5. Notes on minimalism

Overview and unit/topic questions

These notes are to remind you of the overview of this topic.

We are exploring the music of Michael Nyman as one example of contemporary minimalist approaches to artistic work.

Our topic questions ‘How is minimalist practice reflected in contemporary musical genres?’ and ‘Is minimalism really everywhere?’ apply to this unit as they do to other units we are undertaking that relate to the topic ’20th and 21st century music (minimalist focus)’.

Make as many links as you can other composers identified as minimalist but look also for minimalist processes and ideas in to popular, rock, dance, folk, traditional, classical, jazz,  renaissance, and world musics; either music that you know or that you discover along the way.

Notes by Andrew Tredinnick

Features of minimalism in music

‘Minimalism’ typically describes music that uses a deliberately limited amount of musical materials.

Minimalist compositions typically display some or all of the following:

  • repetition and ‘looping’
  • short motifs
  • pulse
  • arpeggios
  • focus on rhythm
  • sometimes downplay of melody as the feature
  • focus on process: changes in timbre, texture, dynamics may take precedence as features over melodic material
  • a focus on consonance
  • compositional process is evident to the listener, often emerging as the listener follows the piece
  • structure is very obvious (as if the plumbing were on the outside of a building).

The most commonly cited minimalist composers are: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Adams. The first three of these began their work in the 1960s. All are still composing and performing their works.

Minimalist composers typically initially formed and performed in their own ensembles (e.g. Terry Riley, Michael Nyman, Philip Glass, Steve Reich). In common with other art forms and labels for movements (e.g. ‘Impressionism’), the artists themselves have not always favoured or appreciated the label given to their styles by others.

Later key 20th and 21st century ensembles commissioned minimalist works and collaborated with minimalist composers. The well-known and influential US string quartet Kronos Quartet were largely responsible for encouraging minimalist composers to write music for people other than their own ensembles. Kronos encouraged and commissioned works from Terry Riley (e.g. ‘Cadenza on the Night Plain’), Steve Reich (e.g. ‘Different Trains’), and Philip Glass (e.g. Glass’s string quartets). The Balanescu Quartet is another example of a contemporary string quartet performing minimalist composers’ works.

Minimalism has been widely influential in art music, rock and popular music, and in film soundtracks. It has influenced many composers, even those who are not minimalists as such. For example, the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe became intrigued with minimalism particularly during the 1980s. He was fascinated by the work of the minimalist influenced rock band Talking Heads, and by the work of composers such as Steve Reich, and he incorporated some minimalist processes into his own music.

Minimalism has also influenced folk performance. The Penguin Café Orchestra has created something of a folk standard in its minimalist influenced piece ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’, a version being recorded for example by the Celtic band Patrick Street.

Minimalist and minimalist–influenced works studied

Kometenmelodie 2’ by Kraftwerk (1974)

Played on synthesisers and based on a rising C scale, at first only the first four notes of the scale are played as a riff. Then arpeggios of C major, D minor, E minor and F major are added as a melody. The melody is then varied and the scale continued. A long section on the dominant note G follows with sparser melodic material. Harmonised versions of the rising scale appear at various points as do sustained consonant chords. The whole piece has a continuous driving groove, at some points featuring electronic percussion.

In C’ by Terry Riley (1964)

Regarded as a seminal and path-breaking work this composition (score here) features 53 repeated motifs played ad lib by a large ensemble of variable size and instrumentation. The motifs are played in a particular order over a continuous pulse, the performers moving at will to the next motif. The success of a performance depends on the performers engaging strongly with one another and listening to the ensemble and unique melodic and rhythmic patterns that emerge in each performance. The composition had a unique performance including the composer in Sydney in 2006 in as part of the Aurora Festival of new music in Sydney. Recently the Hillier Ensemble has created a vocal version of ‘In C’.

