Arts Blog

The Story of Minimalism – Part Two: From Minimal to Maximal

(Special Note: If you are new to this blog, click here to first read Part One of this series.)

New Horizons: Postminimalism 

 In our last post, we left off with a broader conception of minimalism as a music which creates a listening experience that is meditative, non-teleological, and process-oriented. It is through this broader lens in which minimalism has expanded and evolved in more recent years. After the first wave of minimalist music in the 1960s and ’70s, the early 1980s brought about a trend music critic Kyle Gann calls the “post-minimalism,” arising from a new generation of up-and-coming composers which included William Duckworth, Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, Ingram Marshall, Jonathan Kramer. Early minimalist pieces were frequently very long (over 30 minutes) and had open instrumentation, with composers using their own flexible ensembles to perform the music. Postminimalist pieces, on the other hand, were notably shorter and often scored for a specific instrument or chamber ensemble.

Postminimalist music still retained minimalism’s core value: a usage of limited materials. New to postminimalism, however, was frequent quotation of other styles of music, both classical and non-classical. Daniel Lentz’s The Crack in the Bell (1986), for example, based on an e.e. cummings poem of the same name, utilizes minimalism’s repetitive arpeggios and chords, but references everything from patriotic tunes to Renaissance motets. Another striking aspect of The Crack in the Bell is the way the piece constantly shifts between different keys and tempos, creating a feeling of turbulence that departs from the steady beats of early minimalism. William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes (1978-9), a cycle of 24 pieces for piano, is another example of an early postminimalist work. Like minimalism, the movements feature clean, non-modulating tonalities, but occasionally a sharp dissonance obscures the texture. Phase-shifting rhythmic patterns and ostinatos dominate the texture, a nod to the additive and subtractive processes of minimalist composer Steve Reich. Exactly these processes work, however, remain unclear to the ear – the structure cannot be figured out by simply listening.

William Duckworth, Time Curve Preludes, No. 4, performed by Silas Bassa


A more well-known composer associated with the postminimalism movement is John Adams (b. 1947). Adams’s use of driving rhythms led to him initially being viewed as a minimalist, but he went on to incorporate elements from Romanticism and Stravinsky-informed neo-classicism into his music, resulting in pieces with wide sound palettes and large-scale instrumentations.  Adams’s orchestral fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) exemplifies this style. The piece consists of short, pulsating ideas that are insistently repeated, yet constantly evolve. Adams creates a sense of harmonic progression through sudden shifts in key area from one chord to another (a concept known as “gating”). The chords go on under extended melodies, and a rapid, driving rhythm led by a consistent pulse in the woodblock. Like in minimalism the piece is in perpetual motion, but it has a more clearly defined four-section structure.

John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, performed by the San Francisco Symphony


Post-minimalist composers loosened some of minimalism’s formal structures and were even more open to musical influences outside the classical realm. Composers like David Lang, Michael Gordon, and others from the New York-based group Bang on a Can, had their roots in minimalism but adopted contemporary music influences from world music and electronica.  Multiple musicians in experimental rock during this period were both influenced and were influenced by minimalist styles, particularly Reich’s technique of building up layers of sound through closely spaced canons. The experimental/ambient composer Brian Eno (b. 1948) discovered Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain in the early 1970s, and in 1973 he saw a live performance of Reich’s ensemble. Reich’s influence shows up in Eno’s solo albums, including his Discreet Music, and the Ambient series, and in his work as a producer. David Bowie, too, was affected by Reich’s work. In 1976 he attended the European premiere of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and was also working with Eno for his album Low. Bowie was also influenced by Glass’s flavor of minimalism, and Glass, in turn, has based his Symphonies No. 1 and No. 4 on albums by Bowie (Low and Heroes, respectively).


David Lang, “sunray” (2012), performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars


From Minimal to Maximal

The legacy of minimalism grows on. Both the minimalist vanguard of the 1960s and the rich exchange of ideas between musical worlds brought on by postminimalism has profoundly shaped the musical landscape of the 21st century, continuing to influence emerging composers of today. Many composers writing in the classical tradition have adopted some elements of minimalism while rejecting others in forming their own voice. In this way, minimalism has become something arguably more maximal, evolving from a style grounded in radical simplicity to a toolbox of popular techniques capable of a wide range of expressive content.

Fifty years later, the members the original vanguard are in their mid-70s and 80s, but they continue to compose, especially Reich and Glass, drawing from an even wider range of influences to inform their musical languages. Reich has increasingly branched out in utilizing different instrumentations for his works. In 1988, he collaborated with the Kronos Quartet in the making of Different Trains, a piece for string quartet and prerecorded spoken phrases which sample interviews with Americans and Europeans about the years before, during, and after World War II. Reich frequently uses a different type of quartet, two pianos and two percussion instruments, in pieces including his Quartet (2013). Pulse (2015), a response to his earlier Quartet, features an ensemble of winds, strings, piano, and electric bass. Others works of Reich incorporate non-classical music, such as his Radio Rewrite (2012), which rework songs from the British rock band Radiohead.

