Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Prior to Minimalism proper, certain pieces by John Cage seem influential, including some diatonic music for toy piano. A few inroads into Minimalism appear in the 1950s, possible because chromatic serial style and the New Virtuosity was making serious composition too complex. Minimalism can be seen as a reaction against sensory overload (Salzman 186).

In the 1960s other composers really launched the movement, although most despise the term “Minimalism” because of its implications that the music is simplistic and non-developmental. LaMonte Young, associated with the Fluxus movement, was responsible for static non-melodic “drone” pieces which demonstrate that holding two notes at an interval for an extended period of time is not static: the sound pulsates. He had a chord come into tune and return.

Terry Riley (1935- ), In C, is a central Minimalist work in which an ensemble receives a sequence of 53 fragments but, concurrent with a piano C-octave pulse, the musicians decide the pace with which they proceed through the bits. Listen while viewing the entire (one-page) score here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpYBhX0UH04

Steve Reich (1936- ) experimented with loop tape in the ’60s, introducing slight changes to the synchronization so that the sound builds to a “hypnotic aural effect” (Salzman 188) and creates a series of perceptual patterns and illusions akin to Op Art. Later he combined performance and such recordings. Reich rejects the term “Minimalism” and calls his music “structural” without any real explanation.

Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians (1974-1976) is written for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling as bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones, and metallophone (a vibraphone without its motor). Reich claimed that the piece involved more harmonic movement than ever for him. A steady rhythmic pulse of the piano and mallet instruments combines with a second rhythm of the duration of the breath in the wind instruments, and this creates an effect like waves. Eleven chords articulated at the beginning and end are stretched out in the middle like the cantus firmus of an organum by Perotin. In Balinese music, drummers audibly call for changes of pattern, so here does the metallophone, giving an audible clue instead of the visible head nod required in earlier minimalism. Overall, the Minimalist sound here is glittery and dazzling.

Philip Glass (1937- ), studied with Milhaud. But he disavowed everything he had written before 1965 when he began writing “Minimalist” pieces, a term he especially despises. He refers to two central techniques in his music: additive process and cyclic structures. Additive process involves the expansion and contraction of tiny musical modules: a five-note grouping, for example, played several times, then becoming six notes, then seven and so on. It’s the same general melodic configuration but takes on a different rhythmic shape because of the addition or subtraction of a note. Rhythmic cycles involve the simultaneous repetition of two or more different rhythmic patterns which will eventually arrive back together at starting points, making one complete cycle. Glass reports that to some, it sounds like wheels within wheels.

Glass was influenced by Ravi Shankar and Indian music from the time he was assigned a film score transcription of music by Ravi Shankar into western notation for Parisians. He realized that in the West we divide time like a slice of bread; Indian and other cultures take small units and string them together. [Just watch and listen to the first portion of the Concert for George (Harrison).]

Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (1976), designed and directed by Robert Wilson, is an opera in four acts that broke all opera rules. The work is five hours long with no intermissions (audience members can wander in and out). Between the acts are “Knee Plays” (so named because they function like the leg joints). The text consists of numbers, solfege syllables, and cryptic poems by Christopher Knowles, a young neurologically-impaired man Wilson worked with as instructor for disturbed children in NY public schools; for example:

Would it get some wind for the sailboat. And it could get for it is.
It could get the railroad for these workers. And it could be were it is.
It could Franky it could be Franky it could be very fresh and clean.
It could be a balloon.

There are also some short texts by an actor and the choreographer. References to the trial of Patty Hearst, the mid-’70s radio line-up on WABC NY, Mr. Bojangles, the Beatles, and David Cassidy appear. Glass and Wilson wanted to focus on a historical figure and considered Chaplin, Hitler, and Gandhi. The original plan was to name this Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street. It’s a metaphorical look at Einstein whose theories led to splitting the atom. The work does seem inspired by the nuclear age and a nuclear holocaust is evoked. But the opera is not bound by a literary plot. Stage action is a matter of lighting. As in most minimalist music, change is slow, as it is in the world, but these changes when they do occur seem monumental. Witnesses claim to start out bored and frustrated and then break through. Paradoxically for Minimalism, one experiences a form of sensory overload.

Glass has written other operas — Satyagraha (1980), Akhnaten (1984), etc. — and has done the film scores for Koyaanisqatsi and that series.

Minimalism can be escapist, but it also constitutes a “deepening of experience in certain highly limited perceptual areas” (Salzman 186); an “enormous amount of mental energy is focused on an absolute minimum of sensory data” (188). Recently, it has embraced African and Indian drumming and music, and other non-western traditions.

Works Consulted

Glass, Philip and Robert Wilson. Einstein on the Beach. 1976. Elektra Nonesuch, 1993. 79323-2.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.

Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.

Reich, Steve. Music for 18 Musicians. ECM, 1978. 1129.

Riley, Terry. In C. CBS, 1968. MK 7178.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974.