Minimalism is something we take for granted. The idea that there is virtue in stripping away, that simplicity can be beautiful, and give rise to its own special kind of complexity, is one that feels as old as the world itself – but it’s relatively new.
In music in particular, minimalism was the single most important idea of the last century, the one that made possible virtually all that we now listen to and hold dear, from punk and techno to ambient and grime. Minimalism wasn’t just a movement, it was a paradigm shift: it brought about a sea change in the way that sound is made, heard and thought of.
The first half of the 20th century had seen classical music back itself into a corner. In trying to break with tradition, “serialist” composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez pursued atonality and dissonance. Technically impressive, the resulting work was also incredibly ugly; radical, certainly, but unlistenable. The real revolution would come later, and would be a whole lot easier on the ears.
Steve Reich was keen to find a new musical language that truthfully reflected, as he put it, “the real context of tail fins, Chuck Berry, and millions of burgers sold.”
It fomented not in the conservatories of Europe but in the louche lofts and art spaces of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, at the hands of four American composers – LaMonte Young, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The minimalist impulse was American through and through, and Steve Reich, rarely seen without a baseball cap atop his head, was volubly keen to find a new musical language that truthfully reflected, as he put it, “the real context of tail fins, Chuck Berry, and millions of burgers sold.”
It’s hard not to see Reich and Glass’s music as a direct product of the intense bustle and verticality of Manhattan. The downtown art scene of the late 1950s and 60s was a lively and open-minded one; as Reich once said, painters, dancers, filmmakers and writers were all “swimming in the same soup”. Minimalism was just beginning to catch on as a trend in the visual arts, with the likes of Sol Lewitt and Richard Serra gaining notoriety for their reductionist approach to painting and sculpture; change was most definitely in the air. However, no one had quite made it yet – and Serra helped out many of his friends by employing them at Low-Rate Movers, his furniture removal business. Even as their names became buzz-words about town, Reich (who also enjoyed a stint as a cab driver) and Glass could be found lugging pianos and cabinets up and down the steps of the city’s brownstones.
But it was over on the west coast of America that inspiration first struck. Terry Riley’s 1964 composition In C is often cited as the first minimalist work in music, and as a student in California, Reich was involved in its premiere. In C was a marked rejoinder to the academic complexities of Schoenberg and serialism, a sequence of simple music patterns offset in time to create a kind of undulating ambient sound. A year later Reich unveiled his own first major work, It’s Gonna Rain, based around recordings of a sermon about the end of the world given by a black Pentecostal street-preacher. Reich transferred the sermon to multiple tape loops played in and out of phase, with segments cut and rearranged. The effect was astonishing.
Reich was positioning music as a process with a life of its own rather than a closed book of dried ink composition.
For Come Out (1966), Reich re-recorded a fragment of Daniel Hamm (of the falsely accused Harlem Six) speaking the words “come out to show them” on two channels, initially playing them in unison. They quickly slip out of sync; gradually the discrepancy widens and becomes a reverberation. The two voices then split into four, looped continuously, then eight, and so on, until the actual words are unintelligible, deconstructed into tiny rhythmic and tonal patterns. Reich was positioning music as a process with a life of its own rather than a closed book of dried ink composition; what’s more, both Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain predated the cut ‘n paste techniques of hip-hop and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts.
By 1967, The Velvet Underground were already prising minimalism out of the art-world and into the rock ‘n roll domain. A former member of LaMonte Young’s group The Dream Syndicate, John Cale was well-versed in the power of drone and repetition. In The Velvets, Cale’s avant-garde preoccupations reacted dazzlingly with Lou Reed’s streetwise songwriting, resulting in minimalist rock masterpieces like ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ and ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’. The Velvets influenced pretty much all important music post-1967, but it’s particularly hard to imagine the avant-rock and “no wave” of Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth, not to mention the narcotic shoegaze of Spacemen 3, without their example.
