Embracing Tedium: How Minimalist Music Changed My Life

One afternoon in my late teens, a friend put on a record that changed my life. We were sitting in his room, we had probably smoked a joint, and he took out a sleek black LP box set with a photo of a drum case and some drumsticks on the cover. In the top-right corner was the yellow symbol of the German label Deutsche Grammophon, which, at the time, represented quality classical music recordings. My friend took out one of the three LPs from the box and put it on. Twenty-four minutes later, I looked at music in a different way.

Steve reich drumming DG

The piece of music we listened to was Six Pianos, by Steve Reich, which features, as the title suggests, six pianos playing together. At first, three pianos all play the same thing; a six-note figure, in an eight-beat pattern, over and over. Then three more pianos enter, playing out of phase; they play the same notes, but at different times from the first pianos. Then one of the pianos plays a different note. Then another one plays a different note. Then another. Then the rhythm changes, but still with the same pulsing beat.

At times, some of the pianos stop, then start up again, playing the basic pattern, or highlighting certain notes. The music shifts and morphs as the rhythms change, still over the same eight-beat, six note ground. Every now and then, new, short motives spring up, only to fade back into the rhythm after a while. This goes on, through three different sections, as the music revolves around not the usual tonal focus, but a rhythmic focus. The piano is a percussion instrument, and Reich uses it as such. At the end of the twenty-four minutes, the rhythmic playing stops abruptly; the music that started some time ago has shifted through several keys, and has landed back where it started. And the rest is silence.

I remember sitting quietly after hearing Six Pianos, wondering how this music could be so radically different from what I was used to. My musical tastes at the time were mostly rock – from the Grateful Dead to progressive rock – but I was open to a wide variety of styles, including classical music. But this was new. This was music that stripped away most of the music, leaving only rhythm and subtle shifts in emphasis of different notes. It opened up a new world to me; I didn’t think music could have this power.

What is minimalist music?

Minimalism is, in general, a style of art or design that focuses on simplicity and sparseness, where the effect depends in part on the emptiness surrounding simple things. Minimalist music is a bit different; its spareness isn’t about silence, but rather repetition and the slow, gradual change of music themes. Six Pianos is a good example of this, but the earliest example – and the one that best illustrates this type of music – is Terry Riley’s In C[1]. This work, which is arguably the first major minimalist work, features two important elements: repetition and improvisation. Musicians play a series of phrases as many times as they like, moving through a simple score consisting of 53 sections. This approach means that each performance of the work is unique.

However, In C is ultimately unsatisfactory. Its single chord structure makes it harmonically repetitive, which, in the end, prevents the work from being musically interesting. Much of western music is built on the concept of a composition resolving to the dominant chord; when that chord is the only one played in a piece, there can be no resolution; no closure. For 20 minutes, In C is fascinating; after that, it’s just boring.

Terry Riley In C full score

Steve Reich took minimalism further, with the discovery of complex rhythmic structures during a trip to Ghana in 1971, where he studied drumming. He added to that the use of phasing, where different instruments play the same musical phrases, but their notes slowly shift horizontally, so, over time, the are not playing in unison any more.

Reich’s 1974 work Music for 18 Musicians may be the cornerstone of minimalist music. In a way, this hour-long work is the minimalist Goldberg Variations, with opening and closing sections called “Pulses,” and eleven sections, each built around a different chord, in between. This was also the first major minimalist work to be recorded on a well-known non-classical record label – ECM Records – which gave it a great deal of exposure in the broader music world.

Around this time, Philip Glass was developing his form of minimalist music, which was more repetitive, and used electric instruments. His 1976 “opera” Einstein on the Beach stands as the essential large-scale minimalist work of the time. This four-and-a-half hour work, which melds music, dance and visuals, premiered at the Avignon Festival in France, before touring Europe. It finally reached the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where Glass lived and worked as a plumber and cab driver to make ends meet. Now a classic, Einstein perplexed listeners at first. But during its 1984 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I saw the work, the New York Times called it “the major achievement in the performing arts of the minimalist esthetic. It is incantatory, repetitious, entrancing – and hence profoundly boring for those who cannot help resisting it.” [2]

Einstein on the beach

Minimalism has since entered the mainstream, and the more “fundamentalist” works that focus mostly on repetition and phasing have fallen out of fashion. Philip Glass composes scores for films, and Steve Reich riffs on Radiohead. Einstein on the Beach went on a multi-country revival tour in 2012–2013. And electronic music has adopted many of the basic structures of minimalist music, and young people dance to similar rhythms all the time. The range of minimalist music is broad and varied.

Minimalist music and life

It’s easy to listen to minimalist music and dismiss it as boring and repetitive; and that’s what many people say. Leonard Bernstein said, about minimalist music, “…it’s finding another way to be tonal without being idiotic…but it sometimes does come out sounding idiotic…”[3]

What is the thin line between fascinating and boring or “idiotic” music? I said above that I feel Terry Riley’s In C to be boring, if it’s too long; but I find Steve Reich’s Six Pianos, and many other minimalist works, to be fascinating. Much of this comes down to personal preference: some people just aren’t wired to appreciate this kind of music. Maybe there’s a right time and place to hear it, and there’s a click that occurs when that happens; or maybe some people will never like minimalist music, and just consider it uninteresting.

