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Minimalism: a story told in 8 pulses

The Philip Glass Ensemble performing Music in Twelve Parts at the Idea Warehouse in 1975, with vocalist Joan La Barbara (far left).
The Museum of Modern Art
SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.
The Philip Glass Ensemble performing Music in Twelve Parts at the Idea Warehouse in 1975, with vocalist Joan La Barbara (far left).

On Nov. 4, 1964, an ensemble of musicians took the stage at San Francisco's Tape Music Center. That night was the debut of an experimental composition, written by a young composer namedTerry Riley — but it was the musicians who were in control of the performance. Each player could choose from 53 musical phrases, all of them revolving around the note C, to play for as long or as short as they wanted before moving on to the next one. The performance of In C was, unexpectedly, reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, whose critic called it "music like none other on Earth."

Around the same time, similar experiments in avant-garde music were being performed in lofts in New York City, and a new genre was emerging. By the end of the 1960s, minimalism had not only solidified — it had produced a quartet of founding fathers credited with bringing the genre to life: Terry Riley,Steve Reich, La Monte Young andPhilip Glass. And yet, to view the scene's foundations only through the lens of that Mount Rushmore of names is to ignore the fullness and diversity that defined it even from the start. As musicologist William Robin puts it, "There are limitations to a story that relies on the Founding Fathers. There were so many others creating minimalist music in this period — that includes women, people of color and LGBTQ+ musicians."

Which is why Robin and fellow musicologist Kerry O'Brien set out to capture the lesser-known stories of minimalism and its development. Their book, published this spring, is titled On Minimalism: Documenting a Musical Movement. The two spoke with All Things Considered about tracing the evolution of the style era by era — beginning with the artistic and cultural influences that set the stage for the early minimalists, including music from the other side of the world.

Naming a movement

"Some people called it hypnotic," O'Brien explains. "People who didn't like it called it 'needle-stuck-in-the-groove' music. A lot of people called it 'trance' music. Once it eventually was described as 'minimalist,' the composers were not fans, because it can have connotations of simplicity. So they rejected the title, but it stuck."

The gurus

Robin says that the early minimalists were profoundly influenced by the first recordings of Indian music that were reaching the West in the late '50s and early '60s. "A number of things changed in the '60s," O'Brien adds. "The lifting of the [Asian Exclusion Act] changed the ability of musicians from India to come to the U.S. All of a sudden, musicians were able to study firsthand with gurus." In the Indian tradition, single notes are sustained for hours, and musicians, Robin explains, "are trying to hear all of the complexity that comes out of just sustaining a single drone."

The jazz musicians

"There's also an important part of early minimalism viewed through modal jazz," O'Brien says. "There's a case to be made thatMiles Davis was one of our first minimalists. You could also callJohn Coltrane one of our first minimalists. In albums like Africa/Brass and tracks like 'India,' he, like Reich and Riley, was significantly influenced by North Indian music and West African music, and incorporated those influences into the music, which resulted in an attraction to drones and repetition."

The rockers

"One of the reasons this music has endured is because it has this continued engagement with pop music, and especially with rock music," Robin notes. "In the early '70s,The Who pay overt homage to minimalism in the opening of their song 'Baba O'Riley,' which is named for Terry Riley. A few years later, you haveBrian Eno andDavid Bowie collaborating on a series of albums that are very much influenced by the fact that they're listening to a lot of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in this period."

The droners

O'Brien also points to more experimental figures like composerPauline Oliveros. "She was drawn to drones she found in the environment, like the droning of highway noise or buzzing electricity," O'Brien says. "She once spent an entire year dedicated to droning on a single note, an A, on her accordion, and using her voice. She went so far as to say that music wasn't necessarily the whole point. Music was a byproduct of her practice, that was really a tuning of the mind and body."

The 'gay guerilla'

Another important figure in this period isJulius Eastman, Robin says. "His work is undergoing a really important revival, after it was largely neglected in the years around his early and untimely death. He was part of this next generation of composers who were engaging with minimalism in the '70s and '80s, who were thinking less about the kind of abstraction of the music and instead engaging with it as a part of identity — in this case, as a queer Black man."

O'Brien points to Eastman's Gay Guerilla, which in a pre-concert talk the composer compared to the language applied to Afghani and PLO guerrillas — people who are in a fight. "And he said if he was called upon to be one, he would want to be a gay guerrilla," O'Brien says. "This is 10 years after Stonewall, and kind of at the cusp of the AIDS epidemic. Gay Guerrilla is minimalist in multiple ways — for one thing, it begins with just single notes on the piano, and it builds and builds over about 20 or 30 minutes. And through repetition and through accumulation, it offers a kind of spiritual and musical fortress."

The present

"This music has a way of coming back again and again," Robin says. "You look forward into the 1990s and there are British techno musicians who are playing and sampling Steve Reich at raves and in pop singles. And this continues into the 21st century, where you have indie rock acts likeBon Iver andThe National andSufjan Stevens, who are very strongly influenced by minimalism. You have composers in the classical world, someone like aNico Muhly orMissy Mazzoli, who are bringing the pulses that were developed in the '60s into orchestral music. But you also have a drone or doom metal band likeSunn O))) playing ecstatically dark drone music. Both the techniques and the kind of loftier metaphysical ideas are ones that are continually appealing to musicians in many different genres."

The lessons

"Music aside, composer names aside, there are a number of lessons within minimalism — ways that minimalism really can change a listener, ways that minimalism cultivates your attention," O'Brien concludes. "There's a lot of different things that are vying for our attention, and the ability to stay with something — stay with a drone, stay with a pattern, stay with yourself — is just such a valuable thing that minimalist music can teach you."

Tom Huizenga and Daoud Tyler-Ameen produced and edited the digital version of the radio story.

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