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The Minimalist Movement in America

Discuss about the Systems and other Minimalism in Britain.

Minimalism is an important and widespread liberal arts movement, which has its origins in the styles and forms of art that emerged in the United States of America in the years immediately following the Second World War. The modernist philosophical movement in history is one that is associated with a number of vital reductive aspects, all of which form the basis of the minimalist movement. In a way, minimalism maybe perceived as a pertinent response to the notion of abstract expressionism and is often regarded as an important precursor to many post-modern minimal art works. Minimal music in particular is an art form that involves the use of a limited number of musical instruments. What minimalist musicians require their audience to do is to listen to their compositions by paying special attention to the internal music processes, which have few or no aims or goals. The reiteration of musical units like cells, motifs and figures, gradual transformation or stasis, a steady pulse and consonant harmony are some of the important features of minimalist music (Kilroy-Marac 2016). This essay analyzes the various factors that led to the birth of the minimalist movement in America in the decade of the 1960’s, in order to understand the context of its emergence. In conclusion, this paper argues that minimalism was one of the most innovative movements in American music history and points to the lasting significance of this movement through a detailed discussion of different musical works that were composed during this period.

Minimalist is a word that is derived from the French word minimum, which means the smallest or the least amount that is required for something. Also known as reductive art, the minimalist art movement is one that is known for its objective approach and extreme forms of simplicity. Simplicity in fact is by far the most crucial characteristic of all music and art works that were produced as a result of this movement (Inan 2014). The musicians and the painters that emerged at the forefront of this movement deployed simplicity in terms of texture, notes, lines and forms. The minimalist movement kicked off in the year 1961 and was immediately perceived as a poignant rebellion to the music and art forms that had previously existed, especially because of the various innovations that it incorporated into the erstwhile artistic orders and movements (Rodriguez 2017). This movement continued to grow and expand well into the 1970’s and the term minimalist was used even later to refer to three-dimensional sculptural as well as art works. What minimalist painters and artists essentially did was adopt a very symmetrical and at times even geometrical style when conceiving their works. It was in Kazimir Malevich’s paintings in the early part of the 21st century that minimalist elements were noticed for the very first time. He introduced an entirely new approach to painting and artwork in terms of style, form and color, an approach that was markedly different from previous methods of perceiving and creating art. Reductive patterns were now witnessed for the first time ever in art and this trend formed an important component of the minimalist art works that came to the fore in America in the 1950’s as a sub category of abstract expressionism and which were seen as an extreme reaction to very ambiguous forms of animation. Thus, what minimalist art really turned out to be was a reaction to older art forms, with the minimalist style valuing brevity or the element of reduction in the form, balance and in even the color of art works (Inan 2014).

Simplicity as the Crucial Characteristic


The minimalist movement resulted in certain changes being brought about in the way that art was thought of and created. Such changes or innovations did not remain limited to the world of fine arts and extended to music as well. The aesthetical sensitivities of musicians like John Cage as well as Eric Satie came to be quite deeply affected by the changes that were brought about in artistic thinking and feeling by the minimalist movement (Remes 2014). These musicians now proceeded to compose music in quite a sophisticated yet simple way, producing a novel sound and rhythm that had previously not been heard and understood. What John Cage and Eric Satie aimed to do was convey the emotional content of music in a simplistic style so as to ensure its instant comprehension by people from all walks of life (Morse 2014). The music thus created was aesthetically sound, beautiful in tone and very soothing to the ear. It was the kind of music that both the common man as well as a member of the elite section of society could identify with. The appeal of such music was not limited to specific segments of a population but rather, it extended to all those who heard it (Mailman 2013). The minimalist movement in the domain of music in particular may be understood as a firm reaction to the large-scale complexities and exaggerations that had been prevalent in music in the years prior to the onset of the minimalist movement (Nash 2014). Musicians who composed music in keeping with the trends of the minimalist movement came to be known as the minimalists (Potter 2016). Minimalist music came to have a unique sound and feel to it. One of the main characteristics of such music was shifting time intervals. Every effort was made on the part of the minimalist musicians to impart a sense of mathematical or geometrical control to the music that was being composed (Eaton 2014). Some scholars have even gone so far as to compare minimalist music to that of a DNA chain being analyzed or an atom being split up into several different molecules (Hofer 2014). There was a definite hypnotic element to minimalist music that made it very sound very reassuring and comforting to those who heard it (Swift, Martin and Gardner 2014). Without a doubt, minimalist music emerged as a popular choice for those looking to relax and unwind. The elements of minimalist music were highly conducive for relaxation and had a truly calming impact on the minds and senses of those who listened to such music (Hofer 2014).

Impact on Music

One of the best-known minimalist composers in America was Michael Nyman. Nyman’s compositions were assertive, flexible and melodious all at the same time (Anderson 2016). Baroque influences as well as the influences of musicians like Handel and Vivaldi can also be very easily detected in the works of Michael Nyman. Some of the unique features of the music that was created by Michael Nyman include note additions as well as subtractions with special reference to repetitions of rhythmic structure and simplicity in harmony. The arpeggio technique is one that is greatly used in the minimalist compositions of Michael Nyman. This technique is repeated over and over again in sequential form and in different harmonies. The music that is produced upon using such an arpeggio technique repeatedly is simple but rich in terms of sound and quite stable too in terms of rhythm (Anderson 2014).  One of the most renowned musical compositions by Michael Nyman is a piece entitled, ‘The Promise”. This is a piece that has been composed using the six by eight rhythm and it has that characteristic simple yet colorful sound that is a trademark of all minimalist music. The harmony and melody structures are simple enough and the music is phrased in a manner that makes it really easy to comprehend.


