From New World Encyclopedia

Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is reduced to its most fundamental features and core self expression. In other fields of art it has been used to describe the plays of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the editing and stories of Gordon Lish and the stories of Raymond Carver, and even the automobile designs of Colin Chapman.

As a specific movement in the arts, it is identified with developments in post-World War II Western Art (most strongly with the visual arts). The term has expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition (in the form of rhythmic ostinati) and iteration (for example the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, and Terry Riley). (See also Post-Minimalism). It is rooted in the spare aspects of Modernism, and is often associated with Postmodernism and reaction against Expressionism in both painting and composition. Generally, Pop art and Minimalism are considered to be the last Modern art movements and thus the precursors to Contemporary art or Postmodern art.

The term "minimalist" can also refer to anything which is spare, reduced to its essentials, providing only the outline of structure—independent of the particular art movement—or "minimalism," the tendency to reduce to fundamentals. It is sometimes applied to groups or individuals practicing asceticism and the reduction of physical possessions and needs to a minimum.

Minimalism in music, with its predilection for simplicity, has been viewed as being a counter-reaction to the complexities and highly formulaic techniques which were embraced by the Second Viennese School and the post World War II modernists of the Darmstadt school. The "accessibility" factor in minimalist music was significant in that it revived interest in new music, which in the post World War II era from 1945 to 1975, had led to a severe cultural gap between contemporary composers and their audience. This accessibility allowed for greater conjugation between composer and audience due to a simplified usage of musical materials.

Musical Minimalism

The term minimalism, endowed independently by composer-critics Michael Nyman and Tom Johnson, has been controversial, but was in wide use by the mid-1970s. The application of a visual art term to music has been protested; however, not only do minimalist sculpture and music share a certain spare simplicity of means and an aversion to ornamental detail, but many of the early minimalist concerts happened in connection with exhibits of minimalist art by Sol LeWitt and others. Several composers associated with minimalism have disavowed the term, notably Philip Glass, who has reportedly said, "that word should be stamped out."[1]

In art music of the last 35 years, the term minimalism is sometimes applied to music which displays some or all of the following features: repetition (often of short musical phrases, with minimal variations over long periods of time) or stasis (often in the form of drones and long tones), emphasis on consonant harmony, and/or a steady pulse. Minimalist music can sometimes sound similar to different forms of electronic music (e.g. Basic Channel), as well as the texture-based compositions of composers such as Gyorgy Ligeti; it is often the case that the end result is similar, but the approach is not. Minimalist music bears a similarity to the music of ancient or indigenous cultures in that it attempts to create mood and atmosphere through hypnotic, trance-like expressions that over time make rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic deciphering difficult.

Minimalism differentiates from the "common practice" of European classical music in that it moved away from the relational and developmental aspects of music from 1600 to 1945. A primary ethos of minimalism is its attempt to create an atmosphere of timelessness in which points of demarcation are avoided.

American Origins

American composer, La Monte Young, wrote his Trio in C in 1958 for his ensemble, Theater of Eternal Music. This is considered one of the first minimalist musical works. Terry Reily, a member of Young's ensemble, composed In C in 1964 which helped bring the minimalist style to new prominence. In the mid-1960s, composers such as Steve Reich, were experimenting with electronics and tape loops in minimalist fashion.

Reily, along with his American colleagues, Steve Reich (a student of Italian composer, Luciano Berio) and Philip Glass (Reich's classmate at New York's Juilliard School of Music), forged a musical syntax that was based on simplified, almost static, harmonic progressions and an emphasis on vamping ostinato-type rhythm—all while avoiding conventional, diatonic, European harmonic language with its decidedly tonic-dominant characteristics.

In a 1968 essay on his compositional rationale entitled, "Music as as Gradual Process," Reich summed up his approach: "I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music."

This distinctly, non-European, non-tonal style of composing found adherents in the so-called "downtown" cultural sphere of lower Manhattan in New York City. The Bang on a Can Music Festival, which celebrated the unconventional, the experimental and the rebellious aspects of new music became a breeding ground of the minimalist movement. In 1967 Steve Reich produced a series of concerts at Paula Cooper's Park Place Cooperative near Soho.

Philip Glass, a leading exponent of minimalism (and a former student of Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger in Paris) achieved great success with his minimalist score for Godfrey Reggio's film, Koyaanisqatsi. In 1981, Glass signed an exclusive recording contract with the CBS Masterworks record label making him the first American composer since Aaron Copland to have achieved such distinction and attesting to minimalism's ascent as a prominent genre in the realm of art music. Reich's Music for 18 Musicians premiered in 1976 in New York City and established Reich as a major figure in minimalist composition.