What I discovered that afternoon in the 1970s is that not everything needs to be interesting. There is a lot going in this kind of music which, on the surface, can sound like a broken record. Understanding minimalist music opened my mind to finding the beauty in simple things, rather than seeking out things that were always different. In minimalist music, I hear the beat of a different drummer, one whose stability and regularity allows for a greater variety than I had expected.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/17/arts/music-einstein-returns-briefly.html  ↩
  2. There are examples of minimalist music from long before the 1960s. Eric Satie’s Vexations, from the 1890s, is a short theme, about a minute and a half long, meant to be played 840 times. But it lacks the rhythmic repetitions of “modern” minimalism. Much medieval polyphonic vocal music, such as that by PĂ©rotin, has some of the repetitions that modern minimalism uses. And much non-western music features similar repetitive elements.  ↩
  3. In Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein, by Jonathan Cott.  ↩

Some Recordings

If you want to discover some of this music, here’s a list of the essential works of minimalism.

Some of the major minimalist works to explore include:

Two budget collections worth exploring, which focus on minimalist music for piano, and include a broad range of works by composers including Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and many others, are Minimal Piano Collection (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Minimal Piano Collection, Vol. X-XX (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

There is no major anthology of minimalist works available, other than the two collections of piano music above. There is, however, a 10-CD retrospective of Steve Reich’s works from 1965 to 1995, on Nonesuch; out of print on CD, it’s still available by download. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) The same is the case for John Adams: Earbox, a 10-CD retrospective, is available by download. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Unfortunately, there is no such retrospective set of Philip Glass’s works. Howeer, the day I posted this article, a new recording, Valentina Lisitsa Plays Philip Glass was released. It’s an interesting collection of a variety of piano works and arrangements of Glass’s music. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

I’ve written about a number of other minimalist works on this website, in particular about works by Morton Feldman. Technically not a minimalist – his music is not repetitive – I consider him to be the ultimate composer of minimalist music nevertheless.

8 thoughts on “Embracing Tedium: How Minimalist Music Changed My Life

  1. In 1970, I heard a piece created by recording a short phrase onto three physical loops of 1/4″ magnetic audio tape. These loops were as similar in length as the creator could make them. They were placed onto three independent, high-quality tape recorders, each playing back through a pair of speakers distributed around the room. The tape recorders were started simultaneously, and for a short time, the sound from all three was in sync. But the analog nature of the drive mechanisms took them increasingly out of phase with each other. The echoes, rhythms, and interactions between the sound streams was fantastically complex and intriguing to me. It was one of the most memorable performances that I have ever heard. My reaction was similar to what Kirk describes.

      • I couldn’t have told you the name of the artist/composer or the work, but searching YouTube, it was definitely Steve Reich’s “Come Out”. It made such an impression on me, that I could remember the gist of the text that was spoken only a single time.

  2. Thanks for this, Kirk. Minimalism changed my life when I encountered it in college via Koyaanisqatsi, Music for 18, various Terry Riley works, and I still listen to it and cover it as a music journalist today. Last week at what turned out to be a dreadful concert of music by the Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen, I was trying to figure out what it is about American minimalism that’s so appealing to so many of us, whereas LA’s version doesn’t connect so well, and I wonder whether it has to do with consonance and groove. What do you think?

    Also, for me, it’s not the tranciness of classic minimalism that grabs me but rather what changes, not what stays the same. You can hear the gradual evolution of rhythms and melodies so clearly that for some reason it fascinates, but I think that’s only part of its appeal, which is really more sensuous than rational. Anyway, it’s clearly been the most popular form of contemporary composition in the classical tradition since the middle of the last century, appealing way beyond the classical music audience. It’s been tremendously influential on succeeding generations of composers and has permeated pop culture via dance, film soundtracks, TV commercials etc. I have all the music you recommend and especially recommend the Reich collection, and he’s still cranking out fine music as he nears 80. Riley’s music, except for his Kronos collaborations, can be harder to track down but is well worth the search; he’s the warmest of the minimalists. Glass’s work is for me best experienced in the context of the stage or film, especially his collaborations with robert Wilson. Glass has a new autobiography coming out this month and maybe you can review that. I plan to myself. Thanks again for this primer, which I can forward to friends wondering where to start.

    • I agree about Andriessen; his music doesn’t connect with me. On the other hand, I find ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato to be wonderful, and he’s Dutch. (Though he’s a bit of a one-trick pony; his works sound alike more than those of many of the minimalists).

      And I agree that Glass’s music is now more for soundtracks. I don’t particularly care for his “operas,” at least those after Einstein, because once the 80s came around, he developed a “comfortable” style that doesn’t vary much.

      Thanks for the heads up about the Glass autobiography; I hadn’t heard about that.

  3. I enjoyed this read; the overview of minimalist pieces and the history is well done for those who may not have investigated this style/genre of music.

    I likely approached Glass first, it was his Glassworks album on CBS which hit me a lot in a similar way, it sounds, as the Reich piece did for you. “Is this legal?” I thought… you could write serious music like this? Wow…

    My first Reich piece was Tehillim on ECM. To this day, I like the piece, as I do his Electric Counterpoint (Methany) and more recently, a version I have on marimba.

    I had the fortune to hear Glass a year ago in Richmond, VA, when he came to the U of Richmond for their “glass festival” and he was joined by Tim Fain. It was memorable for me. The piece by Fain was a Knee Play from Einstein on the Beach and was outstandingly done; Glass himself on piano was good too.

    My favorite part of your post is about how you discovered the music to begin with. The communal time spent in bedrooms exploring art and cultural artifacts seems like a nostalgic pasttime. I discovered a lot of music I liked myself; during my senior year of high school I was responsible for sharing a lot of the music I liked with friends. I was able to turn younger friends who were into pop music exclusively onto things like Bach’s brandenburgs or Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons. It felt like an underground, counter-culture pursuit, one that none of our parents really understood.

    I’m out now to discover Six Pianos.

    • Thanks for your comments. I totally agree with you about the music sharing experience; it is what helped me develop such varied tastes in music.

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