Minimalism as a musical movement matured in 1960s America, especially San Francisco and New York, where it was the testing ground for ideas for musicians that took inspiration from earlier composers such as Pierre Schaeffer at the French National Radio studio, Moondog, Javanese Gamelan and as a reaction to and a rebuttal of European experiments with atonal devices such as Serialism. The name itself was borrowed by the English Minimalist composer Michael Nyman from the contemporary artistic movement that attempted to strip a subject back to its essential elements, although the term “Minimalist” was never really adopted by the primary exponents of the musical genre.
Although the musical “scene” of the time included a number of notable composers, the development of Minimalism can broadly be attributed to four major voices: Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Philip Glass and Terry Riley.
The primary goals of the new movement included the pursuit of simplicity and the development of a new tonality to replace the atonality that had become vapid and almost unlistenable. Of the methods used to achieve this, one was a renaissance in the use of ostinato and rhythm to create a harmony through shifting the phase of repeated voices such as with Reich’s “Piano Phase”, another being the use of shifting accents to create a complex syncopation as exemplified by Glass’s “Music with changing parts”.
The Well-Tuned Piano by La Monte Young might well be considered one of the most important American piano pieces of the late 20th Century. Consisting entirely of guided improvisation, there exists no “score” as such. Instead there is a detailed document laying out chords, scales, intervals, patterns and concepts which guide the performer.
Played on a piano tuned to “just” tuning (i.e., tuned accurately to a harmonic series rather than the compromise which is the common Equal Temperament) a performance lasts for between four to six hours and makes considerable mental and aural demands on the listener due to both the constant waves of musical content and the readjustment needed (however slight) of our modern ears to an unfamiliar tuning system. This tuning system is vital to the performance, producing ethereal textures from the played intervals and occasional harmonic “beating” not unlike the Ombak effect heard in Balinese Gamelan.
Premièred in 1974 in Rome, the piece was never officially “finished” the composer stating that the composition dates are 1964, 1973, 1981, Present.
A Rainbow in Curved Air is the fourth major work by the American minimalist Terry Riley. Released in 1969, this composition/record/release has, perhaps more than any other, shaped modern electronic and ambient music. Direct comparisons can be made to the output of artists such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre and Pink Floyd, most obviously with Floyd’s “On the Run” (Dark Side Of The Moon) and The Who’s Baba O’Riley (named as a nod to the composer).
Recorded by the composer, the music makes extensive use of the delay effect by bouncing the signal between two tape machines, the whole being built up in several layers by means of overdubbing. Drawing on classical, modal, Hindustani and modern electronic influences, “Rainbow” has become what many people mean when they refer to minimalism.
This work was a revelation to me as not only had I not heard it before but I wasn’t aware of just how far-reaching and influential it was. Truly a watershed in modern music, “Rainbow” allowed a whole new generation and breed of musician to run with the idea of multiple overdubs to create a new Wall of Sound from one performer, an idea first posited by Les Paul.
Riley’s use of primarily electronic instruments gives the whole experience a “Space Age” feel that, although sounding slightly dated in an era of MIDI sequencing and DAWs, is still compositionally fresh.
Coming, as it did, not long after the release of Steve Reich’s seminal composition, “Drumming”, it’s not difficult to see the progression in the composer’s work in “Music for Mallet instruments Voices and Organ”. Drumming, especially the second and third movements could almost be seen as a proving ground for the techniques and textures produced in this more elaborate piece.
Scored for a collection of tuned percussion instruments plus organ and (female) voice, one can once again immediately hear the influence of Gamelan lying atop the obviously Western tonality. Throughout the sixteen or so minutes of music, we are shown a new facet of Reich’s trademark phasing technique by his playing the instruments off one against another to build texture and tension, released at the beginning of each new movement by a change of key.
The composition was premièred in 1973 in New York and has been played regularly since, becoming one of Reich’s (and minimalism’s) most famous and recognisable works.
Minimalist music developed and matured alongside many other cultural movements including pop and minimalist art, postmodern architecture and cinema as an art form rather than mere entertainment for mass consumption. It would only seem natural then that complimentary artistic movements would come together to form compound experiences and music and cinema are well suited to this task.
Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi” (Life out of balance) was composed to accompany the 1982 film of the same name and although it was conceived to directly partner the film can be listened to as a piece of work in its own right, having been rendered into a coherent work by the composer.
The music is primarily orchestral with the addition of pipe organ and choir, the organ taking centre stage in many of the movements by providing an ostinato foundation for the rest of the performers. There are also frequent appearances of sequenced synthesiser giving us a distinctly mechanical feel, especially to the penultimate track.
The film and soundtrack were not initially widely recognised, taking on “cult” status among the cognoscenti, but recognition has grown and this is now one of Glass’ best known works, pushing minimalist music if not into the mainstream at least to a wider consciousness.
Koyaanisqatsi exemplifies many of the points that have made minimalism a success in an arena where many modern musical genres have failed or withered into insignificance; a continued popularity, the return to tonality and a crossover into popular culture via the alternative media of cinema.
Glass’ application of orchestral textures alongside the organ and choir provide a solid testament to the vitality of modern classical music. An orchestra doesn’t have to be buried in the sensibilities of 19th Century composition to be justified, and this music really is of our time. Although not in movements in the traditional sense, appearing as tracks on a CD, the music has a definite purpose and progresses as we move through it, evoking imagery worthy of a tone poem.
I find the whole composition both refreshing and somewhat intimidating in its execution, this isn’t music to be taken lightly and although I’m relatively new to the genre I can’t help but feel that this is a piece that I’ll be returning to for many years to come, finding unexplored corners of the work with each repeated performance.