Minimal Music, Maximal Impact

What is minimalism? What constitutes a minimalist work?

Lord, what vexed questions. I certainly have my own answers, but so does everyone else (save for those who object on principle to any kind of musical definition), and I hesitate to offer guidelines that I know no one else will agree with. So let’s try talking around the subject a little.

There have even been thirty years of carping about the term minimalism, which was coined apparently by Michael Nyman in 1968, though Tom Johnson (as music critic for the Village Voice in New York) has also staked such a claim. Many of the original minimalist works last for hours and contain thousands of notes: how, disbelievers claim, can we call such grandiose music minimalist?

Well, it’s pretty simple, really. Minimalist music, at least originally, tended to restrict itself to a tiny repertoire of pitches and rhythmic values, like the F Dorian scale and steady 8th-notes of Philip Glass‘s Music in Fifths. The length of the works actually underlines the intense restriction of materials: you might write a four-minute piece using only seven pitches and no one would notice, but write a 30-minute piece, and the austere limitations become a major phenomenon of the composition.

Moreover, minimalism borrowed its name from the eponymous art movement, and there are clear parallels between the quasi-geometric linearity and predictability of Philip Glass’s and Steve Reich‘s notes with the clean geometric lines and simple optical illusions of a Frank Stella or Sol Lewitt. One visual-art tome (Kenneth Baker‘s Minimalism [Abbeville Press, 1988]) describes minimalist art as that which is “barren of merely decorative detail, in which geometry is emphasized and expressive technique avoided.” That’s a fairly precise, if incomplete, description of most early minimalist music. K. Robert Schwarz (in his book Minimalists) quotes La Monte Young‘s definition as “That which is made with a minimum of means,” which applies if by “means” you mean pitches and rhythmic values, not necessarily number of notes and stretches of time.

Moreover, as Wittgenstein emphasized, the use of a word is its meaning. Most culturally literate people by now know that the word has been used to describe the musics of Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass. Pragmatically speaking, its meaning is circumscribed by at least their music of the 1960s and 1970s. To deny the term’s usefulness at this point would be as futile as going back and arguing that we shouldn’t call Monet’s paintings Impressionistic. Other terms have been advanced: “trance music,” “hypnotic music,” “process music,” “modular music,” and, more pejoratively, “wallpaper music” and “going-nowhere music.” Some of these are too vague, others too specific, and none is as precise and flexible at once as minimalism.

Composer John Adams (the Nixon in China Adams, not our NewMusicBox friend JLA) has stated three cut and dried criteria for what constitutes a minimalist piece: regular, articulated pulse; the use of tonal harmony with slow harmonic rhythm; and the building of large structures through repetition of small cells. That certainly covers a lot of the public perception of minimalism. It ties together Riley’s In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, Glass’s Music in Fifths and Einstein on the Beach, and Reich’s Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians.

What it specifically (and intentionally) leaves out is the sine-tone installations of La Monte Young, and the related drone music of the Theater of Eternal Music, which contain neither regular pulse nor repetitive pitch cells. Personally, for me, Young’s Composition 1960 No. 7, which consists of the pitches B and F-sharp and the notation “to be held for a long time,” must be regarded as a seminal work, perhaps the seminal work, of minimalism. I have trouble with a definition that omits that piece, and also with one that omits the drone music of Phill Niblock and the slow, ambling chord progressions of Harold Budd.

The postminimalist composer Paul Epstein once suggested to me that music of strict processes is minimalist, while music in which the composer has altered the result of a process, following his or her own intuition, is postminimalist. This is an interesting criterion, since a lot of early minimalist music such as Reich’s Come Out and Piano Phase, Glass’s Music in Fifths, and Tom Johnson’s Nine Bells follow strict processes left to run on their own once started. However, I find this definition too exclusionary as well: it seems to refer to an interesting subset of the minimalist repertoire, and leaves out pieces as important as In C and Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ.

Let’s consider for a moment the ideas, devices, and techniques through which early minimalist music found expression:

  1. Static harmony
    Starting with Young’s Composition 1960 No. 7, the minimalist tendency to stay on one chord, or to move back and forth among a small repertoire of chords, has marked most minimalist music, including Reich’s Piano Phase, Drumming, and Octet. Glass’s early ensemble works tended to stay within one scale rather than harmony – not necessarily a tenable distinction. In minimalist music this harmony is almost always related to the diatonic scale or mode – though there are important exceptions, such as Phill Niblock’s music and James Tenney‘s Chromatic Canon, which applies a minimalist process to a 12-tone row.

