What is Minimalist music
? Is it the threshing arpeggio
s of Philip Glass
, the radically new ideas of Terry Riley
and La Monte Young
, the particularly New York
urbanity of Steve Reich
, the effusive Neo-Romanticism
of John Adams
? Can a single label encompass all of these styles?
I would say that Minimalism describes all of these things, but defines none of them. The advent of Minimalism in music, beginning perhaps as early as John Cage, represented the musical realization of postmodernism, by which I mean here, it represented a rejection of high art as a guiding principle in the composition of Western music. From an American perspective, it meant in many ways shrugging off a heavily European (specifically, German/Austrian) influence in the way music was conceived and composed, and was an attempt to return to "square one" and begin anew without the weight of centuries of cultural heritage.
While the roots of Minimalism can probably be traced no further back than Henry Cowell, the ground from which it sprung was planted much earlier. Think Beethoven. Think 1824.
Beethoven, fully deaf and knee-deep in what historians refer to as his "third period," premiered his Ninth Symphony on May 7, 1824. It seems few then imagined the impact this would have on the musical world.
Say what you will about Beethoven's courageous symphonies, his innovative "third period," his large oevre of chamber music, Beethoven's truly lasting legacy was not in his music, but rather, behind it. What was really remarkable about Beethoven's Ninth wasn't the innovations it put forth, but the mind, the genius, the impetus behind those innovations. The notion that it was Art.
Genius was not then, nor ever will be, a foreign element to music. One can scarcely look at the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, or any of the other stalwarts of the Baroque or Classical eras, and refer to them as fumbling morons. But they composed in an environment totally unlike Beethoven's, in a time where individuality didn't have the same heroicism we attach to it today. Composers of the Classical and Baroque periods might be more appropriately described as "artisans" than "artists," in that the works they created were not constantly expected to blow minds or change the world. And, generally speaking, the composers themselves had no illusion that their music should do anything besides fulfill a function, request, or commission.
The celebrated cantatas of Bach, for example, were composed simply so that a new one could be performed every week. Mozart frequently made use of popular idioms in several of his works, in order to expedite the composition process. Composers, in general, could lift motives or themes from one another's works without severe chastisement, and publishers would sometimes attach a composer's name to a work they never wrote, in order to increase sales.
So while, certainly, great pieces flowed from the pens of composers before Beethoven, there was not a constant pressure to innovate, to revolutionize. That compulsion -- that any new work should turn the world on its ear -- arose out of the cult of genius, for which Beethoven set a lasting standard.
The cult of genius began with the rumors/myths surrounding Beethoven's tortured existence. His creeping deafness and his heroic but tragic fight against it; his fits of passion and patriotism; his singular intensity. Beethoven was a character, no way around it, and his intensity reflected itself in the pace at which he composed music. Bach composed over a thousand works. Haydn completed over a hundred symphonies. Yet Beethoven would complete "only" nine symphonies. He poured himself into his work.
Beethoven's dramatic life and his unprecedented output changed the musical world. Later composers of the Germanic/Austrian traditions would find themselves facing not only the empty page but the seemingly inevitable comparison to Beethoven. Johannes Brahms, under such a shadow, would not complete his first symphony until after the age of 40. Other composers attempted to continue along the path Beethoven helped to pave -- Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner would both envision their work as completing a synthesis of voice and orchestra which Beethoven helped pioneer.
And always leading these post-Beethoven composers was a compelling desire to bring something new to the table, to be the "next Beethoven." It was not sufficient to produce something "as good as" Beethoven's Ninth. It was essential to innovate, to bring something no one has heard before to the orchestral stage, to make a statement, to make true Art. Each new composer was expected to be a new voice. High art music was blossoming, booming, expanding.
It was only a matter of time before it would collapse.
Debussy and the musical rebellion
The French have always been doggedly anti-social, and under the heavy Germanic tradition, beginning with Beethoven and exemplified in the late 19th century by Wagner, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) began to shape the foundation for a uniquely French, high art music.
Harmonic language in the Germanic tradition had become alarmingly, almost absurdly complex. Debussy cast such complexities aside, using the same sonorities but in new ways. The same chord by Wagner which, a century later, would baffle music theorists and provide for scores of doctoral dissertations, could be wielded by Debussy in a trivial and passing manner. The emphasis was not on the function of a sonority, but on its affect. Thus the term "Impressionism."
