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Minimalist Concepts in the Past and Today


Minimalism as a defined genre has only recently emerged in the history of music,
but minimalist concepts have been in music tracing back centuries before. Even now,
after the golden age of minimalism has passed, many minimalist concepts can be found
in music of varying styles that are otherwise not considered to be within the genre of
minimalism. Examples of this can be found in the music of Hans Zimmer, lafur
Arnalds, or even the Japanese experimental rock band, Toe, to name a few. Since its
conception as a genre, minimalism has evolved and influenced other types of music.
Minimalist ideas can be found within pieces all throughout time. A more current
example of this can be found in Ravels Bolero. Though not considered minimalist, and
speculated to have been written the way it was due to the onset of Alzheimers, Bolero
contains many of the same ideas that make up minimalist music: repetition of melody,
rhythm, and staying within the same tonality.1 It wasnt until 36 years later that whats
considered to be the first truly minimalist work was written. 2
Born from the desire to turn away from post tonal music, minimalism began in the
downtown area of New York. Its beginnings were merely means to simplify music after
experiencing the complex post tonal music that preceding composers had worked so
hard to achieve. The first man to truly do this is arguably Terry Riley with his work, In C.
In C, just like its name states is a declaration that music can be written in the key of C
major yet still be interesting. The piece itself is a bold statement. Its minimalist nature is
1 "Bolero." Bolero. http://www.willamette.edu/~rloftus/jfilm/ravelsbolero.html.
2 "Minimalism in Music." http://trumpet.sdsu.edu/M408/pdf/minimalism.pdf.

found in the idea that one can make interesting music by having several people
repeatedly play different melodic cells that are not complex in themselves, but brought
together can create a trancelike experience for the listener. Since In C is also aleatoric,
performances of the piece can range anywhere from twenty minutes to well past an
hour. A drastic change from the music preceding Riley in which a very high importance
was placed on mathematical relationships and the listener must not tune out otherwise
lose the meaning of the music. Rileys In C denies the existence of boredom and asks
that the listener loses themselves in the music.3
But perhaps the most well known and most influential founding minimalist composer
was Philip Glass. Glass music is self-described as music with repetitive structures
rather than minimalist, but there is no denying its place is firmly planted in minimalism. 4
Glass works have influenced later composers, from many different genres. His music
ranges from musical theatre, film scores, piano pieces, symphonies, opera, and even to
rock and pop music.5 His opera, Einstein on the Beach, utilizes repetitive vocal counting
over an electric bass line for a powerful, and often imitated, effect that the listener can
get lost in while listening to.6 Glass music is quite well known for both high and low

3 Davidson, Justin. "A Stoner's Revolt." New York 42, no. 14 (April 27, 2009): 64. Academic
Search Premier, EBSCOhost

4 "Minimalism in Music." Accessed March 8, 2015.


http://trumpet.sdsu.edu/M408/pdf/minimalism.pdf.
5 Service, Tom. "A Guide to Philip Glass's Music." The Guardian. December 3, 2012.
6 Ibid.

pitched drones, and use of repetitive minor thirds. 7 A prime example of this can be found
in his piece for solo piano, Metamorphosis. The first movement alone is comprised
almost entirely of oscillating minor thirds under a very simple and continuously repeated
melody. The simplicity of the piece forces the performer to truly feel the music rather
than just reading the music and following all the directions on the page. For the listener,
it provides something of an escape as well due to the passive and floating nature of the
piece. The second movement continues this trend with somewhat of a variation of the
melody of the first movement. As the piece continues, the melody slowly begins to
develop into something entirely different than what it began as. Its only until the original
melody has come back that the listener realizes just how far they had strayed. Thus is
the nature of Glass work. These concepts of his works have continued to influence
composers throughout time.
Slightly after the conception of the genre of minimalism new composers arose to take
up the mantle of composing in the minimalist style. An influential figure of this time is
composer Arvo Prt. Prt, while not a true minimalist composer nor directly influenced
by the minimalist pioneers of the time, employed many minimalist techniques in his
music. From Prt, alongside many other composers, rose a new form coined holy
minimalism.8 The idea behind holy minimalism was to put the listener into a state of
meditation and placed equal importance to the silence as well as the actual audible
sounds. It was designed to make the listener reflect on life and live in the moment.
7 Davidson,"A Stoner's Revolt."
8 Ainsworth, Martha. "Be Still, And Know That I Am God: Concert Halls Rediscover the
Sacred." Metonia.org.

