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I was wondering if anyone out there knew of any techniques associated with the minimalist tradition. I've been really interested in the philosophical notion of minimalism over the last few months or so, and I would really like to start to develop a foundation for a technical understand.

Book/composer recommendations would also be extremely helpful!


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Phillip Glass is probably the most popular minimalist composer in the 20th century, although I'm not particularly partial to his piano works. –  Ely Beau Eastman Aug 20 at 17:28

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The list above is a great start. I'll add a few names below, but first let me speak to the technical question. There are a few basic techniques that characterize so-called minimalism in music. Not every minimalist or post-minimalist uses all these, and a number of composers who used to be called minimalists have changed style dramatically over the years, but this is my short list:

  1. Pulsed repetition. The basic sound of "minimalism" is short melodic motives repeated over a steady pulse, as in Terry Riley's In C (1964). Usually these motives either include a cross-rhythm or are cross-rhythmic to the basic pulse; that gives the music its swinging feel. Often multiple iterations of the same motive are played in overlapping fashion. The patterns are usually tonal or modal, often sounding like jazz riffs (many of the first generation of "minimalists" grew up with and were devotees of be-bop and modal jazz.)

  2. Phasing. The method outlined above implies a technique for "generating" different rhythmic placements of the motives above the pulse. The first such technique was "discovered" by Steve Reich when he let two tape loops go out of phase playing the same musical material. His early "phase pieces" (Piano Phase, 1967) were composed to allow musicians to imitate the effect. A phase piece starts with two musicians playing a musical pattern in unison. Then one player speeds up slightly and allows herself to move ahead slowly, creating complex interference patterns, until the two patterns "lock in" one beat unit apart, creating a sort of close canon at the unison. In early Reich, this phasing technique is done systematically until the two patterns are back in phase, and the piece stops.

  3. Later composers and Reich himself explored other ways of generating interlocking patterns. One is called "substituting beats for rests." In this technique, you begin with a repeating pattern over a pulse. You then build up a version of the pattern one or more beats "off" from the original, one note at a time. The game here is not to bring in the notes in the order they occur in the pattern, but choose an ordering that creates interesting sub-patterns and cross rhythms. Check out Music for Eighteen Musicians if you want a master class in this technique.

  4. Music for Eighteen Musicians also demonstrates another, later minimalist technique. By 1976, Reich had begun to add long sustained notes above and below the repeating overlapping canonic patterns. He also started to make pieces where these longer notes were subjected to expansion and contraction by multiples of two or three. So, in a mature piece by Reich, you begin with a repeating pattern; generate multiple copies through phasing or beat-replacement; and then, when you have a full texture, start adding in long notes that double, redouble, then shrink back to where they started.

  5. Philip Glass worked a little differently. He also favored a steady pulse and repeating patterns. But instead of working canonically with multiple iterations of a pattern, he started off with just one line, which he varied by addition and subtraction. (Music in Fifths) Glass would begin with a short melodic phrase, then add notes to it, a few at a time, repeating each version a bunch of times, until in the middle of the piece, each cycle involved a complicated winding up and down and up and down. Then he would systematically remove the notes he added until he got back to the original melody. Piece over. By the 1970s, Glass was working with cycles of chords, systematically but irregularly adding durations to each chord in a pattern, then taking them away, to create super-funky pinwheels of sound (Einstein on the Beach).

And that's the basic set of tricks. Later "post-minimalist" composers worked with this template, but they increased the level of dissonance in the chords, made the melodic patterns more irregular, and added more spice in the sound. (Andriessen from the list above was an inspiration to many of these composers.)

Some interesting composers from the next wave:

  • the Bang on a Can composers: David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon
  • Mikel Rouse
  • Steve Martland
  • Michael Nyman
  • Kyle Gann

There is a whole other side to minimalism, which is the drone side (the La Monte Young side), but unless you really want to hear about that, I'm going to leave it there.

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There are a lot of different kinds of Minimalisms, so my first suggestion would be to explore a bunch of different composers with extremely open ears:

Philip Glass - Personally, my favorite work is his opera Einstein on the Beach, but his string quartets are also great, and the piano etudes can be a nice introduction. His work tends to still operate within the universe of tonal structures and even, to some extent, tonal progressions, just with a huge amount of repetition. After enough listening, the repetition starts to not sound like repetition anymore, at least to me.

Steve Reich - His early work tends to focus mostly of the "phasing" of multiple otherwise identical elements. That is to say, he likes to explore patterns or melodies or chord progressions in which a copy (or copies) moves out of phase with the original. The classic examples are his tape pieces It's Gonna Rain and Come Out, but also check out some of his acoustic pieces like Music for 18 Musicians. My favorite piece of his is Piano Phase, in which two pianos are playing identical material, but gradually move away from each other in tempo until one is a single sixteenth note ahead. Then they move again until one is two sixteenth notes ahead, etc.

