The Story of Minimalism – Part One: A New Way of Listening
“What you hear depends on how you focus your ear. We’re not talking about inventing a new language, but rather inventing new perceptions of existing languages.” – Philip Glass
If you’ve tuned into All Classical Portland recently, you may have come across some music your ears weren’t expecting to hear from a classical radio station. On a recent Wednesday morning, Christa Wessel shared Philip Glass’s Piano Etude No. 6 from a new CD by Víkingur Ólafsson. One late Thursday night, Andrea Murray treated us with Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight. While both these works could be argued to be “classical” pieces, they stand out for the way they pervade popular culture and entertainment – both Glass and Richter have composed extensively for films and television.
Richter and Glass’s pieces can be described as examples from a movement and genre in classical music known as “minimalism.” Minimalism started in mid-1960s on the experimental outskirts of classical music. Now, minimalism has become an international phenomenon that has profoundly influenced the direction of new music in the U.S. and beyond, leading to the claim of minimalism as the “common musical language” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Philip Glass, Études, No. 6, performed by Víkingur Ólafsson
Minimalism is also a prime example of how labels and categories in music and art can be inherently limited, making it hard to see how trends grow, change, redefining themselves over time. By absorbing a diversity of influences, and in turn influencing so many areas of our musical culture, minimalism breaks down the walls commonly forged between “high” and “low” art in classical music. Minimalism has reached the corners of almost every part of musical culture, from film scores to pop albums, jazz riffs to contemporary classical soundscapes. And has grown beyond its own label: evolved over time, branching out, becoming something arguably more “maximal” than minimal.
Max Richter, “On the Nature of Daylight,” performed by the Ataneres Ensemble
What happens when a music appears to transgress the boundaries of what is “classical”? What happens when a music attempts to closes riff created between composer and audience in early-20th century modernist music? What happens when a music re-conceptualizes the very core of how we listen, reuniting audiences with sound as a visceral experience and emotional affect? This is the story of minimalist music.
Minimalism’s Origin and the Four “Vanguard” Composers
The journey minimalism has taken is a long one, but let us start at the beginning. The original minimalist movement was not restricted to music, touching nearly every art form, including the visual arts, literature, film. Minimalism originated in a slew of underground activity in the cinema, music, painting and sculpture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, centered in New York and San Francisco. There were strong links between early minimalist composers and artists, with performances often taking place in art galleries and lofts rather than traditional concert venues. And similar to minimalist art, minimalist composers were reacting against the complexity, density, and sheer difficulty of recent modernist music.
A charismatic group of four composers are typically labelled at the “vanguard” composers of minimalist music. They were all born within several years of each other – La Monte Young (b. 1935), Terry Riley (b. 1935), Steve Reich (b. 1936), and Philip Glass (b. 1937). An eclectic array of musical ideas influenced this initial group, making it difficult to describe the movement itself in anything but broad terms. We can, however name some commonalities. Core to minimalism is the reduction of materials to a minimum. Procedures are simplified, and often what goes on in the music is immediately apparent to a listener. Minimalist music typically features repetition, diatonic scales and harmonies, a grid of steady beats, without a change in tempo (making it similar to certain genres of Baroque music), and monochrome or terraced dynamics (unlike the expressive fluidity of the Romantic and modernist eras).
Notably, all four of these vanguard composers were brought up in the Western classical tradition, studying music at various prestigious classical music schools. However, these composers stand out for the way they created art that stood outside of the establishment – being influenced by other, non-Western styles including Indian raga and African drumming. Minimalist music is often seen as a rejection of European modernist trends such as the complex and mathematically-strict Serialism. There is an intentionally sparse use of traditional elements of form and style in minimalist music. It returns to the roots, the basic elements of music: melody, modality, and rhythm.
A key predecessor to minimalism’s radical simplicity were recent avant-garde trends in music, especially the music John Cage. Cage’s 4’33”, for example, take reductionism to the extreme, and could be seen as the ultimate minimalist composition – the performer does not play a single note, allowing everyday sounds to formulate the aural experience of the piece. Another aspect minimalism took from the avant-garde was the aleatoric: creating unpredictability in performance by abandoning conventions like rhythm and tempo. Aleatoric techniques are especially employed in the music of La Monte Young. Take, for example, Young’s “The Melodic Version Of The Second Dream Of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer” From The Four Dreams Of China (yes, a mouthful of a title). The work is played by eight muted trumpets, who play four distinct, recurring tones in a spontaneous, improvised style.
La Monte Young, “The Melodic Version Of The Second Dream Of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer” From The Four Dreams Of China, performed by the Theatre of Eternal Music Brass Ensemble
La Monte Young is probably the least known of the minimalist vanguard, but he is generally considered to have launched the movement with his “long-tone” pieces. While a graduate student at Berkeley in 1958, Young submitted a work for his composition class he called Trio for Strings. But it is not just any conventional Trio: it is long, monotonous, and consists of only three notes. His professor refused to give him a grade for the work. There is thought behind it, however: the entries and exits of the three tones are paced to create different harmonic effects that emerge in and out of the texture.