According to Prt himself, Time and timelessness are connected. This instant and
eternity are struggling within us. And this is the cause of all our contradictions, our
obstinacy, our narrow-mindedness, our faith and our grief. 9 Prt sought to make the
listener slow down and contemplate and even be drawn into prayer. The minimalistic
nature of his pieces works to achieve this by being slow moving and harmonically and
melodically simple. The real beauty of his pieces lies within the utilization of silence
against the backdrop of repetitive, nonintrusive sound. An example of this is found in
both his Tabula Rosa and Spiegel im Spiegel. Both pieces seek to slow down the
perception of the passage of time for the listener. Spiegel im Spiegel, translated as
mirror in the mirror, even takes its title from the phenomenon that occurs when two
mirrors are held facing each other.10 The result is an infinite reflection of mirrors and
nothing else, a metaphor for the effect the piece is supposed to have on the passage of
time. The piece is traditionally a duet between the violin and piano, with the piano
serving as accompaniment. The violin continually returns to the pitch A and slowly
develops adding more notes that are in perfect inversions of it as it continues. 11 This
creates an almost floating effect and works to the favor of creating the meditative state
Prt was aiming to create. Minimalism in the music of Prt and the composers similar to
him was used to evoke worshipfulness by using simplicity and silence to allow the mind
to wander while the music continued on its slow winding path.

9 Ibid.
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11 Ibid.

Judd, Timothy. "Spiegel Im Spiegel." Timothy Judd Violin. September 30, 2013.

Perhaps the most prominent piece influenced by minimalism outside of its golden age is
Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams. Written in 1986, the piece is far removed
from the time when minimalism was first being codified, yet minimalist influences are
quiet apparent throughout the piece. The main aspects of minimalism within the piece
are the repetition featured throughout, the steady beat given by the woodblock, and the
surprisingly overwhelming emphasis on consonance the piece contains. Starting at the
beginning of the piece, the woodblock continues to play quarter notes through nearly
the entirety of the piece. The melody of the piece is short and rather simple, preferring
to focus more on rhythmic variation than complex melodies. Unlike earlier minimalist
pieces though, Short Ride in a Fast Machine is not meant to bring one to a meditative
state or relax the mind. Instead, its meant to invoke a picture in the listeners mind.
Referring to the title, Adams said You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in
a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadnt? 12 The picture the piece is creating is
that of riding in a speeding sports car according to Adams. The minimalism employed in
the piece serves to propel the idea forward by the use of the quick, repetitious phrases
and slight uncomplicated harmonic language, creating a whirlwind experience for the
listener. Though not entirely a minimalist work, the minimalist concepts in the piece
create the feeling Adams was trying to produce of a mechanical adventure without any
complex harmonies detracting from it.
Today, many composers and recording groups employ minimalism in a variety of ways.
For some, its used for more subtle effects in the music. For others, the use of minimalist
concepts is so apparent that even the uninformed listener could recognize it in the
12 Steinberg, Michael. "Short Ride in a Fast Machine." The John Adams Reader.

music. The use of minimalism today is found everywhere. A few examples of where its
use is prevalent are in contemporary piano and orchestral works, movie scores,
electronic dance music, ambient music, and even to experimental rock genres such as
math rock, to name a few.
One of the bigger names in the contemporary piano scene is Italian pianist and
composer Ludovico Einaudi. Einaudi was classically trained under experimental
composer Luciano Berio, yet he had no urge to write in the atonal system of the
twentieth century. Einaudi is quoted as saying, I couldnt find a way to write music with
numbers and rules and schedules. So I tried to forget the academic idea of music and
started to see if it was possible to do creative work, taking in all the influences I wanted
to keep.13 The result of all of the influences he took in was a musical style involving a
little bit of everything with impressionist and minimalist qualities playing a big role. Much
of Einaudis music involves the endless repetition of a specific chord progression- which
strays from the traditional concept of minimalism where even a chord progression was
too busy- under a repetitive and simple melody. But unlike purer minimalist composers,
Einaudis music comes out much softer and arguably more melodic in terms of feeling
like the music is going somewhere. This is in part due to his ability to follow the
influence of minimalist concepts without getting tied to the rules of pure minimalism.
Just when the music starts to get to the point where it could potentially become too
repetitive to the listener, the music changes to a different section of more minimalist
influenced music. A prime example of this is found in his piece, Brothers. In Brothers,

13 Sweeting, Adam. "Ludovico Einaudi: The Inventor of 'atmospherica'" The


Telegraph. April 10, 2013.

