Is minimalism still relevant? Robert Maggio



Robert Maggio

Minimalism is definitely relevant today and it will continue to be part of our listening for years to come. I think it will surely influence future generations of composers just as it inspires our current young (and not as young) composers. It is likely to outlive us all!

For the last 40 years in contemporary classical music, minimalism has been arguably the most popular (and internationally recognized) style of composition. Consider the international stature of just a few of the composers whose earliest successes were minimalist works: Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, John Adams, Meredith Monk, Arvo Pärt, Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman, and Michael Torke. The list goes on and on. My apologies if I stopped short of your name or your favorite. As a composition teacher, I’ve found that many of these composers are the “heroes” of many young composers today. (Their works are prominent in my CD collection, too.)

I think it’s important to note that there are few, if any, contemporary composers writing pieces as minimal as those by minimalism’s pioneers (e.g. La Monte Young‘s Composition 1960 #7, in which an open fifth is to be “held for a long time.”) The only recorded recent examples I can think of that approach this level of simplicity — and these are far, far, far more complex than Composition 1960 #7 — are a couple of David Lang‘s evocative works, Slow Movement and The Passing Measures, in which a chordal sonority is sustained and transformed over a LONG period of time. (By the way, try listening to Lang’s work, and then Schoenberg‘s “Farben” from Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 — in this context, the Schoenberg sounds a little like a “pre-minimalist” piece!) In any case, these pieces by Lang recapture the early aesthetic of minimalism more convincingly than any other contemporary works I can think of. In addition, the recent successful return of Brian Eno‘s ambient Music for Airports, recorded, then extensively toured by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, points to a continued life for the more austere (though beautifully so) approach to minimalism.

Music theorist Timothy Johnson wrote an article, “Minimalism: aesthetic, style, or technique?” in Musical Quarterly 78:4 (winter 1994), which provides an excellent framework in which to consider how minimalism has survived its transformation from the highly conceptual early works of La Monte Young to the more recent eclectic minimalist-inflected works of John Adams, Michael Torke, and a host of other successful composers.

Consider also that a new term, post-minimalism, has been invented to describe music that uses minimalist techniques (phasing, processive, unfolding, etc. …) even though its aesthetic (e.g. romanticism, eclecticism, neo-romanticism, neo-neoclassicism, you get the idea) might be at odds with minimalism’s neatly formal structures (e.g. John Adams’ The Chairman Dances). That we can confidently describe a large body of works as post-minimal suggests that minimalism has indeed made its mark on generations of composers.

Like many composers of my generation (and perhaps even the generation before me) I have considered minimalism to be one of many techniques to incorporate in my works, which essentially have an eclectic/romantic aesthetic.

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I could go on and on but I’m afraid my time’s up.
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could go on and on but I’m afraid my time’s
could go on and on but I’m afraid my
go on and on but I’m afraid my
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