It wasn't only Debussy's approach to complex sonorities that made his music so anti-Germanic. Debussy reached into the past, pulling new scales and modes from medieval music, and reached across cultures, most notably to the Javanese gamelan, for inspiration. And out the window altogether was the overbearing ghost of Beethoven. Debussy would never try to out-do Beethoven the way the late Romantics did.
At the same time, Russia was alive with innovation. While the roots of Russian eccentricity were more closely tied to nationalism than anti-Germanic/Austrian fervor, Moscow and Paris would grow closer musically as composers in both cities experimented with new tonalities and new approaches to music. Alexander Skryabin (1872-1915) exemplifies this blend between Russian nationalism and French experimentation.
Ironically, Debussy's own rebellion was met with a counter-rebellion in his own country. The French neo-classicists, commonly referred to as Les Six, made a convincing argument not only against the excessive Romanticism championed by Wagner but also against the lack of clarity found in Debussy's music. Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, and to a lesser extent, Maurice Ravel and Sergey Prokofiev, would use a post-Debussy approach to sonorities while returning to Classical forms and Classical thinking on melody, thus eschewing both Wagner and Debussy.
American high art music at this time was not so heavily influenced by the cultural in-fighting of Europe. Still, American innovation began to lay the roots of Minimalism, which would rebel against European traditions, in the early part of the twentieth century. Rather than draw their inspiration from an established yet neglected cultural history or from a desire to break away from the heavy Germanic cult of genius, Americans learned much from the music of the East.
American high art music in the early twentieth century is replete with eccentric geniuses. Charles Ives in many ways symbolizes the spirit of the times, in that he pursued a music that was personal and met with his own standards, shunning the German-dominated academic world. Most important in this history, however, is the work of Henry Cowell (1897-1965).
Cowell, having been exposed to Oriental music and other ethnic music in his home town of San Francisco, had a wide range of musical inputs, and his work shows an attempt to synthesize this wide range of influences in a single style. He was thus a fierce independent, experimenting with new sounds, new techniques, and new notational methods in order to express a music that was as yet unheard in the Western high art music tradition. Most famous is his work The Banshee (1925), which involved the playing of a piano from inside the piano, with the performer strumming the strings while another person held down the sustain pedal. If this represents a sort of proto-prepared piano, his other works would come to represent a first experimentation with aleatoric procedures.
Also important, a contemporary of Cowell, Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) introduced other ideas that would be essential in bringing about the Minimalist revolution. Although originally from France, Varèse would come to America and make his home there. Shortly after his arrival in New York in 1915, he would be quoted in a newspaper interview:
"Our musical alphabet must be enriched. We also need new instruments very badly... Musicians should take up this question in deep earnest with the help of machinery specialists. I have always felt the need for new mediums of expression in my work. I refuse to submit myself only to sounds that have already been heard. What I am looking for are new technical mediums which can lend themselves to every expression of thought and can keep up with thought."1
The statement was revolutionary, and would guide Varèse throughout his career. He would expand greatly the instruments available for percussionists, including in his 1931 work Ionisation
a siren among other unprecedented sounds, while neglecting more traditional and established instruments and compositional methods; he would write only very sparingly for stringed instruments
, as they were too evocative of an earlier time's Romanticism.
The work of the French and Russians threw Western high art music into chaos. The work of the Americans would weaken the walls that kept Western high art music within its traditionally narrow, Romantic conception. By 1940, the walls were ready to come down. It was not a moment too soon.
Through all of this, the Germans and Austrians did not sit idly by. They were busy composing their own music for the times. And if it weren't for their work, which produced a behemoth of academic and thoroughly Modern music, Minimalism would not have had a sufficient nemesis to rebel against, and probably would never have had the backing to become the influential movement it did become.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) provided the link between the high Romanticism of the late 19th century and the user-unfriendly atonality of the 20th. In different times of his career, he produced music of both traditions.
Schoenberg, perhaps most well-known for his innovation of dodecaphonic music, would arrive at that innovation only after becoming convinced that the ever-growing chromaticism espoused by Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss was headed in the direction of atonality themselves. So, in the tradition of the cult of genius, Schoenberg would attempt to do with late Romanticism what Wagner attempted to do with early Romanticism -- make it better. Bringing something new to the table. Turning the world on its ear.
