Several music composers from the late 19th and the 20th century made works that have been described as prototypes or precedents to minimalism, including some well-known composers such as Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, Carl Orff and Anton Webern.
French composer and pianist Erik Satie is seen as a precursor to later artistic movements including minimalism. The Gymnopédies (1888) are three short and melancholic pieces for piano, regarded as an important precursor to modern ambient music. Following the same lines, Gnossiennes (1889–97) are six piano pieces, the first three with free time (without time signatures or bar lines) and slow tempos.
Satie's Vexations (1893) consists of a short theme in the bass whose four presentations are alternatively heard unaccompanied and played with chords above, and shows the following instructions: "In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities". From the 1960s onward, this text has mostly been interpreted as an instruction that the page of music should be played 840 times, and the first performance in this way took place in New York on 1963, with twelve pianists, among them John Cage. It lasted over 18 hours.
Arnold Schoenberg's inclusion of atonal elements allowed the development of slight changes in musical material, as was later seen in the additive processes in the music of Philip Glass. La Monte Young met Schoenberg during his studies and was strongly influenced by the twelve tone theory. Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909) was originally scored for a very large orchestra and developed the concept of total chromaticism that Schoenberg had introduced earlier, focusing attention on timbral and textural elements rather than on harmonic and melodic motion.
Anton Webern was an Austrian composer and follower of Arnold Schoenberg and the twelve tone technique. His economy of materials and sparse textures led to a reduction of means common in minimalism.
Jakob van Domselaer was a Dutch composer who met the painter Piet Mondrian in Paris and applied some theories from Neo-Plasticism to music. Domselaer's piano suite Proeven van Stijlkunst (Experiments in Artistic Style, 1913–17) was an early precedent to minimalism.
American composer George Antheil wrote Ballet Mecanique (1924), a performance of mechanical instruments instead of human dancers, with player pianos, airplane propellers and electric bells. Soviet composer Alexander Mosolov wrote the orchestral work Iron Foundry (1927), also with mechanical and repetitive patterns that create a factory-like sound. However, while Antheil uses mechanical elements, Mosolov uses a live orchestra to create a similar soundscape.
Canadian composer and musicologist Colin McPhee was the first western composer to make an ethnomusicological study of Bali. His highly percussive composition Tabuh-Tabuhan for two pianos and orchestra (1936) combines balinese and traditional western musical elements, with repetitive pentatonic patterns.
Moondog was a blind american composer who lived as a street musician and poet many years in New York. His music of the 1940s and 50s is said to have been a strong influence on minimalism. Philip Glass has written that he and Steve Reich took Moondog's work "very seriously and understood and appreciated it".
Carl Orff was a German composer, best known for his cantata Carmina Burana (1937), but in his later theater works Antigone (1940–49) and Oedipus der Tyrann (1957–58), used repetitive patterns with multiple pianos, xylophones and a strong percussion section.
Yves Klein's Monotone Symphony (1949) is an orchestral 40-minute piece whose first movement is an unvarying 20-minute drone and the second and last movement a 20-minute silence, predating by several years both the drone music works of La Monte Young and the "silent" piece 4'33" (1952) of John Cage.
In 4'33", with a length of 273 seconds, Cage reduces the musical information to a minimum during the performance and declares the noises produced by the audience as music that cannot be previously defined, with no way of controlling which ambient sounds will appear. This is Cage's most famous and controversial composition, and the best-known of the musical works that consist mainly of silence.
German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is known for his pioneering work in electronic music and his use of spatiality and aleatory (controlled chance) in serial composition. He wrote the series of nineteen Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) along many years since 1952. Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths, 1955–56) serializes the pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre of every electronic and vocal event, as a continuation from the earlier work of Webern.
French composer Pierre Boulez wrote Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1953-1957), which combined influence from jazz, balinese gamelan, japanese music and african music with innovative techniques like pitch multiplication, an application of mathematical multiplication to music. Boulez experimented with the use of controlled chance, where the players are given detailed performance possibilities to choose from.
Olivier Messiaen’s music is often considered as minimalist because of its use of additive rhythms and its sense of repetition and timelessness, sometimes with extremely slow tempos. He used techniques of symmetries of time and pitch, with ancient greek and hindu rhythms, balinese and javanese gamelan, birdsong and japanese music.
This article is the third of a series starting with:
- American minimalist music.
- European music connected with minimalism.
- Precursors of minimalist music.
In future articles I will revisit some of the composers mentioned here and cover them one at a time in greater depth.
If you are interested in minimalist music, you may wish to follow this series by adding your email to my feed, and every time I post a new article, you will receive an email about the article. With one click you will be at the new article. You can unsubscribe at any time.
You may also bookmark this page and come back to check it whenever you can as I will add new links here each time I post a new article in the series.