My graduate history seminar on minimalism starts next week at Westminster Choir College. I’ll be teaching the course in a three-week intensive session – three hours a day/four days a week. In that time – just 12 meetings in all – we need to cover a lot of ground. There are three assigned texts: Minimalism: Origins by Edward Strickland, Repeating Ourselves by Robert Fink, and Music Downtown by Kyle Gann, as well as a number of supplemental readings (lots of Tom Johnson) and listening assignments.

Each student will be required to make a class presentation and write a substantial research paper. Those in the group who like to compose will write a minimal piece for the class to perform. In an exciting development, one of my students, who is a high school choir director, has already been in touch with Terry Riley’s “people” about Another Secret eQuation, his recent choral piece for young people, and will be researching it for her paper.

While I’ve been thinking about and prepping the course for a long while, I’m, of course, curious about what the Sequenza 21 community thinks. What do you consider to be an “all killer/no filler” listening list for graduate students studying minimalism – many of them for the first time. The comments section is open!

By the way, those who are interested may feel free to contact me after the class is over for a set of the handouts/slides.

33 thoughts on “The Bare Minimal”
  1. I just wanted to say how happy I was to see the initial suggestion of The Pearl by Eno / Budd. I’d also suggest lookng into Eno’s continuing interest in Generative Art. His recent installation, “77 Million Paintings,” further signals his pursuit of the idea that art can be self-generating. Thoughts?

  2. Allan and Anthony,

    Both the Carl and Fink are on the reading list. I second Anthony’s assessment of Carl’s In C – it’s got a lot of excellent material in it.

  3. Two things not mentioned here:
    1.) Robert Carl’s book on In C. It’s a fascinating study, well worth the read.

    2.) The influence of “So What” on Terry Riley, and hence, minimalism in general. This is discussed in Robert’s book, and when you grasp the connection, it’s quite amazing.

  4. Oops, the actual name of the Borden piece is “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint”.

  5. Got to include Robert Fink’s wonderful book, “Repeating Ourselves”. It is an amazingly inclusive survey of minimalism and doesn’t limit itself to so called classical pieces. This is really worth a read.

    And BTW you have to include Borden’s “Continuing Studies in Counterpoint”. It is an under recognized masterpiece of minimalism.

  6. Nathan,

    I agree. We’re talking about Feldman on day one!

    It’s been the summer of Feldman for me. I’ve gotten to present his music in three different classes.


  7. Given the breadth of the above, I really think Feldman also belongs in this discussion, especially the long late pieces. And in terms of precursors, of course Satie also deserves a mention, and others in Les Six and elsewhere interested in Furniture Music.

  8. Thanks to all for their valuable suggestions. As Armando and David point out, it’s challenging to decide what is vital to include, but I appreciate these comprehensive lists.

    Thought I’d spent time with the recording, tonight was the first time I’ve heard David Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion” live: very affecting!

  9. @Zeno – Yeah, but Satoh is Japanese. Ingram isn’t Balinese. I just pointed out that a contribution to minimalism from another culture that was borrowed from so heavily by the U.S. composers were naming might be an interesting add to the mix.

    Some pygmy music too would be appropriate.

  10. Yeah, what David said. Christian’s teaching a six week course, not designing a master’s program!

    (Although I really enjoy reading these lists. I thought I knew a lot of music. HA!)

  11. Hey, there are tons of things out there, like Music in 12 Parts (or any of Glass’s works pre-1980), stuff by Tom Johnson (I’d also add Nine Bells in addition to An Hour for Piano), Music on a Long Thin Wire, etc. but I think Christian asked for the real “must haves” in order to best get a grasp of minimalism overall.

    Christopher Bailey: I agree with you in part about TWTP, but having sat through a performance of the piece in the 80’s down in Tribeca, I can say that its effect is definitely minimal.

    If there’s interest in some of the Europeans, I’d have to include Wim Martens’ piece Circles.

    There are works by Part I like very much, but I’m having a hard time considering him to really be a minimalist. Sparse, yes. But minimalist? That’s like saying Bach is a minimalist for having written the first piece of the Well Tempered Clavier or Wagner for the opening of Parsifal. And don’t forget that Bolero thing Ravel wrote…

  12. The late K. Robert Schwarz’s “Minimalists” is an excellent introduction, beginning with a chapter on Young and Riley, then with two chapters each on Glass and Reich (early/later), a chapter on post-minimalism in America (Adams, Monk, etc.) and concluding with a chapter on the Europeans (Nyman, Andriessen, etc.).

