Home Musical series – part 4 – Minimal Music

Musical series – part 4 – Minimal Music


Minimal music stands to a symphony as dance stands to hard rock. It is a movement that has brought great innovation to Western music.

Composers were experimenting with analog electronics and tape in the 1950s. In Europe, composers such as Edgar Varèse and Karl Heinz Stockhausen pioneered this and influenced a whole guard of young composers worldwide. Young Terry Riley was working at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, along with a number of other young composers. He too was listening to what Stockhausen and related composers were doing. In addition, he was taught by a teacher of Indian music and those lessons had a tremendous influence on his approach to composing. If you mix the rhythms and instruments of Indian music with sampling techniques, (which at the time still consisted of literally cutting and pasting pieces of tape and making tape loops, where the ends of the tape were stuck together to create an infinitely repeating piece of music), you end up with “A Rainbow in Curved Air” and “Poppy No Good And The Phantom Band.”

You immediately hear where electronic bands like Tangerine Dream and later the Acid House DJs got their inspiration.

Terry Riley and the impact of “In C”

Tape loops and drones are characteristic of minimal music. Drones are infinitely sustained tones with minimal variations, something that became possible with electronics and tape as a new kind of sound and was eagerly used.

There is one other aspect of minimal music that characterizes the movement, and Riley introduced it with “In C”: patterns that are not composed, but that arise by chance from a composition. A composition that does rely on the rules of composed music as we know them in the Western classical world. Almost everyone at school has sung “Father Jacob” in canon. Father Jacob is a very simple melody which becomes richer in sound when you mix it up: you stack sounds. In a canon every group of singers falls in with the same melody after a fixed time. In the case of Father Jacob you start singing after the previous group of singers have sung the words ‘Father Jacob’. If you make that timing variable, or you give the performers the choice of which piece of music they choose, then patterns emerge by chance.

“In C” is based on that principle. The piece has 53 fragments. Each player or instrument group starts at the front and plays the fragments, but you can decide how often to repeat a fragment, whether you all start at the same time on a fragment or play it in canon. The tempo and rhythm is fixed and often indicated by percussion. The only hint Riley gives is that you stay 2 to 3 fragments apart as a whole group, so you do move from front to back through the music. This is where the influence of the Indian teacher is apparent. Raga music is based on this principle, like much music that is not written down as notes, but where musicians pass down and memorize melodies, fragments and patterns generation after generation and direct each other as they play.

There are infinitely different performances of “In C”: a classical orchestra, a small ensemble, a choir and also this insane performance by, yes, a Raga band. There is even a remix CD of “In C” made by DJs. “In C” is a simple, but therefore incredibly powerful piece of music that, in compositional technique, represents a break from the increasingly complex and abstract music that Riley’s contemporaries in Europe and the United States were engaged in, and which was at the same time a radical innovation in Western performance practice of music with ‘classical’ instruments and ensembles.

Steve Reich

At the same San Francisco Tape Music Center worked Steve Reich. Reich went in a different direction than Riley. Repetition of patterns gives a different effect if you let two or more tapes go out of sync very slowly. Anyone who wants to hear what happens then should listen to “It’s gonna rain“. Reich has mastered the art of shifting patterns to perfection. The piece “Six pianos” shows that it leads to almost hypnotic music.

Shifting patterns on instruments is not new, drum music from Africa that goes on for hours to evoke a trance is an example. Reich studied in Ghana then, but only took this element out. From fairly experimental music, Reich went on to create increasingly complex pieces based on the chords we know from our Western scales.

For me, the highlight is “Music for 18 Musicians.” I was able to see it live in a performance by the ASKO Ensemble and Percussion Group The Hague in front of a frenzied audience at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, one of the most magical concerts I have ever attended. The piece evokes something, it is 45 minutes of floating away from this planet to another universe. For those who like jazz, I recommend listening to “Electric Counterpoint” performed by Pat Metheny. Metheny plays live over two tapes that he recorded himself. You can hear very clearly repeating fragments fading in and out and chords superimposed.

The stacking of sounds from the electric guitar sounds like percussion, a pulse. “Electric Counterpoint” is very characteristic of Reich’s compositional style, it is immediately recognizable as Reich. For those who want to see how this works, I can recommend the recording by Mats Bergström on YouTube. The funny thing about Reich is that he made a kind of reverse journey. From experimental to increasingly classical sounding compositions.

Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are often mentioned as “musician musicians,” as musicians that musicians like and listen to a lot. Reich has a similar stature.

Also in the Netherlands

Many people know Simeon ten Holt’s “Canto Ostinato,” especially when they hear it. It is a piece that people who claim to have “nothing to do with classical music” are enormously moved by. In 2007 it was performed in the hall of Utrecht’s Central Station. Ten Holt himself did not feel connected to minimal music, but if you listen you will hear that the similarities are greater than the differences. I can recommend the beautiful live performance, with Ivo Janssen on piano and Mallet Collective Amsterdam on vibraphone and marimba.

The impact of minimal music

The influence of minimal is clearly audible, and this precisely outside of classical music. The Brown album by Orbital, for example, has two clear references. Compare “Time Becomes” with “It’s gonna Rain.” The track “Planet of Shapes” contains a sample of a work by Terry Riley. The band Mammal Hands explicitly mentions Reich as an inspiration. The album “Shadow Work” clearly shows that influence as well, without being a Reich clone.

Album Overview

Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air – Terry Riley, Sony Classical, 1988 Riley: In C – Carnegie Hall presents (series), Sony Classical, 2009 (this is the original performance) Riley: In C – Bang On A Can, Cantaloupe Music, 2011 Riley: In C – Paul Hillier, Da Capo, 2007 Riley: In C – Brooklyn Raga Massive, Northern Spy Records, 2017 Riley: In C Remixed – Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, Innova, 2009 Reich: Works 1965-1995 – Various artists, Nonesuch , 1997. Reich: Drumming, Music for Mallet Instruments, 6 Pianos – Various artists, Deutsche Grammophon, 1974 Ten Holt: Canto Ostinato live at the Concertgebouw – Ivo Janssen, Mallet Collective Amsterdam, VOID Classics, 2016 Orbital: 2 – London Music Stream, 1993 Mammal Hands: Shadow Work – Gondwana Records, 2017