By Lori Spencer
The term “Minimalism” in music is derived from the experimental, progressive Minimalist art movement of the mid-20th century. This musical form originally began in the 1960s as an underground avant garde scene in small nightclubs and art galleries. Although Minimalist music slowly gained wider critical acceptance over the next few decades, it has never fully entered the popular mainstream.
Minimalism essentially refers to sparseness; an art form being reduced to essential elements, doing away with excessive notes and orchestration. Repetition of simple, short musical phrases often with a droning, steady pulse are the benchmarks of Minimalist music. This form bears a similarity to ancient sacred music, as it too, uses certain harmonic tones and rhythms to create a hypnotic, often trace-like effect on the listener.
Although the origins of modern Minimalist music can be found in late-19th and early-20th century European classical composers such as Richard Wagner, Alexander Mosolov, and Eric Satie, the Minimalist movement took shape in America after WWII. One of the first important Minimalist works in 1958′s “Trio in C” by La Monte Young. In the mid-1960s, artists like Terry Reily and Steve Reich and his Julliard classmate Philip Glass were blazing new trails in Minimalist music. In more recent years, John Adams has emerged as the most popular American Minimalist composer, inching the art form closer to mainstream acceptance with a number of best-selling albums.
Composers considered to be innovators of the minimalist movement include Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Adams, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Gavin Bryars, John Tavener, Mike Oldfield, Louis Andriessen, La Monte Young, Karel Goeyvaerts, Steve Martland, Henryk Górecki, and Arvo Pärt.
Minimalism in Popular Music
The Beatles became quite infatuated with the Minimalist movement in the mid-1960s and the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” (from the 1966 “Revolver” album) is a bluesy drone in the key of C, that features trademark Minimalist tape looping, and John Lennon’s poetic musings on death layered over a repetitive Indian tambura track. The Beatles “White” album featured a strictly white cover with no photographs or artwork–about as Minimalist as an album cover can be.
Many psychedelic and art rock bands of the late `60s explored Minimalism, most notably the Velvet Underground, who had a close relationship with La Monte Young. English rockers Pink Floyd pushed the boundaries of Neo-Minimalism with their 1968 “Saucerful of Secrets” album. In the `70s, progressive rock artists like The Soft Machine, King Crimson, Mike Oldfield and Brian Eno introduced new audiences to Minimalism. The tradition continues today with alternative and postmodern rock bands such as Sonic Youth, Mogwai, and Explosions in the Sky.