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Musical minimalism

Related: minimal - music


Musical minimalism: In classical music of the last 35 years, the term minimalism is sometimes applied to music which displays some or all of the following features: repetition (often of short musical phrases, with subtle variation over long periods of time); emphasis on consonant harmony; a steady pulse. The word "minimalism" was first used in relation to music in 1968 by Michael Nyman in a review of Cornelius Cardew's piece The Great Digest. Nyman later expanded his definition of minimalism in music in his 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimalism [2004]

In classical music of the last 35 years, the term minimalism is sometimes applied to music which displays some or all of the following features: repetition (often of short musical phrases, with minimal variations over long periods of time) or stasis (often in the form of drones and long tones); emphasis on consonant harmony; a steady pulse. It is almost inseparable, currently, from electronic music and composition.

It should be noted that the minimalist movement in music bears only an occasional relationship to the movement of the same name in visual art. This connection is probably one reason why many minimalist composers dislike the term. Philip Glass, whose group initially performed at art galleries where his minimalist visual artist friends were showing, reportedly said of minimalism, "That word should be stamped out!" Apart from Philip Glass, Steve Reich is arguably the most famous minimalist composer, with John Coolidge Adams also being notable. Following the classical compositions of Philip Glass, the Chicago House scene in the late 1990s saw a major revolution with the advent of the ghettotech single "Time for the Perculator" by Cajmere, which was decidedly more minimalistic in its outlook. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimalism#Musical_minimalism [Sept 2005]

Minimal techno

Since its inception Basic Channel has become a byword for a certain kind of minimalism, where tracks evolve from the basest of sounds, and the records themselves continue to draw attention to their format by dissolving the distinction between recorded and realtime scratches and distortions. They remind you that these records are to be played, not archived and cherished.--circonium.de

Minimal music

"Contemporary music seldom evokes philosophical reflections upon the Arts, yet the exquisiteness of the music of Wim Mertens demands It. Mertens' music has its roots in American Minimal Music, a tradition which holds that composition can be achieved through the use of the fewest possible musical devices. Despite belonging to this tradition, Mertens' music is distinguishable from that of Reich and Glass, who are comparatively much more concerned with conceptual, System and Process music.

These forms of musical conception may truly be described as objectified musical forms. As such they form an autonomous normative system which governs not only each individual composition but also the developmental trend of the composer. So we find that unilinear musical composition was produced over the years. But this is not to say that the multiplicity of musical compositions was simply an indistinguishable whole. On the contrary, many a composition contained its own distinctive features and defined meaning peculiar to itself. Precisely because both compositional technique and musical form were subjected to a closed autonomous normative system, repetition effectively became the dominant technique. It was almost an art in itself. To the extent that the Minimalists virtually transformed repetition into an art they managed magnificently to retain and promote their activity. So it was with those who adopted the minimal principles but refused to be governed by its rigid normative system. It is particularly in apt to suggest without due regard for differentiation, as does John Gill, that Philip Glass is the undisputed godfather of all variations in minimal music. --Prof. Dr. Jan M. Broekman, 1984

Glass and Reich

By the mid-sixties, Philip Glass and Steve Reich had arrived on the New York scene and embarked upon further explorations into the new tonality, Glass with his unique incorporation of Asiatic process art; Reich with his invention of "phase music", with which he liberally mixed the rhythmic models he had learned while studying with master drummers in Ghana.

Reich and tape

Meanwhile, in the world of 'serious' music, Steve Reich had begun his tape recorder experiments in 1965. It's Gonna Rain featured the voice of Brother Walter, a Pentecostal preacher whom Reich recorded on the streets of San Francisco. Reich created two identical tape loops of the preacher's sermon about the end of the world. The loops are played simultaneously and allowed to gradually shift out of phase with one another creating, as Reich calls it, Ďa controlled chaos.' Brian Eno, among others, has cited Reich as an inspiration for his own work with tape loops.--Kevin Concannon

La Monte Young

Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. I: Day of Niagara (1965) - John Cale (Composer), Tony Conrad (Composer), Angus Maclise (Composer), La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Inside the Dream Syndicate is a very cruddy-sounding recording of very important music. How important is this music? Imagine a great work of art, among the most influential work in any given genre--Marcel Duchamp's sculpture The Large Glass, say, or William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, something that took years to create and which showed people an entirely new direction for art. Imagine that the artist or his estate didn't wish for this work to be seen and the only way you could see it were via smudged Xeroxes of a photo taken of the original sculpture or manuscript; wouldn't you still want to see it? The work made from 1962-1965 by the Theatre of Eternal Music ("Dream Syndicate" is a term used to represent this phase of that group) was that important to modern classical music, and has not been heard until now due to the fact that musician La Monte Young will not officially release the recordings unless he gets sole composer credit. Violinists John Cale (later of the Velvet Underground) and Tony Conrad (the pioneering filmmaker) claim the works were collaborative; Young's wife and artistic collaborator Marian Zazeela sides with Young; percussionist Angus MacLise (an early member of V.U.) is dead so he cannot comment on the affair. The music? It's wonderful to finally hear it, a thick sheet of piercing, assaultive drone sound made with two voices, hand percussion, and two intensely screechy violins harmonizing together, in just-intonation pitches held for long moments. It sounds like Indian classical music transported to an alien realm. Thank God it can now be heard, in however flawed a manner. --Mike McGonigal for Amazon.com

La Monte Young (born October 14, 1935) is an American composer whose eccentric and often hard-to-find works have been included among the most important post World War II avant-garde, experimental, or drone music. Both his Fluxus influenced and "minimal" compositions question the nature of music and often stress elements of performance not normally indicated. He is normally listed as one of the "big four" minimalists along with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, despite having little in common with Glass and Reich.


