Perspectives on Minimalism

Music of Process, and a Simple Lush Thought

Curtis Emery · 03/25/24

Let me set the stage: England, summer of 1971—The Who has just released “Baba O'Riley”, the opening track to their fifth studio album Who’s Next. The famous phrase “Don't cry / don't raise your eye / it's only teenage wasteland” is heard for the first time, and listeners at home get a taste of the live The Who experience with the sprawling five minute track (the original recording came in at 30 minutes).

At the front of the legendary rock track sits a strange but fascinating keyboard part designed and performed on a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 home organ using the preset “marimba repeat function.” It's simple in execution, but the sound itself pointed to something much more intricate and imaginative.

“Baba O’Riley”: the song’s name is an amalgamation of religious leader Maher Baba and American avant-garde master composer Terry Riley. This is The Who's songwriter Pete Townshend's ode to two of his heroes, attempting to feed his spiritual guru Meher’s "Avatar" of god into a machine—which he attempted to capture with synthesizers like the EMS VCS3 and ARP 2600, but nailed perfectly with his TBO-1 home organ, which he performed in the style of Terry Riley, borrowing directly from Riley’s mind-bending piece Keyboard Study #1 (1964).

Composers like Terry Riley and his peers were gaining worldwide attention for their work with synthesizers, tape machines, and seemingly enlightened production behaviors. By the 1970s, artists like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and other prog rockers were captivated by the experimental, repetitive, avant-garde sounds coming from across the ocean.

Countless creative musicians were under the influence of one of America’s most captivating moments in music history—the birth and practice of minimalism.

What is Minimalism?

Minimalism, or the practice of minimal music, is characterized by the use of the minimal amount of materials to create a heightened emotional response from the listener—often, relying on simple processes for musical development/evolution. Through the use of repetition, microtonal arrangement, tape loops, synthesizers, and extreme play lengths, Minimalist composers blended their transcendental understanding of reality with their specific, personal voices to create music that had never been heard before.

The period of the 1960s and 1970s was an exciting era in America for avant-garde art. It was a time of revolutionary thinking and revolutionary living. A social shift was well underway—a shift away from the conservative, authoritative past to a new, switched-on future. Free thinking and free living was appreciated, and the creative world was completely open to new ways of doing and being.

The emergence of groups like Fluxus, started by George Maciunas, which featured performance artists like Yoko Ono, who hosted some of the first Minimalist performances in her apartment, showcases the popularity of avant-garde art in NYC, and signals towards an open and waiting audience for process based work interested in more lofty art-thinking.

We can point to John Cage, American composer, as one of the main minds behind this new trend of process-based, conceptual work, and the generative force behind the genre of Minimalism.

In 1952, John Cage first presented the now-infamous and pivotal composition—4’33”. The title refers to the literal duration of the piece: it is four minutes and thirty three seconds of environmental sound, where the performer is totally silent; the audience then becomes increasingly aware of the sounds which surround the performers. Around this time, Cage also organized his first “happening” at the historic and absolutely essential art school and community project Black Mountain College in North Carolina, USA. Cage’s “musical happenings” would set the pace for creative thinking literally around the globe.

Cage’s “musical happenings” were impromptu gatherings which blurred the lines between performance and pedagogy—proposing a new way of doing through performance. Attendees of these original events would go on to form Fluxus, and students of Cage would bring tools to the world not yet seen.

By the 1960s, avant-garde, process-obsessed acolytes were starting their own radical spaces and carving a name for themselves in the wilderness of America’s experimental art scene. The original wave of Minimalism was championed primarily by four legendary composers: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Collectively, these composers introduced Minimalism to North America and the rest of the world. Their circles were tight, fanatic consumers of their peers’ work.

Minimalism arose from a trend away from the more typical and in-vogue experimental work of the time, which was primarily based on Serialism—an atonal, academic, constraint-based music composition style from the early 20th century, commonly represented by composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, and others. Serialism took a step away from tonal music based on major and minor scales, using abstract structures as the basis for creating musical passages without relying on conventional concepts of rhythm or harmony.

At one point in time, many composers saw this as a liberating process—granting them ways to break free from the confines of musical tradition. But by the 1960s, young composers who were taught serial techniques in school were largely growing disillusioned with the technique. The style was viewed as stale by up-and-coming composers like Riley, Glass, Harold Budd, John Adams, and Jon Hassell—all great composers, and the vanguard of proto-ambient music.

But, it was La Monte Young who first gained notoriety for taking this sentiment and creating something with it.

