless and emotionally blank soundtrack of the Machine Age, its utopian selfishness no more than an expression of human passivity in the face of mass-production and The Bomb".[26]

Steve Reich has offered one possible explanation for why such criticism is largely misplaced. In 1987 he stated that his compositional output reflected the popular culture of postwar American consumer society because the "elite European-style serial music" was simply not representative of his cultural experience. Reich stated that
Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez were portraying in very honest terms what it was like to pick up the pieces after World War II. But for some American in 1948 or 1958 or 1968—in the real context of tailfins, Chuck Berry and millions of burgers sold—to pretend that instead we’re really going to have the darkbrown Angst of Vienna is a lie, a musical lie.[27]

Kyle Gann, himself a minimalist composer, has argued that minimalism represented a predictable return to simplicity after the development of an earlier style had run its course to an extreme and unsurpassable complexity.[28] Parallels include the advent of the simple Baroque continuo style following elaborate Renaissance polyphony and the simple early classical symphony following Bach's monumental advances in Baroque counterpoint. In addition, critics have often overstated the simplicity of even early minimalism. Michael Nyman has pointed out that much of the charm of Steve Reich's early music had to do with perceptual phenomena that were not actually played, but resulted from subtleties in the phase-shifting process.[29] In other words the music often does not sound as simple as it looks.

In Gann's further analysis, during the 1980s minimalism evolved into less strict, more complex styles such as postminimalism and totalism, breaking out of the strongly framed repetition and stasis of early minimalism, and enriching it with a confluence of other rhythmic and structural influences.[30]

Minimalist composers

Main article: List of Minimalist composers

See also



  • Bernard, Jonathan W. 1993. "The Minimalist Aesthetic in the Plastic Arts and in Music". Perspectives of New Music 31, no. 1 (Winter): 86–132.
  • Bernard, Jonathan W. 2003. "Minimalism, Postminimalism, and the Resurgence of Tonality in Recent American Music". American Music 21, no. 1 (Spring): 112–33.
  • Cope, David. 1997. Techniques of the Contemporary Composer. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-864737-8.
  • Espartaco, Carlos. 1989. Eduardo Sanguinetti: la experiencia de los límites / The Experience of Limits. Colección Ensayo. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de Arte Gaglianone. ISBN 950-9004-98-7.
  • Fink, Robert. 2005. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24036-7 (cloth). ISBN 0-520-24550-4 (pbk).
  • Gann, Kyle. 1997. American Music in the Twentieth Century. Schirmer. ISBN 0-02-864655-X.
  • Gann, Kyle. 1987. "Let X = X: Minimalism vs. Serialism." Village Voice (24 February): 76.
  • Gann, Kyle. 2001. "Minimal Music, Maximal Impact: Minimalism's Immediate Legacy: Postminimalism". New Music Box: The Web Magazine from the American Music Center (November 1) (Accessed 4 February 2012).
  • Gann, Kyle. 2006. Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22982-7.
  • Garland, Peter, and La Monte Young. 2001. "Jennings, Terry". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Gotte, Ulli. 2000. Minimal Music: Geschichte, Asthetik, Umfeld. Taschenbucher zur Musikwissenschaft, 138. Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel. ISBN 3-7959-0777-2.
  • Johnson, Timothy A. 1994. "Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style, or Technique? " Musical Quarterly 78, no. 4 (Winter): 742–73.
  • 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 90-71638-09-X.
  • Kostelanetz, Richard, and R. Flemming. 1997. Writings on Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; New York: Schirmer Books.
  • Linke, Ulrich. 1997. Minimal Music: Dimensionen eines Begriffs. Folkwang-Texte Bd. 13. Essen: Die blaue Eule. ISBN 3-89206-811-9.
  • Lovisa, Fabian R. 1996. Minimal-music: Entwicklung, Komponisten, Werke. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • MacDonald, Ian. 2003. "The People's Music". London: Pimlico Publishing. ISBN 1-84413-093-2.
  • Mertens, Wim. 1983. American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Translated by J. Hautekiet; preface by Michael Nyman. London: Kahn & Averill; New York: Alexander Broude. ISBN 0-900707-76-3
  • Meyer, Leonard B. 1994. Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture, second edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-52143-5
  • Nyman, Michael. 1968. "Minimal Music". The Spectator 221, no. 7320 (11 October): 518–19.
  • Nyman, Michael. 1974. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. London: Studio Vista ISBN 0-289-70182-1; reprinted 1999,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65383-5.
  • Perlein, Gilbert, and Bruno Corà (eds). 2000. Yves Klein: Long Live the Immaterial! Catalog of an exhibition held at the Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain, Nice, April 28 – September 4, 2000, and the Museo Pecci, Prato, September 23, 2000 – January 10, 2001. New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2000, ISBN 978-0-929445-08-3.
  • Potter, Keith. 2000. Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Music in the Twentieth Century series. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48250-X.
  • Potter, Keith. 2001. "Minimalism". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers; New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music.
  • Rose, Barbara. 1965. "ABC Art". Art in America 53, no. 5 (October–November): 57–69.
  • Schönberger, Elmer. 2001. "Andriessen: (4) Louis Andriessen". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers; New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music.
  • Schwarz, K. Robert. 1996. Minimalists. 20th Century Composers Series. London: Phaidon. ISBN 0-7148-3381-9.
  • Strickland, Edward. 1993. Minimalism: Origins. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-35499-4 (cloth); ISBN 0-253-21388-6 (pbk, corrected and somewhat revised printing, 2000). Chapter T, pp. 241–56, reprinted as Strickland 1997.
  • Strickland, Edward. 1997. "Minimalism: T (1992)". In Writings on Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism, edited by Richard Kostelanetz and Robert Flemming, 113–130. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-520-21491-9. Reprint of a chapter from Strickland 1993.
  • Sweeney-Turner, Steve. 1995. "Weariness and Slackening in the Miserably Proliferating Field of Posts." Musical Times 136, no. 1833 (November): 599–601.
  • Warburton, Dan. 1988. "A Working Terminology for Minimal Music." Intégral 2: 135–59.

External links

  • Art of the States: minimalist minimalist works by American composers, including audio samples.
  • Art Education.
  • Kyle Gann, with a more comprehensive list of early minimalists.
  • Agency, Determinism, Focal Time Frames, and Processive Minimalist Music,” by Joshua B. Mailman, in Music and Narrative since 1900. Edited by Michael L. Klein and Nicholas Reyland. Musical Meaning and Interpretation series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.

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