[Writing new book in head:] One of the problems in discussing minimalism clearly is that the word gets used in a few different senses. Judging from recent debates on the subject, I’d say it has three interrelated meanings:
1. Minimalism was a movement of people who knew each other, worked together, influenced each other, and created variations of a particular common language. In that specific sense, the movement began with La Monte Young’s String Trio of 1958 and lasted until the late ’70s, or certainly no later than around 1983. Pronouncements that minimalism is dead began around 1978 – I was there – and are only meaningful insofar as the word is applied to that definable scene.
2. Minimalism is a style of music based in audible structure and relative stasis and/or slow transformation. In this sense, certain composers, such as Phill Niblock and Tom Johnson, have continued writing minimalist music up to the present day. Some would say the same of Reich and Glass, both of whom, however, have claimed that around 1980 their music quit having anything to do with minimalism strictly speaking. One can argue, then, that a piece made outside the 1958-1983 time frame – say, Carl Stone’s Shing Kee – can be referred to as minimalist, despite the fact that Stone was too young to be involved in the original movement. I’ve described the outlines of this style at greater detail in a New Music Box article that won a Deems Taylor award and got reprinted in the book Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, so I am led to conclude that my views on the style do not lie outside the mainstream of scholarly understanding.
3. Minimalism is also more vaguely ascribed to any piece that sustains a specific texture, rhythm, tonality, and so on, from beginning to end. In this sense it is often said that Feldman was a minimalist, that certain pieces of John Cage are minimalist, ditto for pieces by Erik Satie and Federico Mompou, Gregorian chant and gamelan music and a ton of pop music all turn out to be minimalist, also the C Major Prelude from the W.T.C. Book I and many of Schubert’s songs, and in fact we find minimalism traversing all centuries and many styles. And let’s never, never neglect to mention the first six minutes of Das Rheingold – which, once it finally modulates (or resolves) from E-flat to A-flat at the entrance of the Rhinemaidens, sounds in retrospect just like an inordinately prolonged dominant preparation, about as relevant to minimalism as the Eroica Symphony is.
The first two meanings are what I think of as the scholarly, precise connotations of minimalism. The third sense looses the word from its historical referents and renders it a universal quality, like romanticism or classicism. We can find romanticism in the medieval epic The Song of Roland, or the music of Messiaen, works that lie well outside the boundaries of what has been defined as the Romantic Period, and we can contrast romanticism with classicism in any historical period. We have a long cultural tradition of what romanticism and classicism mean, so that arguments imputing those two qualities to various works of art are subtle, polemical, not simple, and carry a lot of historical weight.
I don’t believe it is clear yet that minimalism is going to evolve into the same kind of term. We can call Gregorian chant minimalist, but in that sense the word becomes something of a tautology; that is, the general qualities we associate with minimalism in the broad sense predate the actual historical style by centuries, and were once taken for granted. Unchanging texture and tonality became strikingly associated with minimalism only because the contrast with the musical complexity of the previous century and a half was so dramatic. The qualities of romanticism (emphasis on the individual, subjective, spontaneous, and visionary against the idea of rationally imposed order) and classicism (the dependable restoration of harmony, clarity, restraint, and universality) can be spoken of as innate impulses within the human soul. It’s not at all obvious that minimalism’s relatively extreme limitations of texture and tonality are ever going to achieve any similar psychological status. There’s nothing wrong with using minimalism this way, so long as the user understands that the burden of proof is on him to make a case for some universal applicability of the word. Most instances of such use, however, just strike me as intellectual laziness – anachronisms fallen into by people who are so little familiar with music outside the European common practice period that they are naively surprised to find texturally static music in any other milieu.
Another complicating factor is that many amateurs are only familiar with the tip of the minimalist iceberg – i.e., the works of Reich and Glass plus Riley’s In C – so that repetition becomes minimalism’s defining feature. Were one familiar with other minimalism of the 1960s – the droning improvisations of the Theater of Eternal Music, Niblock’s slowly moving drones, Young’s sine-tone installations, Jon Gibson’s and Barbara Benary’s change-ringing note permutations, and so on – it would become clear that repetition is only one strategy in minimalism’s arsenal, and not the sufficient core of a general definition.
An additional problem with taking staticness as the primary criterion is that minimalism grew out of a conceptualist movement started by Cage, whose works tended to be calculatedly static over a period of time. Minimalist music shares its static quality with many works by Cage, Lucier, Ashley, Berhman, Feldman, Wolff, Mumma, and others that predated or were contemporaneous with the minimalist movement; but minimalism self-consciously differentiated itself from that music by embracing various techniques of audible process, in fact deliberately rebelling (as Reich’s early writings document) against the hidden quality of Cagean processes. Without taking that differentiation into account, one arrives at a version of minimalism that inaccurately represents what was going on at the time.
Add to this that we now have an entire generation that has come to minimalism through its reuse in DJ music, remixes, ambient music, and so forth, so that there is now a widespread popular image of minimalism that is only a rough caricature of the way the movement looked to those of us who followed it as it was still going on. This will all pass. Until it does, though, I think it’s impossible to imagine that any meaningful definition or description of minimalism could be achieved through the consensus of people unfamiliar with the issues, repertoire, and writings of the range of composers involved in the movement itself.