Less Is More: A Brief Survey of Minimalism

The idea that there is virtue in stripping away, that simplicity can be beautiful, and give rise to its own special kind of complexity, is one that feels as old as the world itself – but it’s relatively new

The first half of the 20th century saw classical music back itself into a corner. In trying to break with tradition, serialist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez pursued atonality and dissonance. Technically impressive, the resulting work was also incredibly ugly; radical, certainly, but unlistenable. The real revolution would come later, and would be a whole lot easier on the ears.

It fomented not in the conservatories of Europe but in the louche lofts and art spaces of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, at the hands of four American composers – La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The minimalist impulse was American through and through: Steve Reich, rarely seen without a baseball cap atop his head, was volubly keen to find a new musical language that truthfully reflected, as he put it, “the real context of tail fins, Chuck Berry and millions of burgers sold.”

It’s hard not to see Reich and Glass’s music as a direct product of the intense bustle and verticality of Manhattan. The downtown art scene of the late ’50s and ’60s was a lively and open-minded one; as Reich once said, painters, dancers, filmmakers and writers were all “swimming in the same soup.” Minimalism was just beginning to catch on as a trend in the visual arts, with the likes of Sol Lewitt and Richard Serra gaining notoriety for their reductionist approach to painting and sculpture; change was most definitely in the air. However, no one had quite made it yet – and Serra helped out many of his friends
 by employing them at Low-Rate Movers, 
his furniture removal business. Even as
 their names became buzzwords about town, Reich and Glass could be found lugging pianos and cabinets up and down the steps of the city’s brownstones.

It was over on the west coast of America, however, that inspiration first struck. Terry Riley’s 1964 composition In C is often cited as the first minimalist work in music, and as a student in California, Reich was involved in its premiere. In C was a marked rejoinder to the academic complexities of Schoenberg and serialism, a sequence of simple music patterns offset in time to create a kind of undulating ambient sound. A year later, Reich unveiled his own first major work, It’s Gonna Rain, based around recordings of
 a sermon about the end of the world given by a black Pentecostal street preacher. Reich transferred the sermon to multiple tape loops played in and out of phase, with segments cut and rearranged. The effect was astonishing.

Even as
 their names became buzzwords about town, Reich and Glass could be found lugging pianos and cabinets up and down the steps of the city’s brownstones.

For Come Out (1966), Reich re-recorded 
a fragment of Daniel Hamm (of the falsely accused Harlem Six) speaking the words “come out to show them” on two channels, initially playing them in unison. They quickly slip out of sync; gradually the discrepancy widens and becomes a reverberation. The two voices then split into four, looped continuously, then eight, and so on, until the words are unintelligible, deconstructed into tiny rhythmic and tonal patterns. Reich was positioning music as a process with a life of its own rather than a closed book of dried ink composition; what’s more, both Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain predated the cut and paste techniques of hip hop and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts.

By 1967, The Velvet Underground were already prising minimalism out of the art world and into the rock ’n’ roll domain. A former member of La Monte Young’s group The Dream Syndicate, John Cale was well-versed in the power of drone and repetition. In The Velvets, Cale’s avant-garde preoccupations reacted dazzlingly with Lou Reed’s streetwise songwriting, resulting in minimalist rock masterpieces such as “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The Velvets influenced pretty much all important music post-1967, but it’s particularly hard to imagine the avant-rock and no wave of Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth, not to mention the narcotic shoegaze of Spacemen 3, without them.

Hearing Reich’s Piano Phase in 1967, Philip Glass simplified his own compositional style, and set about creating works that relied upon phasing and loop patterns. In 1968, Reich wrote an essay entitled Music as
 a Gradual Process that neatly articulated his revolutionary ideas. In it he outlines the idea of self-determining musical process, music that “facilitates closely detailed listening.” He memorably compared listening to minimalist music to “watching the minute hand of a watch – you can perceive it moving only after you observe it for a while.” On the one hand minimalism simplified music, but on the other it enabled an appreciation of its more subtle, atomic-level complexities. As the composer John Adams remarked, Reich “didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.”

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians

By the late ’70s, minimalism was taking the world by storm. Mike Oldfield’s Reichian prog oddity Tubular Bells sold millions, and Reich’s own masterpiece, Music For 18 Musicians (1978), was a massive global success. However, it was through one Brian Eno that the principles and practices behind minimalism would properly, and most lastingly, permeate the pop mainstream. Eno and David Bowie were seen at various early minimalist concerts, and the former Roxy Music man once described a performance of Glass’s work as a “viscous bath of pure, thick energy.”

Working as producer and collaborator, Eno translated minimalist technique into widescreen pop success.

Inspired by Reich’s idea of music as system, the tape delay experiments of Riley, and the melodic sonority of Glass, Eno would create his own “ambient” music, a conceptual extension of minimalism that placed emphasis on process and the atmospheric nature of sound – “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space.” Working as producer and collaborator with Bowie, and later U2, Eno would translate minimalist technique into widescreen pop success.

Germany had a huge role to play in the evolution and dissemination of minimalism, with Can and especially Neu! emphasizing the cyclical groove component of rock. Cluster, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream all made synthesiser-based, otherworldly sound tapestries that would variously influence ambient techno, Hollywood soundtracks and commercial rock.

Ahead of the pack, though, careering serenely down the autobahn, were Kraftwerk, whose electronic sound was at once indebted to minimalism yet completely unique. Over the course of the ’80s, American DJs and musicians such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata and Juan Atkins noticed how curiously funky the Düsseldorf band’s stiff riffs and rigid rhythms were, and used them as the building blocks for the earliest hip hop, electro and techno records.