    Also, no one seems to have mentioned visual art. The term “minimalism” comes of course from people like Judd and Andre and was borrowed by Nyman in the 70s (see Nyman’s indispensable “Experimental Music”) to apply to this new musical trend. Although the artists and the musicians actually did not have a lot in common beyond visible/audible process, conceptually, it is I think important to understand the shared environment in which these movements began in the late 60s. Young is often thought of as much as an artist as a composer; he’s financed by the DIA foundation, which is/was the primary underwriter of art in this vein, from Spiral Jetty and Lightning Field to Richard Serra’s torqued toruses. Philip Glass (and I think Reich as well) was very close with Richard Serra, often helping in the fabrication and assemblage of his work, not to mention his association with Chuck Close and others. Just as Feldman and Cage cannot be considered apart from Rauschenberg and Johns, so too should we attempt to view this entire artistic milieu in its entirety.

  13. Some additions I didn’t see mentioned:

    Works exhibiting minimalist traits worth considering, even if they didn’t arise from the tradition:

    Stockhausen: STimmung

    Stravinsky: Canon (1966) (his last orchestral work, a double canon in retrograde, without any accidentals)

    Goeyvaerts: Litanies. If there is a body of minimalist/postmiminalist music begging for discovery and performance and discussion, it is this cycle.

    Lukas Foss: Solo (12-tone minimalism!)

    Norgard: Spell

    Ligeti: Continuum; Monument–Selbstportrait–Bewegung; Ricercata (limitations in pitch material)


    Stravinsky! not just Petrushka, but many of his early neo-classical works are constructed with a few ostinatos in shifting configurations that today could be described as “played back samples’ (i.e. 1st movement of L’Histoire). Especially noteworthy is the 1st of the 3 pieces for string quartet. If you want to look at historical precedents for harmonic stasis, Stravinsky is the man

    Cage: In a Landscape; Four Walls; and to a lesser degree, String Quartet; 6 melodies for violin and piano

    Christian Wolff: many of his early, notated chamber works, such as Trio I, are constructed of only 3 or 4 pitches

    Carter: 8 Etudes and a Fantasy, nos. 3 and 7


    Michael Torke!!! David Lang’s minimalist style owes so much to Torke’s work. Ecstatic Orange and The Yellow Pages were shocking in their clarity and directness back in the 80s.

    Michael Nyman: any of his early Greenaway scores. From the later work, I think MGV is a very strong piece

    Arvo Part is a minimalist in terms of harmonic stasis, but examine his scores for their rigorous processes. The precompositional systems at work in his music rival those of any serialist. Some of these systems are derived from number of syllables in a word, a highly original composition technique. His music sounds so simple, but study it on the page and you’ll be amazed at all the technique behind the sounds. I’d recommend Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, Missa Syllabica, and the Passio–but any of his tintinabulation scores reveal his craft.

    Lentz: Missa Umbrarum; Song(s) of the Sirens

    Don’t forget the minimalists in pop and jazz: John Coltrane’s modal work; Velvet Underground (1st rock songs I’m aware of which with just 1 chord for the whole song); Archie Shepp, Hipnosis; Tony Scott; Brian Eno (not must Discreet Music and Music for Airports, but short things like some of the tracks from Another Green World or Music for Films

  14. A short, but I think important, very early piece of Reich’s that I would be sure to add is Pendulum Music.

  15. However, someone did mention Ingram Marshall’s “Fragility Cycles” of 1976 which was, in fact, “minimalism filtered through the compositional techniques of another (non-U.S.) culture” [in Marshall’s case, Balinese].

    Like Ingram Marshall and John Adams, Somei Satoh had earlier roots as an experimental multi-media artist or installation artist (in the case of Ingram Marshall).

    * correction to above: John Adams’s “Matter of Heart” [on Carl Jung].

  16. Somei Satoh’s Birds in Warped Time is a gorgeous piece of (I guess…) post minimalism. Satoh’s solo piano pieces that include delay processing are also great – maybe even better examples – of minimalism filtered through the compositional techniques of another (non-U.S.) culture. Which is interesting since minimalism owes so much to music outside of the U.S., right?

    I’m surprised no one mentioned him…

  17. For those who can read other languages:

    There is a short article on Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel, Ellen Fullman, and me:

    Philippe Sclav Blache

    And in Italian there is
    La Musica Minimalista by Paolo Conteni and Giovannia Antognozzi – half of the book is about Terry Riley, the other half covers lots of people, including me. 🙂 But also includes Michael Byron, Alvin Curran, David First, Hans Otte, Gavin Bryars, and lots of others I haven’t seen mentioned.

  18. Another book to at least mention would be the “American Minimal Music” by Wim Mertens, which looks at minimalism with a European slant.

  19. It would be a shame to miss developments and cross influences from outside the usual academy stuff. While the music mentioned by others is fantastic it only represents a small fraction of minimalist music.