  2. Repetition
    This is perhaps the most stereotypical aspect of minimalist music, the tendency that audiences superficially associate with its stuck-in-the-groove quality. It first appears in Terry Riley’s tape pieces from 1963: Mescalin Mix and The Gift. Many minimalist works do not use repetition, however: Young’s completely static sine-tone installations (except in the most microscopic acoustic sense), Tom Johnson’s and Jon Gibson‘s permutational pieces, Phill Niblock’s drone works.
  3. Additive process
    Minimalist works tended to start with a basic repeated pattern and add on in one of two ways. Either the pattern would be lengthened by adding additional notes or measures or phrases in usually a 1, 1+2, 1+2+3, 1+2+3+4 kind of way (Music in Fifths; Frederic Rzewski‘s Les Moutons des Panurge, Attica, and Coming Together; and later Carl Stone‘s electronic Shing Kee), or else by slowing down existing patterns (Music for Mallet Instruments, Voice, and Organ); or else a certain recurring duration would begin with silence and add notes with each recurrence (Drumming).

    Because of additive process and other types of linear process detailed below, minimalist music was often called “Process Music” – a perfectly viable term and an interesting subject in its own right, but not a term that can be considered exactly coextensive with minimalism.

  4. Phase-shifting
    This technique, of two identical phrases played at the same time but at slightly different tempos so as to go out of phase with each other, was most characteristic of Reich’s works of the 1960s and early 1970s: Piano Phase, Come Out, It’s Gonna Rain, and Drumming. This technique had antecedents in Henry Cowell‘s New Musical Resources and Conlon Nancarrow‘s tempo explorations. Though not widely used in minimalist works per se, it survived as an important archetype in postminimal music (e.g. William Duckworth‘s Time Curve Preludes, John Luther Adams’s Dream in White on White, Kyle Gann‘s Time Does Not Exist).
  5. Permutational process
    Composers who wanted slightly less obvious melodic progressions, like Jon Gibson in his Melody IV (1975) and Call (1978), and Tom Johnson in his Nine Bells, would sometimes turn to systematic permutations of pitches.
  6. Steady beat
    Certainly many of the most famous minimalist pieces relied on a motoric 8th-note beat, although there were also several composers like Young and Niblock interested in drones with no beat at all. We can at least say that it was a near-universal trait of minimalism to never use a wide variety of rhythms; you might proceed in 8th-notes, or 8ths and quarters, or whole notes with fermatas, but you do not get the kind of mercurial rhythmic variety one would hear in any 19th-century classical composition. Perhaps “steady-beat-minimalism” is a criterion that could divide the minimalist repertoire into two mutually exclusive bodies of music, pulse-based music versus drone-based music.
  7. Static instrumentation
    The early minimalist ensembles, starting with In C and the Theater of Eternal Music and continuing through the Reich and Glass ensembles, were all founded on a concept of everyone playing all the time; the minimalist concept of instrumentation is based on the idea of music being a ritual in which everyone participates equally, not on the classical European paradigm of the painter’s palette in which each instrument adds its dash of color where needed. Minimalist ensembles (and postminimalist and totalist after them) hardly ever display the traditional give-and-take of a classical chamber group. In these days of amplification, which has been applied to minimalist works from the beginning, this makes minimalism, in my view, the beginning of a new and more economical symphonic tradition that can dispense with that labor-intensive, economically inefficient dinosaur, the orchestra.
  8. Linear transformation
    This is a generalization of processes such as additive structure above. Many of the minimalists have cultivated a fascination with linear motion from one musical state to another, such as Niblock’s slow mutations from maximum in-tuneness to maximum dissonance or vice versa, or James Tenney’s motion from tonality to atonality in his Chromatic Canon, and the linear acceleration of his Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow (1974), an indisputably minimalist work and a very important one.
  9. Metamusic
    For awhile in the ’70s it seemed that Steve Reich’s chief preoccupation was the unintended acoustic details that arose (or were perceived) as a side effect of strictly carried-out processes. These included soft melodies created by the overtones of played notes, which Reich referred to as “metamusic,” and even reinforced with notated instrumental melodies in such works as his Octet. One could say that the overtone phenomena buzzing above the slowly glissandoing drones of Phill Niblock’s music, and even the changing overtone patterns heard as you walk through a La Monte Young sine-tone installation, constitute metamusic as well.
  10. Pure tuning
    It’s noteworthy that minimalism started, in the musics of Young, Tony Conrad, and the Theater of Eternal Music, as a slowed-down exploration of pure frequency ratios, resonant intervals outside the 12-pitch piano scale; Phill Niblock’s music and much of Terry Riley’s continue this feature as well. One could make an argument that the true minimalist music, hardcore minimalism, is in pure tunings. But since Glass and Reich have always been happy with the equal-tempered scale, this would be a hard sell.
  11. Influence of non-Western cultures
    This is far from a universal component of minimalism, nor a necessary one, but composers who started on the minimalist path had no European precedent to look to for examples of repetition or harmonic stasis, and typically turned eastward. It is significant that Young, Riley, and Glass were inspired by Indian classical music, and that Reich studied African drumming. And minimalism led directly to a much greater absorption of non-Western aesthetics and techniques by younger composers of the next generation. In a way, minimalism created a bridge over which American composers could rejoin the rest of the non-European world.