Steve Reich, Different Trains, performed by the Smith Quartet


 Philip Glass, while originally focusing on writing works for his chamber group, broke into opera beginning with his Einstein on the Beach of 1976. This led to Glass writing in other conventional classical genres for the concert hall, from his First Violin Concerto (1987) to his numerous symphonies and strings quartets. Many consider Glass to be the most influential American composer alive today, especially in the area of film music. Glass’s film music explorations began in the 1960s-80s underground scene of “synaesthetic cinema,” which consisted of non-narrative films grounded in a language of a language of light, space and sound. Many synaesthetic films used minimalist music, combined with swirling, lush visuals, to guide the viewer into a hypnotic state. Glass’s first score was for Godfrey Reeggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the first of his Qatsi trilogy of environmental documentaries. Most film music is recorded after the film has been assembled and edited, but Koyaanisqatsi was specifically edited to the rhythms contained in Glass’s score. Today, Glass has scored over two dozen films for movies and television series, receiving nominations for Academy Awards for his soundtracks to Kundun (1997), The Hours (2002) and Notes on a Scandal (2006).

Philip Glass, excerpt from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)


Philip Glass, from The Hours (2002)


Minimalism in “Neo-Classical” Music

Where minimalist music has maybe had the most substantial impact on today’s music scene is in what has come to be known as “neo-classical” or “indie classical” music. The term neo-classical broadly refers to a group of composers, labels, and promoters centered on independent labels such as Erased Tapes, New Amsterdam Records, and 13071. Elements of indie rock, ambient, hip-hop and even dance surface up in this music. As with early minimalism, neo-classical music is defined less by a certain type of sound and more by the setting and context in which it can be heard – neo-classical musicians are as equally likely to be heard performing in concert halls, bars, nightclubs, attracting younger age ranges of listeners.

Some “Neo-Classical” composers we will explore. Clockwise from upper left: Nils Frahm, Ludovico Einaudi, Olafur Arnalds, and Max Richter.

On a whole, neo-classical music retains many of minimalism’s core elements: a simplicity of musical materials, a focus on repeating ideas that gradually change over time, and a constant underlying rhythmic pulse. However, much neo-classical music also places a renewed emphasis on melody and lyricism. Neo-classical music does not shy away from beauty and sentimentality of emotion, harkening back, in a way, to the mid-19th century Romanticism of composers like Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt.

Coming from a range of musical backgrounds, musicians in neo-classicalism often combine electronic and acoustic instruments to explore new sound worlds. Take pianist and producer Nils Frahm, whose recent 2018 album All Melody uses a set-up of pianos, pipe organs, plus a slew of retro synthesizers and processors. During his recent concert tour, Frahm could be seen dashing between each of these instruments like an expert orchestral percussionist, building up electronic loops and setting up melodies and counter-melodies before switching to more contemplative solo piano works. Even within the swirl of melodies, Frahm’s music retains minimalism’s rhythmic drive, using microphones to bring out the heartbeat-like pulse of the hammers and felt within the body of the piano.

Nils Frahm, “Says” from Spaces (2013)


Another neo-classical musician who has dabbled in electronics is Max Richter, the composer of “On the Nature of Daylight.” Classically trained in composition and piano, Richter co-founded the Piano Circus ensemble, which was known for commissioning and performing works by minimalist and postminimalist composers including Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Julia Wolfe and Steve Reich. Richter later struck out on his own, composing for a wide array of mediums: ballet, opera, cinema, and collaborating with other musicians and media artists.

Richter has also released a series of solo albums, soundscapes of piano, strings, and electronic ambience that span from beautifully melancholic to a quiet despair. Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” appears in his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, which feature readings by Tilda Swinton from Franz Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Another album of note include is Richter’s 24 Postcards In Full Color (2008), a series of atmospheric, cinematic scenes composed for cell phone ringtones. Richter describes his 2015 album Sleep, eight hours in length, as a “personal lullaby for a frenetic world and a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” The gently pulsating chords and strung-out phrases, in a way, call back to the meditative, drone-based music of La Monte Young, inviting a listener to let go and truly soak in each sound as it comes. Richter’s Sleep is a sound world of profound consolation, and helps a restless listener feel at piece.

Max Richter, “H In New England,” From 24 Postcards in Full Color (2008)


Multi-instrumentalist and producer Ólafur Arnalds create a similar effect in his works through their comforting simplicity. Arnalds began his musical career as drummer for several hardcore and metal bands, later moving on to compose neo-classical strings and piano-based music. His language is informed by a rich confluence of classical, pop, ambient, and electronica music, and thrives as a collaborator, bringing out a breadth of personal artistry in many different musicians. Some of his notable solo albums include Eulogy for Evolution (2007) and For Now I Am Winter (2013). For his 2016 album Island Songs, Arnalds explored the culture of his native Iceland by producing seven songs with seven different local artists, in seven different locations in Iceland. Arnalds released each song weekly, accompanied with a video and in depth interview. The penultimate song in the series is the touching Particles, featuring Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdottír from the indie folk band Of Monsters and Men. This simpe song was recorded inside a lighthouse in the community of Garður on the Reykjanes peninsula, where Nanna grew up. A four-chord progression revolves itself around Nanna’s lyrics, complementing the wave-like rising and falling motions of her melody.

