Composition II – Minimalism

What is minimalist music?

Reduced from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/musicapp-medieval-modern/chapter/minimalist-music/

Minimal music is an aesthetic, a style, or a technique of music that originated in the New York Downtown scene of the 1960s and represents a new approach to the activity of listening to music by focusing on the internal processes of the music, which lack goals or motion toward those goals. Prominent features of the technique include consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting which leads to what has been termed phase music. Minimal compositions that rely heavily on process techniques that follow strict rules are usually described using the term process music.

Composer and music critic Tom Johnson wrote “The idea of minimalism is much larger than many people realize. 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. It includes pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time. It includes pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams. It includes pieces that move in endless circles. It includes pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound. It includes pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another kind. It includes pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D. It includes pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute.”

What techniques are associated with minimalist music?

  • Some minimalist music features the sound of a drone (or pulsing drone), such as La Monte Young’s “The Well-Tuned Piano.” Music may gradually “evolve” by repeating notes or fragments for spans of time, as in Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerilla.”
  • Minimalist music tends to have a rhythmic characteristic of stillness or slowness (such as in David Lang’s “The Passing Measures“) or else it is motoric and incessant (like in John Adams’ Shaker Loops).
  • Ostinato and repetition of a melodic cell (a few pitches, either steady or rhythmic) is often found in place of a melody, such as in Philip Glass’ Two Pages.
    • Terry Riley’s seminal piece In C (the score is here) features a drone note “C” and an indefinite number of players improvising by moving from one small cell to another at an intuitive pace.
    • These cells often “evolve” through the use of a conceptual technique, like additive or subtractive process – this may be at the beginning or end of a melody (as in Rzewski’s Coming Togetherhere’s an analysis that explains it) or by filling in gaps of a pattern until it is complete (as in Reich’s Drumming – notice [in this score fragment] how each repeated bar of music adds one note at a time until the pattern is full).
    • Sometimes one or more bars are repeated for definite or indefinite numbers of times before progressing to a new cell (like in Two Pages, or in Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas.
    • Permutation is the changing of a pattern through methodical changes, such as in David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing, which achieves rhythmic variety by repeating a pattern while inserting tiny pauses between each note of the pattern [read about it here].
    • Classic counterpoint techniques are also sometimes used. In Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, an additive process is used to create an eight-chord melody (it builds from the outside-in, performing chords 1-2–7-8, then 1-2-3-6-7-8, then 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8). This pattern is then repeated in inversion. Those two patterns are then repeated in transposition again and again until the piece is complete.
  • Layering is an important compositional element in minimalism, both in how layers may be added or subtracted abruptly (as in Michael Gordon’s Trance) or through fading in and out (as in Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians).
    • One special technique of minimalism is the use of extremely close canon, such as in Reich’s Clapping Music (notice how the same pattern is performed by both groups of clappers, but one layer is shifted by an eighth note bit-by-bit) or in Louis Andriessen’s Hout, in which four players perform the same quick line, one behind the other at a distance of one note.
    • When two identical lines move in a canon that has no discrete steps (one layer “floats” away from the other, either by being at a slightly different speed, or by the temporary speeding or slowing of one part, a technique called phasing occurs, as in Steve Reich’s Piano Phase
  • Harmony can be chromatic, but it is usually triadic or pan-diatonic (using all the notes of a key as the basic harmony), such as in Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin BrittenThis piece also uses the medieval process of mensuration canon, in which each melodic layer moves at half the rate of the line above it. A composer’s use of harmony is often one of the characteristics that makes them distinctive, such as Glass’ use of triads or Reich’s use of extended jazz chords.
  • Dynamics in minimalist music are typically steady (loud throughout, or quiet throughout), or in a single trend (quiet to loud over the entire span of time, or the opposite).
  • Instrumentation of minimalist music varies from one composition to another, but certain trends have emerged. Early minimalist music tended to be written for their composer-led ensembles, so Steve Reich’s works often were written for percussion and pianos; Philip Glass’ ensemble blended keyboards, voices and saxophones. Ambient music like Brian Eno’s Music for Airportsis often associated with electronic media. One common feature in much minimalist music is homogeneity of timbre, resulting in single-family ensembles like Reich’s New York Counterpoint (for multi-tracked clarinets) or Different Trains (for four string quartets with pre-recorded sounds)

The History of Minimalism

Early/conceptual minimalism
A simple process is allowed to progress with little intervention from the composer. There is often little more than one or two musical layers in combination, or a single layer in (often haphazard) counterpoint with a copy of itself.

Progressive minimalism
Characteristics of early-period minimalism are employed in combination with more intuitive approaches to composition or mutiple techniques in combination. Static or expansive textures and vivid colors are favored over process-based conceptualization. 

More listening

  • Steve Reich “Music for 18 Musicians” (1974-76) [video]
  • Philip Glass “Einstein on the Beach” (1976) [YouTube audio playlist]
  • John Adams “Shaker Loops” (1983) [video]
  • Pauline Oliveros “A Woman Sees How The World Goes With No Eyes” (1989) [YouTube audio]
  • Michael Torke “Four Proverbs” (1993) [YouTube audio playlist]
  • David Lang “Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993) [video] [analysis]
  • Michael Gordon “Trance” (1995) [YouTube audio playlist]
  • Anna Thorvaldsdottir “Aeriality” (2011) [video]
  • Nico Muhly “Drones” (2012) [audio]

How Does One Create a Minimalist Composition?

  • Choose amazing timbres
    • Great instruments
    • Effects
    • Long-tones
    • Flurried sounds
    • Interlocking patterns
    • Amplification & effects
    • Similar timbres (8 guitars, 6 voices, etc.) or contrasting (rock band, orchestra, etc.)
    • Spoken word (choral spoken word?)
    • Overwhelming sonic combinations, or spare sounds?
    • Fading in/out (of chords, tones, layers, etc.)
  • Choose a stylistic approach or process(es)
    • Audible process
      • Additive/subtractive linear process
        • Notes/chords/sections/phrases before/between/after melody notes
      • Additive/subtractive textural process
      • Additive/subtractive harmonic process (notes expanding registrally from a small core, etc.)
      • Phasing; canon (unison? at expanding/contracting intervals?)
      • Key “rotation” through repetitions that change one note at a time
    • Steady-state
      • Polyrhythmic layers
      • Other types of unpredictable variety
  • Choose a rhythmic approach
    • Are lengths of phrases consistent, or do they vary with the process?
    • Are repetitive patterns symmetrical, or in meters such as 5/4 or 7/8? Or expanding and contracting?
    • Is the music pulse-oriented or free?
  • Choose a notational approach that suits the concept or procedure
    • fully/strictly notated
    • strict notation with loose repetitions
    • musical “cells” with repetitions or improvisations
    • set of instructions
  • Choose a duration and adapt musical process to accommodate it
    • Infinite music (cyclical)
    • Finite music
      • Indivisible: completes one cycle of a process
      • Sectional: different processes occur successively, or same process is repeated with new material
      • Rounded: opening material returns after digression


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