Young’s Trio for Strings reflects a lot of his later music, which centers in on a small number of pitches sustained for long periods of time. His Composition 1960 No. 7, for example, consists only of the notes B and F#, instructed “to be held for a long time.” Young’s The Tortoise: His Dreams and Journeys (1964) is a type of improvisation, where instrumentalists and singers come in and out on various harmonics over a drone by a synthesizer.
With not much to listen for in Young’s sparse scores, the listener’s attention is directed to more minute changes in pitch and timbre that happen as a musician attempts to sustain a pitch on their instrument. Young’s music is striking in that deliberately disregards classical music’s tendency to be a teleological narrative with a clear opening, development, climax, and resolution. In Young’s music, goal-oriented directionality is replaced with an overt stasis.
La Monte Young, Trio for Strings, performed by the Trio Basso.
It was the lack of structure and narrative Young’s Trio for Strings that likely contributed to his professor refused to give him a grade for the project. The piece was, however, admired by a fellow student named Terry Riley, our second vanguard composer. Riley, who had once performed in an ensemble of Young’s, branched out from Young by exploring patterns with more repetition than sustaining tones. Riley is known for his experiments with tape loops, short segments of spliced tape that when fed through a tape recorder play the same sounds over and over again. His tape piece Mescalin Mix (1960-62) piles up many such tape loops over a regular pulse, creating a creepy collage of interacting phrases and utterances.
Riley’s most well-known work, In C (1964), applies a similar process to live instruments. The piece consists of 53 melodic cells in numbered sequence, the whole score fitting on one page. The piece can be performed by any group of instruments, with one performer providing a rhythmic motor on the note C. As the performers move through each cell, the number of repetitions in each part and the coordination of parts are left indeterminate. The sonic result is an unpredictable and ever-changing landscape of layered sounds over a hypnotic pulse, with a gradual shift from consonance to dissonance and back as certain notes are introduced and disappear from the cells. Riley’s technique of repeating cells of material is called modularism: using a repeated, cell-like motif as the basis for an entire work – in other words, taking repetition to an extreme degree.
Terry Riley, In C, performed by the VENI Academy.
Steve Reich, our third vanguard composer, grew upon this idea of modularism, using it to create a process-oriented musical language of subtly shifting elements that change over time. Many of Reich’s compositions use a technique called phase-shifting, where musicians play the same material but “out of phase” with each other like a closely-spaced canon, with each part starting at a slightly different time and even proceeding at different speeds from one another.
Like Riley, Reich’s initial musical explorations were made on tape. His first tape piece to use phase-shifting, It’s Gonna Rain, begins with a repetitive loop of a recording of a preacher on a New York street. Reich doubles the loop so that two copies are playing at once, but at slightly different speeds. One loop gradually moves ahead of the other, causing the loops gradually shift in and out of rhythm with each other, like turning a musical kaleidoscope. Another early tape piece of Reich’s is his Come Out (1966). Again, Reich begins with a tape loop of a spoken phrase (“come out to show them”). This time, however, the texture grows from two, to four, to eight simultaneous loops, each slightly out of phase with one another. The words of the speaker become incomprehensible, a mash of vowels and consonants remain.
Steve Reich, It’s Gonna Rain
Reich later applied his phase-shifting concept to acoustic instruments. His Piano Phase (1967), for example, recreates this effect using not tape, but two pianos. Both pianos begin by repeating the same simple melodic line in unison, but one piano gradually speeds up until it is a full beat ahead of the other piano. Each performance of Piano Phase will be slightly different, as the number of repetitions; speed of the transitions; and, consequently, the length of the piece are up to the performers. It is fascinating to observe how new rhythms emerge out of the ever-shifting interactions between the two melodies of Piano Phase. Into the 1970s, Reich pushed into this area of rhythm even further. Much of his music became percussion-oriented, with superimposed layers of polyrhythms that in many ways parallel styles of African drumming. (An example of this is his Drumming of 1970-1).
Steve Reich, Piano Phase
Reich formed his own ensemble and has made a living by performing, touring, and recording his works. This ensemble drew in a wide range of listeners, not just from the classical world, but those accustomed to jazz, rock, and pop music. Philip Glass, our final member of the vanguard, was similar to Reich in that he also struck out of the musical establishment by forming his own ensemble. Glass stands out, however, through his more roundabout means of arriving at minimalism. He was at Juilliard when Young, Reich, and Riley’s early performances were happening in New York, and then left to study composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. It was there that Glass became influenced by non-Western music, particularly through working with the great Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. Glass became Shankar’s assistant on the soundtrack for the 1966 film Chappaqua, and his work since the 1960s became heavily shaped by Hindustani classical music. Various facets of this style– including circular rhythmic organization, melodiousness, and simple harmonic progressions which place an emphasis on consonance – parallel similar trends in minimalism.
