BIG EARS 2010: What Is Minimalism?

WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE

Minimalism in music is about pulses.

Or drones.

Minimalism in music is about pulses or drones.

Or repeated phrases.

Minimalism in music is about pulses or drones. Or repeated phrases.

Phrases and pulses and drones can repeat.

Phrases and pulses and drones can repeat, or they can mutate.

Mutated sections of phrases and pulses and drones can repeat, or recycle.

Or stay still.

Or cycle again.

Or, still again, they can build. And overlap. From overlapping phrases, they can build into pulses and drones that overlap and lap over and build new phrases, and connect and build and build and connect, and pulse and drone, and drone and pulse and build and build and build until...

WHO DOES IT

Yanks do it: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass

Brits do it: Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno

Even Estonians named Arvo Pärt do it.

WHO FIRST CALLED IT MINIMALISM

Hard to say, but a good candidate is composer and music critic Tom Johnson, who wrote about minimalism frequently for the Village Voice. In an interview with Paris Transatlantic Magazine in March 2007, he was asked for a definition of the term. His response: "Working with reduced means. African music working with a three-note scale is minimal in principle, wouldn't you say? It's a universal principle, not just an idea from the '70s; it can come back at any moment, and often does, in any culture."

SOME ROCK MUSICIANS IT HAS INFLUENCED, FOR EXAMPLE

The Velvet Underground

David Bowie

Neu!

Kraftwerk

Sunn O)))

HOW IS MINIMALISM IN MUSIC LIKE MINIMALISM IN OTHER ARTS?

A question answered well by Alex Ross on page 503 of his excellent book The Rest Is Noise: "As with most A-B comparisons between music and other arts, the linkage is partly a matter of intellectual convenience. Minimalist painting and sculpture remained arts of abstraction. Minimalist music, with its restoration of tonality, rejected abstraction and often came closer to spirit of the Pop Art of Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol."

IS THERE AN ECCENTRIC SAMPLER OF MINIMALISM THAT I CAN DANCE TO?

Yes. Last year, the minimal-techno producers Henrik Schwarz, Âme, and Dixon released The Grandfather Paradox, a wide-ranging mix that lives up to its subtitle: "A Journey Through 50 Years of Minimalist Music." Though it pays particular attention to the near past—techno forebears like I:Cube and Mathematics—it also brings in Steve Reich, Raymond Scott, Moondog, and a bit of a film score by John Carpenter. As educational as any lecture, and a lot more fun.