Terry Riley - I'm only particularly familiar with his most-famous work, In C. The piece has a fascinating framework wherein a group of musicians proceed through a collection of a bunch of musical fragments, but each musician decides how many times they want to repeat each fragment. The result is initial and final alignment, with a delightfully diffuse middle.

Louis Andriessen - If you can, definitely get a copy of Bang on A Can's CD called Gigantic Dancing Human Machine. I think there tends to be an especially visceral quality to his minimalist work, and a lot of people would disagree with my putting him in this list, but check out Hoketus wherein two identical ensembles on either side of the stage (or either speaker) bounce notes back and forth.

Pauline Oliveros - I especially like her piece Sound Patterns. Her music is especially drone-like and is built around meditative and fascinating ideas. Read some of her writings or lectures about "Deep Listening" if you can. She can find amazing sounds in incredibly unlikely places, such as the sound of vascular processes inside a tree sped up and pitched down so that they're audible. She also does some sculpture work that can be quite fascinating, and that generally includes amazing sonic elements.

John Adams - (Not to be confused with John Luther Adams, who should probably also be on this list, but I'm less familiar with his work). His most popular piece is definitely Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and it's a lot of fun, but I especially like his massive piece Harmonielehre. Extremely exciting and often quite visceral, Adams' music is often seen as the Neo-Romantic wing of American Minimalism, and, as much as all these labels can be infuriating, I get where that description is coming from. He uses powerful melodic statements that achieve a kind of soaring quality that can be really inspiring.

Arvo Pärt - On the opposite extreme, Pärt is sometimes described as a "Holy Minimalist" because his work is often austere and based on religious subjects. Absolutely gorgeous harmonies. I would especially recommend his popular piece Fratres, particularly in the cello ensemble version. He developed a very specific contrapuntal technique called "Tinntinnabuli" or "Tinntinnabulation" that involves pairing a modal, largely conjunct, melodic line with one or more "Tinntinnabuli" voices that follow the same general contour but arpeggiate a particular harmony, usually a minor triad.

EDIT TO ADD: I should point out that, beyond a very general vibe, it's hard to point to any particular common minimalist techniques. Each composer tends to have their own method of exploration, and they, to a large extent, don't think of themselves as belonging to any kind of single school. Some explore repetition (often with a goal of exposing tiny differences either in performance of listener perceptions that render a repetition new again) [Glass, Reich, Adams], some explore drones [LaMonte Young, Oliveros, Pärt], some explore compositional restrictions [Luther Adams, Andriessen]. Aside from Reich's "phasing", Oliveros' "Deep Listening" and Pärt's "Tinntinnabuli", I don't think there's as much to explore in that direction as there might be in, for example, Serialism. A lot of the minimalist composers were specifically reacting against what they saw as an over-reliance on procedures and methods.

ADDITIONAL EDIT: The general sentiment of the above paragraph is true, but Robert Fink's answer makes a strong point about some general techniques that are relatively common. Great examples.

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As long as this is a very good answer, I think it is valid to add La Monte Young to this list, as Young is often deemed as a pioneer in minimalism, one who effectively paved technical/technological ways for minimalist music to thrive. –  SeuMenezes Aug 20 at 19:51
@SeuMenezes I definitely agree he belongs on the list, but I know relatively little about him and his work. Would you mind giving a couple of recommendations and descriptions? –  Pat Muchmore Aug 20 at 20:12
I'm having a difficult time understanding the hierarchy (for lack of a better word) of 20th century music... For example, "the Neo-romantic side of minimalism." I get that these two modes of thought are compatible, but they're just vaguely defined words to me. Is there any place I can get an overview of 20th century music and the different schools like "minimalism" and "neo-classical/romantic," etc. –  Sketchyfish Aug 21 at 5:53
@Sketchyfish Yeah, I don't think "hierarchy" is the right word since there's no objective ranking of the various schools, labels, idioms and isms. It's a confused and confusing topic, and I think there's plenty of disagreement. Honestly, I think this wiki article is a perfectly decent introduction: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th-century_classical_music. It's especially useful if you follow the links for further information about each individual style. It doesn't seem to mention Neo-Romanticism, but if you look up David del Tredici, John Corigliano and Joan Tower you can hear examples. –  Pat Muchmore Aug 21 at 14:33
A good book to cut through the thickets of terminology might be Kyle Gann's American Music in the 20th Century. (amazon.com/American-Music-Twentieth-Century-Kyle/dp/002864655X). –  Robert Fink Aug 25 at 19:40

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