Trois Regards sur Minimalisme

[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.


  1. Brian Duguid says

    I think this reductionist view of what minimalism is or was owes a lot also to many of those who have written on the subject: Mertens, Strickland, Potter, Schwarz etc all obsess with the same set of names and hence the same set of definitions. My favourite book on the subject remains Tom Johnson’s “Voice of New Music”, largely because it makes no attempt to create a narrative, define a context, or otherwise pin things down. Most of the books that offer a broader brush and recognise the diversity in minimalism are based around interviews and other anecdotal material (e.g. “American Originals” by the Smiths) – it certainly would be good to read a properly researched history that ignores the “big” four and focusses solely on Niblock, Palestine, Panhuysen et al.
    Original response removed. See below.

  2. says

    I always found it useful to distinguish “minimal” music (and also “repetitive” music) from “minimalistic” music, which maintain your first specific regard from the two latter general regards.

  3. says

    First of all let me mention, apropos the comments your Wiki-buddy made about minimalism, Britney, and Merzbow. Googling Merzbow, we find that Mr. Merz is listed at mp3stor under…”Genre: Electronic/avant-garde/minimalist Music”…hahaha! Whatever.
    Some thoughts about Minimalism: the great unwashed masses are going to say “hm” if there’s no mention of Satie, Orff, or “Tubular Bells” in a book about Minimalism. Not that these are Minimalist artists, but I’m quite sure, judging by the record collections I’ve seen since the early 80s of those who simply enjoy Minimalist music without thinking too much about it, that these “go together” with Minimalism in the ears of fans. Lessee…quickly glancing at some of girlfriend’s collection from 80s on…Philip Glass, Phil Niblock, Tubular Bells, Satie and some unlabelled Berlin electro from the early eighties which is clearly Noh and Minimalist influenced on one mix-tape cassette… yip, swap out Niblock for Reich and Orff for Satie and it’s the collection of another friend. Oh yeah and Otte for German friends.
    I believe that future generations are going to chuckle at a phenomena I’ve noticed in many visual art histories- the conspicuous absence of the “missing links”. I don’t believe it’s innocent: the absence of Pinkham Ryder, a salty Yankee loner busting out in the 19th century what are clearly precusors of Abstract and Expressionist 20th century works is simply embarrassing.
    As far as Minimalism being Pop, the idea is insane because formalized chord changes are one of the defining ingredients of Pop. I don’t recall ever hearing I-ii-V-I looping in a Minimalist piece though I imagine that some Minimalist with a sense of humor has done just that for kicks.
    One thing art histories do do is document Japonisme in painting, and I believe that this is the kind of link that shows that Minimalism is a “classical” thing to those who would, not stupidly, make the claim that Britney Spears is more similar to Mozart than, say, Merzbow or Schoenberg is, by virtue of structural stereotyped chord changes, and is therefore more “classical”. To which the answer of course is, if you can accept that Lautrec is high European art despite the fact that
    3-pt perspective was such a heavy characteristic of so much European art for so long, you must be open to the idea that the same kind of thing could happen in Western art music, vis-a-vis harmonic structure.
    Paart and Gorecki could be important, I think, for putting Minimalism into perspective- even yee olde schoole serialists could hardly discount Gorecki as poppy fluff and Paart is a “classical” composer who actually fits the bill for “yuppie pablum” far better than Young or Riley ever could, hehehe.
    Keep up the good work, it’s really interesting to see an artform which has been running more or less concurrently with my own life being documented, makes you wonder just how much interpretation and agenda lurks in the history of other artforms.
    -Cameron Bobro
    KG replies: Well put. I don’t mind missing links that actually link. I like to imagine that minimalism really did inspire “Tubular Bells.” But the idea that Wagner nurtured a fascination with gradual process that mores of the time prevented him from fully expressing is a fantasy difficult to sustain.

  4. says

    Cameron Bobro said: I don’t recall ever hearing I-ii-V-I looping in a Minimalist piece though I imagine that some Minimalist with a sense of humor has done just that for kicks.

    Do I recall correctly (off the top of my head, after an all-nighter) that much of Einstein on the Beach was intentionally based on just such a thing?
    KG replies: Well, not that I recall. One progression that runs through it is f minor, Db major, A major, B7, E Major. I’ll check for more mundane progressions next time I listen, which, come to think of it, might be fun.

