Hold On to Your Genre: Minimalism

Avatar photo

To a certain degree, everyone who jumps into the field of music journalism does so because of a passionate hunger for hearing something new and exciting. When it comes to finding something new and exciting, the deeper one digs into new sounds and unheard styles, the more apparent it becomes just how many unheard musical worlds there are to discover. The beauty of following this path of discovery is that, inevitably, embracing one style will provide an entry point to another. Hip-hop may turn one on to grime, drum `n’ bass to dubstep, funk to afrobeat, and so on. The chain, though finite, at times seems boundless.

Diving headfirst into a new genre, however, can be an intimidating task. Without exposure from a friend or acquaintance leaves us to take on much of the task on our own. Where does one start? Who are the best artists? Who are the hacks? And, most importantly, will this path of discovery be of any value to me? If you learn, absorb, or most importantly, enjoy anything in the process, then that musical journey most certainly has value.

With “Hold On To Your Genre,” Treble introduces a new series in which its writers take on a genre, head-first, for the first time. As we sample each style’s numerous delicacies, we hope our readers, in turn, will likewise take something interesting away from the process. There’s always a new genre or style to discover, and sometimes it takes an all-nighter to hear everything it has to offer.


Fall is the most highbrow of the seasons. It signals the beginning of an educational journey, as students return to school. It emphasizes the adding of layers to one’s clothing, rather than its removal and exposure of skin. And its soundtrack is typically less about Top 40, bubblegum or dance pop, and more about orchestration, acoustics, darkness and introspection. But for this autumn installment of `Hold On to Your Genre,’ I wanted to explore a highbrow realm in music. So I got minimal.

Minimalism as a concept is rooted in the idea of `less is more.’ Much like minimalism in art, it’s the concept of making a piece of music by imposing limitations on it in some form or another. Critic Tom Johnson of the Village Voice is, according to Philip Glass, responsible for coining the phrase, and by his definition, `minimalism’ is actually quite broad. As he described it, minimalism can be “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 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,” et al. And by those kinds of guideline, a little can make a lot possible.

To be more specific though, minimalism is a subset of modern classical music, with a compositional style that works within minimal structures. Minimalism is often marked by a series of pulses or rhythmic drones, generally makes gradual progressions, and often features the repetition of very specific phrases. It’s rhythmic. It’s streamlined. It’s efficient. This is what the future sounds like, even if conceived decades ago.

Within these boundaries, there have been a variety of notable permutations on the concept of minimalism. One of the first notable minimalist musicians is La Monte Young, who incorporated performance art into his pieces, whose titles were often anything but minimal. Similarly, he was responsible for some extremely lengthy pieces, such as “The Well-Tuned Piano,” the performances of which often span longer than six hours. As such, that is not covered here because of the time demand. Nonetheless, some of Young’s contemporaries added their own spin on minimalist composition, and made their own massive contribution to music in the 20th Century. Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass are among the most well known American minimalists, whose works have proven extremely influential not just among classical musicians and composers, but electronic and pop artists as well.

In Europe, another group of composers had incorporated minimalist concepts into their own work. Michael Nyman is another person who has been credited with coining the term, and in addition to being a composer of minimalist works and operas, he also was a music critic in the 1960s and ’70s. Gavin Bryars put an unusual spin on the idea of minimalism with “The Sinking of the Titanic,” in which a composition is performed only with information available that pertains to the Titanic’s sinking: the hymn that was played during its final five minutes above water, interviews with survivors, Morse code messages played on woodblocks, and so on.

The odd irony about taking on a minimalism feature is the sprawling length of many of the pieces. But this is not meant as a completist’s guide, merely an introductory journey into the sound. So I have chosen five important and interesting minimalist recordings from 1969 to the present, all of which are amazing listens and a good start to one’s own discovery.

On a related note, as this feature is published, Steve Reich will be celebrating his 75th birthday, which is a notable milestone in itself.

Happy listening!

Terry RileyA Rainbow In Curved Air
(CBS, 1969)

Logically, the best place to start with a trek through minimalism would be Terry Riley’s “In C,” a piece that’s been cited repeatedly as the first minimalist composition. Built around a series of eighth-note pulses of a C note on a piano, it consists of a series of 53 musical phrases played in order, with musicians encouraged to start at different points, while staying within two or three measures of one another. It has no specific time requirement, nor a specific amount of musicians, and has spanned from an 11-piece orchestra to 124 musicians, with lengths running from 15 minutes up to many hours. And it’s a fascinating piece, revolutionary even.

