Why cold minimalism is still an undefeated force in contemporary art
The never self-proclaimed artistic movement for excellence and one of the most influential styles since the1960s, Minimalism identifies works of abstract art usually lacking any decorative ostentation and striving for extreme simplicity of form.
Minimalism is chiefly American. It originated in New York in the late 1960s as a practice-in-progress among creators disavowing recent art — especially 1950s’ Abstract Expressionism — which they considered stale, pretentious, and too personal. Not-yet-defined minimalist artists turned to its head the idea that art creation should be an emotional and existential act, as exemplified by Action Painter Jason Pollock, by creating extremely simplified art that would not refer to anything other than itself.
Minimalism is linked with conceptual art, which also saw a rise in the mid-1960s. Conceptual art is similarly concerned with how the audience experiences a work of art rather than with the need to express the artist’s personal emotions through art-making.
In music, in particular, minimalism was the single most important idea of the last century, the one that made possible virtually all that we now listen to and hold dear […]. Minimalism wasn’t just a movement, it was a paradigm shift: it brought about a sea change in the way that sound is made, heard and thought of. (FACT Magazine, 2010)¹
However, simplicity in the art has for long been pursued prior to the minimalist period. In music, examples of moderation and minimalism can be found in works such as Debussy’s early “Préludes”, Erik Satie’ s “Gymnopédies”, Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier’’ and in plenty of other compositions written well before the “minimalist era”. As composer and conductor Jonathan Sheffer suggests, minimalism was in fact invented in the 18th century. Sheffer advocated that is important to include the works of composers such as Handel and Bach alongside those of Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, and John Adams when mentioning minimalist music.(Griffiths, 2018)²
In the early 20th century, composers including Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg began to abandon traditional melodies and scales, posing the basis for all experimental musicians to come. “Minimalist musicians looked to the east as no one had done before, and also embraced the new noise of the 20th century. Classical music up to this point had shut its doors firmly on the sound-world of the streets in order to conserve the pure sound of acoustic instruments. Minimalists did the opposite, flinging open the concert doors and letting in a panoply of new sounds and remixed them alongside acoustic instruments to create a new sound order.” (Hazlewood, 2018)³
It is important to remember that minimalist composers were the firsts to compose using, simultaneously, multiple experimental techniques — such as delay and tape manipulation — as well as musical elements from non-Western culture. African, Indian, and Indonesian music were often notable points of inspiration.
What we now would define as minimalist music has undertaken a development that began somewhere in the 18th century, was fine-tuned in the 1920s, and reached a peak in the 1960s via the works of Riley, Reich, Glass, La Monte Young, Pärt, Adams, as well as others. Of all of them, I have a special relationship with the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Their art has been a constant inspiration since finding my way into minimalism a couple of years ago. So much that I managed to watch 1hr and 26mins of “Koyaanisqatsi” twice, despite its inherent lack of content — aside from the shattering Philip Glass soundtrack. Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and Music for 18 Musicians are probably some of my favourite works. His use of dynamics and perpetually-shifting repetitions is still unmatched in contemporary composition.
Terry Riley’s “In C” is another foundational work of musical minimalism. Composed in 1964 it was meant to be performed with unspecified instruments by an indefinite number of players.
“It was total disruption of time as we knew it. It was like being in a time capsule and floating out in space somewhere waiting for the next event to happen. And I enjoyed that kind of waiting.” Terry Riley about “In C”
Modern minimalism in music is still breathing in the works of many aspiring composers as well as those who have already successfully repurposed minimalist ideas to produce new works: Brian Eno, William Basinski, Harold Budd, and Max Richter only to mention some.
- FACT Magazine (2018). A brief history of Minimalism — FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. [online] Available at: http://www.factmag.com/2010/02/01/a-brief-history-of-minimalism/.
- Griffiths, P. (2018). Minimalism as an 18th-Century Idea. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/24/arts/minimalism-as-an-18th-century-idea.html .
- Hazlewood, C. (2018). Adventures in motion and pitches: how minimalism shook up classical music. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/mar/02/minimalism-music-revolution-charles-hazelwood.
Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.