Born Never Asked’ and ‘O Superman’ by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson is a US performance artist who has pioneered combining spoken word performance with vocal and violin performance. She has used the vocoder, a voice-based synthesiser and unique electronic instruments in her live performance. Recently associated with Lou Reed she has often collaborated with other artists. ‘Born Never Asked’ features repeated rhythmic patterns and simple bass repetition, with overlaid chords and riff-like melodic patterns on violin. ‘O Superman’ (incidentally a huge hit for her) features the vocoder creating an insistent repeated note accompanying melodic material.

Koyaanisqatsi’ soundtrack by Philip Glass

The filmmaker Godfrey Reggio had to work to convince Philip Glass to compose the music for his widely discussed film exploring the ideas and emotions of a world and life ‘out of balance’. Glass at first stated that he did not do film soundtracks, but he later relented. Glass has since composed other soundtracks, and his style has become influential on soundtrack composers. For the film Glass composed music associated with nature, and music associated with technology, drawing out mechanistic aspects of his style to match the mood of the film. Long stretches of time feature in the film, challengingly stretching the notoriously short attention spans of today, and there are some unique very long visual takes in the film.

Thinking about performing minimalist works

Technical issues and technical development

Experiment with new techniques on your instrument, and adapting and making sounds and parts ‘work’ on your instrument, exploiting its own characteristics.

Transpose material if necessary (if you have a transposing instrument).

Try playing a part on an unfamiliar instrument.

Ensemble work (being part of musical teamwork while playing in class or elsewhere)

Work on balance of levels, blend of tone colours, listening to other performers, your contribution to the texture, intonation (tuning), groove, pulse and rhythmic ‘tightness’ (‘playing in time’ or ‘ensemble’).

Arrangement and improvisation

Experiment with finding necessary chords other voicings of harmonies as you go, different registers and ranges, octave equivalence, ornamentation and expression, extension and expansion of melodic material (in small and subtle ways). Extend aspects of melodic material, experiment with articulation (note beginnings), dynamics.

Thinking about composing minimalist works

Listening to or analysing minimalist works

To assist in composition, consider using works we have played on class or other works that you discover as models.

‘Unpack’ the works we have played or listened to in class: what has the composer used to build his or her piece?

Learn to play various parts of them on one or more instruments. Observe how parts fit together melodically, harmonically or structurally, even in simple ways: how do two parts work together? three parts?

  • Consider rhythmic parts – what rhythmic motifs feature? What rhythmic devices or patterns do you notice? What is repeated? What remains relatively static?
  • Consider melodic parts – what melodic motifs feature? What keys are used? What scales or modes are used?
  • What chords and harmonies are used or generated? How does melody make harmony in the piece? How does melody relate to harmony? What about bass parts, bass lines or bass notes – how are they used or repeated?
  • What about structure? What sections are used? How long do sections go for?
  • Consider texture – what is layered? How do layers change over time?
  • What about tone colour? What instruments are used? Which instruments and sounds are blended with what?
  • How are dynamics and articulations (note beginnings) used?

Extension work (optional…) further listening; recent examples; links to soundtrack music; cross-media l

Track down copies of recordings or visual works (DVD examples) we have listened to or watched or played in class, and listen to other examples

Look out for examples of minimalist or minimalist influenced works that may be in record or CD collections of your family members or friends, or even amongst sheet music you have access to. Look for example for works by performers or composers such as: Jean-Michel Jarre (e.g. ‘Oxygene’), Talking Heads, Coldplay, John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman (e.g. ‘The Piano’), Arvo Pärt, Ryuchi Sakomoto, Kraftwerk, Penguin Café Orchestra (these are just a few examples).

Look out for current or future examples of artistic collaborations or visiting artists with minimalist influences. Take up opportunities to attend arts festivals in your area. Consider cross-media work too (e.g. dance, circus, film, performance art, opera). Research minimalism in music, starting with online and published encyclopaedias and music reference works. Research and observe minimalist practice in other art forms.

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