In my previous posts I mentioned Satie, Wagner, Eno, while comparing game music and its functioning with the ideas of said 19/20th century composers. I haven’t mentioned minimalism yet, an interesting branch of music art that can be talked and talked about as it’s not as simple as it sounds and looks. This genre or (as some may rightfully say) technique has its roots in 1960s USA, and it’s ideals went along the epoch. What’s interesting for us, however, is that minimalistic music includes many premises that reach way beyond the music itself and what a listener was accustomed to, demanding from them a certain attitude (similarly to previous discussed genres).

He [the listener] can perhaps discover another mode of listening — one in which neither memory nor anticipation (the usual psychological devices of programmatic music, whether Baroque, Classical, Romantic or Modernistic) have a place in sustaining […] quality or reality of the musical experience. It is hoped that one would then be able to perceive the music as a ‘presence’, freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound. — Philip Glass

Firstly, we need to meet John Cage, a minimalist artist-composer known for 4’33”, Water Walk or Imaginary Landscapes and playing on mundane objects of everyday use. Cage’s philosophy was to elevate a sound of an „uninteresting” object we hear daily to a sound that is focused on and thought about (through performing them on stage). After all, it’s the sound itself that matters, not necessarily its relation with other sounds or the source of said sound. If so, then only to present that composing is an old convention that lives merely thanks to what we think is properly sounding music and what isn’t. The idea presents itself clearly — a single sound is celebrated in a theatre as an artistic performance in order to push the boundary of what is and what isn’t music. Looking at his performances, John Cage could be viewed as a joker, but nevertheless, some scholars say that this sort of focus gave the foundation for ambient music. But Cage didn’t ridicule music or music making processes. He brought those ideas to a very mundane level, showing that music can de done, well, in a minimal way, stripping away „the High Art” walls around it.

Furthermore, minimalist such as Steve Reich (It’s Gonna Rain, Clapping Music, Drumming), Terry Riley (In C, Red Streams) and Philip Glass (Music in 12 Parts, Glassworks) would often base their compositions on repetition, which will be talked about later. What is crucial about it, is that it turned upside down the way music had been received. Music was thought of as an ever-evolving, progressing process that has a dramatic structure, ultimately making it a very ephemeral art. Hearing a sound during a concert was heard once, as it is quickly being replaced by another and another. The minimalist, however, decided to make their music more repetitive in order to give the listener an opportunity to fully and thoroughly receive a sound or a phrase. Succession of new and new elements and melodies was replaced by staidness and continued, calculated chain of sounds. The philosophy behind it was fully focusing your mind on a sound or a simple patterns; to place a simple, minimal tune at the centre of the composition to hypnotize you and make you lose yourself in the pattern, focusing on it and nothing else.

I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music. — Steve Reich

Repetition is a keyword for minimal music. Repetitive music has been serving many purposes in various societies that use trance-like states it evokes. Good example is the use of war drums during battles or marching to a battlefield. It was either to empower the soldiers or to set the pace for them when marching (recent example of showing this would be AC: Origins that had a drummer in the sea sequences). What it evolved to may not seem as badass, because we use such music in clubs for dancing, as looped music signifies an ongoing party that seems to have no end. Night goes on and on, the world outside stops existing. It takes away the sense of time and surroundings, and as such, it is immersive in a similar way to ambient or furniture music. It steadily hypnotizes you until you forget about everything and lose yourself to a loud beat.

I should give credits where it’s due — to Africa. This is where minimal music creators drew from because African music has always been used by its people to evoke a sense of trance, shared by everyone gathered around musicians. This is how Tom Johnson describes their music:

The form of their pieces is always flat. They are not interested in building to climaxes, or in manipulating tension and relaxation […]. [It] never seems to be moving toward anything.

It’s all about keeping the listener under a pressure of a steady beat, with constant hypnotizing as if with a swinging clock. A person sure can snap out of it, but the rhythm going on and on continuously invites you back for either a first or a second time — it doesn’t matter as music has been played on steadily in a similar way. You can just throw yourself in a first minute of a track, or for last 5 minutes. It will likely have the same effect. After all, creators of this type of music were dubbed as New York Hypnotic School. They earned the „hypnotic” part thanks to this „flatness”. The beginning is the end and vice versa, and hearing the first minute means we’ve already heard what the piece has to offer. It becomes an understandable pattern in our minds, a pattern we can replicate in our thoughts, tap out or hum. None of this would be possible with constantly progressing and fluctuating music — missing out a minute is a lost experience.

That said, when speaking about music to not be listened to with full intent, minimalism is way more difficult to not listen to. It can be both received consciously from start to finish but it’s honestly not that easy, as at some point our brains will consider the pattern unimportant and we will lose ourselves in thought, and the music will begin influencing us in a more subliminal way. The latter is closer to what we want from illustrative music, because then it serves as a complement to something, although with a distinctive set of qualities (rather modest one). I like this music although I can’t disagree with what Harold Schönberg said about minimal music:

[It’s] hypnotic or boring – depending on one’s reaction to that sort of thing.

Sources used:

E. Strickland, Minimalism: Origins, USA 2010.
C. Cox, D. Warner (red.), Audio Culture, USA 2004.
S. Reich, Music as Gradual Process, USA 1968.
S. Reich, Writings on Music 1965-2000, USA 2004.

Executive Editor

Jan Szafraniec

Fasicinated by everything that is noisy, minimal and industrial. He spends most of the time writing and floating around in ambient. He's been loyally professing videogame music for a decade and won't ever stop.