Music for Contemplation: History and Evolution of the Minimalism Genre
In my early days as a writer, I realised that juxtaposing writing and listening to music would enhance my creative flow.
Unsurprisingly, this habit led me to become a music writer primarily, starting an ongoing journey of exploration of genres that's magnified my passion for sounds which still guides me today.
When I write, I can't just listen to any genre. Certain rhythms and styles put me in the right creative mood: repetitive, mesmerising music leads me to the perfect state of mind that allows me to access words and feelings easily.
Ambient, dub techno or even drum and bass can help me when inspiration runs dry – and I need some extra energy.
As I write this piece, I’m listening to Thursday Afternoon by Brian Eno: the epitome of minimalism music, if you ask me, capable of capturing a state of calm acceptance with simple piano melodies and evocative ambient textures.
In its 60 minutes of apparent sonic stillness, Thursday Afternoon never stops evolving – the soundscape shifting so gradually that the listener doesn't even know they've been led to a journey deep down in the realm of their own subconscious.
Minimalism music reaches the soul and elevates it to a new level, and this is the story of how this marvellous genre came to be.
THE ESSENCE OF MINIMALISM MUSIC
Philip Glass. Credit: Lelli e Masotti/MITO SettembreMusica/Wikimedia Commons
Music manifests its natural vibrancy when stripped down of vain adornments.
This is what minimalist composers realised in the 20th century, moving away from the expressive fluidity of romantic and contemporary classical music, and embracing the simplicity of repetition and gentle evolution.
Just like when standing by the seashore and observing the gentle movement of the sea, you can perceive the changes in the sonic tapestry of minimalism music by focusing on each element of its texture.
Loops, repetitions and diatonic harmonies all intensify the listener's perception so that they can fully immerse themselves in the sonic landscape.
Over the years, minimalist composers began introducing elements outside of traditional Western music to their compositions, including electronic instruments, Indian ragas, and African percussions, among others.
Some of the most astonishing results in the blend of Eastern and Western music were probably achieved by Philip Glass, who was heavily influenced by Hindustani classical music and regularly collaborated with the legendary Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar.
Droning textures and the critical role of music phasing in the composition's structure are other crucial features of minimalism, bringing to life an ever-evolving sonic tapestry that never repeats itself.
By progressively adding new elements to this kinetic soundscape, minimalist composers create a natural crescendo to their compositions and make them engaging despite their leisured evolution.
Erik Satie. Credit: Henri Manuel/Wikimedia Commons
While the genre came to be in the 1960s, we can find some examples of proto-minimalism in the works of Erik Satie, Moondog, and especially John Cage.
Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Satie’s poignant yet minimalistic approach to music composition was ground-breaking and inspired the future generations of both classical and more experimental composers.
His earliest works, like “Gymnopedies” and “Gnossiennes”, featured a level of simplicity and mystic originality that was unheard of in the music landscape of the time.
Street performer and poet Moondog was another crucial figure in the development of minimal music. Blind since the age of 16, "the Viking of Sixth Avenue" performed in the streets of New York City between the 1940s and the 70s.
Because of the incredible blend of styles included in his music, ranging from jazz to field recordings, as well as native-American and Renaissance music, Moondog became a vital source of inspiration for the upcoming minimalist founders Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
No one challenged the role of musicality and artistry more than the legendary Cage.
He was the one who introduced the concept of indeterminate music and included chance in his compositions: characteristics that’ll become an integral part of minimalist music a decade later.
THE FOUR ‘VANGUARD’ COMPOSERS
Terry Riley. Credit: Terry Riley/Wikimedia Commons
La Monte Young was the first to use droning patterns as a fundamental part of his compositional process. Since the early 1960s, he used long and sustained tones to generate a hypnotic effect through sounds, enhanced with melodies heavily influenced by Eastern music.
In the 60s, Terry Riley further expanded the role of delay systems and tape music in the creative process, bringing to life music so unpredictable that it seems totally free from the composer’s will.
Riley’s experimentation with recording techniques, as well as his blend of electronic and traditional sounds, laid the foundation for the new wave of electronic and progressive rock music.
Glass and Reich are the two composers who cemented the structure of minimalist music.
By reducing materials to a minimum, both composers focused on creating evocative soundscapes through droning textures and intricate phasing patterns and highlighting the role of human perception in the listening experience.
THE GERMAN INFLUENCE
Tangerine Dream. Credit: Frank Schwichtenberg/Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, Germany delivered some of the finest music experiments of the decade, with the genre, kosmische musik (also known as krautrock), paving the way to a new sonic landscape for the rock ecosystem.
The impact of krautrock in all music genres, ranging from ambient to punk, might require a dedicated article.
Bands like Tangerine Dream, Faust, Neu!, and Can, among others, blurred the boundaries between rock and avant-garde music, creating an entirely new approach to musical experimentation.
Euphoric ambience, hypnotising drones, and relentless exploration of new recording techniques defined the Krautrock era of the 1970s.
After splitting from Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze shifted to a more electronic-focused genre, which became influential in developing ambient and minimal electronic music that'll soon follow.
Michael Nyman. Credit: Anton V. Shpigunov/Wikimedia Commons
Minimal music achieved mainstream success around the mid-1970s with the works of composers such as Eno, Arvo Part, Michael Nyman and John Adams.
Eno became a central figure in the development of ambient music and the evolution of generative sounds.
Both Eno and Part are more focused on the holistic, impressionistic elements of music, developing a style that strongly connects to the listener’s consciousness, inviting relaxation and reflection.
Musicologist and composer Nyman adapted the minimalistic approach of his predecessors to film scoring, highlighting the importance of progressive repetition and essential sound palettes to enhance the audience's feelings.
Similarly, Adam’s style combines minimalist techniques with the cinematic orchestral textures typical of Romanticism.
MINIMALISM BRANCHING OUT
William Basinski. Credit: Seth Tisue/Wikimedia Commons
For the last 20 years, minimalism has branched out across all music styles, generating a plethora of exciting reinterpretations of the cornerstones that defined the genre.
William Basinski’s work breathed new life into the exploration of tape-loop techniques, with works such as The Disintegration Loops using the decaying properties of tapes to create poignant, timeless soundscapes.
Mexican artiste Murcof carefully combines elements of classical music, techno and avant-garde into a unique style made of delicate sound patterns influenced by Part's holy minimalism as much as by the more reflective side of Detroit techno.
The cerebral and intimate electronic music of John Hopkins is perhaps one of the most interesting reinterpretations of minimal music today.
Classically trained but with a passion for techno, Hopkins has a discography that ranges from the immersive soundscapes of Music For Psychedelic Therapy to the club-oriented beats of Immunity.
His collaborations with Eno further establish him as a crucial figure of the genre’s current incarnation.
Cover Credit: pikinsuperstar/Freepik
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.