But I chose instead to focus on another of Riley’s most notable compositions, A Rainbow In Curved Air. This 1969 album comprises two compositions, which serve almost as yin and yang to one another. The title piece strays somewhat from the minimalist structure of “In C” in that its fast-moving parts veer into several different directions throughout its 18 minutes, with Riley employing overdubs and improvisational techniques to create its unique sound. A pioneering work in electronic music, “A Rainbow in Curved Air” features electronic organ and harpsichord, the psychedelic effect of which is not unlike some kind of primitive video game music. It’s hypnotic and wild, dreamy, even quite beautiful. As it progresses, however, its complementary electronic squiggles and organ drones take on a different, airier quality and finally finishing off with a more rhythmic section that takes on the qualities of an Indian raga. As a whole, it’s stunning, bright and pretty accessible; The Who even took inspiration from the piece for tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley,” which was, in fact, named partly after Terry Riley.

The flipside, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” meanwhile, is a much darker, spookier companion piece that may take a few listens to fully absorb. It, too, features overdub techniques similar to those on the A side, though the sound is a far cry from the bright and upbeat electronic palette of “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” Using electric organ and soprano saxophone, as well as tape machines and a time lag accumulator, Riley brings the listener into an eerie and darkened wood with blurry movements and a general sense of unease. However, “Poppy Nogood,” too, has a breathtaking effect, one that grows more rewarding the deeper one cares to tread into its thick and obscure landscape.

Steve ReichMusic for 18 Musicians
(ECM, 1978)

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians begins and ends with tracks titled “Pulses,” which are exactly what that sounds like: percussive note sequences that carry the piece in a similar fashion to how Terry Riley’s “In C” progresses. But Music for 18 Musicians is more complex, and more dynamic. Certainly, when you consider that “In C” can be performed by up to 124 musicians, that seems more complicated, but it’s not about the size of the orchestra, it’s about the way in which those musicians interact. Music for 18 Musicians, while employing minimalist techniques, is a surprisingly dramatic work. At the time, Reich remarked that the first five minutes of the work contained more harmonic movement than any of his prior compositions. What truly sets Music for 18 Musicians apart from prior minimalist works is how fluid the instrumental parts are. There’s a dynamic ebb and flow to the whole thing, giving it the feel of an organic and living creation that seems to mimic life cycles and breathtaking phenomena of the natural world, all within a minimalist structure of course. And in spite of its length, at no point does it ever lose its compelling vitality. This is beautiful, awe-inspiring music, some of the greatest ever put to tape.

The funny thing about Music For 18 Musicians, however, is that Reich, himself, doesn’t advise the work to be performed by as few as 18 musicians. The lineup of instrumentation actually calls for about 30 different parts, with two or three parts sometimes being played by one musician in various sequences, but whatever the mathematics, the interplay between xylophone, clarinet, piano, violin, cello and female voice is stunning. The level of influence Reich has had on 20th century music and beyond is pretty impressive as well. If you haven’t listened to Music for 18 Musicians yet, please do so. Then listen to Sufjan Stevens. And if you notice some uncanny similarities, just know that that was no accident.

Philip GlassGlassworks
(1982, Sony Classical)

Philip Glass is probably the most well known minimalist composer to those otherwise not familiar with modern classical music, and the fact that he’s been name-dropped in jokes on The Simpsons and South Park doesn’t hurt. Neither does the list of popular musicians that have worked in collaboration with Glass, which ranges from David Bowie to David Byrne, Brian Eno and Leonard Cohen. And he is, indeed, related to Ira Glass of This American Life. But then again, as on South Park‘s Glass gag, it’s entirely possible that some Americans still have a view of the composer as a bizarre abstractionist, with children spinning in interpretive dances to his tuneless ambient bloops. I’m not going to sit here and say that Glass hasn’t at various points delved into some less accessible, weirder material, but he’s also had his share of prettier, more inviting material, like his 1981-recorded Glassworks.

Glass, himself, sought to create a musical work that could serve as an introductory piece for listeners who hadn’t yet dipped their toes into his already prolific body of work. While his 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach may very well be more widely known, its two-hour-plus running time and incorporation of spoken word requires a bit more patience. Yet Glassworks, at an economical 38 minutes, is considerably more pop friendly and a solid entry point for those new to Glass’ material. In minimalist tradition, various parts of Glassworks comprise pulsing, rhythmic structures that progress in various repetitions, like the upbeat waves of “Rubric.” But there’s also an understated quality to some of the pieces, like the meditative “Opening,” consisting solely of piano, and companion piece “Closing,” which reworks its counterpart into a more orchestrated piece. Yet in the more dramatic, understated chamber pieces such as “Island” and “Facade,” there’s a cinematic quality that evokes something much more mysterious or sinister. There’s a graceful tension about these pieces that makes them the most interesting parts of the work as a whole. It should only make sense, then, that Glass has actually scored his share of films, from arty 1983 documentary Koyanisqaatsi to more recent dramas such as The Hours.