Hearing Reich’s Piano Phase in 1967, and like him drawing influence from the musics of India and Africa, Philip Glass simplified his own compositional style, and set about creating works that relied upon phasing and loop patterns. In 1968 Reich wrote an essay entitled Music As A Gradual Process that neatly articulated his revolutionary ideas. In it he outlines the idea of self-determining musical process, music that “facilitates closely detailed listening”. He memorably compared listening to minimalist music to “watching the minute hand of a watch – you can perceive it moving only after you observe it for a while”. On the one hand minimalism simplified music, but on the other it enabled an appreciation of its more subtle, atomic-level complexities. As composer John Adams remarked, Reich “didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.”
It was through one Brian Eno that the principles and practices behind minimalism would properly, and most lastingly, permeate the pop mainstream.
By the late 70s, the cat was out of the bag, and minimalism was taking the world by storm. Mike Oldfield’s Reichian prog oddity Tubular Bells sold millions, and Reich’s own masterpiece Music For 18 Musicians (1978) was a massive global success. However, it was through one Brian Eno that the principles and practices behind minimalism would properly, and most lastingly, permeate the pop mainstream.
Eno and David Bowie were seen at various early minimalist concerts, and the former once described a performance of of Glass’s work as a “viscous bath of pure, thick energy”. Inspired by Reich’s idea of music as system, the tape delay experiments of Riley, and the melodic sonority of Glass, Eno would create his own ‘ambient’ music, a conceptual extension of minimalism that placed emphasis on process and the atmospheric nature of sound – “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space”. Working as producer and collaborator with Bowie, and later U2, Eno would translate minimalist technique into widescreen pop success.
Germany had a huge role to play in the evolution and dissemination of minimalism, with Can and especially Neu! and Manuel Goettsching emphasising the cyclical groove component of rock. Cluster, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream all made synthesizer-based, otherworldly sound-tapestries that would variously influence ambient techno, Hollywood soundtracks and commercial rock. Ahead of the pack, though, careering serenely down the Autobahn, were Kraftwerk, whose electronic sound was at once indebted to minimalism and totally sui generis. Over the course of the 80s American DJs and musicians like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata and Juan Atkins noticed how curiously funky the Dusseldorf band’s stiff riffs and rigid rhythms were, and used them as the building blocks for the earliest hip-hop, electro and techno records.
It’s fascinating now to consider how the rip-it-up-and-start-again philosophy ushered in by punk chimed with the minimalist strategies of the American avant-garde.
While Eno knew all about Reich, Glass and Kraftwerk, you can rest assured that over in Jamaica, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and King Tubby were none the wiser. That didn’t stop them coming up with techniques of radical subtraction equally, if not more, inspired than their American and European contemporaries. Like Eno, these visionary producers treated their studio mixing desks as instruments and deployed all kinds of painstaking tape-loop effects to create “dub” versions of vocal reggae tracks. Dub was minimalism in action: it was all about space, and the interaction of small sonic elements, with tracks reduced to their essence of drums and seismic bass, and additional sounds looped and phased and echoed around them ad infinitum.
The first flash of punk, with its three-chord imperative, was a kind of minimalism, but it wasn’t until the post-punk years that Britain’s guitar-slinging youth grasped the idea of “closely detailed listening” and minimalism proper. It’s fascinating now to consider how the rip-it-up-and-start-again philosophy ushered in by punk chimed with the minimalist strategies of the American avant-garde. Bands like Wire, Throbbing Gristle and particularly Joy Division (aided by the cavernous, dub-savvy production of Martin Hannett), made music that was sparse and spatially aware. A few years later, taking inspiration from both Kraftwerk and post-punk essentialism, the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League and John Foxx would create their own brand of stark, minimalist electro-pop.