Lee Scratch Perry - Rainy Night Dub

While Eno knew all about Reich, Glass and Kraftwerk, you can rest assured that over in Jamaica, Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby were none the wiser. That didn’t stop them from coming up with techniques of radical subtraction equally as inspired as their American and European contemporaries though. Like Eno, these visionary producers treated their mixing desks as instruments and deployed all kinds of painstaking tape-loop effects to create dub versions of vocal reggae tracks. Dub was minimalism in action: it was all about space, and the interaction of small sonic elements, with tracks reduced to their essence of drums and seismic bass, and additional sounds looped and phased and echoed around them ad infinitum.

Dub proved that the dancefloor, rather than the concert hall, was the environment where minimalism could create the most impact.

Punk in its infancy
may not have been
minimalist, but in the
 post-punk years many of
 those same guitar-slinging
 youth grasped the idea of
“closely detailed
 listening” and
 minimalism proper. It’s
 fascinating now to
 consider how the rip-it-up-and-start-again
 philosophy ushered in by 
punk chimed with the 
minimalist strategies of the American avant-garde. Bands such as PiL, Wire, Throbbing Gristle and particularly Joy Division (aided by the cavernous, dub-savvy production of Martin Hannett), made music that was sparse and spatially aware. A few years later, taking inspiration from both Kraftwerk and post-punk essentialism, the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League and John Foxx would create their own brand of stark, minimalist electro-pop.

Dub had proved that the dancefloor, rather than the concert hall, was the environment where minimalism could create the most impact. Back in New York, the DJs Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan were intuitively alive to the power of repetition in music, and they used tape reels and multiple copies of records to extend the hooks and rhythmic breaks of songs, inducing trance and frenzy in their rapt dancers. Producers such as Walter Gibbons and Francois K began to make club-ready extended edits of tracks that bore the unmistakable fingerprint of dub.

Arthur Russell - Being It

Arthur Russell, as au fait with the “high” minimalism of Glass and Reich as he was with disco and dub, created a series of stripped-down works, ranging from exuberant club jams such as “Go Bang” to the deeply melancholic, bare bones cello-and-voice recordings of World of Echo. Perhaps the most futuristic work of minimalism to emerge from the disco sphere, though, was Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love.” Presaging techno, the extended mix of this track was trance-pop minimalism writ large, a seemingly endless aural vista of ecstatic pulsation and iteration.

The rave era, and the quantum leaps forward in affordable music-making technology that came with it, would yield yet another generation of DIY minimalists. The original acid house records were stripped to the bone, and the very basis of house and techno music – repetitive bass and drums – was definitively minimalist. However, after the “second summer of love” dance music became newly preoccupied with big vocals, old-fashioned musicality and undue fuss.

It didn’t take long for some producers and listeners to revolt; doubtless partly inspired by the heightened psycho-acoustic sensitivity induced by ecstasy, there was a craving amid the underground for more stripped-down, delicate and detailed sounds. In the UK, ambient house and techno swelled up to meet this demand. The Orb’s 1990 hit “Little Fluffy Clouds” sampled Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, highlighting the consonance between the minimalism of then and the electronic head music of the present day.

Aphex Twin - Icct Hedral

Richard D. James, AKA Aphex Twin, had already shown an affinity with the phasing and pulsation of “classic” minimalism in his sensational Selected Ambient Works 85-92 album, but its 1994 sequel, Selected Ambient Works Volume II, took things to a whole new level of poise and tonal sophistication. Critics were quick to compare James to Reich and Glass, and, though he claimed he had never heard of them, by 1995 he had collaborated with Glass on “Icct Hedral” and remixed the New Yorker’s “Heroes” symphony, itself based on the album by David Bowie and Brian Eno. The lineage and legacy of minimalism was more visible than ever.

Over in Detroit, the techno producer Robert Hood was making music that was rigorously simple but not in the least bit ambient. His tough, opaquely funky “minimal techno” sound had been brewing for some time, but it was most famously showcased on the 1994 release Minimal Nation. “I was fooling around with a Juno 2 keyboard and I came across this chord sound,” Hood later explained. “Once I had that chord sound and a particular pattern I realised I didn’t need anything else. In order to maximise the feeling of the music, sometimes we have to subtract.” Not merely concerned with what worked on the dancefloor, Hood believed in minimalism as a natural response to the clutter and distraction of modern life. “Minimalism is not going to stop,” he said, “because it’s a direct reflection of the way the world is going. We’re stripping down and realising that we need to focus on what’s essential in our lives.”

As a genre, minamalism has now fallen out of fashion, but as an idea and practice it thrives.

At this time, producers such as Richie Hawtin and Daniel Bell were making comparably terse and taut tracks, but it was the Berlin-based duo of Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, AKA Basic Channel, who took electronic minimalism that little bit deeper. Inspired by the aesthetics of Jamaican dub they created a propulsive, immersive techno sound-world unlike any that had come before. Come the noughties, in the wake of Hood and Basic Channel, not to mention Pan Sonic, Wolfgang Voigt, Jan Jelinek and Pole, “minimal” would be the catch-all term for the sound of modern house and techno, with the aptly named M-nus and Kompakt labels leading the way.

As a genre, minamalism has now fallen out of fashion, but as an idea and practice it thrives. Grime was minimalist, by default as much as by design; dubstep is minimalist, foregrounding bass and percussion in a way that would please Reich as much as it might have tickled King Tubby. Minimalism isn’t going away; in fact, it’s never been away, it’s always been there, at the heart of music – it simply took visionaries such as Riley and Reich to isolate, define and draw attention to it. Thanks to them, we all now know that music’s most enduring pleasures and mysteries occur at the micro, and not the macro, level.

A version of this article appeared in the 2010 edition of Red Bull Music Academy’s Daily Note.

By Kiran Sande on May 1, 2013

On a different note