Arvo PärtTabula Rasa
(1984, ECM)

Often associated with the holy minimalist movement, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt employs minimalist techniques to somewhat different ends than American composers such as Terry Riley or Steve Reich. Much of his inspiration comes from spiritual or mystical sources, and there’s a very profound, emotional subtext to his music, which speaks to the transcendental nature of sacred works. The collected works on his 1984 album Tabula Rasa are not of the pulsing, rhythmic style of “In C” or “Music for 18 Musicians,” but rather a much more stark and mournfully gorgeous sonic approach that finds an achingly gorgeous power in simple movements. The two versions of “Fratres” are prime examples of Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” compositional technique, named thusly for its resemblance to the ringing of bells. As such, the pieces move at a slow and consistent pace, with strings maintaining a clear and simple pattern that, while reasonably straightforward, create an atmosphere of haunting and delicate grace, instilling a stunning emotional resonance beyond their simple structures.

“Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten” and “Tabula Rasa,” composed the same year (1977) and released on the same 1984 album, operate in a similar manner, but with considerably different results. These two are much more polarized extremes, with the former maintaining a simple progression of strings and bell over five and a half minutes, and the latter comprising two separate movements in a 26-minute whole. “Cantus,” written as elegy to then recently deceased composer Benjamin Britten, whom Pärt regretted having never met, is funereal and dramatic, yet still sparse, beginning and ending with passages of silence. “Tabula Rasa,” meanwhile, has two complementary movements, which operate in almost direct opposition to each other. The first part, “Ludus,” contains a series of repetitions that grow longer and more elaborate with each sequence, reaching a soaring climax toward the end. Yet the second half, “Silentium,” descends from those climactic highs into a more spacious sequence of piano and strings, which gradually diminish to the point of silence, a technique that another minimalist, William Basinski, would later use after an accidental technological discovery. But we’ll get to that later. Last year I listened to Tabula Rasa for the first time as part of a For the Record feature, and as I listen again, I’m still in awe of how something so stark can create such an emotional response. Truly magnificent.

William BasinskiThe Disintegration Loops II
(2003, 2062)

It’s easy to see minimalism as a highbrow conceit, something more academic than purely enjoyable on a visceral level, no matter how significant its influence on popular music. Yet the origin of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops is one of pathos and tragedy, a reflection on mortality and impermanence, and the strange, inexplicable beauty that accompanies finality. Early last decade, as Basinski began a project to digitize a series of 20-year-old tape loops he had been holding onto, he immediately noticed that, in the process, the tape was being destroyed. Age had made the recordings fragile and brittle, and as they played through the reel-to-reel machine, they essentially started to disintegrate in front of him, never to be restored back to their former glory. Yet this unfortunate instance of witnessing one’s own work destroyed by time lit a spark in Basinski, inspiring him to use the process of decay as the central device in a new series of recordings. So he recorded his old tapes, looped over and over again until they would crack and dissolve, pieces falling off the machine, to the ground, creating a new conceptual piece as his old music died in front of him.

This act of gentle destruction has been called “post-minimalism” in that Basinski’s music employs minimalist techniques such as repetition and gradual change, but in unorthodox ways. Rather than leave improvisation up to a musician or time delays, Basinski is at the mercy of chaos and physics. The loops don’t change at his command, they crumble and wither at an unpredictable pace, sometimes steadily, sometimes after a long wait. And once his composition is complete, its source material is dead forever. There’s something oddly Zen about it, the acceptance and detachment of the material, the peace and calm with which something is brought to its end. But it’s also a very moving series, one that expresses something profound and often devastating in a simple, elegant manner.

Basinski made four volumes of The Disintegration Loops, and the second is an especially affecting and noteworthy volume. The smoke billowing over city rooftops on the album’s cover clues the listener into Basinski’s headspace: made after September 11, 2001, the two-track set is part of Basinksi’s own reaction to the trauma and tragedy of the attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s a somber and dark pair of pieces, and that’s partly what makes them simultaneously so beautiful and so gut-wrenching. The first piece, “dlp 2.2,” slowly but steadily takes on its process of disintegration over the course of 32 minutes, the static, distortion and fades becoming an essential, rhythmic part of its landscape. Yet “dlp 3,” while a long listen at nearly 42 minutes, plays a strange trick on the listener. The loop rolls, nearly unchanged, for close to 20 minutes, a beautiful and hypnotic minor key sequence that might even soothe one into sleep. But once the process of dissolution begins, it sets off a kind of emotional trigger. This piece, once a simple and beautiful loop, makes a slow and anguished egress into the ether. Once you form an attachment to the piece, it signals its gradual farewell.


Scroll To Top