  5. Jun-Dai says

    I think that part of the problem here is that the term has taken on fairly widespread usage outside of music (or art), so it’s natural for the evolved term (which essentially means something like “spare; pared down to the barest elements,” and is applied most especially in design, whether talking about Websites, new Apple products, or interior decoration) to then come back and haunt its original application. In this sense, when using the evolved, not-specific-to-art term ‘minimalism’, it’s appropriate to refer to something like Gregorian Chant as ‘minimalistic’ without being any more anachronistic than when, say, referring to the guerrilla warfare tactics used in the American Revolution. The only problem is that you are then confusing it with the original term ‘minimalism’ that _is_ specific to music.
    Also, there is always some difficulty when talking about an artistic movement so strongly associated with a particular style or theme: you have to make some choices between emphasizing the stylistic or thematic components of the term or emphasizing the historical context of the term. It’s a bit out of left field, but this debate comes up a lot when discussing the term “film noir”. Defining the term solely based on its historical context includes a lot of films where no single defining characteristic can be stretched to apply to all of them. On the other hand, defining the term solely based on stylistic or thematic elements will (depending on the elements used) exclude a good number of films associated with the movement/genre (whether noir is a movement or a genre or something else is another hotly debated topic) and will inevitably include films that fall outside of the traditional historical range of the movement (from The Maltese Falcon to A Touch of Evil). The fact that the term was coined late in the game and from a complete outsider–it was really a retroactive term. Those that made the films were aware of a change in the output of the film industry at the time, but had neither a name to refer to it by (other than “adult action” films) nor a theory of it nor a set of defining characteristics to work under.

  6. says

    “Minimalism” shares much of the fate of “Conceptual”, having left its original end-of-modernism rigid stands to become a generic rather undefineable confused… erh… postmodern term. Born in 1970 and not in New York, the fact of being coined under both terms (even by the very originator of this blog) I find the gap between its origin and its use amusing and impossible to argue (n)either for (n)or against. Usage prevail.

  7. Samuel Vriezen says

    Hi Kyle,
    Jun-Dai has good points here, but I believe that you can’t escape looking at minimal art, which is obviously a very related phenomenon by any account, both in time and in ideas. That way, you do get beyond the merely musical and get a step towards a more universal idea of minimalism.
    I’ve been reading Badiou lately. He would say that any true work of art is an investigation, cued by some ‘event’, towards a universal truth. Minimal art and minimal music certainly seem to have put ideas on the map that might well be universalised. You might speak of minimalism in terms of tonality and texture, but there’s also the whole complex of notions of explicit construction, total transparency, lack of dialectics and large-scale extension of single ideas which does seem potentially every bit as universal as your descriptions of the romantic and the classic.
    In universalising the notion, you do of course have to be very careful about what to apply it to and what not. Myself, I feel Perotin’s ornamental techniques, certain later plays by Beckett, and the mosaic patterns at the Alhambra are certainly closer in spirit to what it’s all about than Gregorian chant per se or some design of the new Mac computer for example.
    KG replies: I admitted that an intelligent argument could be made, and you make the beginning of a very intelligent one. I completely see what you mean about Beckett and Perotin. But, as we agree, an argument must be made. Why Perotin, for instance, and not Dufay? I could begin writing you the justification, but it would take a little careful thought. On the other hand, lumping together Wagner, Petr Kotik, Bach, Mikel Rouse, Louis Andriessen, and anything else into a term just because one likes the sound of them all is just a dumb kneejerk reaction. An encyclopedia article, which was the original impetus for this discussion, might not be the place for a well worked-out, subtle argument. It is certainly not the place for dumb kneejerk reactions.

  8. Brian Duguid says

    Actually, Kyle, reading it again, I think you may have just misread my first sentence. “This reductionist view of what minimalism is or was” refers to the same description of minimalism that you attributed in your post to poorly-informed “amateurs”. However, it seems from your response to my first comment that you read it as referring to your own view, hence your comment about having been there in the 70s yourself. Apologies if my meaning was unclear.
    KG replies: Ah, I get it – I did misunderstand what you were referring to, and I further took it that you were defending the wildly inclusive lists on the Wikipedia article. My apologies. A definite miscommunication, and I will go so far as to remove my original response.

  9. Jun-Dai says

    I definitely agree that an encyclopedic article on minimalism in music should not in any way be about applying the generic term ‘minimalism” to musical works (as opposed to discussing the movement/genre itself), since that’s really just a matter of passing comment and has no significance in the history of music or the meaning of the term.
    What I mean is that it is, in my view, entirely appropriate to describe, say, the band Low as a minimalist rock band from Minnesota in a capsule review. A more in-depth discussion of the band would require more precise terminology, and in any case where you are talking about the historical context of Low’s music (such as in, say, an encyclopedia article on the band, or in an encyclopedia article on some segment of music history that included the band) you would want to avoid the term for fear of creating an inadvertent connection to the movement by that name (i.e., you don’t want to bring the full weight of the meaning of that term in relation to music when discussing a band that has no connection to the historical context of minimalist music).

