Minimalism arose later in the 20th century as a reaction to the complexity, structure, and perception of twelve-tone serialism as it developed at the hands of Schoenberg’s disciples. As you’ll see when you start reading, the aesthetic of minimalism means different things to different composers. It is safe to say that all who compose in this style are striving for greater simplicity in the music. This article will provide an explanation of the musical style known as minimalism as well as a brief history of the techniques involved in minimalist composition. The author(s) sometimes get a little heavy-handed in their use of fancy terms. “Non-teleological” for example – gimme a break. In a musical context that means that the music is not progressing toward a clear conclusion. In even simpler terms it means the music can seem to wander around without a clear sense of direction. Nevertheless, there is valuable information here on what is arguably the most significant musical movement of the late 20th century.
Minimal music is an aesthetic, a style, or a technique of music associated with the work of American composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. 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. As an aesthetic, it is marked by a non-narrative, non-teleological, and non-representational conception of a work in progress, and represents a new approach to the activity of listening to music by focusing on the internal processes of the music, which lack goals or motion toward those goals. Prominent features of the technique includeconsonant 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.
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.
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. 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.
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,” 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. Others who have been associated with this compositional approach include Michael Nyman, Howard Skempton, John White, Dave Smith and John Lewis, Michael Parsons.
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).