minimalisme à quoi ça sert?

27 July 2007 - muzikologi

en quoi le terme de minimalisme est-il utile en ce qui concerne la musique de steve reich ?  – mémoire de 3ième cycle sous la direction du Dr. tom perchard (en anglais)

[wptab name=’main’]

For Dr. Keith Potter the term is “borrowed from the visual arts to describe a style of composition characterized by an intentionally simplified rhythmic, melodic and harmonic vocabulary “[1]. It makes uses of a “reduction of artistic materials to their essentials and a regularity of formal design”[2], and can be seen as a reaction “against other recent modernist tendencies”[3]. Further, “it is not supposed to be suggestive of anything other than itself”[4].

For the Tate Modern British art gallery, Minimalism “can be seen as extending the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing.”[5] It is rooted in the “Constructivist idea that art should be made of modern, industrial materials.”[6]

For the Grove Art dictionary, it is “a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials… It derives its name from the minimum of operating means… the subject being the painting itself”[7].

Those three definitions outline a similar semantic field: paucity of material (like the Franciscans), strong connection with modern life (use of industrial materials), and a signified which is none other than the signifier itself, which is not the same as the negation of a signified. This is however flatly contradicted by Dr Potter’s observation about Minimalism as “a reaction against other recent modernist tendencies”. Here, the signified is actually a gesture, that of an intention to break with the dominance of Serialism, and is an implicit reference to the context of how composition was taught in American institutions in the first part of the 1960’s[8].

Those definitions also seem to give a central place to the Poietic level[9] or the composer’s intentions, strategies and state of mind. In contrast, Wim Mertens introduces the Esthesic[10] level, or how a listener receives a music work, by qualifying Minimalism[11] as “repetitive, non-dialectical, non teleological… (whereby) the concept of work has been replaced by the notion of process… perception is an integral and creative part… since the listener no longer perceives a finished work but actively participates in its construction[12]”. There is here an implicit reference to Op Art (short for optical art), a visual art technique “that relies entirely upon the sensations created by visual process[13]”. He also points out the influence of non-European techniques (African drumming and Balinese Gamelan), albeit from what seems to be a Marxist point of view, equating it with the “annexation of a foreign culture”[14].

Johnson’s approach is entirely different[15]. He remarks that “authors have taken a variety of approach to this term”, including aesthetics (the work as process, closeness with experimentalism), and stylistic (form, texture, harmony, melody, rhythm). He then proceeds to define Minimalism (in agreement with Glenn Watkins) as a technique, consisting of a “general reduction of materials and emphasis on repetitive schemes and stasis… continuous form, texture consisting of interlocking rhythmic patterns and pulses, simple (often diatonic) harmonic materials, slow harmonic rhythm, a lack of extended melody[16]”.

Of all the definitions evoked so far, Johnson’s seem to be the most fruitful, as he does not attempt to define a procrustean organicist totality. Moreover, he starts by examining works (Nattiez’s Neutral Level) and then tries to determine to which extent the Minimalist label may be applied (or not) to them, rather than examining a concept and then attempting to fit existing works into it. This allows him to remark that “Reich has explored all three interpretations of Minimalism in his music” and that while “this technique continues to occupy a prominent place in Reich’s music,,, other compositional techniques complement these minimalist features[17]”. “Feature” here is the operative term wich gives its value to Johnson’s approach, as mapping out features does not necessarily lead to a theory. Johnson’s approach could be said to be an interpretative map of “affinities”[18], to guide composers and listeners alike, while the other definitions could be said to be a kind of epistemological stricture, trying to position music Minimalism into music history. As he himself remarks, “…defined only as an aesthetics, then just a few pieces meet the narrow qualifications of Minimalism… defined purely as a style, then this style period was remarkably short and has already ended”[19]. However, Merten’s approach has the merit to emphasise the temporal dimension of the works’ process, a feature I consider important and which I shall discuss later.

I will now take a selection of Steve Reich’s works across time and show how useful Johnson’s approach is in accounting for the difference in their features.

It’s Gonna Rain (1965)

This piece uses several tape recordings of a black street preacher, Brother Walter[20], and to which a phasing procedure is applied. In Reich’s own words it “… was made by simply lining the loops in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with each other[21]”. As a result, “new and unexpected polyrhythmic, harmonic and melodic configurations[22]” arise. Here, the prominent feature is an aesthetics one, that of music as a (gradual and visible or recognisable) process (a notion to which Reich was very much attached), made possible by a technique (phase difference). This technique could be said to be a canon sans maitre, in reference to Boulez’s cri de guerre.

Four Organs (1970).

This consists of “the gradual augmentation of individual tones from within the short, repeated dominant eleventh chord… there are no changes of pitch, texture, timbre or dynamics… producing a sense of directionality[23].” So while still a gradual process (aesthetics), it is no longer a phase piece (technique).

