What is minimalism? by Jean-Yves Bosseur
The concept of “minimal music” evolved during the Seventies, but it originated in the early Sixties in the States, especially in New York and San Francisco; with some conceptual pieces by John Cage 1912-1992 (for example the legendary 4’33”, based on the problem of silence) and avant-garde group Fluxus contributing greatly to its rise in popularity. Due to the relative immobilisation of certain sounds for very long periods, several pieces by Morton Feldman (1926-1987) could also be thrown into the pot. Among the antecedents of this trend we could also add Vexations (1893) for piano by Erik Satie, with the phrase played 840 times in succession (at the initiative of John Cage, the first complete execution of this work took over 18 hours from start to finish).
With Trio for strings (1958), La Monte Young (1935) can be considered to be one of the main protagonists of minimalism; as can Terry Riley (1935), Steve Reich (1936) Philip Glass (1937), Jon Gibson (1940) and Tom Johnson (1939). As a radical departure from the process of indeterminacy invented by John Cage as well as the generalised discontinuity generated by serial writing, the composers of what has been dubbed as “repetitive music” have amplified, even generalised the principle of “ostinato”, which consists of a motif or phrase that is persistently repeated in the same musical voice, with a melodic, harmonic and/or rhythmic formula. The most striking features of this kind of music is, on the one hand, the deliberate and radical reduction of compositional material by using simple harmonic patterns from a tonal or modal universe, and on the other hand, recourse to rhythmic formulae based on the prevalence of pulse with more or less insensate or progressive variations from the basic sounds.
For example, in In C (1964) by T. Riley, instrumentalists must repeat fifty-three melodic and rhythmic phrases from the score over a period lasting between 45 and 90 minutes; as indolent as possible, the short overlapping melodic fragments gradually creating a state of auditory allure that reflects the influence of some outside-European practices (Ghana for S. Reich, Bali and India for T. Riley).
This type of music has undergone fruitful evolution in Great Britain among composers such as Gavin Bryars (1943), Michael Nyman (1944) and Brian Eno (1948)…
Jean-Yves Bosseur is a composer and a musicologist.