Einaudi creates a piece that draws upon Rileys In C. The foundation of the piece is
based upon a three note motive and sequences off of it that, after extended periods of
time, are inverted. Also calling back to the earlier days of minimalism, and more
specifically Prts treatment of it, silence is also taken advantage of and is just as
important as the notes written on the page. To keep things interesting, the other
instruments play ostinatos layered upon each other under the melody in a fashion
similar to In C, although they arent nearly as invasive so that the melody can be heard.
The harmonic language is simple as well. The piece never changes key and the chord
progression doesnt change very often. The introduction of the different instruments
marks different sections in the music alongside the inversion of the melody and subtle
tempo changes. The different timbres in addition to very slight occasional rhythmic
changes keep the listener from losing interest in the piece while allowing others to enter
a more meditative state. One of Einaudis more minimalistic pieces, Brothers relies not
on an interesting melody or harmony to hold audiences attention, but following
minimalist roots, it holds the attention by slowly developing the music through the use of
different timbres. There is no wow moment in the piece, which shows the minimalist
influence on the work. Its more about the journey than the destination.
A genre that, in the general scope of music history, has only recently arisen is the music
of movies. Not the songs of musicals, but the background music that plays a huge part
of the film without many realizing it. Minimalism plays an effect in much of this music too
through ideas such as ostinatos, harmonic repetition, or even just playing to the silence
between the audible music. Composers such as Glass or John Williams employ
minimalist techniques in their film soundtracks, but perhaps no other composer captures

the essence of minimalist ideas for film better than German composer Hans Zimmer.
Zimmer is known for his ability to produce vibrant, energetic, and sometimes enigmatic,
orchestral works, many of which are simple in idea and brought to life with the
instrumentation and interpretation. A piece that encapsulates his minimalist nature is
Time from the movie, Inception. The only melody in the piece is a moderately paced
progression of four notes that are repeated throughout the entirety of the piece. The
payoff for such minimal melodic activity is huge though. Zimmer also calls upon the
ideas employed by Riley and layers voice after voice on top of each other. Unlike Riley
though, the music is made to build from a peaceful beginning into a soaring magnificent
climax before settling back down, rather than being static in terms of energy throughout.
Also, with the exception of a few voices that engage in an ostinato to accompany the
melody, the instruments are all playing the same thing rather than differed
complementary ideas. This makes Zimmers work even more firmly cemented into the
realm of minimalism since the only thing driving the music is the entrances and exits of
voices and gratuitous use of dynamics. But what seems to separate his music from
being entirely minimalist is his apparent use of the Golden Ratio. True to the Golden
Ratio, the piece comes to a head around two-thirds of the way through, something not
followed by traditional minimalism, yet the way it occurs, (adding more voices to create
tension,) is completely minimalist in nature. Due to this, Zimmer creates a floating
feeling that was quite common in the minimalism of old, and he reflects back to the title
as time itself seems to float by. Zimmers works have proven that both minimalist and
minimalist-inspired soundtracks have a place in cinema.

