Minimalist Music Paper Example

Published: 2022-04-08
Minimalist Music Paper Example
Type of paper:  Dissertation chapter
Categories:  Music
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1839 words
16 min read


Minimalist music is a current of contemporary music that appeared in the United States in the 1960s and represents an important part of the classical music of that country. It is also called repetitive music when designating a set of works that use repetition as a composition technique. The main composers of minimalist music are La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. The work considered as founder of minimalism was In C by Terry Riley, composed in 1964. This movement developed mainly in the two regions of the United States traditionally more open to artistic innovations and to the influences of non-European cultures: New York and the West Coast. Minimalism also had its adherents in Britain (Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars), Holland (Louis Andriessen), France (Renaud Gagneux), remaining primarily an American phenomenon. The term is sometimes used more generally encompassing certain composers of experimental music or postmodern music. In particular, Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki, sometimes consider themselves minimalist composers, even with concerns very different from those of the repetitive Americans.

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Minimalist music marks a break with the avant-garde and a return to tonal music, and sometimes modal. It is also characterized by a certain austerity and by an economy of means. Various characteristics are used according to the composers: the use of systematic processes of composition, repetitive structures and a regular beat for the American repeats, an influence of religious music and the Middle Ages for Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki and the return to certain classical forms (quartet, symphony,) for John Adams.

The year 1976 marked the summit of the minimalist movement, with the concomitant creations such as Music for 18 Musicians of Reich, the opera Einstein on the Beach by Glass, De Staat by Louis Andriessen, Fur Alina the founding piece of the Tintinnabuli style of Arvo Part and the Third Symphony by Henryk Gorecki. All these works had in common, apart from the date of its premiere, the fact of representing a change in the career of its composers, either as a result of a theoretical work, or because it constituted the beginning of a new style of composition that would bring a breath of fresh air to the world of classical music of the twentieth century.

More than a return to tonality, the current was characterized above all by the use of a regular pulsation and by the repetition of short motifs that evolve slowly. Beyond a movement of reaction to serialism, dominant then in Europe, minimalist music shows the emergence of an innovative American music, detached from its European ties. Minimalist composers mark a return to greater musical emotion away from an essentially intellectual approach to serial music or an experimental conceptual approach as practiced by John Cage. After some difficult beginnings outside the traditional circuits of classical music, minimalist music acquired the adherence of a certain audience, sometimes coming from different universes such as jazz, rock, improvised music or electronic music. Television and cinema have abundantly used this music, particularly the works of Philip Glass, contributing to its dissemination to the public. The minimalist current has also suffered strong criticism, accusing it of producing a consumer music, superficial and soulless.

The contemporary music of the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by integral serialism and the European avant-garde around Pierre Ovules, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen ... The composers experimented with the new technologies of electronics and established the foundations of electronic music and concrete music. With its endless and apparently static repetitions, minimalism was and still is one of the most popular and recognizable musical movements of the 20th century. At the end of the 1950s, the "cultured" musical panorama of the West was dominated mainly by the dissonant harmonies of integral serialism and other formal audacities of composers such as Pierre Boulez (Le marteau sans maitre), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Kontra-Punkte) , Luigi Nono (The Victoire of Guernica) and Milton Babbitt (Composition for twelve instruments), among others. The experiments of the vanguards extended to the then new electronic technologies (in the work of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, mainly), and the disintegration of form and freedom granted to the interpreter reached its maximum expression in the figure of John Cage , whose almost conceptual approach to music had to chance and indetermination as main threads.

However, these radical experiments resulted in works of extreme rhythmic and melodic complexity that ended up being abstract brain pieces virtually incomprehensible to the non-scholarly public. In this context, a group of young American composers emerged in the late 1950s, who, fascinated by the enveloping structures of Indian music, the hypnotic rhythms of African percussion and the organizational freedom of jazz, reacted against this complex intellectualism returning to the tonality and consonant harmony through a series of works whose main characteristic was the maximum sound simplicity.

But before discussing more about what defines the postminimalist style, it is important to understand the composers and their relationships to minimalism (in the most general of terms, of course). As the term "postminimal" would suggest, the style is seen in many ways as being a reaction to the minimalist movement. These composers would have studied music during the height of minimalism's popularity. Certain aspects of minimalism were important aspects of their musical education with specifics from this movement being ingrained in those who studied music at the height of minimalism's popularity. Eventually, however, the minimalist movement was deemed by music critics to have reached its end. They claimed that there was nowhere else to go within minimalism (or, at least, no one seemed to be doing so). Minimalism was a "fait accompli."