New Englander, John Adams has emerged as probably the most recognizable and popular American composer since Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland due to the vibrant rhythmic and orchestrational characteristics of his music. Works such as Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1985) and The Chairman Dances (1986) have been assimilated into the repertory of many major orchestras. Other important Adams works include Shaker Loops (1978) and Grand Pianola Music (1982.)

Liturgical Influences

Estonian composer, Arvo Paert, a former practitioner of serial techniques, turned away from atonality and to minimalist composing in the mid-1970s. In doing so he began to look to the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox church and Renaissance polyphony as source materials which in turn ushered in a return to religious inspiration in modern music. His compositions Te Deum (1986), Magnificat (1989), and Berliner Messe (1992) speak to a deep religious conviction as inspiration for his music.

A concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 2007 featured the collaboration of the Gyuto Tantric Choir, representing the tradition of Tibetan Monks, with minimalist composer Phillip Glass and Japanese New Age composer/instrumentalist, Kitaro, attesting to the continuing influence of religious tradition on minimalist music.

Stylistic Development

John Adams believed the confining minimalist vocabulary, with its stripped down musical syntax, could lead to boredom, leading to what he referred to as "great prairies of non-event," but admitted that the resultant "highly polished, perfectly resonant sound [of minimalist style] is wonderful." Adams sought to combat the boredom factor with more varied melodic and harmonic utterances and unpredictable rhythms. His 1981 work, Harmonium, was his initial attempt to break away from the typical minimalist vernacular. His 1985 composition, Harmonielehre, which was a tribute to Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, displayed greater lyricism and expressiveness. Adams' two minimalist operas, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), along with Glass' Einstein on the Beach, are perhaps the most important operas in the minimalist genre and are noteworthy for their rhythmic and melodic invention and variation.

In the aftermath of the terror attacks in New York City, Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to compose "On the Transmigration of Souls," as a tribute to those who perished in the attack. In this composition, representative names of those who perished in the attack are recited as well as texts from the posters and memorials that were posted by family and friends in the vicinity of the World Trade Towers, while the orchresta plays eerie, sustained, choale-type music amid sounds of the city. The piece won Adams the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003.


Musicologist Leonard B. Meyer, in a very prescient way, predicted in 1967 that by the turn of the century there would exist a great pluralism in art music as diverse styles of composition would co-exist side by side—or even within a single work. The advance of technology and globalization has led to that scenario in the realm of art music; minimalism is a style in which this confluence of styles is highly evident.

The rhythmic patterning of many minimalist works made it a natural musical ally to Jazz and Rock Music and composers eventually seized upon the rhythmic similarities to create music that would cross the borders of art music and pop music. Minimal techno, a minimalist sub-genre of Techno music, is characterized by a stripped-down, glitchy sound, simple 4/4 beats (usually around 120-135 BPM), repetition of short loops, and subtle changes.

Danish composer Louis Andriessen (b. 1939) is a pivotal figure in the crossover between minimalist and pop styles in works such as De Stijl (1991), in which he incorporates pop rhythms and instruments (electric bass guitar, e.g.) with minimalist conventions. Andriessen's operas, Rosa, The Death of a Composer, Writing to Vermeer, and De Materie are considered important works for their infusion of Jazz and pop elements.

Selected Recordings

  • Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians, Ecm New Music Series, CD 79448
  • Steve Reich: Drumming, Nonesuch, CD 79170
  • Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi: Nonesuch, CD 79506
  • Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, SONY CD 087970
  • Terry Riely: In C, CBS Masterworks, CD 7178
  • John Adams: Nixon in China, Nonesuch, CD 79177
  • John Adams: Harmonielehre, EMI Classics, CD 55051
  • John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls, Nonesuch, CD 79816-2
  • Arvo Paert: Tabula Rasa, Ecm New Music Series, CD 817764
  • Arvo Paert:Te Deum, Ecm New Music Series, CD 439162


  1. Recordings: Music in Twelve Parts, Philip Retrieved November 21, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fink, Robert Wallace. 2005. Repeating ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520240367
  • Meyer, Leonard B. 1967/1994. Music, The Arts, And Ideas. University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London. ISBN 0226521435
  • Roby, Meagan Renae. 2006. Minimalism in music. Eugene: University of Oregon. OCLC 73833200
  • Ross, Alex. 2007. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ISBN 0374249397


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