Drumming (1971)

This four part work is scored for pitched percussions (four tuned bongos and three glockenspiels) and human voices, and utilizes three new techniques: “gradual substitution of beats for rests (or rests for beats) and which Reich calls rhythmic construction[24]”, differentiation of the different parts through “highly contrasting changes of timbre[25]” (with the last part combining all the different instruments), and integration of the human voices (both male and female) imitating the exact sound of the instruments through the vocalizing of syllables. “Both pitch and tonality remain static. Starting with just one single drum beat from a twelve beat bar, the drummers gradually, one beat at a time, construct the twelve beat pattern. Once completed, the phasing process begins in one of the instruments… not all the drummers must move forward to the next stage… and the number of repeats… is decided by the performers[26]”. Here, aesthetics preoccupations have given way to technical ones, “with beauty of sound more important than structural perceptibility[27]”. Any definition of Minimalism based on organicism would be forced to see Drumming as a transitional piece. Through Johnson’s multifaceted approach, we can simply look at Reich’s output as it was in 1971.

Music for Eighteen Musicians (1976).

This piece is scored for violin, cello, two B-flat clarinets/bass clarinets, four women’s voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones and a metallophone. “It is built upon a sequence of eleven chords, with each voice playing their assigned pitches (within each of the eleven chords) in a pulsing manner, and held for the duration of two human breaths. When this is done, the pianos and marimbas go through the eleven chords, prolonging them for about five minutes each”[28]. Here, harmonic structure takes equal place with rhythmic structure[29]. In Reich’s own words: “I was really concerned with making beautiful music above everything else”[30]. Yet, the structure remains sophisticated, “consisting of four separate levels: steady rhythmic pulse of the mallets, rhythmic construction, pulsing tones of the winds, and shifting “cadential progressions[31]”. Here Reich maintains the use of some of his own techniques while adding more traditional ones.

Tehillim (1981)

This is a setting to music of ancient Hebrew Psalms texts. “It has fully formed melodies which are not built upon patterns[32]”. Much like Music for Eighteen Musicians, it is based on “harmonic cycles, obtained through altering the bass line, the middle and upper registers remaining fairly constant… the resultant chords, chiefly triadic but with many added tones, are clearly wedded to functional tonality… the meter changes practically in every measure… allowing for a precise declamation of the Hebrew text… part one and four use canonic techniques.”[33]. Here, the stricter definitions of Minimalism would break down in attempting to account for this composition. With Johnson’s approach however, it can be described as an ancient technique (canon) handled in a modern and minimal way.

Johnson’s methodology (rather than definition), therefore, allows to map not only similarities, but also differences, and not only within the different works of Reich but also within the different composers considered as minimalists (La Monte Young, Riley and Glass). It allows the apprehension of Reich’s many faceted Poeitic levels, rather than “seek to reconstitute the overall form… the law that account for cohesion[34]”.

I shall now comment on a feature of some of Reich’s work, that of repetition or his use of time. While this has been noted by all musicologists, I do not feel it has been explored in all its implications.

Johnson and Schwarz take note of this feature but without really commenting on it. Mertens devotes an entire paragraph to what he calls “non-dialectical macro-time… (which) brings freedom from subjectivity” (in Glass and Reich’s works), only to conclude, from his Marxist perspective, that it is a “negative (and therefore false) freedom… (and is) nothing but historical conservatism”[35].

More useful are Freud’s remarks on the insisting character repetition takes in children play, or when a child insists to be told his favorite bed time story over and over again in exactly the same form[36]. There is an evident yield of pleasure, procured by a sensation of mastery over the environment, and most especially over time. If the story and its details do not change, then nor does time. As such, it is a negation of death, or, rather, of the anxiety of its inevitability.

Anthropology has gone further in mapping out two different kinds of representations of time across all the societies it has looked at: linear and circular time[37].

Linear time seems to be a feature of Western societies, co-extensive to the apparition of Christianity, and has given us the concept of Progress, Development (and Organicism as well as Deleuze’s notion of Becoming), History (and Hegel and Marx) and Science. In short, linear time defines Modernity. The future is an all singing and dancing affair, and “The Orient is red[38]”.

As for circular time, it seems to be a feature of Eastern societies. Life is organised to the rhythm of rites, whose function is to repeat creation anew, as outlined in their various cosmogonies. The performance of those rituals allows stepping out of ordinary or profane time (or the self), in order to participate to the sacred time of creation, and thus realise a union with the gods. Indian cosmology itself describes life as a series of cycles within cycles within cycles, and whose physical representation is more akin to that of a spiral. There is no absolute beginning or end, and each cycle consists of elements from previous cycles, but arranged in a different way[39], in a kind of playful and random combinatorial mathematics.

Mircea Eliade is subtle enough to qualify both notions of time as myths, since, after all, they are but (symbolic) re-presentations.