Tom Johnson is yet another important and renowned minimalist music composer. His musical compositions comprised very few instruments, the least number of notes and of course the least number of lyrics as well as is evident from his musical works like Abundant Numbers and Eighty Eight.  The chords that were used in composing the music in these pieces as well as the structural harmony of the pieces were both very well integrated. The musical ideas that Tom Johnson deployed in order compose his music were rather simple and short. They were based on essential and very brief phrases (Inan 2014). Like Michael Nyman, he used a good deal of sequences and repetitions when composing his music as well, one main reason why his pieces are remembered rather easily by fans of his music even today. It is difficult to talk about minimalist music movement without referring to the much beloved and well known Steve Reich (Cole 2014). Much of the music that he made was influenced a great deal by western classical musical styles. What Reich brought to the table as far as minimalist music is concerned is a novel approach to harmony, rhythm and structure (Bengler and Bryan-Kinns 2013). This is an approach that is difficult to miss when one hears compositions of his like Six Pianos and Different Trains. Both the pieces feature a jazz music style and it was only by using certain harmony techniques that he ended up making a concrete contribution to minimalist music, without disturbing the conventional structure that is associated with western classical music, in any way (Pymm 2013). Philip Glass was a popular minimalist music composer as well, who created a novel and unique approach to music by synthesizing or mixing eastern musical styles with western music. This is something that is clearly evident in compositions such as Music in Fifths and North Star. Since the year 1990, Philip Glass actively engaged in the composition of minimalist music and introduced the minimalist elements in a number of musical genres like orchestra, opera music, in string quartets and also in percussion music (Novak 2016). In each and every one of these genre’s Philip Glass as a musician was able to showcase the essential elements of minimalist music very effectively indeed and is now regarded as one of the most popular minimalist composers to have existed till date. His music had takers from a diverse audience. It was not just the wise or the old, the middle aged or the working professionals who listened to his music. His music is something that actually found an audience even among those who were in their teens and who would not otherwise have been too likely at all to listen to minimalist music in the first place.

Michael Nyman: Assertive, Flexible, and Melodious


Thus, the minimalist movement in American history is one that is really worth taking note of, given the major innovations that emerged in the world of art and especially in the domain of music during this period. Music took on a new shape and character when the minimalist movement occurred in the United States, revolutionizing a number of musical genres and changing as a result the way people listened to and perceived music. Complex tunes of the past were now easily simplified, and thus became popular among people of all ages. Jazz music was no longer something that the elderly only listened to. Young people began to foster an interest in jazz music and at times even music influenced by a western classical style due to the innovations that were brought to music now by the minimalist musicians. The focus of minimalistic music as is demonstrated well enough in the compositions of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, was simplicity. Compositions included simple harmonic structures, limited instrument use and an easy to follow rhythm so that this music could be easily understood and appreciated by one and all. The minimalistic musical compositions were entirely in keeping with the trends and elements of the minimalist movement that found manifestation in other forms of art like paintings and sculptures. Details and extravagance were ignored completely and what the minimalists instead turned their attention to was an emphasis on brevity so as to make a particular work of art or musical composition something that could be easily appreciated by a wide range of people. The minimalist movement was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most innovative periods in American history, and its effects continue to be seen in the works and musical compositions of artists and composers even today largely because of their simple approach and novel techniques.

References

Anderson, V., 2014. British Experimental Music after Nyman. Tomorrow Is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies, pp.159-79.

Anderson, V., 2016. Systems and other Minimalism in Britain. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music (pp. 113-132). Routledge.

Bengler, B. and Bryan-Kinns, N., 2013, June. Designing collaborative musical experiences for broad audiences. In Proceedings of the 9th ACM Conference on Creativity & Cognition (pp. 234-242). ACM.

Cole, R., 2014. ‘Sound Effects (OK, Music)’: Steve Reich and the Visual Arts in New York City, 1966–1968. Twentieth-Century Music, 11(2), pp.217-244.

Eaton, R.M.D., 2014. Marking minimalism: Minimal music as a sign of machines and mathematics in multimedia. Music and the Moving Image, 7(1), pp.3-23.

Hofer, S., 2014. ‘Atomic’music: Navigating experimental electronica and sound art through microsound. Organised Sound, 19(3), pp.295-303.

?NAN, L.?., 2014. The effects of minimalist movement on painting arts and music. International journal of new trends in education and their implication.

KILROY?MARAC, K.A.T.I.E., 2016. A magical reorientation of the modern: Professional organizers and thingly care in contemporary North America. Cultural Anthropology, 31(3), pp.438-457.

Mailman, J.B., 2013. Agency, determinism, focal time frames, and processive minimalist music. Music and Narrative since 1900, pp.125-144.

Morse, M., 2014. Simone Forti's Huddle and Minimalist Performance. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 14(1), pp.30-41.

Nash, C., 2014. Manhattan: End-user programming for music

Novak, J., 2016. From Minimalist Music to Postopera: repetition, representation and (post) modernity in the operas of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music (pp. 155-166). Routledge.

Potter, K., 2016. Mapping early minimalism. In The Ashgate research companion to minimalist and postminimalist music(pp. 45-63). Routledge

Pymm, J., 2013. Minimalism and narrativity: Some stories by Steve Reich. Ashgate Publishing.

Remes, J., 2014. Serious immobilities: Andy Warhol, Erik Satie and the furniture film. Screen, 55(4), pp.447-459.

Rodriguez, J., 2017. The US Minimalist Movement: Radical Political Practice?. Review of Radical Political Economics, p.0486613416665832.

Swift, B., Sorensen, A., Martin, M. and Gardner, H., 2014, April. Coding livecoding. In Proceedings of the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 1021-1024). ACM.

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