A rising genre over that past few decades that has only come available due to
recent inventions is electronic music. In its most well-known and current form, electronic
music already has a minimalist quality to it due to the heavy repetitive drum beat that
seems to superimpose the slight melodic material. But earlier efforts of electronic music
held a different type minimalist quality to them. Ryoji Ikeda, a Japanese sound artist,
was a pioneer of sorts for minimalism in electronic music. 14 In much of his electronic
music, the very approach towards how it should sound is minimalist in quality. His
pieces dont rely on drum beats or prerecorded fake sounds, but are instead built upon
sine waves. This idea makes for a very interesting and not often used sound. In his
piece data.matrix, he begins with a single sound and slowly layers in other sounds to go
alongside it until the individual sounds heard actually begin to form what many listeners
would consider a melody with accompaniment. The process and end result is
reminiscent of the phasing used by Steve Reich. 15 Due to the limited use of tones, the
rhythmic variation becomes the driving force of the piece. Ikeda managed to create an
entire piece based off of pure sine waves and keep it interesting; something of a more
modern twist on the minimalists of earlier days. The curious thing about this piece
though is that Ikeda divides his piece into clear sections of varying ideas rather than
letting the phasing develop the music through the pieces entirety. This may be the only
nontraditional minimalist element to the entire piece. Even so, all the way from the idea
for the colors of the sounds used to the way the melody and piece itself develops, this
piece, like so many others of the genre, is heavily steeped in minimalism.
14 Glover, Richard. "Minimalism, Technology and Electronic Music." University of
Huddersfield Repository.
15 Ibid.

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Ambient music, which already lends itself to minimalist practices due to its nature, is
another recently rising genre due to its availability as poignant and nonintrusive
background music. Because the purpose of ambient music is not to draw the listener
into its melodic or harmonic complexities, but to relax the listener and serve as
something to either set the mood or to avoid complete silence, minimalist techniques
are quite prevalent in modern ambient music. It can actually be argued that much of
Glass music is also ambient due to the closeness of the partnership between the two
genres. As concepts, the main differentiator tentatively established between the two
genres is that minimalist pieces are to be performed in concert halls while ambient
music is to be recorded in a studio.16 Thats only dealing with the concept though. When
actual pieces are placed into the mix the line between the two becomes thicker. A very
good example of this comes from Icelandic composer lafur Arnalds. One of Arnalds
compositions, This Place is A Shelter, is reminiscent of the works of Philip Glass,
particularly Metamorphosis. Similar to much of the ambient music of today, a short
melody is repeated continually over a repeating harmonic progression much in the style
of Glass works. The rhythm never changes, and neither does the melody or harmony.
What begins to break it away from true minimalism though is the change of register or
instrument playing the melody. The only other things separating this piece from pure
minimalism are the dynamic changes that breathe life into the piece and the
appearance of an introduction to the piece. When asked about the minimalist ideas
found in his music, Arnalds stated, I'm much more fond of achieving big things with

16 Bates, Eliot. "Ambient Music." May 7, 1997.

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small things than with big things.17 Many composers of ambient music seem to feel the
same way; the minimalism found in their music was not placed there with the specific
intent of being minimalist, it was more due to how they wanted to give life to their
compositions. Ambient music is meant to provide a wash of sound to relax and not
intrude unwelcomely into the listeners mind while minimalist pieces are meant to be
contemplated. 18 While fundamentally similar, the two genres have a few differences that
are further exploited by the composers of the genre to create something with the
meditative pull of minimalist music without immediately grabbing the attention of the
listener.
A final example of a genre where minimalist ideas are prevalent is a subgenre of rock
known as math rock. Math rock is a type of experimental rock which generally has
different instruments playing in different time signatures and features many polyrhythms.
Due to this, it seems natural that repetition would need to play a large part in the music
otherwise the resulting sound would be somewhat of a mess. This is demonstrated very
clearly in the composition Metronome by the Japanese band, Toe. Metronome starts out
with phasing similar but not identical to Steve Reichs use of it. One guitar plays in 4/4
while the other plays the same melodic material in 5/4, creating a pattern that is
constantly changing even though the melodic material is staying the same. Much of the
piece is done in this style with occasional sequencing to break up the monotony and
then eventually light contrasting sections occur that slightly break it away from the
17 Sullivan, Paul. "THE Q&A: LAFUR ARNALDS, MUSICIAN, EXPERIMENTALIST." More
Intelligent Life.
18 Bates, Eliot. "Ambient Music."

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minimalist feel. Although math rock is a wide-varied genre, these basic concepts of
repetition are a very common occurrence in it and provide a genre that seems unlikely
to have minimalist ties until looked into.
Minimalism is a genre that has influenced music from before it was codified as a
genre and has continued to influence much of the music of today in both obvious and
unexpected ways with the ideas of the founding fathers of minimalism being reflected in
many works of today.