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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott


Our subject today is a contentious one, one which causes consternation in the minds of some, and outright hostility in the minds of others. For yet others it’s a wonderful aspect of modern music, creating new (and often very complex) sound worlds out of the simplest of means. Our subject is minimalism, and right from the start I need to point out something: it’s not new.

Minimalism is a term used to describe music which reduces one or more of its components to the simplest levels and which uses repetition of these reduced components as a means of expression. It’s a term commonly associated with the music of some later 20th century composers, but aspects of minimalism were used by composers of much earlier times. To start his monumental Ring cycle, for example, Wagner has nearly the first five minutes based on one single chord - E flat major - which grows out of the depths of the orchestra. Here, the harmony is minimalised - reduced to single chord to create a dream-like effect - and the change of harmony which occurs at the first voice entry has the effect of being hugely cathartic. [listen]

Rhinemaidens at the 1876 premiere of The Ring

One would never call Wagner a minimalist composer! But here in this famous moment, he uses an aspect of minimalism for an intensely effective dramatic reason. Other composers have done the same. One could call parts of Beethoven’s seventh symphony minimalist in terms of its rhythm, or the obsessive use of the famous “fate” motif in the same composer’s fifth symphony might also be an aspect of rhythmic minimalism as well.

In the 20th century, Gustav Holst used a form of minimalism in Mars, the opening movement of his suite The Planets. The relentless hammering of the 5/4 rhythm is a form of minimalism which here is clearly intended to imply the unstoppable violence of mechanised war. [listen]

Gustav Holst (c. 1924)

Of course, this sort of rhythmic repetition is more usually called an ostinato. The Italian word has the same roots as our English word obstinate, meaning stubborn; a cell or motif which is repeated over or under some other more varied material. However it is definitely a form of minimalism, something Holst did in other works of his. The Beni Mora suite, written a few years before The Planets. contains a melodic fragment in the last movement which is repeated 163 times, reflecting Holst’s own experience one night in Algiers when he heard an Arab musician in the distance intone this fragment for two and half hours. [listen]

La Monte Young

One could cite many more examples where composers have used an aspect of minimalism in their works. However the common use of the term nowadays originated in the 1960s and 70s. A school of writing arose in which composers intentionally simplified rhythmic, melodic and harmonic aspects of their music. The term “minimalist” had already been used in the visual arts, and in music it was used to describe a reaction against complex modernism (in music of Boulez, Stockhausen and their followers). While the American composer Terry Riley is usually credited with being the father of minimalism - and most usually with his composition In C, composed in 1964 - the opening shot of the musical movement probably happened a few years earlier in 1960, with La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7 which showed how simple music could get. It’s one pair of notes, played once, and sustained for as long as possible.

Here's the entire score:

On the piano it could sound like this: [listen]

But taken to extremes, it could sound like this: [listen]

If ever there was a reaction against complexity this is it!

Riley’s In C is a massive work lasting about an hour in eleven sections, all based on the note C and its implied harmonies. It shows an amazing ingenuity of how the simplest of means - in this case the simplest of melodic and harmonic means - can be used to create a fascinating work. It’s very similar to visual artists who reduced their paintings to single colours or single shapes, whether painted once or in repetition. [listen]

Terry Riley (1985)

The real effects of minimalism manifest themselves by virtue of having the opportunity for the multiple layering and repetition to be properly expressed and properly experienced in real time. I can’t help drawing a parallel from my own experience, that of meditation. To get into the proper mental state for good meditation takes time, focusing on simple, repetitive things like breathing. This can’t be achieved or experienced in short grabs as well as it can be over longer periods, and minimalist music of this sort is similar. It actually involves a completely different sort of listening, not listening with the brain but with the heart or the spirit or whatever term you use for that instinctual, non-cognitive but meaningful sort of listening we indulge in from time to time.

Terry Riley (2004)

Terry Riley has produced a large body of work which has varying degrees of this sort of echt minimalism. Both he and La Monte Young were born in 1935. In the following year was born another of the big names in American minimalism, Steve Reich. Reich’s entry in Grove Online describes him as having “consistently broadened and developed his musical world without compromising the streamlined efficiency and precision of his technique. Repetitive, pulse-driven figures have remained a characteristic, but so have the slips and leaps of a lively mind”.

While there is constant repetition in Reich’s music there is also development, often in the form of “phasing”. This is a sort of musical environment where music starts out as a regular entity but as unhighlighted aspects of the music are highlighted, emphases shift and change, providing a sort of musical “big picture” which is superimposed on the “small picture” we’ve been focused on. The most famous example of this is his massive work Drumming but it’s also evident in Music for 18 Musicians, dating from the mid-70s. The whole piece lasts about an hour, but in the right “headspace” that hour can pass in what seems like a few minutes. [listen]

Steve Reich

In minimalist music of this nature, there are two different time-scales in operation. the micro-time scale is very fast - the repeated rhythms and quick little phrases which we hear over and over. But on the macro-time scale the pace is very slow. Dozens of repetitions of the little fragments then change slightly, making one single event on a slower scale. It’s like the Russian dolls where several smaller dolls fit into one larger one. A lot of Reich’s music is captivating on that sort of level, but it takes some getting used to. In conventional classical music, a new event happens almost every moment; in minimalist music, there can be a long time between drinks, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Listening to minimalist music in the same way one listens to Bach or Schubert can be very frustrating, but it’s the same for any music. Listening to Bach or Schubert the same way one listens to Dave Brubeck or Lady Gaga can be equally frustrating. It’s just cutting your cloth, as it were.

Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was completed in 1983 (a revision of the 1979 Octet). The title refers to the eight independent melodic parts of the piece; it uses more than eight instruments and more than eight players. It displays another aspect of minimalism. Rather than phasing - a feature of Reich’s music where similar phrases fall out of sync with each other - Eight Lines uses a device known as “rhythmic construction”, where melodies and rhythms are built up one tiny detail at a time. This is another example of the long-scale and the short-scale time worlds being meshed together. [listen]

One of Reich’s earlier works, Music for Pieces of Wood, shows how minimalism can dispense with pitch altogether - well, almost altogether. Written in 1973 it’s scored for five percussionists playing claves (pairs of cylindrical hardwood sticks struck together), the piece uses elements of phasing where rhythms overlap and fall in and out of sync. The only pitch is that created by the different pitches of the claves; there’s no melody or harmony in the traditional sense. [listen]

You may have noticed already, though, that some of the music I’ve used in this article has more than a passing similarity to aspects of modern popular music. This is no coincidence. A lot of modern rock music, especially that designed for dancing (and especially the dance music which is sometimes described as being “house”, “trance” or techno”) is extraordinarily minimalist. What matters is the pulse (usually called the “beat”) and, within that, rhythm. Of much less importance is the melody or the harmony, which is usually restricted to a single chord, or two chords alternating. Also, a lot of popular music of many varieties starts like a lot of minimalist music - that is, in layers. One motif starts, to which another is added, then another, and another.

Born in January 1937, a few months after Steve Reich, was Philip Glass. His music uses many of these features found in popular styles of music, which in part explains his enormously broad appeal in the marketplace. What’s also interesting is that much of Glass’ music is designed for dance - that is, ballet - so the aural component is only part of the package. Glass’ brand of minimalism is different to that of Reich, though. Glass’ repetitions are simpler and more direct than those of Reich, with a narrow harmonic vocabulary and usually dazzling instrumental colours. This is Glass’ Dance no. 3 written in the late 1970s. [listen]

Philip Glass (1993)

In the early 1980s, Glass wrote a music theatre work called The Photographer. It contains movements which are a far gentler example of his minimalist world. [listen]

While we’re in the 1980s I guess I must mention John Adams, born in 1947. Adams’ famous description of himself as “a minimalist bored with minimalism” is evident in his music from the 80s. Adams is not really a minimalist in the sense that the composers I’ve already mentioned are, but I include him to show how minimalist techniques could be included in more complex styles of composition. The Dutch conductor David Porcelijn said to me once, “If Adams is a minimalist then so is Beethoven”, and I would tend to agree. Here’s the opening of Adams’ opera Nixon in China, premiered in 1987. The minimalist aspect is the rising scale heard at the start which permeates the music throughout this section, but there are repeated and varied figures all around it which move the music into a world very different to that of Reich or Glass. [listen]

John Adams (1993)

I’ve already mentioned the connection between modern minimalism and popular music. There’s also an aspect of minimalism which has been deridingly dubbed “holy minimalism”. This is the school of minimalist composition which uses the paring back of aural essentials as a means of expressing spiritual rather than physical concepts. Again there are pop music equivalents; think of the ostinato of “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna” in the background of The Beatles’ My sweet Lord, for example.

In the 1990s composers like Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have used minimalist techniques to express Christian mysticism of varying sorts. The phenomenal success of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs again showed how mystic minimalism can strike a chord in the popular music market, and Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene are similarly popular classics of the minimalist school.

I’d like to finish though with an example of Australian composition which has tapped into the spiritual side of the minimalist school, although I hesitate to label this composer as a minimalist; he’s much more complex than that. Ross Edwards was born in Sydney in 1943, and his early compositions were written in the complex, atonal style which was popular in the late 60s. From the 1970s onwards however, he has pared back his style to express simpler and more profound ideals based on simple kernels which are developed into larger structures. The Symphony Da Pacem Domine, composed in 1990-91 and dedicated to the conductor Stuart Challender (who died shortly after it was completed), is a single movement work spanning half an hour. It has slow-moving textures which build into what the composer has described as a “massive orchestral chant of quiet intensity”. The first Gulf War was taking place when the work was begun, so the title (“Give peace, Lord”) has multiple connotations.

Ross Edwards

It's really “listen-to-in-a-darkened-room-alone” sort of music, at least it is for me. The Symphony Da Pacem Domine is a beautiful work, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s recording of it under the baton of Richard Mills is superb. [listen]

Of course I’ve left out so much. I haven’t mentioned Pauline Oliveros, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Howard Skempton, Glenn Branca, Graham Fitkin or David Lang, all composers who have put their own particular slants on minimalism. But the concept has led to some fascinating and - so far - enduring art.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2006.

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