In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Minimalism

  • Introduction
  • Key Reviews and Contemporary Accounts
  • Composer Interviews
  • Analytical Perspectives
  • Philosophical Perspectives (Time, Repetition, Process)

Music Minimalism
Robert Fink, Cecilia Sun
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0188


In the history of late 20th-century music, “minimalism” is the general label for a diverse set of repetitive, modular, determinist, and process-oriented tendencies within the world of postwar American experimental music. While some trace the roots of musical minimalism back to the highly compressed serial structures of Anton Webern, and others to the ne plus ultra of John Cage’s experiments with silence, most histories of musical minimalism begin with two collective sonic innovations of the middle 1960s: the extended microtonal drones pioneered by La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, and the Theatre of Eternal Music; and the pulsed modular repetition of Terry Riley’s In C. By the early 1970s, Young and Riley had been somewhat eclipsed by the more virtuosic and accessible music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who created and led their own performing ensembles, and who both developed systematic transformational processes for generating melodic and rhythmic diversity over slow-moving harmonies and a steady pulse. By the second half of the decade, the term “minimal” was in general journalistic use for this type of music, but stylistic shifts were already giving rise to what would later be called postminimalism: strict processes loosened, younger composers flirted with teleology and harmonic complexity, melodic material grew more lush, and modular repetition was harnessed to the expressive maximalism of the operatic stage. In England, experimentalists like Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, and Christopher Hobbs developed a conceptually rich “systems music,” while on the Continent, the influence of American minimalism was felt more dialectically, as established composers like Louis Andriessen and Karel Goeywaerts struggled with its challenge to modernist orthodoxy; in eastern Europe, a largely underground group of “holy minimalists” (including Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Pärt) followed their own path of transcendent austerity. The early 1980s were the high-water mark of minimalism as a trend, by which time the four “canonical” music minimalists were firmly embedded in classical music institutions. A new generation of composers for whom minimalism and rock music were equally influential developed an aggressive, jagged take on postminimalism they called totalism—but by the end of the 1990s, the dominant figure in postminimalist composition was John Adams, whose trilogy of “CNN” operas—Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic—entered and transformed the classical operatic repertoire. By the 21st century, minimalism had become a historical style, a set of techniques available to any composer, even those without avant-garde or experimental aspirations. Indie and alternative pop musicians have consistently paid attention to minimalism in art music, from the Downtown crossover with drone minimalism that gave rise to the Velvet Underground, Glenn Branca, and Sonic Youth to the British ambient scene stemming from Brian Eno.

General Surveys

The scholarly literature on “minimal” music began when critics, exploring the landscape of experimental music after Cage, focused on a new musical tendency opposed to the general emphasis on indeterminacy and chance. Discussion of the core group of “canonical” American minimalists has often substituted for a survey of the style; similarly, focused Anglophone work on European minimalists has been rare. For a snapshot of the current state of research on minimalism and postminimalism in music, start with the collection of essays in the Ashgate Research Companion (Potter, et al. 2013, cited under Minimal Music), within which most trends in musicological discussion of minimalist music after 2000 are well represented.

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