Minimalism


Classical Academy | 20th Century Period

 

Listen as you read - Minimalism Playlist

 

One of the paradoxes of minimal music is that few of its composers self-identify as minimalist. One of the few who did, Tom Johnson, also wrote one of the best descriptions of the genre. "The idea of minimalism is much larger than most people realise", he writes in The Village Voice. "It includes, by definition, any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes, pieces that use only a few words of text, or pieces written for very limited instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whiskey glasses."

The origins of minimalism lie in 1960s New York where a collective of American composers known at the time as the New York Hypnotic School composed experimental music. The style evolved into the most popular experimental music genre of the late 20th century and these first New Yorkers became the composers who remain most closely associated with minimalism today; LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. In Europe, the traits of their style can be heard in the work of Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, and John Tavener, among others. During the 60s and 70s, the music drew much of its support from the equivalent minimal movement in the visual arts, with compositions often being introduced to listeners at the exhibitions of minimal artists such as Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman.

    The early works of composers such as Glass and Reich were a little austere, with little embellishment. While Reich preferred to use the sounds of the mallet and of percussion instruments, Glass tended towards compositions for organs, winds, saxophones and vocalists. As the style developed over time, the variations and inflections of the minimal motifs became more complex and experimental.

    With the style firmly established within the 20th century music scene, it attracted the attention of musicians and writers of popular music. It's influence on pop is surprising in that it extends across many genres, from the 70s psychedelic rock of The Velvet Underground (who worked closely with LaMonte Young) and the experimental electronic music of Brian Eno, to the haunting tones of Radiohead and the 90s trance music of acts such as Aphex Twin that combined the sounds of minimalism with new capabilities of new technology.

    So what does minimal music sound like? What characteristics do minimalist pieces share? Interestingly, one of these defining features is the very absence of sound - silence - which is often used to give space to the short, repeated motifs of the music itself. These repetitive motifs develop throughout the work along a slow pattern of modulation that tends to be audible over a long period of time as a gradual change rather than an immediately recognisable shift. Leonard Meyer describes the music as though it "does not seem to move from one place to another. Within any musical segment there may be some sense of direction, but frequently the segments fail to lead to or imply one another. They simply follow one another."

    But the best way to discover the sounds of minimalism is to listen. Our special playlist features minimalist works from the very beginnings of the genre to its later expression in popular music.