First-Generation Minimalism

The term “minimal” is commonly used to describe a variety of avant-garde art music styles that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s. It came about in part as a reaction against the general trend in academic music during the first half of the century, which was towards atonality (especially in the form of serialism) and often abrasive difficulty – but it was also an organic development that arose from certain previous strands of the 20th-century avant-garde, including the experimental music of John Cage.

What is “minimal” about early minimal music varies from composer to composer, but there are certain common features: the first-generation minimalists tended to favor simple and consonant harmonies, repetitiveness (sometimes with the slow addition and subtraction of musical elements), length, and slow (if any) harmonic movement.

There is not universal agreement as to the first example of minimal music, but one might point to John Cage’s notorious 1952 composition 4’33”, a composition for piano composed entirely of rests. (The title refers to the amount of time it takes to “perform” the work.) Beyond the puckish humor behind the concept, Cage was also making a point about listening: the “music” of the piece came from the ambient sounds in the concert hall. Surely music could hardly get any more “minimal” than this – but instead of leading to a stylistic dead end, Cage’s radical experiments created conceptual space for other kinds of minimalism to emerge. 

Three particularly important composers of this period adopted approaches that proved highly influential: La Monte Young (drones), Steve Reich (phasing), and Philip Glass (repetitive triadic arpeggiation). Young’s 1958 composition Trio for Strings makes extensive use of sustained tones, alternating with silence, and when played in its full version lasts roughly three hours. (He would later write a six-hour work for piano.) Many consider this the first work written firmly in the minimalist style. Unfortunately, recordings of Young’s music are quite hard to come by.

The early music of Philip Glass is most easily recognized because of his love of arpeggios – achieved by playing the notes of a chord (often a simple triad) in sequence. His opera Einstein on the Beach – one of the works that brought him to a mass audience – exemplifies this approach, but you also hear it in his 1968 work for solo violin titled Strung Out and in other pieces from the 1960s and 1970s. What was “minimal” about this music was both the harmonic vocabulary and the extreme repetitiveness of the music, which required a new kind of patience to enjoy.

Steve Reich’s music in the 1960s was also repetitive and harmonically slow-moving, but his approach was very different: during this period he was experimenting with “phased” structures – tape pieces like Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain took loops of spoken-word recordings and played them against each other, slightly altering the tape speeds so as to move the spoken phrases in and out of phase with each other, generating a constant but gradual rhythmic shifting. He would later adapt this technique to instrumental music with highly influential works like Piano Phase, Music for 18 Musicians, and the monumental Drumming. Reich’s music of this period was dense and complex, but minimalist in its relentless pulse and (especially) its harmonic vocabulary.

Other early minimalist composers include Terry Riley (whose In C is generally regarded as one of the first great examples of minimal music) and Moondog, and of course the boundaries around the minimal style are somewhat porous: the quiet and repetitive compositions of Morton Feldman are not far from the minimalist aesthetic, nor are the “deep listening” projects of Pauline Oliveros or the gamelan-based compositions of Lou Harrison. The groundbreaking work of the first-generation minimalists continues to exert a huge influence on art music today.

Rick Anderson

Music for 18 Musicians

Steve Reich
Music for 18 Musicians cover

The 1978 recording of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is a monument of the American minimalist movement — even though Reich himself was never fully comfortable with that genre designation. He would often point out that the purpose of his music wasn’t to induce a trance; it was to make you hear things you’ve never imagined. This work does just that: although superficially based on a simple rhythmic pulse, it creates tremendous complexity through the use of internal polyrythms and phasing; wind parts and wordless vocals fade in and out while percussion instruments weave a gentle but complicated nest of beats underneath.

Steve Reich: Drumming

Steve Reich & Musicians
Steve Reich: Drumming cover

Drumming is one of Steve Reich’s most important and influential compositions, a percussion work that is played by anywhere from 9 to 12 musicians and that can last between an hour and 90 minutes, depending on the choices of the musicians. It is built on a single long rhythmic phrase that is first built up one note at a time, and then changed over the course of the work as different musicians play the pattern in and out of phase with each other. The result is a shimmering and pulsating mass of sound that constantly changes while also staying very much the same.


Steve Reich
Tehillim cover

In the 1970s, acclaimed minimalist composer Steve Reich began feeling an urge to understand his ethnic and religious heritage more deeply. He traveled to Israel, where he recorded the singing of Sephardic Jews from various regions in the Middle East, Africa, and India. His explorations eventually culminated in this, one of the most joyful of his compositions. It focuses on passages of praise from the Book of Psalms, and is written for four female voices and a large ensemble of winds, strings, keyboards, and percussion. This 1982 performance by his own ensemble is stunning.

