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Minimalist music, like any genre of music, has morphed over time to become a complex style of music that remains ambiguous and difficult to define. Still, despite its ongoing evolution, many core traits remain the same, such as its strict emphasis on static harmony, uniformity of rhythm, and rigorously employed limitations set by its composers which help to define it as “minimalist music” from the outset.
Indeed, calling it a “style” sparks a recurring debate, with many pundits agreeing that minimalist music is more of an approach or aesthetic than a style.
That said, scholarly debate often falls on deaf ears and minimalist music has managed to enter the popular culture, appearing in big budget Hollywood movie soundtracks to provide stark and often unsettling sonic backdrops to grandiose visual feasts, not to mention video games and really anywhere that soundtracks are needed.
History of Minimalist Music
This music came about as a response to other more regimented musical iterations, such as Serialism, which itself is a compositional technique based on Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique from the late 1940’s.
Similar to Serialism, Minimalism at first began as a compositional structure for creating music. It came about in the late 1960’s, in downtown New York, and was called New York Hypnotic School. It has also been referred to, over time, as “process music”, “hypnotic music”, “modular music”, and even the very flattering “going nowhere music”.
Who Started Minimalist Music?
Many composers from the 1960’s were involved in defining of what minimalist music soon became, including sonic pioneers like La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. The term “minimalism” has been attributed to composer Tom Johnson, as well as Michael Nyman.
Here is a sample of a minimalist piece, by Steve Reich, called “New York Counterpoint”.
Minimalist music can last for hours and can have thousands of notes, but the majority of songs adhering to minimalist conventions tend to lie in the range of 6 to 10 minutes. In other words, far longer than the average popular song from any time period you can think of, save classical music.
Minimalist composers often make use of instruments that generally form classical ensembles, such as violin, viola, cello, guitar, saxophones, trumpet, piano, drums, marimba, as well as tuned percussion. Of course, there is no limit to what can be used and other less conventional instruments can be employed and played with as well, such as “antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whiskey glasses”, as described by self-identified minimalist composer Tom Johnson.
Characteristics and Examples of the Genre
Single Tone: Using a static tone throughout a song is one of the basic features of this type of music. The shift from one scale to another is slow and unrealizable.
Check out this piece by the group Coil, from the album Time Machines, which focuses on a single tone. Pleasurable, yes?
Static Harmony: Harmonies used in this music are usually simple and repetitive. Static harmony could be explained as hovering on just one chord or even moving back and forth between very few chords.
Here’s a song by sometimes minimalist composer Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin. This song, “Cliffs”, uses just a few chords and a lot of repetition, clocking in at over 7 minutes.
Steady Beat: In minimalist music, you often find a very steady, simple beat that is used through the whole song, or other sounds that represent such rhythms.
Have a listen to Alec Empire’s Low On Ice track, 37 2 Pt 1. Notice the beat doesn’t change much (at all).
Single or Polyrhythm: Many minimalist pieces have a continuous and steady beat, which can be accented with polyrhythms where two rhythms are used at the same time. You can find such juxtapositions and layered rhythmical elements in these tracks by Mouse on Mars.
Phasing: This effect was introduced by Steve Reich and it refers to playing the same part of a song using two different instruments but at different tempos. This creates an echo-like effect and creates variance of the same theme throughout a song, allowing listener interest to be maintained for a longer period of time.
Additive Process: Minimalist music tends to start off with a repeated pattern and continues to build throughout the piece, with slight alterations being made along the way. I personally think Tubular Bells would qualify as a type of minimalist music, in this sense, for the first 11 or so minutes of the piece.
Dynamics and Timbre: The variations in the music are derived by using different dynamics and timbre, as in changing the loudness or softness of certain instruments during the song, to avoid monotony.
In this piece by Angelo Badalamenti, there is enough overall variation to keep you listening, but the changes throughout the track are what I’d call minimal.
Dense Texture: The texture of a song determines the quality of the sound. It is basically the way in which the harmonies, rhythms, and melodies are used together as a composition. The texture used in minimalist songs are dense, giving the emotion behind the track added resonance.
Looping: This feature is also used in a lot of minimalist pieces. With looping, you hear something – a sound, a sample, a beat – recurring through the entire song.
Broken Chords: Many composers use the technique of adding in broken chords. This technique employs the playing of a chord where the notes are played at different times. They can literally sound broken, as in with jarring rhythms, or they can be played smoothly, but separately.
Decay: Many minimalist songs feature decay, as in chords or sounds that are left to hang and slowly “die” before another sound is made. Some songs even feature complete silence, such as John Cage’s famous 4’33.
Some might say that minimalist music “lacks” melody, in that it doesn’t provide the listener with a lot of variance when it comes to multiple melodies and chord structures. However, you could just as easily say that minimalist music simply lingers on specific parts of the music, making it even more romantic in its particular lack of “progression” through a piece. Only the listener can decide what the dominant feeling is with regards to any piece of music.
In our society of shortened attention spans and constant need for different stimuli, it would certainly seem that minimalist music could be called “boring”. This is not my personal opinion of minimalist music, however, as my attention span still seems to exist, despite the constant encouragement around me to never be content with my current state of being.
Influence On Other Musical Genres
Certainly, minimalist music has made an impact on nearly all types of music by now, including genres that you might expect such as electronic forms of music, including techno, trance, dub, ambient, etc.
What may surprise you is that rock music of all types, including metal, punk, funk, and progressive rock have absorbed many of these aforementioned characteristics of minimalist music. We’ve been hearing this influence since bands like the Velvet Underground gave us epic noise jams like Sister Ray featuring drones, or bands like My Bloody Valentine let their music burn out and decay like an exploded oil tanker with You Made Me Realize. The influence here of minimalist music is very clear, and yet requires industrial grade ear plugs to save you from going deaf.
Minimalist music, thanks to its “rules” that were put in place by its creators, help to shape it as a genre, and serves to continually inspire new generations of musicians to adopt some of its tendencies, in order to create new and exciting music. While this genre isn’t for everyone, due to its sometimes challenging nature, it can be beautiful, inspire mindfulness and reflection, and, ultimately, be quite a rewarding listening experience.