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A brief history of Minimalism

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  • From Glass and Reich to Basic Channel and Young Marble Giants: the elegance of simplicity
  • published
    1 Feb 2010
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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.


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