A brief guide to minimalism

Marshall Gu 2 June 2021

You might be unfamiliar with minimalist music but you've definitely heard it at least once—here's a guide to the underrated genre

The music genre “minimalism” is exactly what it sounds like as the term now applies to aesthetic and home decor and lifestyle: it’s stripping away at sound to its bare essentials. This guide explores four key compositions from its four major composers, and if you sample any of them you will no doubt notice three things:

Each of these compositions is long;

Each of these compositions is very repetitive;

None of these compositions sound like one another.

For a genre that seems so limiting at a glance, minimalism is actually limitless as different artists apply its principals to different techniques, different sounds and beyond.

Terry Riley – “In C” (1964)

Sometimes regarded as minimalism’s first composition, Terry Riley’s “In C” is actually a famous representative of two New York experimental schools: minimalism and chance music. The minimalist aspect is simple: the piece centres around a single musician hammering out the C note over and over. But it is also indeterminate because the musicians playing around that pulse are instructed to play their parts however many times they’d like and whenever they’d like—no two single performances will ever be alike. In effect, this piece represents chaos and order like no other.

La Monte Young – “The Well-Tuned Piano” (1964-)

Begun in 1964, this piece has never been deemed by the composer to be finished, which is fitting: minimalism’s groove and resulting hypnosis has always had that feeling that the compositions could last forever. As proof, the version that most people are familiar with—a commercial recording of La Monte Young playing the piece in 1987 released in 2000—runs over five hours.

While the other musicians in this guide sound very much like New York City, “The Well-Tuned Piano” does not. Partially because Young is less interested in tonal music, but because of his time growing up and studying in California before he moved to New York. As he said, he loved California’s “sense of space, sense of time, sense of reverie, sense that things could take a long time, that there was always time,” and in his most-famous composition, he projects that sense of space and time from wide-open expanse to the infinite cosmos.

Steve Reich – “Drumming” (1970-1)

Steve Reich’s technique is known as “phase shifting,” which is what happens when two things start off in perfect unison but one of those two elements gradually falls out of sync, and the result is subtle at-first and intense overtime.

On “Drumming,” Steve Reich applied this technique to—you guessed it—drums. It is also, at this point in his career, his longest and most ambitious composition as he also tries new techniques that he’ll refine later on: he had to make “Drumming” to eventually get to “Different Trains,” his piece on the Holocaust. Despite the use of rhythm instruments, “Drumming” sounds just as meditative as many of his other pieces: “Part III” sounds like snow and “Part IV” sounds like rain. Best yet, “Part II” sounds like a world I would like to live in one day.

Philip Glass – “Koyaaniqatsi” (1982)

Having already toyed with the idea that listeners could walk in and out of the performance of four-hour Einstein on the Beach, it was a logical step to get here: minimalism as background music, in this case, to soundtrack the experimental movie of the same name by Godfrey Reggio.

I hear Philip Glass’ arpeggios in almost every other major motion picture, and not just because Glass himself has soundtracked dozens of them, but because they do the job to fill up space with the right emotion. In Philip Glass’ case, that emotion was unease. “Koyaaniqatsi” is full of tension building towards a critical mass, and in that sense, plays like a great rock album.

Conclusion

With spectralism that paralleled its rise across the ocean and totalism that came after, minimalism is far from the last great “ism” of modern classical. But minimalism managed to bridge the ever-widening gap between classical music and popular music: Captain Beefheart and Madlib both referenced Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” while the Who famously name-dropped Terry Riley on mega-hit “Baba O’Riley.”

At a macro level, the Velvet Underground took minimalism’s drone and repetition and brought it down to rock’s level, and minimalism’s love of a steady beat is not that far removed from hip-hop or techno either.

Take this literally as a guide to introduce you to this genre, figure out which composers you like the most, and see what else there is to explore. Trust me, there is much to hear.

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