La Monte Young has been extremely influential, from John Cale's contribution to The Velvet Underground's sound to his own followers, including: Tony Conrad, Jon Hassell, Rhys Chatham, Michael Harrison, Henry Flynt, Charles Curtis (musician) and Catherine Christer Hennix. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La Monte Young [Mar 2006]

See also: Fluxus (art movement) - minimal music - experimental music - American music - avant-garde music - Tony Conrad - Steve Reich - Rhys Chatham - The Velvet Underground


  1. American Minimal Music: LA Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass - Wim Mertens [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Wim Merten's American Minimal Music deals in depth with the school of American repetitive music which is more popularly known as "minimal music". Mertens discusses in detail the work of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass and places them in the tradition of Western music. Minimal music thus emerges as the latest stage in a development leading from Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen and Cage. Considering the philosophical thinking of Deleuze and Lyotard, the representatives of the so-called French "libidinal philosophy", and of Adorno, American Minimal Music examines the degree to which the "ecstatic dimension" is present in this music, or is even consciously introduced into it. American Minimal Music is an important and insightful contribution to every music studies library shelf. --Midwest Book Review

  2. Experimental Music : Cage and Beyond - Michael Nyman [Amazon US]
    Michael Nyman's book is a first-hand account of experimental music from 1950 to 1970. First published in 1974, it has remained the classic text on a significant form of music making and composing that developed alongside, and partly in opposition to, the postwar modernist tradition of composers such as Boulez, Berio, or Stockhausen. The experimentalist par excellence was John Cage whose legendary 4' 33'' consists of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence to be performed on any instrument. Such pieces have a conceptual rather than purely musical starting point and radically challenge conventional notions of the musical work. Nyman's book traces the revolutionary attitudes that were developed toward concepts of time, space, sound, and composer/performer responsibility. It was within the experimental tradition that the seeds of musical minimalism were sown and the book contains reference to the early works of Reich, Riley, Young, and Glass. This second edition contains a new Foreword, an updated discography, and a historical overview by the author. --amazon.com

    More CDs

    1. Rainbow in Curved Air - Terry Riley [Amazon US]
      Riley is one of the granddaddies of Minimalism. His early music, In C and the two works on this disc, brought to light the musical possibilities of rapid-fire notation and shifting sonic textures to a new form of music. Riley has done this primarily through electronic keyboards and computer technology. The composer plays all the instruments on this extraordinary disc: electric organ, electric harpsichord, "rocksichord," dumbec, tambourine, and soprano saxophone. The music is spooky and hypnotic and is an early masterpiece in the genre. It belongs in the collections of anyone interested in late 20th century American music. --Paul Cook for Amazon.com

    2. Steve Reich - Remixed [1 CD, Amazon US]
      The beauty of Steve Reich's minimalist compositions can be found not in their repetition but in their evolution. Listening to the Kronos Quartet perform Different Trains, the listener quickly gets over the camp value of the conductor samples to discover an unfolding theme that harks back not only to bustling industrialism but also to the horror of the Nazi concentration-camp trains. Reich is a master of such subtle changes in sonics, and his impeccable timing turns simple phrases into musical tapestries. On Reich Remixed, some of dance music's more innovative artists pay homage to the composer in the way they know best: by sampling his works and remixing them into their own. Coldcut's take on Music for 18 Musicians adds a fast-paced techno flair to the classic composition, Howie B's Eight Lines respectfully keeps the integrity of the original piece, and Tranquility Bass peppers "Megamix" with voices and (eventually) beats. There are some misses here, and, most unfortunate, DJ Spooky's schizophrenic treatment of City Life lobotomizes a previously fine composition. No, you still can't dance to Reich, but you can see how others use him for source material. But after hearing these condensed and diced versions, you might find it's worth delving back into Reich's originals to hear what the fuss is all about. --Jason Verlinde

    Terry Riley: In C (1964) - Terry Riley

    Terry Riley: In C (1964) - Terry Riley [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    In C is an aleatoric musical piece composed by Terry Riley in 1964 for any number of unspecified performers, but preferably 35 or more. As its title suggests, it is in the key of C, the simplest key to perform on the piano. It is a response to the abstract academic serialist techniques used by composers in the mid-twentieth century and is often cited as the first minimalist composition. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_C [May 2005]

    Terry Riley
    Terry Riley (born 24 June 1935 in Colfax, California) is an American minimalist composer. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Riley [May 2005]

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