Just because minimalism had reached its end, however, did not mean that it had no effect on the next generation of composers (even those who would have studied music after the "end of minimalism" had been declared) or that its influence has in any way been limited. As already touched upon in Gann's definition of the movement, its predecessors affected this new movement in several very direct ways. It also served as a point of contrast. The postminimal composers did certain things a distinctly contrary manner to minimalism. The repetitious nature of minimalist music carried over into the postminimalism, with different applications. Without necessarily being minimal in composition style, the repetition of phrases that is often heard in minimalism also exists in postminimalism. The postminimalists, while using this technique of the previous generation, were more interested in textural variety and being audience friendly. The postminimalists generally prefer to work in shorter increments (a 15 minute piece rather than 75 or 120) but still used the mixed chamber groups that were developed and experimented with by composers such as Glass and Reich.

Besides their predecessors (either the incorporation or movement away from their techniques and styles), there were other direct influences on the postminimalists which did not exist to the same extent for the previous movements. Because of the 'newness' of some of these creative forces and influences, they were in some ways seen as novelties. By incorporating these new influences and tools, the postminimal composer would be able to assert him or herself as progressive and contemporary and yet at the same time was returning to the more tonal music that preceded the minimalists and the serialists.

The postminimalists were the first group of students to be exposed to African and Asian music in their professional studies. A new and academic setting for these music as well as increased availability introduced these students to new rhythmic patterns that were both complex and completely accessible to the "unsophisticated" listeners and consumers. The aforementioned technological advances that have undoubtedly had some of the greatest effects on the sharing and reinvention of music, of course, have enhanced this, (if not facilitated).

Other important influences on Postminimal movement are separate from the musical influences of other genres, styles, or musical movements. Rather, like technology, other aspects of American culture have become important influences on the philosophy of postminimalism. With the increased awareness of ecological issues came new ideas in the same vein, which were applicable to art. A parallel might be drawn between an ecological refusal to hog more resources than one needed and the idea that a postminimalist composition should look inwards and not use more sound that in needs to create such an effect. "Rather than a going-outward to say something about the world, it represent[s] a going-inward, a focus on a certain small repertoire of sonorities and processes."

Structure of Minimalist Music

Starting to a large extent with structural schemes typical of oriental music, such as the immensely subtle Indian raga, which is organized in continuous melodic cycles and has a hypnotic rhythm that appeals to the creation of a particular mood in listening, these artists rejected the classical language of composition in 12 tones and constructed their music by means of extensive rhythmic phrases composed of a constant pulsation and the reiteration of brief motifs or cells that evolve slowly in a practically imperceptible way, giving as a whole the impression that the same notes are repeated again and again ad infinitum during the minutes - or even hours - that the interpretations may last. In fact, the incessant repetition, the ostinato, is one of the oldest musical expressions of which one has memory, and is frequently present in baroque music (the continuo and bass of Alberti, for example). The principle of perpetual repetition in contemporary works can be seen such as in the Bolero by Maurice Ravel and the radical Vexations, a piece for piano written in 1892 by Erik Satie that consists of only 18 notes with only two indications: repeating very slowly ... 840 times. Perhaps it was one more of the extravagant pranks of the composer, who never saw such a challenging piece premiered, but the truth is that John Cage took the challenge seriously and in 1963 offered, along with nine other pianists, a full interpretation of the work, which lasted for almost 19 hours.

Within minimalism, this structural technique completely replaces the dramatic evolution characteristic of music (at least until the Romantic period) by a kind of dynamic inertia where the absence of contrasts (strong / soft, fast / slow) alters our perception of time, since, although the musical flow does not cease to evolve at any time, it does so in such an imperceptible way that the listener has the impression that nothing is happening. In the end, this stylistic effect provokes a kind of hypnosis that in turn becomes a sense of the abolition of time. Then the spectators only have two options: to get bored and leave, or to let themselves be carried away by the hypnotic state that the music proposes. It is that, unlike most of the traditional western compositional styles, the minimalist works do not advance towards a cathartic climax, nor do they draw up tension and liberation schemes. It is simply "open" compositions whose cells can be repeated one, two, three ... infinitely many times, and which can be ended without more or more at the precise moment when any of its innumerable cycles are closed.

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