“Elements from previous cycles but arranged in a different way” seems to me to be a very notable feature of part of Reich’s composition strategies involving gradual processes, as in the so-called phasing pieces or Drumming. Reich himself is sensitive to the ritual and stepping out of self aspects outlined above: “While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual.[40]” However, the composition strategy for Tehillim is more linear and functional than cyclic, and it is not surprising to hear that it was composed after Reich spent some time rediscovering the religious dimension of his Jewish roots through an extensive study of the Torah[41]. According to Judaic belief, it is through “the historical evolution of man, and particularly of the Jewish people, that the divine guidance of history constantly manifests itself and will ultimately culminate in the messianic age”[42]. Judaism seems to be defined, therefore, as a function whose output is a teleological ontology, a feature certainly found in Tehillim with its functional harmonies (as noted above).

As a conclusion, I shall say that trying to consider all works of a particular composer as a unity can lead, at best, to some peculiar linguistic contorsions (post-minimalism, maximal minimalism, avant-postmodernist[43]), and at worst, to an interference with the Esthesic level, whereby the listener is told in advance how to receive a work of music. While literary analysis has learned to “detach it(self) from the ideology of its past and by revealing this past as ideological… taking as its unity… the particular structure of a given œuvre, book, or text[44]”, Music History and Musicology (at least as taught at Goldsmiths college in 2006) do not seem to have followed suit, preferring to define different musical practices as historical arches, thus betraying, perhaps, their attachment to Organicism. A methodology which would include “discontinuity and difference, threshold, rupture and transformation[45]”, as well as the adoption of the teachings from other disciplines (Anthropology, Linguistics, Semiotics, Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, Psychoacoustics, etc…) would allow, to my mind, for the richness and diversity of the material at hand to be explored. Also, we it should not be forgotten that “…there is never a self-contained, stable system. That only exists retrospectively in the imagination of the theorists… Theory is simply an attempt to justify… the most striking regularities of a common practice at a given moment of its development[46]”. I would therefore advocate looking at Reich’s music works in their singularities, but also in relation to his other works. Not in order to establish a “Reichian practice”, but a differential map of their Poietic an Esthesic levels.


[wptab name=’notes’]

[1] Potter, Keith, ‘Minimalism’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macey, (Accessed Nov 2006), <>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tate Gallery, 2006 : ‘Minimalism’, Tate Gallery Glossary (Accessed Nov. 2006), <>

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jones, Yvonne, “Bauhaus”, Grove Art Online, (Accessed Nov 2006), <>

[8] As outlined in class by the lecturer for this course.

[9] Cf. Nattiez, J.J., 1975 : Fondements d’une sémiologie de la musique (Paris, 1018).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Which he calls “Minimal Music”.

[12] Mertens, Wim, 2004: American Minimal Music, trans, J. Hautekiet (London: Kahn & Averill).

[13] Jones, Yvonne, “Op art”, Grove Art Online, (Accessed Nov 2006), <>

[14] In a similar vein, the lecturer for this course had used the term “colonial tourism”.

[15] Johnson, Timothy A., 1994, “Minimalism: Aesthetics, Style or Technique?”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 4, pp 742-773.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Schwarz, Robert K., 1981, “Steve Reich: Music as a Gradual Process: Part I”, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 19, No. 1/2, pp 373-392.

[21] Reich, Steve, 2001: Writings about Music, ed. Paul Hillier (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

[22] Schwarz, Robert K., 1981, “Steve Reich: Music as a Gradual Process: Part I”, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 19, No. 1/2, pp 373-392.

[23] Schwarz, Robert K., 1981, “Steve Reich: Music as a Gradual Process: Part II”, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 20, No. 1/2, pp 225-286.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Interview with Michael Nyman (1977), quoted by Schwarz 2, Op. Cit.

[31] Schwarz 2, Op. Cit.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Foucault, Michel, 2002: Archeology of Knowledge (London: Routledge). It is interesting to note that the notion of archeology of knowledge was first expounded by Freud in 1909, to one of his patient, the Ratman (Cf. Freud, Sigmund, 2001: ‘Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. X, trans, James Stratchey (London: Vintage).

[35] Mertens, Wim, 2004: Op. Cit.

[36] Freud, Sigmund, 2001: ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVIII, trans, James Stratchey (London: Vintage).

[37] Cf. Eliade, Mircea, 1989: Le mythe de l’éternel retour (Paris: Gallimard).

[38] The title of the Republic of China’s national anthem.

[39] Eliade, Mircea, Op. Cit.

[40] Reich, Steve, 2001: Writings about Music, ed. Paul Hillier (Oxford: Oxford University Press). The italics are mine.

[41] Schwarz 2, Op. Cit.

[42] “Judaism”, Encyclopedia Britannica, Deluxe 2004 CDROM Edition. The italics are mine.

[43] Smith, Dave, 2006: Program Notes for A concert for Cornelius, a recital of some of Cornelius Cardew’s works given at the BBC Maida Vale studios and organised by Radio 3, 3rd December 2006.

[44] Foucault, Op. Cit.

[45] Foucault, Op. Cit.

[46] Molino, Jean : ‘Musical Fact and the Semiology of Music’, Musical Analysis, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 105-111 + 113-156.





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