    Jazz was right there at the beginning. Please don’t leave out the improvising over a drone that drove La Monte’s sax playing: Coltrane’s My favorite Things

    You gotta play this shocker from 1963: The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird

    And for me the most stunning example from contemporary minimal music, 60 years later and reaching #6 on the charts, is Lil Wayne’s A Milli

  20. Many great suggestions, and so little time. I’d also mention Tony Conrad’s ‘Four Violins’ as being an important early work and add Charlemagne Palestine’s ‘Schlingen-Blängen’ for organ. I would as well urge you to include Tom Johnson’s ‘An Hour For Piano.’

  21. Michael Nyman is not here and ought to be: his Decay Music, AET, In Re Don Giovanni, The Kiss, String Quartets No 1-3, Water Dances, Taking a Second Line, Acts of Beauty, Exit No Exit, and his opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat–not to mention his book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond.

  22. I don’t know whether I’d consider La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano to be minimalism (although I do love the piece.) Other pieces by him, sure. But I guess I’m outvoted on that one.

    For Glass, don’t overlook Music in 12 Parts . . . hard-core, expansive, and my favorite of Glass’s works. I’ve used the first half of Part 8 especially in teaching, as it’s just long enough to 1) drive your students nuts, and 2) demonstrate a pattern moving from start to end without having to “excerpt” the texture. The texture itself is very attractive of course, as usually the case with earlier Glass.

    I highly recommend John McGuire, not very well known but it’s definitely the hard-core stuff, very carefully worked out and sonically beautiful.

  23. I teach a graduate minimalism seminar as well, although mine is semester long and, thus, has the benefit of more time. Have you looked at Keith Potter’s “Four Musical Minimalists” as another source for readings? It’s a great book on the four “grandaddies” of minimalism.

    Anyway, here are some of my listening requirements (which, granted, cover post-minimalism as well, since “classical” minimalism only goes through about 1976 or so, by most accepted definitions in any case):

    Young: Dream House; The Well Tuned Piano (excerpts)
    Riley: In C; A Rainbow in Curved Air
    Reich: It’s Gonna Rain; Come Out; Piano Phase; Drumming; Six Pianos; Music for 18
    Musicians; Different Trains
    Glass: Strung Out; Two Pages; Music in Contrary Motion; Music in Fifths; Music in 12
    Parts; Einstein on the Beach
    Adams: Shaker Loops; Phrygian Gates; Harmonium; Nixon in China (Act II, scene 2);
    Grand Pianola Music
    Andriessen: De Volharding; Hoketus; De Staat; De Snelheid; De Materie
    Part: Fur Alina; Tabula Rasa; Passio
    Gorecki: String Quartets; Harpsichord Concerto; Kleines Requiem fur eine Polka.

    (I don’t spend too much time on the last two or John Tavener, however, and the last time I taught the course these composers–along with others like Michael Nyman and even Radiohead–were primarily addressed by the students in their final presentations.)

    I also like to include the Bang on a Can collective as an example of a later generation of minimalism, through their influences from Steve Reich and especially Louis Andriessen. Although Kyle Gann considers these composers “totalists” their music, particularly David Lang’s (whose Cheating, Lying, Stealing and The Little Matchgirl Passion end up on my listening list) has enough point of contact with minimalism for me to consider them in a course on the subject.

    I also mention and briefly touch on Fred Rzweski’s “Moutons de Panurge,” “Coming Together” and “Attica” and Glenn Branca’s Symphonies.

  24. Yes, John Adams could be considered a late minimalist in 1977/78 with his ‘Phrygian Gates’ and ‘Shaker Loops’ — but he had even earlier been a conceptual (and ‘electronic’) musical artist staging musical happenings in Golden Gate park. Ingram Marshall has an excellent essay on early Adams, and those years are wonderfully described by Mr Adams himself in his autobiography.

    Admittedly, by 1980 Adams’s ‘Light over Water’ or ‘Matter of Art’ have moved bey0nd minimalism.

    Ingram Marshall’s ‘Fragility Cycles’ is itself is a wonderful example of unusual and very sensitive ‘minimalism’ of the middle 1970s. And did I see mention above of La Monte Young’s earlier ‘The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer’ or “The Tortoise Recalling The Drone of The Holy Numbers as They Were Revealed in The Dreams of The Whirlwind’?

    Adams’s ‘Harmonielehre’ is certainly not late minimalist, but rather neo-romantic and neo-chromaticist. As Jacob Druckman said, in the early 1980s there was perhaps something in the ‘air’.

  25. Almost forgot-Rzewski’s Coming Out or Les Moutons des Panurge would also be nice to include. He’s not thought of as a minimalist, but those two works in particular represented a lot of the minimalist ethos when I was growing up. Shit, now I’m dating myself.