Dub had proven that the dancefloor, rather than the concert hall, was the environment where minimalism could create the most impact. Back in New York, DJs Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan were intuitively alive to the power of repetition in music, and they used tape reels and multiple copies of records to extend the hooks and rhythmic breaks of songs, inducing trance and frenzy in their rapt dancers. Producers such as Walter Gibbons and Francois K began to make club-ready extended edits of tracks that bore the unmistakeable fingerprint of dub. Arthur Russell, as au fait with the “high” minimalism of Glass and Reich as he was with disco and dub, created a series of stripped-down works, ranging from exuberant club jams like ‘Go Bang’ to the deeply melancholic, bare bones cello-and-voice recordings of World of Echo. Perhaps the most futuristic work of minimalism to emerge from the disco sphere, though, was Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s evergreen ‘I Feel Love’. Presaging techno, the extended mix of this track was trance-pop minimalism writ large, a seemingly endless aural vista of ecstatic pulsation and iteration.
Dub had proven that the dancefloor, rather than the concert hall, was the environment where minimalism could create the most impact.
The rave era, and the quantum leaps forward in affordable music-making technology that came with it, would yield yet another generation of DIY minimalists. The original acid house records were stripped to the bone, and the very basis of house and techno music – repetitive bass and drums – was definitively minimalist. However, after the “second summer of love” dance music became newly preoccupied with big vocals, old-fashioned musicality, undue fuss.
It didn’t take long for some producers and listeners to revolt; doubtless partly inspired by the heightened psycho-acoustic sensitivity induced by ecstasy, there was a craving amid the underground for more stripped-down, delicate and detailed sounds. In the UK, ambient house and techno swelled up to meet this demand. The Orb’s 1990 hit ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ sampled Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’, highlighting the consonance between the minimalism of then and the electronic head music of the present day. Richard D. James, AKA Aphex Twin, had already shown an affinity with the phasing and pulsation of “classic” minimalism in his sensational Selected Ambient Works 85-92 album, but its sequel, Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994), took things to a whole new level of poise and tonal sophistication. Critics were quick to compare James to Reich and Glass, and, though he claimed he had never heard of them, by 1995 he had collaborated with Glass on ‘Icct Hedral’ and remixed the New Yorker’s “Heroes” symphony, itself based on the album by David Bowie and Brian Eno. The lineage and legacy of minimalism was more visible than ever.
Over in Detroit, techno producer Robert Hood was making music that was rigorously simple but not in the least bit ambient. His tough, opaquely funky “minimal techno” sound had been brewing for some time, but it was most famously showcased on the 1994 release Minimal Nation.
“We’re stripping down and realizing that we need to focus on what’s essential in our lives.” – Robert Hood
“I was fooling around with a Juno 2 keyboard and I came across this chord sound,” Hood later explained. “Once I had that chord sound and a particular pattern I realized I didn’t need anything else. In order to maximise the feeling of the music, sometimes we have to subtract.”
Not merely concerned with what worked on the dancefloor, Hood believed in minimalism as a natural response to the clutter and distraction of modern life. “Minimalism is not going to stop,” he said, “Because it’s a direct reflection of the way the world is going. We’re stripping down and realizing that we need to focus on what’s essential in our lives.”
At this time, producers like Richie Hawtin and Dan Bell were making comparibly terse and taut tracks, but it was the Berlin-based duo of Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, AKA Basic Channel, who took electronic minimalism that little bit deeper – inspired by the aesthetics of Jamaican dub they created a propulsive, immersive techno sound-world unlike any that had come before. Come the noughties, in the wake of Hood and Basic Channel, not to mention Pan Sonic, Wolfgang Voigt, Jan Jelinek and Pole ,”minimal” would be the catch-all term for the sound of modern house and techno, with the aptly named M-nus and Kompakt labels leading the way.
“Minimal” has now fallen out of fashion as a genre, but as an idea and practice it heartily persists. Grime was minimalist, by default as much as by design; dubstep is minimalist, foregrounding bass and percussion in a way that would please Reich as much as Tubby. Ricardo Villalobos is currently at work re-interpreting music from ECM, the minimalist label that first released Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. Minimalism isn’t going away; in fact, it’s never been away, it’s always been there, at the heart of music – it simply took visionaries like Terry Riley and Steve Reich to isolate, define and draw attention to it. Thanks to them, we all now know that music’s most enduring pleasures and mysteries occur at the micro, and not just the macro, level.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Note, the official newspaper of the Red Bull Music Academy