Late Romantic music had become so dominated by chromaticism that the notion of "tonality" became almost archaically useless. It was difficult to hear a piece's tonality, and even though you could, in theory, sit down and analyze a piece to determine its tonality and the complex relationships that defined its form, in much of the music of the late Romantic Germanic/Austrian tradition, doing so would aid the understanding hardly at all, since traditional harmonic principles were broken almost as much as they were followed. It was, in a word, chaos.
Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, then, was an attempt to bring order to that sound -- to look at highly chromatic music from a different perspective. Dodecaphonic music in its more fully developed and generalized form, serialism, would revolutionize the academic and Germanic/Austrian spheres. The Second Viennese School, consisting of Schoenberg, Alban Berg (1885-1935), and Anton Webern (1883-1945), would develop and refine the dodecaphonic language, creating works that would titillate theorists and torture unfortunate music students for decades.
Thus Schoenberg represents the century-in-coming culmination of the German/Austrian cult of genius. He was, as much as anyone could be, a modern Beethoven. Unfortunately for his legacy, the world had changed drastically. The world was no longer looking for a new Beethoven. The cult of genius was breathing its last breaths.
A new breath would come from the avant-garde of the United States.
John Cage and the destruction of Music
If you are feeling a bit bewildered by this point (as am I), you will grasp in part what composers of the mid-twentieth century were facing. The legacies of Stravinsky, Les Six, The Russian Handful, and The Second Viennese School all dominated the modern consciousness. Academic circles were having a heyday with serialism, which produced a modern music that -- and this was no secret -- not everyone liked. So what's an independently-minded American composer to do?
As mentioned earlier, the United States proved particularly susceptible to Eastern influences. John Cage (1912-1992) was himself profoundly influenced by Eastern ideas. Both Cowell and Varèse would influence Cage's musical conception.
Cage, in many ways, broke down the final barriers defining what music "ought" to be about -- what musical Art was. From Varèse he drew a wide conception on what sounds are "musical" -- indeed, Cage believed music was an organization of sound, where sound could be, well, any sound, and not of a particular intonation, timbre, or family. From Cowell he drew a penchant for experimentation with traditional instruments. The result was a wide and varied repertoire.
Cage is known for several of his ground-breaking works. His Sonatas and Interludes for solo piano (1948) was for prepared piano, where screws and bolts of various sizes would be placed within the piano, against the strings, in order to create unique percussive or harmonic effects when a key corresponding to the respective keys is struck. The Music of Changes (1951) was an experiment in aleatoric compositional methods, where all the elements of the music were determined by chance through the I Ching. He also experimented with aleatoric music on the performance side, as in his Imaginary Landscapes (a series of five were composed, from 1939-1952), the content of which was determined not only by Cage's notation but also whatever sounds the electric devices used as "instruments" might produce.
The first piece of Cage to really touch on the core of Minimalism was his famous piece, 4'33". The piece requires a musician (usually, a pianist) to walk on stage, prepare to play, and... not play for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
From one perspective, the piece is aleatoric, since the "music" would be whatever sounds would occur in that time, whether it be the breathing of someone next to you, someone down the row shifting his weight, or the sound of a passing ambulance outside. On the other hand, it is Minimalism in its purest form, removing the composer almost completely from the work, reducing compositional content to nothing. Either perspective would be in keeping with Cage's eastern leanings. The self, the heroic artist, the cult of genius, had been annihilated.
Thus, Minimalism was born.
Minimalism in its infancy
The first generation of Minimalists are difficult to recognize as such; their music is as much "minimalist" as it is "aleatoric," oftentimes. What binded them together was a desire to bring high art music to a more elemental foundation, to begin anew with a bare minimum of musical materials. But what, exactly, that sounded like was subject to interpretation.
The earliest minimalist music bears a close resemblance to minimalism in the visual arts. La Monte Young (1935- ) composed his String Trio in 1958, while still a student. The first five minutes of the piece consist entirely of three notes, one for each instrument. His Death Chant (1961) brought in repetition as a compositional tool. So, thus far, minimalism is realized through a scarcity of formal and melodic material. At the same time, the Chant is still subject to some aleatoric principles, since exact instrumentation was flexible, and repetition was free (i.e., the performers could repeat as often or as little as they liked)
While La Monte Young would go on to explore more conceptual pieces and Eastern music (his work with Indian singer Pran Nath is particularly noteworthy), another composer, Terry Riley (1935- ) would provide an important trajectory for minimalist music to follow. He experimented with repeating melodic patterns, and would also begin using tape loops to compose, a technique later Minimalists would take up.