An Interwoven Account of the Early Years of Minimalism

Influenced by the serialist composer Anton Webern, La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7 is one of the very first notable performances of what would eventually be called minimalism. The piece was slow and gradual. It was written for any instrument, as long as the performer followed the simple, basic instruction: which was to play two notes, B3 and F#4, “to be held for a long time.” The first performance in 1961 lasted 45 minutes and featured a string section and Young.

[Above: a modern performance of Young's Composition 1960 No. 7 using two long tape loops.]

Of the performance, The New Yorker commented, “when La Monte Young says take it from the top, he means next Wednesday,” which is very fitting and tells of its place in the Minimalist canon. Since, Young has produced many works (and few recordings); one of his best-known works, the decades-in-development The Well-Tuned Piano, has been in a constant state of progress and evolution since 1964. A typical performance lasts five to six hours.

Like Young, to whom minimalism was a means to “let sounds be what they are”, composer Steve Reich also sought to present sound in a whole new way. (Prendergast: The Ambient Century, p. 92) Reich believed in the promise of music to satisfy all wonder and found in minimalism a transcendental form.

Reich’s now-famous 1968 essay "Music as a Gradual Process" talks about a slow-moving, radical approach to sound:

“By ‘gradual’ I mean extremely gradual; a process happening so slowly and gradually that listening to it resembles watching a minute hand on a watch--you can perceive it moving after you stay with it a little while.”

The following year, in 1969, Reich handed this essay out to everyone who attended his iconic performance at the Whitney in NYC. On this occasion, Reich presented his Pulse Music to the public—playing his intricate electronic musical instrument, The Phase Shifting Pulse Gate.

Steve Reich in the 1970s.

[Above: Steve Reich in the 1970s.]

The following year, in 1969, Reich handed this essay out to everyone who attended his iconic performance at the Whitney in NYC. On this occasion, Reich presented his Pulse Music to the public—playing his intricate electronic musical instrument, The Phase Shifting Pulse Gate, which had recently been developed in collaboration with engineer Larry Owens.

The Phase Shifting Pulse Gate performance at the Whitney featured several oscillators patched into the device, all tuned to the same minor scales used earlier in the performance by a small ensemble of log drummers. Pulse Music features an elaborate rhythmic phase shifting technique, of Reich’s own algorithm, a process he described as phase shifting. The Phase Shifting Pulse Gate used simple electronic circuitry to provide access to a wide variety of shifting rhythmic gating patterns, effectively rhythmically automating the volume of the sounds patched into it. Reich pointed to the rhythmic structures of Balinese music as the inspiration for this technique—but ultimately, he did not continue to use the Phase Shifting Pulse Gate, and instead began to translate these techniques into instrumental music for live performers.

This wasn't Reich's first piece to explore different approaches to varying the rhythmic phase of multiple performers or sound sources. Reich’s concept of phase shifting is perhaps best captured in his polyphonic tape loop experiments, in which two identical samples would be played—allowing the simple passage of time to modulate the performance of the actual tape the sample was recorded on. These differences playback speed between machines would create a mind bending, phase shifting experience and create interesting polyphonic sonic products. We can hear this concept perfectly in Reich’s famous early work It’s Gonna Rain (1968), which is a chaotically hypnotic composition for magnetic tape, 18 minutes of groundbreaking music and a key piece of the minimalism canon. Other pieces from the same period, such as the famously difficult-yet-beautiful Piano Phase feature similar techniques executed by live performers.

Tape experimentation was not a new concept at the time, of course; but Reich’s implementation offered a step in a new direction from the work of La Monte Young’s peer Terry Riley, whose work on the West Coast had helped set the stage for Reich’s ideas.

Terry Riley is certainly one of America’s best-known avant-garde composers. His dedication to Eastern thought and spirituality mixed with his totally unique playing and compositional style—partly based on traditional music techniques from India—quickly made him an influential figure on the West Coast.

Riley is best known for his minimalist pieces In C (1964) and Keyboard Studies (1965-1968), as well as his electronic album A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) and collaborations with musicians all around the world. Terry Riley’s interest with tape composition started in the 1950s, but really blossomed with the creation of his “time lag accumulator”—a fantastic device/recording process which accomplished delay-like effects using two reel-to-reel tape recorders. The process of Time Lag Accumulation is similar to what we now think of as "looping", using long delay lines to capture overlapping layers of sound from a single source or performer. However, in Riley's work, Time Lag Accumulation wasn't used to create neat, clean rhythmic loops: instead, it was used to capture unsynchronized, overlapping layers of tones and arpeggios, with a sound that gradually evolved as the tape looped around again and again.

