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.
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. 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.
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.” 
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…”
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.
- http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/17/arts/music-einstein-returns-briefly.html ↩
- 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 Pérotin, has some of the repetitions that modern minimalism uses. And much non-western music features similar repetitive elements. ↩
- In Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein, by Jonathan Cott. ↩
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:
- In C, by Terry Riley (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Music in 12 Parts, by Philip Glass (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Einstein on the Beach, by Philip Glass (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Drumming, by Steve Reich (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- An Hour for Piano, by Tom Johnson (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Canto Ostinato, by Simeon ten Holt (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, by Gavin Bryars (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Shaker Loops by John Adams (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Das Buch der Klange (The Book of Sounds), by Hans Otte (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
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.