Minimalism: Key characteristics and the pioneers in avant-garde music

Topics: Minimalist music, Steve Reich, Minimalism Pages: 11 (1543 words) Published: October 28, 2014
Minimalism originated in the 1960s, as a movement that sought to stray from the

previous decade of self-expressionism as well as the contemporary trends of intellectual

complexities found in serial music. Marked by repetitive motivic and rhythmic patterns,

it sought to emphasize simplicity in both melodic lines and harmonic progressions. In

contrast to serial music’s favored chromatic compositional techniques, minimalist music

was wholly diatonic and consonant in nature. Textural consistency and layered

melodies/rhythms gave way to gradual changes, highlighting the ‘process’ of music,

rather than a particular musical goal or specialized form. Seemingly lacking a climax,

each composition unfolded by a series of repeating motives and additive rhythms

extended over long periods of time. Influenced by Asian and African music, minimalism

understated dramatic structures and sounds, instead emphasizing the reduction of musical


During the 1960s, a group of young American composers vouched for the return

of basic elements of music, without dramatic structures and abstract expressionism.

Many were influenced by the compositions of John Cage, including several leading

figures of the minimalist movement: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. A

graduate of Berkeley, Riley opposed the chromatic and twelve-tone writings of serial

music. Like many of his contemporaries, Riley experimented with tape loops in his

compositions and bridged the gap between the new avant-garde and the piqued interest of

rock music. Riley was specifically interested in composing works for “live” audiences,

as these proved more effective in conveying the so-called avant-garde sounds.
Successful in its reception, this kind of experimental music appealed to the public as it

grew in popularity and acceptance; his music was inclusive and non-elite. Varying

degrees of musical experience and backgrounds were encouraged.

An excellent example of this can be found in his composition, In C. Written in

1964, In C did not necessarily require the skills of highly trained musicians to be

performed. The piece lasts 44 minutes, although one would not suspect it to be so lengthy

as it only contains fifty-three “modules” in total. Any number of instruments could play

at a given time either at the original pitch or at any octave transposition. Each of the

fifty-three modules were to be “looped;” in other words, they should be repeated ad

libitum before moving on to the next module. Moreover, articulations and dynamics

were to be performed ad libitum. The work finally concluded when all of the performers

had arrived at the last module. While it appears that Riley’s music contains a sort of

“anything goes” mentality, it is quite the contrary in some respects. In choosing

instruments for the actual performance, Riley suggested that all players maintain an

eighth-note pulse, which was audibly heard by an instrumentalist who played the top

octave of Cs, most likely played on a piano or xylophone. Furthermore, Riley favored a

more homogeneous sound; thus, instruments that consisted of specific timbres and ranges

were discouraged. In C was a prime example in proving that minimalistic music was not

music void of regulations and rules; rather, it stemmed from “algorithms.” Riley

considered these algorithms fundamental to his music even if they appeared loose by

nature. Interestingly enough, the C-pulse in Riley’s work was not his own idea, but

instead that of another contemporary, Steve Reich.

Reich was born in 1936 and his compositions were heavily influenced by non-

Western traditions. He studied African drumming, which involved complex

counterpoint, and Balinese gamelan music, with its complex layering and fast

interlocking patterns. Quite different in background...
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