A Lesson on Minimalism

A. Kori Hill

Repetition is a funny thing–it can be boring or exciting. It can make you feel like you’re going nowhere or rediscovering something familiar. You can feel all those things and more when you listen to a minimalist piece. But how do you know if something is minimalist or not? 

First, Philip Glass (b. 1937). Whether it’s concert music or a film score, Glass takes a short melody–a motive–and puts it to work. It may be a while before you notice that more instruments have come into the texture; that maybe a new note has been introduced that takes you into a whole new motivic area. But the principle of minimalism is in its name: take something small and repeat it until it becomes new.  

Let’s start with “The Window of Appearances” from his opera, Akhnaten (1983). First, we hear bells and a low note in the brass, then we get a motive in the strings. When Pharoah Akhanaten enters, the texture of the orchestra changes; sometimes it’s more sparse, sometimes the weight of the introduction returns. When Queen Nefertiti and the Mother of Pharoah, Queen Tiye, enter, Glass uses textural difference to stop the aria from feeling static or boring. By repeating the same motives in different contexts, Glass builds and maintains tension as the listener waits for a resolution that is delayed. It keeps us on our toes, curious at what direction the music and the plot will go.  

Another good example of minimalism is in “News!” from Nixon in China (1987) by John Adams (b. 1947). Here, Adams shifts between motivic repetition and the introduction of new melodies. The orchestral texture is cacophonous, finding more stability when President and First Lady Nixon emerge from Air Force One with a quote of “O Say Can You See,” the national anthem of the United States. As the Americans are introduced to First Premier Chou Enlai and other Chinese officials, their vocal lines are through-composed; the minimalist mummer is in the orchestra.  

It is when Nixon breaks into his aria, “News!” that the repetition moves to the foreground. Adams gives Nixon several motives that repeat and tie together to create a melodic line. The tonality is not without cacophony but feels hopeful and positive. But then Nixon’s line becomes more through-composed; it’s the orchestra keeping the rhythmic pulse through minimalist repetition. It’s a balance between the benefits of repeating something until it becomes unfamiliar and allowing a melody to go into totally new directions.  

Like serialism, minimalism became representative of a set group of composers in the late twentieth century. Now, it’s one of several techniques that composers use to create their own unique soundscapes. It’s less about “what school are you?” and more “what do you bring that’s your own?” to the music.  



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A Lesson on Minimalism