  10. says

    Over the past year or so I have taken to referring to small m minimalism and big M Minimalism as two separate but nested entities, much in the way in politics people can be referred to as small or big C conservatives. The small c conservatives hold generally conservative principles, but aren’t part of the Conservative Movement, where as big C conservatives are. It’s also similar to how we have Classical and classical to differentiate the historical period from the broad genre, or Coke and coke in the south. Any such useage is unfortunate, but I think it’s easier to clarify a distinction within existing terminology than to try to persuade people to stop using the problematic useage.
    So Minimalism is something like your Definition 2 (I would add that the process or stasis needs to be Conceptual, but I’ll save my justification of that for another time) and minimalism includes Postminimalism and Totalism. A big part of my reason for doing this is that I hear a lot of equivocation between the two meanings — you can say “minimalism is dead” but still recognize the existence of active minimalist composers if you equivocate between the two meanings. If you clearly differentiate them, however, you can much more reasonably say that “Minimalism” is mostly dead but “minimalism” is alive and well thank you very much.
    Of course the next problem is how to deal with classifying music that takes genuinely Minimalist ideas and uses them in popular music. It’s useful (for convenience, not because of classical music chauvinism) to have Minimalism refer only to the classical tradition but there are plenty of examples of popular music that clearly meet all of the criteria for Minimalism except that they aren’t part of the classical tradition. Take Throbbing Gristle’s 1981 song “Discipline”
    TG comes directly out of the performance art tradition, and Industrial music actually began in the 70s as a sort of performance art deconstruction of popular music. This particular piece uses an extreme amount of repetition for the purpose of constructing a psycological listening state that matches the message of the lyrics, and it doesn’t really _go_ anywhere. It actually functions a lot like “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet” in that the repetition of the linguistic message is used to enhance the meaning of that message. And the piece is a lot _more_ static and conceptual than something like “Music for 18 Musicians” which is generally grouped into Minimalism proper rather than into Postminimalism.
    My first instinct is to say that “Discipline” and much early industrial music is an example of “non-classical minimalism,” but I’m not sure.
    It also just occured to me that maybe part of the problem you were having with the wikipedia entry on minimalism was that you want to use that word as a noun that names a genre and other people want to use it as a noun form of an adjective that describes a broad set of style traits. And I’m not sure my big M / small m scheme solves that problem.
    KG replies: Well, I’ve always thought of Band of Susans as a minimalist rock band – highly influenced by Phill Niblock, as I recall. I don’t see why minimalism can’t have a pop division.

  11. Jordan says

    “Minimalism=surface repetition” is reductive, sure, and I can understand why it offends your sense of history. But it’s still a useful definition in some cases.

    Imagine a context in which you’re hearing short bursts of many kinds of music. Maybe in a film score, maybe in a collage piece or a sample-heavy hip-hop record, maybe in something as mundane as someone flipping through radio stations. If a certain kind of surface repetition pops up for even a few seconds, most of the audience will think “That sounds like minimalism.”

    Should we have to say “I *think* that sounded like minimalism, but I’ll never know for sure. In six minutes, it might have resolved to a dominant!”

    It’s really a linguistic debate, right? Do words mean what we decide they SHOULD mean? Or is the meaning of a word just a reflection of how it’s actually used? It’s an open question, sure. But can you really afford to dismiss the descriptivist approach so casually?
    KG replies: Once again, I’m not dismissing it: I’m saying there needs to be a coherent argument for it, or else it ceases to be an intelligent comment and devolves into a superficial reaction, and that as such it possibly does not belong in an encyclopedia article on the subject. Words mean what we use them to mean, but there is already a long- and well-established use for “minimalism,” which is turning into meaning almost anything at all. Correspondingly, you can say, “Existentialism rejects rationality as the basis of human experience,” and you can say, “Wow, that’s, like, really existential, man.” Both are used. One sounds intelligent.

  12. says

    I have my own three different working categories of Minimalism:
    Drones (long tones held continuously);
    Repeating patterns (that change slowly over time);
    Spare (very quiet, lots of silence).
    Not every composer or even piece sticks to these all the time, but hey, it generally works for me.
    Music that exhibits these aspects occasionally or incidentally (but not strictly) I might refer to as “minimal” – so Low would be a “minimal rock band.” I don’t consider them properly Minimalist, but they have definitely used a stripped down aesthetic for their own ends within an established genre. Likewise (but differently) Town & Country out of Chicago. Or (some) Satie/Cage/Oliveros/Eno/whatever.
    On the other hand, I was recently included on a 2-CD set of so-called Post-Minimalism (all of the composers were found on MySpace) and almost none of the music included qualifies under my three categories. Perhaps that’s what makes it “post-“?
    Re: visual art – Agnes Martin insisted vehemently that she was an Abstract Expressionist, not a Minimalist, much as people have tried to lump her in with the latter. The same problem arises with Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, Barnet Bewman, Mark Rothko and even Mondrian. None of whom would seem in hindsight to have much in common stylistically with, say, Pollock or de Kooning. And also in hindsight, a lot of those Minimalists who were supposedly rebelling against Abstract Expressionism don’t look so far removed from it now. Perhaps this suggests that we tend to identify more with our generational peers than with our aesthetic ones…?