This music may include the use of simple, repetitive melodies with few sounds or pitches and features such as limited and gradual transformation, extremely low tempo, music moving in circles, layering of repeated melodic phrases, consonant harmony, additive processes, phase shifting or resulting patterns.
In 1962 La Monte Young wrote The Four Dreams of China, which included the piece The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, based on just four pitches, played continuously. Young's works are often extreme in length, conceived as "having no beginning and no end".
La Monte Young formulated the concept of a Dream House, a permanent space with sound and light environments in which a work would be played continuously. Today a Dream House exists at the Mela Foundation on 275 Church Street, New York, and is open to the public.
Terry Riley collaborated with Young and even performed in his ensemble as a member. In 1964 Riley composed In C, a work scored for any group of instruments, consisting of 53 separate modules, each with a simple musical pattern in the key of C. One performer beats a steady C pulse on the piano to keep the tempo throughout the duration of the performance. The others, in any number and on any instrument, perform these musical modules following a few loose guidelines, with the different patterns interlocking in various ways as time goes on. Each member must play the 53 patterns in sync with the pulse and consecutively, but decides how often and how long he rests when he moves from one pattern to the next one. The performance ends after all the players have arrived at pattern 53.
Steve Reich worked with Riley and was involved with the premiere of In C. Reich experimented with tape loops to create phasing patterns, and later translated this technique from recorded tape to performance. He introduced the idea of phase shifting in 1967 with Piano Phase, a work for two pianos with only six pitches, repeating two melodic phrases, initially in unison, then at a slightly different speed to slowly shift out of phase with each other, until the two parts line up again, but one sixteenth note apart. The second player then resumes the previous tempo. This cycle of speeding up and then locking in continues throughout the piece several times.
Violin Phase, also written in 1967, was built on a similar way, but here Reich introduced what he called resulting patterns. The interlocking of several shifted parts, all playing the same pattern, creates new patterns, and the listener decides what he wants to hear each moment in this texture of sound, like a new experience with each listening.
In the 1970s Reich moved on from the phase shifting technique and began writing more elaborate pieces.
Philip Glass formed his first ensemble in New York in 1967, with Steve Reich and Jon Gibson as members, after having worked closely with Ravi Shankar, who was an important influence on his music and on his perception of rhythm as being entirely additive, unlike the divisive western perception. With additive structure principles, small parts are brought together to create larger parts with a different structure, and melodic figures are augmented by the addition of small differences.
Glass never liked the term minimalism to describe his music and preferred to speak of "music with repetitive structures", but he does accept the term minimalist for his early works up to the first 1970s. He made an extensive use of additive processes in his works Two Pages, Music in Fifths and Music in Contrary Motion. Later in the 1970s, Music in Twelve Parts (1971-1974) summed up most of Glass's techniques until then, in a four hour long music work, and then he started with a new conception of functional harmony in the series called Another Look at Harmony (1975–1977). Glass wrote that this series "was a way of combining harmonic progression with the rhythmic structure I had been developing, to produce a new overall structure". Consonant harmony means the use of intervals which in a tonal context would be considered to be stable. This was used in some sections of Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach.
John Adams made Shaker Loops in 1978, a work for a string septet, with a different pattern speed for each instrument, resulting in a shifting texture of melody and rhythm. In the first 1980s he wrote Harmonium (1980-1981), where an additive process converts a single, pulsing note into a tone cluster, then a chord, until a huge and energic sound stream. Then became Grand Pianola Music (1982), one of his most popular works from that period.
In the 1970s and 1980s minimalism became very popular worldwide and influenced other genres including progressive rock and experimental rock, with artists like Brian Eno, King Crimson, Mike Oldfield, Robert Fripp, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, David Bowie and many others. Early minimalist music also evolved into less simple styles enriched with other influences. In Europe some composers like Michael Nyman, Wim Mertens, Gavin Bryars and Arvo Pärt approached the minimalist style but added their own distinctive character, gaining huge popularity.
This article is the first of a series starting with:
- American minimalist music.
- European music connected with minimalism.
- Precursors of minimalist music.
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