In the future, similar approaches would become integral to England’s seminal ambient pieces; a very similar workflow was used, for instance, for Brian Eno's Discreet Music. Similarly, in Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s No Pussyfooting (1973) and performances around the time, Fripp used the quite similar “frippertronics” guitar technique to build layered sonic textures from his guitar.

Even back in the 1960s, Riley was recognized by his peers as a significant up-and-coming composer. His personal inner circle included many of electronic music’s founding members and other important players in the early history of musical minimalism. Most notably, Riley was closely involved with the influential San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC), though which association many of his ideas and pieces were allowed to flourish. The premiere performance of In C occurred at the SFTMC in 1964.

Among other things, the San Francisco Tape Music Center was effectively an incubator for music, musicians, and ideas that would eventually define modern synthesis, electronic music, and ambient composition. Members and associates included director Paulline Oliveros (eventual developer of the Deep Listening technique), and her co-founders Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender (from historic anti-fasc Spanish Civil War family), Terry Riley, Tony Martin (early live lighting/projection/visual art performer), Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Stuart Dempster, and many more.

Steve Reich began to develop his practice of phase shifting here at SFTMC—in fact, his first magnetic tape composition which featured phasing, Come Out (1966—a predecessor to It's Gonna Rain), was performed at the center. Reich’s involvement with the SFTMC would prove invaluable: his new ear for electronic composition and technical proficiency would influence his attitude towards sound and influence the development of the ideas in the aforementioned essay on Gradual Music and his “pulse” technique.

Philip Glass, who became another one of minimalism’s heroes, was accepted into the highly cross-pollinated growing field of minimalist composers after attending a performance of Piano Phase by his Julliard classmate, Steve Reich.

Glass—also a mentee of SFTMC member Jon Gibson—was influenced by composer and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, and would eventually become known for his ritualistic use of repetition and additive composition. This was similar to the way that traditional Indian compositional techniques influenced Terry Riley, and how Balinese music influenced Reich. Today, Glass has an extremely prolific minimalist history, represented in part by his long-standing musical group the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Glass’s Music in 12 Parts (1971–74) is one of his major contributions to the genre; its premiere erformance was one of two key minimalism-centric events to sell out Town Hall in NYC. The landmark performance lasted over four hours and featured three to four Farfisa mini compact organs (sourced mainly from post-Christmas listings, untouched by the children to whom they had been gifted). Soon, minimalism came into a new era with two seminal pieces: Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (1974–76) and Glass's Einstein on the Beach (1976)—now considered hallmarks of the genre.

Minimalism's Next Steps

While the 1970s seemed to lack the “hippy”-drug-cultured-collective finish of the early exploratory years of minimalism, it would net hundreds of thousands in record sales between its practitioners and launch avant-garde composition into the mainstream eye both at home in America and abroad.

The influence of minimalism on Brian Eno—and the later influence of Eno himself on the old guard of Minimalism—cannot be understated. Eno would see Philip Glass in concert live in 1970 and looked up to Steve Reich. Eventually, Eno would also launch Obscure Records, maybe one of the most important labels in the history of ambient and electronic music, which released records from John Adams, Steve Reich’s conductor and teacher, and other composers from the top of the minimalist aesthetic worldwide like Michael Nyman, John Cage, Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, and more.

As was with the inception of the genre, its evolution and maturation featured many changes and shifts. The bulk of the work establishing minimalism's basic tenets as a "genre" was completed between 1960 and 1980.

The original practitioners’ processes demanded constant evolution, and their work developing minimalism as a practice would continue to be tweaked and reapproached, leading many of the composers into more melodic and harmonic spaces in ambient music, electronic music, and deep into the magic of synthesis.

More contemporary Minimalist projects like Julia Wolff’s Bang on a Can (featuring Michael Gordon and David Lang) experiment with process-based ensemble work. Also representing minimal music, composers Bryce Dessner (from The National) and composer Nico Muhly maintain these minimal practices and concepts. And of course, the processes of minimalist music can be found in countless late-20th and early-21st-century genres, from post rock to ambient electronic music, drone, and beyond.

To say that minimalism lasted only 20 years would, of course, be against the gradual aspect of one of music’s most important avant-garde movements. However, the popularity of the earliest approaches to minimalism began to break, leaving it an esoteric concept and a remarkable chapter in history. However, today, its processes and logic continue to be a beautiful and frequently-used tool in the modern composer’s toolbox.