ConceptThe Minimalist concept began in the 1960's with a group of young composers who began exploring the possibilities of working with extremely reduced resources from which to draw. They limited themselves to very basic, "minimal" musical elements. Although they were influenced by John Cage, these composers moved off in a completely different direction, rejecting indeterminacy and attempting to bring music back to a more elemental basis.
Composers, Techniques, and ExamplesThe initial leading figure in this movement was LaMonte Young. He was drawn to the music of Webern but focused on the sparseness of texture and the basic static quality of his music.
While still a student in California, Young wrote his "String Trio" in 1958. The work's opening five minutes contains only three notes, one for each of the instruments. Each instrument slowly enters, one by one, until all are playing. They sustain the three pitches for a very long time before dropping out, slowly, again, one by one. After a long silent break, a new event begins the next section.
In Young's Death Chant (1961), A diatonic melody is sung in unison by a male chorus. It begins with two notes, then adds one more note each time it is repeated, until it reaches five notes then the process is repeated.
A fellow student and friend of Young, Terry Riley was probably the first minimalistic composer to concentrate almost exclusively on constantly repeating melodic patterns, which he recorded and played by way of a tape loop.
Steve Reich took up Riley's idea of repetition with tape loops and expanded it to encompass multiple loops and instrumental performance. He became fascinated with the possibilities of "phase shifting" where identical loops were played simultaneously but at slightly different speeds. The result was a pattern that started together, then the two gradually moved apart, "out of phase," then ultimately rejoined in synchronization. Reich's earliest instrumental piece to incorporate this technique was "Piano Phase" (1967) for two pianos.
Reich's "Nagoya Marimbas" (1994) is similar to his work of the 60s in that there are repeating patterns played on both marimbas, one or more beats out of phase. His work "City Life" (1995) incorporates live instruments with digitally sampled and repeated "natural" sounds such as speech, jack hammers, car horns, door slams, air brakes, subway chimes, car alarms, heartbeats, and fire and police sirens. "Proverb" (1996) is a piece, based on the phrase "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life," for three sopranos, two tenors, two electric organs and vibraphones. The sopranos sing the text in a canonic setting in which the canon actually gets longer with each repetition; the tenors sing duets in short rhythmic phrases; the organs double the voices and fill in the harmony; and the vibraphones emphasize the shifting meter.
The music of Philip Glass is similar to Reich's in that it incorporates steady rhythmic pulsation, constant repetition, and a limited range of pitch material. It also utilizes the concept in Young's "Death Chant" of additive melody, but expands it to a melodic-rhythmic framework.
Since the middle 1970's, Glass has focused his creative forces toward works for the stage, Einstein on the Beach (1975), Satyagraha (1980), and Akhnaten (1983). His most recent work is another stage piece with "Einstein" collaborator Robert Wilson, entitled Monsters of Grace. (See the article The Operas of Philip Glass)
Glass has described the kind of response required of listeners to fully appreciate his music as "one in which neither memory nor anticipation has a place in sustaining the musical experience. It is hoped that one would then be able to perceive the music as a 'presence,' freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound." In this type of listening, the listener loses himself, thus the popular term, "trance music."
Although Reich and Glass have in recent years included larger and larger resources in their music, the term "minimalism" is still the label most often used.
The "new" minimalism is championed by the composer John Adams. His creative output spans a wide range of media: works for orchestra, opera, video, film, and dance, as well as electronic and instrumental music. Such pieces as Harmonium, Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, and The Chairman Dances are among the best known and most frequently performed of contemporary American music. In these works he has taken minimalism into a new and fresh terrain characterized by luminous sonorities and a powerful and dramatic approach to form. Adams has, in his mature work, harnessed the rhythmic energy of Minimalism to the harmonies and orchestral colors of late-Romanticism. Concurrently he has introduced references to a wide range of 20th century idioms - both 'popular' and 'serious' - in works such as his two operas and the wittily eclectic orchestral piece "Fearful Symmetries", which touches on Stravinsky, Honegger, and big-band swing music.
Adams's two operas, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) have been among the more controversial and widely seen stage events in recent history. His newest stage work is a collaboration with Peter Sellars and librettist June Jordan; entitled "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky", it is described by its creators as a 'song play', scored for seven singers and an onstage band of eight instrumentalists.