  26. If you’re talking about true minimalism, which pretty much no one composes anymore (maybe Charlemagne Palestine and 1-2 others, but that’s it I think), the classic stuff would have to involve La Monte Young, since his music is pretty much seminal. TWTP is certainly appropriate, but I’d also suggest his Trio for Strings (there is a recording of it available using a bass rather than cello-that’s the only one I know of) since that’s what pretty much started all this off (his slightly earlier For Brass isn’t available on recording AFAIK). There’s also his Black Album and a few others that are important to expose people to, since I think your students should understand that minimalism isn’t just pattern music, but really started out with long tones. The work of Phill Niblock and Eliane Radigue would also be appropriate.

    For Reich, I’d go with Piano Phase and Four Organs (one of the most truly minimalist pieces out there) and chase it with Drumming. Music for 18 Musicians is a great work, but it represents pretty much minimalism at its terminus-pretty much everything SR wrote since then is more postminimalist than anything.

    Same with Glass-try Two Pages, Strung Out or even Music with Changing Parts before getting into Einstein.

    Terry Riley is critical-besides In C, I’d look at his lesser known Olson III and You’re Nogood. Persian Surgery Dervishes is also a favorite and is one of his finest minimalist works, actually.

    Adams was never really minimalist, but if I had to pick one, I’d go with Shaker Loops or Phrygian Gates.

    Please include Strumming Music by Charlemagne Palestine. Awesome work (as is all of his stuff). His music is woefully overlooked in the minimalist canon.

    Some of James Tenney’s work would also qualify, such as the Chromatic Canon (which is 12-tone, incidentally!)

    Don’t forget Meredith Monk (particularly Key or Tablet) and Julius Eastman!

    Finally, to tie this together, I think it’s important to at least consider the influence both Cage and Webern had on minimalism. None of this happened in a vacuum. Webern influenced Cage and Feldman (who was not a minimalist but clearly had some similar elements in many of his late works) and both Cage and Webern had a major influence on Young-many of his early minimalist works are as 12-tone as you can get, including the Trio for Strings.

    Riley actually had a major influence on SR, who participated in In C in the early 60’s. Glass started out as an academic, 12-tone composer, but started to break away with his early string quartet (which has been recorded) and finally stuff like Strung Out and 600 Lines.

    Sorry for a long response, but if possible, I’d also think that it’s important to include the work of Dennis Johnson (his November influenced The Well-Tuned Piano and Kyle has recorded it and put it up on his blog) and also Terry Jennings. What many people think of as ‘minimalism’ really isn’t, and as much as I love Einstein and 18 Musicians, both of which were very influential as I left the 12-tone monastery in the early 80’s, they represent more of the end of minimalism. The earlier work isn’t heard as much, perhaps because it is more, well, minimal.

  27. The ‘big four’:

    Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich
    The Harp of New Albion by Terry Riley
    WTP by La Monte Young (encourage them listen to the whole thing)
    Einstein on the Beach – Spaceship by Philip Glass

    A bunch of the other interesting stuff that people don’t know about when they think of minimalism and its aftermath:

    Scircura by Chas Smith
    The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars
    The Oak of Golden Dreams by Harold Budd
    Dancing on the Sun by Daniel Lentz
    Work for 4 by Ellen Fullman
    Sweet Air by David Lang
    Canto Ostinato by Simeon Ten Holt
    Long Night by Kyle Gann
    Discreet Music by Brian Eno
    I am sitting in a room by Alvin Lucier
    The Time Curve Preludes by William Duckworth
    L’intranquilite by Jean-Philippe Goude
    Finalbells by Eric Richards
    Klavierstucke by Jurg Frey
    A Capella by John Mcguire
    On My Satin Harp by Alvin Curran
    Jackdaw by Wayne Siegel
    The Days Run Away by Peter Garland
    The City The Wind Swept Away by Jim Fox
    Frog’s Eye by Evan Ziporyn
    Leapday Night by David Behrman
    Dark Blue Circumstance by Paul Dresher
    Red Arc / Blue Veil by John Luther Adams
    Soul Train by Mikel Rouse
    Gradual Requiem by Ingram Marshall
    Das Buch der Klange by Hans Otte
    the heavenly spheres are illuminated by lights by Somei Satoh
    Dream House by Mary Ellen Childs
    1-100 by Michael Nyman
    Banteay Srey by Carl Stone
    Strumming Music by Charlemagne Palestine
    Esty Point by David Borden
    Coming Together by Frederic Rzewski
    Patterns of Plants by Mamoru Fujieda
    Four Full Flutes by Phil Niblock
    Perfect Lives by Robert Ashley

    I am incapable of short lists of recommendations.

  28. Reich’s Music for 18 Muaicians
    Glass Koyaanisqaatsi
    Adams Harmonielehre
    Riley’s In C
    Reich’s Clapping Music
    Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano
    Cardew’s The Great Learning
    Eno/Budd The Pearl
    Alvin Lucier’s Music On A Long Thin Wire

Comments are closed.