Terry Riley In C

Brooklyn Raga Massive
Terry Riley In C cover

Terry Riley’s monumental minimalist work In C is not written for any specific group of instruments — or even for any particular number of them (though he suggests an ensemble of roughly 35 players). Written in 1964, it consists of 53 short musical phrases, each of them numbered; the score indicates that each member of the performing group may play each phrase as many times as he or she wishes. For this recording, Brooklyn Raga Massive perform the piece using primarily Indian instruments and classical Indian techniques, though instruments such as the cello, lute, and cajon are used as well. It’s a lovely performance of a fascinating piece.

Four Four Three: music of Terry Riley

Ragazze Quartet, Slagwerk Den Haag, Kapok
Four Four Three: music of Terry Riley cover

This collaboration between the Ragazze (string) quartet, Dutch percussion ensemble Slagwerk den Haag, and horn/guitar/percussion trio Kapok is a tribute to the work of first-generation minimalist composer Terry Riley. The musicians tackle his classic early piece In C as well as the later Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, a piece heavily influenced by Riley’s travels in India and his collaborations with the Kronos Quartet. The pieces are quite different from each other and these musicians play both works with vigor and commitment.

Music with Changing Parts

Salt Lake Electric Ensemble
Music with Changing Parts cover

Philip Glass’s 1970 composition Music with Changing Parts represents a shift in his style from the more austere minimalism of his 1960s compositions to something a bit lusher and texturally dense — if still very much within the mainstream of the minimalist movement. This recording of the work by the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble is a realization of the piece using laptop computers, keyboards, and a variety of analog instruments, and the group creates a pulsing, shimmering wall of sound that manages to make a single chord sound interesting for over 45 minutes.

La Monte Young: Compositions 1960 (Arr. for Guitar)

Noël Akchoté, La Monte Young
La Monte Young: Compositions 1960 (Arr. for Guitar) cover

Compositions 1960 finds the pioneering minimalist composer La Monte Young drifting into the realm of conceptual music. The “compositions” consist of verbal instructions to the performer that have nothing obviously to do with music; the musician is instructed to do things like build a fire in front of the audience, turn off all lights in the hall, “draw a straight line and follow it,” etc. Guitarist Noël Akchoté’s approach is to interpret these instructions as generative ideas for apparently improvised guitar performances, all of which are quite interesting.

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach

Michael Riesman, The Philip Glass Ensemble
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach cover

Einstein on the Beach was the first opera to be written in the minimalist style. (There would not be many others, though the operatic works of John Adams at least refer back to the roots of 1960s and 1970s minimalism.) A collaborative work between composer Philip Glass and theatrical producer Robert Wilson, it departs significantly from traditional opera in its avoidance of conventional narrative structure, and it represents a good example of Glass’s heavily arpeggiated style. Glass would later write two more biographical operas, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, which together formed the Portrait Trilogy.

Steve Reich: Octet; Music for a Large Ensenble; Violin Phase

Steve Reich
Steve Reich: Octet; Music for a Large Ensenble; Violin Phase cover

The three Steve Reich compositions featured here span the period from 1967, when he was still exploring and developing his compositional approach, to 1979 and 1980 when he was confidently writing for large and medium-sized ensembles in a fully confident style. Music for a Large Ensemble is among his most accessible and attractive works, one that successfully juxtaposes pulsing repetition and lush harmonic textures. Violin Phase is an early work that finds him experimenting with repeated short melodies prerecorded and played out of phase with each other, and Octet, although an instrumental work for winds and strings, reflects his interest in Hebrew cantillation. This is one of the loveliest recordings of Reich’s music available.

Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi

Philip Glass
Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi cover

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance is an experimental film made in 1982 by Godfrey Reggio. He commissioned minimalist composer Philip Glass to create music to accompany the film’s images of urban and pastoral landscapes, and Glass wrote a series of compositions that depart in some ways from his earlier style without abandoning the general principles of minimalism. This 1983 recording contains only about half of the music that was featured in the film; Glass would later record more comprehensive versions.

Glass: String Quartets Nos. 1-4

Carducci String Quartet
 Glass: String Quartets Nos. 1-4 cover

It’s fascinating to trace the development of Philip Glass’s mature style through these four chamber works, composed between 1966 and 1989. His first quartet reflects his studies with Nadia Boulanger and the lingering influence of 20th-century academic music — although you can hear the repetitive patterns that would come to typify his later work, the harmonies here are astringent and atonal. Jump to his 1980s string quartets and you hear something very different: austere consonance, relentless arpeggiation, sudden harmonic shifts. The Carduccis offer an outstanding account of these under-recorded works.