    This is hardly a complete list of techniques and features of minimalist music, but it does constitute a family of character traits. No minimalist piece uses all of these, but I could hardly imagine calling a piece minimalist that didn’t use at least a few of them. (If anyone can identify such a work, contact me and I’ll add its traits to the list.)

    Looking, however, to the opposite bank of minimalism, we find that many of these traits can be found in music that was influenced by minimalism, that grew out of minimalist practice, but that has departed so far from what we think of as minimalist as to no longer justify the name. For instance, many works that I consider postminimalist are characterized by steady beats, static harmony, and additive structures. For that reason, I like to add one delimiting feature to my own personal definition of minimalism:

  12. Audible structure
    For me, the thing that Drumming, In C, Attica, Composition 1960 No. 7, Einstein on the Beach, Budd’s The Pavilion of Dreams, and all the other classic minimalist pieces shared was that their structure was right on the surface, that you could tell just from listening, often just from the first audition, what the overall process was. It seemed to me that part of minimalism’s early mystique was to have no secrets, to hold the music’s structure right in the audience’s face, and have that be listened to.

Parenthetically, this criterion is why I have never considered Morton Feldman‘s music minimalist, as some have. Feldman was using repetition of melodic figures as early as 1951 in his Structures for string quartet, and a few writers have made a case for him as the first minimalist. But actually, repetition is the only criterion listed above that is characteristic of Feldman’s music (except, in some works, consistent density of orchestration) and even there Feldman’s repetitions are rarely strict, never process-oriented, and his rhythms never motoric as in the classic minimalist works. Feldman’s hyperintuitive, sonority-based aims and methods always strike me as almost diametrically opposed to minimalism, and I feel that including him in the movement is a kind of anachronism.

I’m not sure how many people would hold audible structure as an essential ingredient. But taking it as such, we find that it marks off rather convenient boundaries for the minimalist period, as extending from 1960 with Young’s Composition 1960 No. 7 to around 1980. Because, arguably, the first postminimalist works appeared around that date: Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes (1978-79), Janice Giteck‘s Breathing Songs from a Turning Sky (1980), Daniel Lentz‘s The Dream King (1983), Peter Gena‘s McKinley (1983), Ingram Marshall‘s Fog Tropes (1979/82). And it further strikes me that around 1980, Riley, Reich, and Glass all lost interest in making their structures so clear and obvious; in works like Desert Music and Koyaanisqatsi they began working more with melody and moving structure to the background.

So you can see how cleverly I’ve buried my own personal definition of minimalism way down here at the end of the article, long after the point at which most people have stopped reading: The Era of Audible Structure, 1960-1980. And if you want to see what happened after 1980 that made minimalist music no longer minimalist, move on to postminimalism.

From Minimal Music, Maximal Impact
by Kyle Gann
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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  1. Pingback: OUPblog » Blog Archive » Questions about La Monte Young, music, and mysticism

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