Riley's most notable work here, In C (1964), consisted of an indeterminate number of musicians playing unspecified instruments, playing specifically notated melodic fragments an indefinite number of times, their progression through the piece restricted by a couple simple rules. Since the piece minimized melodic material and formal content, it might be called "Minimalist," while at the same time, it was unarguably aleatoric.
The aleatoric content of these works notwithstanding, what made the Minimalists "minimalist" was not their interest in aleatoric procedures. Rather, it might be best to think of "minimalism" as a byproduct of the experimentation with aleatoric techniques.
Minimalism in its adolescence
The composers Steve Reich (1936- )and Philip Glass (1937- ), while not technically of the "next generation," would take the minimalism of their predecessors and create something of it distinguishable from aleatoric music. They both make something different of it.
Reich took quite fondly to tape loops, where a recorded sound would be repeated over and over, allowing a sound to be juxtaposed against itself, first in unison, then slowly taking them out of phase, a technique called phase shifting. A few works for tape exist -- It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) representing his earliest work in tape loop. The tape loop would inspire phase-shifting for live musicians, as in the Piano Phase (1967), Violin Phase (1967), and Clapping Music (1972). The tape loop defined a bit of Reich's musical esthetic, which came to be characterized by a regular and strong beat and repeating diatonic melodic material. As Reich's style developed, he would begin experimenting with additive processes while also fleshing out his music for live performers. Reich's modern style contains the repetition, strong beat, and generally pleasant sonorities of minimalist music, having given up the austerity that surrounded much of his earliest works.
Glass was, from the very start, more involved with live musicians than with tape loops, and also drew a significant amount of inspiration from Indian musicians. This influence is apparent in his use of additive processes, where a given melodic unit would be repeated some number of times, then the unit would be repeated several more times, this time with a few notes tacked onto the end or beginning of the original melodic unit. The new unit would itself be added to, resulting in a long-term development of a single idea by a very simple, additive process. Since his music was intended for live musicians, much of his earlier music was already more fleshed out than Reich's early music was.
As his music developed, Glass began to use simple harmonic progressions, which marked a turn away from strictest minimalism to a more developed, "minimalist approach" to composing music that was actually appealing -- a notion which had become unusual after six or seven decades of Modern music. Einstein on the Beach (1975), while in many ways "abstract," marked the end of his strictly minimalist works and the beginning of his more modern style.
It is this more modern style, I believe, which connected him with popular music, which had never abandoned tonality the same way Western high art musicians had. There was an unprecedented flow of ideas from "high art" to "low art" music, perhaps best exemplified by his "Heroes" Symphony, which was based in part upon music of Brian Eno and David Bowie.
Glass's return to tonality was accompanied by a similar movement in Western high art music, resulting in what is sometimes referred to as "Neo-Romanticism," but might be more broadly described as "Music you can actually bear to listen to."
Which brings us to now.
Minimalism as we know it
So, what is Minimalist music? Minimalist music, nowadays, contains none of the avant-garde of the mid-twentieth century. It is, in many ways, the new "establishment." It is music that employs repetition to flesh out simple melodic/rhythmic patterns while using simple additive/subtractive procedures. It is texturally simple music, generally avoiding such Germanic things as counterpoint, while still making references to a long, Western musical history on a larger, simpler scale. It is music of apparent and easy-to-grasp beauty, something that can win Oscars and the acceptance of genuine musicians.
It is, simply, the music of our times.
Morgan, pg. 306-7.
Grout, Donald Jay, and Palisca, Claude V. A History of Western Music, fifth edition. Norton, 1996.
Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-Century Music. Norton, 1991.
Turek, Ralph. Analytical Anthology of Music, second edition. McGraw-Hill, 1992.
Finally, a disclaimer. I am not an expert. I don't even have a graduate degree (yet). If you know better'n me, tell me so, and I will do a mighty penance, and correct the error.