Ravi Shankar feat Philip Glass, Ragas In Minor Scale from Passages
Philip Glass had studied at Julliard with Steve Reich and made contact with him again after his travels in Europe and India. Influenced by Reich’s rhythmic phase-shifting music, Glass began to simplify his music down to what he described as ‘music with repetitive structures.’ Examples in this style include Strung Out (1967) and Music in 12 Parts (1971–4), a massive four-hour piece scored for voices, electric organs, flutes, and saxophones. Glass’s music is quite idiosyncratic and often immediately recognizable to a listener familiar with his work. His pieces, built on a foundations of cyclically repeating triadic patterns, represent a unique confluence of Indian music, minimalism, and Glass’s own expressive sensibility, at once emotionally charged and held back in melancholic restraint.
Philip Glass, Music in 12 Parts (Part 1)
Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass all emerged onto the music scene around the same time, standing out from the classical music establishment through music that created new hypnotic listening experiences, wherein emergent complexities in rhythmic and melodic interactions arise out of a radical simplicity of materials. As we have seen and heard, however, individual stylistic differences distinguish each composer from one another. Young’s minimalism emphasizes drones and static sounds, and while drones were also central to Riley’s music, he developed more rhythmic cyclical patterns on top of the stasis. Reich’s incorporation of phase shifting and additive/subtractive rhythmic processes created a minimalism based not in stasis, but time and motion, and Glass took this style further through his studies with Ravi Shankar and his unique harmonic language.
“Men”-imalism: Beyond the Vanguard
These individual differences considered, it is worthwhile to note that all four members of the vanguard have expressed uneasiness with being grouped under the label of minimalism, a foreshadow to the way minimalism would soon break out in many different directions. In creating the story of the Young-Riley-Reich-Glass “vanguard,” music history also ends up passing over many composers who don’t perfectly fit the prescribed mold, slipping through the cracks of recognition. The way that music historians have singled out a vanguard group helps provide us with an introductory overview of early minimalism’s elements. However, it also creates an exclusive, narrowly male narrative of minimalism, neglecting the many women composers who were working on the frontiers of the central New York minimalism scene. Crucial female figures like Pauline Oliveros, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, Eliane Radigue, and Laurie Spiegel expanded beyond the borders of minimalism by delving into radical experimentations in electronics, computer-based music, and performance art, and are deserving of a post on their own.
Consider, for example, Midori Takada, a female a composer and percussionist in Japan who released a series of records – first with the Mkwaju Ensemble, then on her own – in the 1980s. Takada plays an impressive range of instruments and found objects – from marimbas and gongs to ocarinas and Coca-Cola bottles – using layers of overdubs to create an ensemble of her own. Her work recalls numerous aspects of minimalism. In her 1983 album Through the Looking Glass, layered textures and interlocking rhythmic patterns recall Steve Reich, with an atmospheric and hypnotic feel akin to the drone-based works of Young and Riley. Ultimately, however, Takada creates a contemplative and whimsical sound that is unique to her alone.
Midori Takada, “Mr. Henri Rousseau’s Dream” from Through the Looking Glass
Minimalism as a New Way of Listening
Can we call Takada’s work “minimalism” despite a lack of direct association with the original vanguard? Rather than associating minimalist style with a certain generation of composers or certain named compositional techniques, it might be more helpful to view minimalism as a music that encourages a certain way of listening.
It is common to hear minimalist music described as hypnotic or meditative. In Glass’s music, the cyclic repetition of chords creates a moving tapestry of sounds, plunging open-eared listeners into an altered psychological state. You don’t need to pay attention to each note as it passes to feel the effect of the music. In fact, you often can’t, with too many rhythmic and melodic layers to pick out one line from the rest of the texture. In this way listening to minimalist music is a lot like listening to the rain – you don’t hear each drop in isolation, rather, your ears become immersed in a symphony of interactions.
The key here is that minimalist music is non-teleological. Most classical music follows a linear, arch-like storyline, with harmony and melody that move in patterns of building anticipation and tension, to a peak and release. Minimalist music, as musicologist Susan McClary notes, seems to have no past or future tense, with the present –what is going on right here – seeming to unfold forever. There is not necessarily a felt need to “arrive” anywhere. In this space, the listener is fee to travel among the layers of the present moment. If melody were the x-axis and harmony were the y-axis in a musical plane, the shifting rhythms and emergent textural density of minimalism creates a new x-axis, an added third dimension to the experience of music.
Steve Reich, Cello Counterpoint, performed by Rose Bellini
Listening to minimalist music is like being inside of a process. In his essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” Reich describes his music as a process that once set up and loaded, runs by itself. The composer steps back from the materials and lets bloom a sonic result that is vaster than any individual creator, standing on its own almost like a force of nature. The experience of minimalist music is different than just walking up to a finished painting, it’s a journey you must move through from start to finish to get the full effect of the piece. Hearing the very gradual changes among repeating parts allows the listener to experience interactions between melodies, rhythms, and harmonies, at every stage of how they relate to one another.
Where did minimalism go from here, as a radically process-oriented music? Read Part Two for the rest of minimalism’s story.
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