Ólafur Arnalds, “Particles” ft. Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir from Island Songs (2016)


The Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi (b. 1955) also takes minimalism towards the direction of the beautiful and sentimental. Einaudi began his career composing in traditional classical forms, but in the mid-1980s he began to search for a more personal expression through the mediums of dance, multimedia, and piano. 1996 marked the release of his first solo album for piano, Le Onde. Einaudi has subsequently has become one of Europe’s best-selling pianist/composers and one of the world’s most-streamed classical artists. Einaudi’s most recent album is his 2015. Elements, ““inspired by nature, math, science, music, art, and how parts connect to form a whole.” Featuring Einaudi on piano as well as electronics, violin, and percussion, the album explores the concept of organic growth. Each song evolving out of a simple starting motif or gesture, reflecting the way minimalism creates expansive processes and musical journey out of a simple set of starting materials.

Ludovico Einaudi, “Night” from Elements (2015)


Breaking Down Barriers

Neo-classical music is striking in its ability to create poignant, immersive experiences out of the simplest of techniques. This may be one of the greatest impacts early minimalism has made on the classical scene today:  the permission to create music that was comprehensible, appealing, and emotionally engaging to listeners.

Minimalism and postminimalism in the mid-20th century stood out in direct opposition to the modernist trends that came before it. Where the language of many experimental works in serialist and experimental music was dense, dissonant, discontinuous, abrupt, and arrhythmic, minimalist syntax was generally more comprehensible, continuous, melodic, smooth, and naturally rhythmic. The works of early minimalist like Reich and Glass started out by appealing to a niche market of listeners, but gradually, it has become a profound influence on the sonic experience throughout popular culture. In this way, minimalism brought back audiences  to classical music who felt alienated by the avant-garde.

Neo-classical music has carried on this spirit of accessibility, working to break down barriers between composer and listener. Composers working in the neo-classical genre place a high value on communicating with their listeners, without feeling the need to “dumb down” their work or give up their drive to innovate and expand. Ludovico Einaudi, for example, is celebrated for sensitivity and warmth he projects through his body language and interaction with the audience in his live performances. Einaudi once remarked, “it is in the live arena in communion with the audience that my work really comes alive.” Visit the website Ólafur Arnalds and you’ll find the following reflection on his homepage: “For me, the greatest thing about being a musician is being in the position to inspire other people… Music is not a one way street, it is a conversation where the listener’s role is as important as the artist’s.”

In the summer of 2016, Greenpeace filmed Einaudi playing his piece “Elegy for the Arctic” while floating on a platform beside melting glaciers in the Arctic Ocean. 


Beyond Genre 

In centering on the relationship between composer and audience, neo-classicism and other music styles influenced by minimalism work to refute the dichotomy that is often perceived in classical music between “high” and “low” art, or “avant” and “populist.” Minimalism launched a rich exchanges of ideas across music genres and artistic disciplines, exposing the new possibilities that form when we move beyond categories, labels, and genres as artists and consumers of art. In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, Ludovico Einaudi expressed, “I think labels are in a way restricting. You can put the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the same category, but the types of music, the colors each band evokes, are completely different… Today when they ask me if my music is minimal, is classical, is contemporary — I can say yes or no, but it doesn’t make sense of what I am doing.”

The story of how minimalism has changed over time, too, has challenged us to rethink how we understand and define genre not as static, but fluid, dynamic, and interactive, especially in the context of the long and complicated history of classical music. In a 2014 interview with Crack Magazine, Max Richter remarked, “I think the thing about classical music is that it’s not really about the sounds, it’s more about the forbidding culture that surrounds it. It’s like a museum with a barbed wire fence around it! In a way, that’s a social and economic construct which is weighed down by historical baggage.” Understanding the complexities of genre means recognizing that a type of music isn’t only about its sound, but its context, who values the music, where you hear the music, and how you feel when exposed to the music. Both minimalism and neo-classical music sit in an odd place, generally recognized as “classical” music but unlikely to be seen in a program next to Beethoven or Brahms. But in a sense, minimalism and neo-classicism are simply doing what new forms in the classical music have always done: trying to navigate their way through as a tradition steeped in history, balancing influences of the past with an evolution to new realms of sound.

Minimalism and its musical legacies mark just one example of the many branches of 20th and 21st century classical music. I encourage you to explore these branches and seek out what speaks to you – All Classical’s Club Mod program, airing 9pm each Saturday evening, can be a great starting place. But for now, consider this one last piece of advice from Max Richter: “the whole thing is about just using your ears and not worrying too much about the labels.” Find a sound you love and let yourself simply soak it in.



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