Minimalism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Minimalism. A term applied beginning ca 1960 to the works of certain visual artists, composers, writers, playwrights, filmmakers, and choreographers, illustrating almost as many attitudes as the artists and musicians associated with it.


Minimalism. A term applied beginning ca 1960 to the works of certain visual artists, composers, writers, playwrights, filmmakers, and choreographers, illustrating almost as many attitudes as the artists and musicians associated with it. The one characteristic common to all is their aim to do, in Buckminster Fuller's words, 'more with less.' Minimalist artists use limited materials or concentrated structures to build works through repetition or extension or gradual transformation, which often have a hypnotic effect on the viewer or listener.

Musical antecedents of the movement might include certain works by Erik Satie (Vexations, 1892-3) and Marcel Duchamp (Readimades, Erratum musical), or perhaps in some elements (if not in basic attitude) repetitive passages such as the Prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold (1853-4) or even baroque ground bass forms. More important than any historical models, however, have been the cultures of continents other than Europe and North America. The pioneers and most significant practitioners of musical minimalism in the USA have been LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Young's music grew out of his study of classical Indian theories; studies of Indian music were also the springboard for Riley's In C (1964), and for the operas of Glass. In the 1970s Reich went to Africa to study Ghanaian drumming and added elements of it to his pattern music. (Russell Hartenberger and Robert Becker of Nexus have studied African drumming and have also been regular members of Reich's performing ensemble.)

The movement established itself mainly in the two areas of the USA most open to artistic innovation and to influences of non-European cultures: New York City and the west coast. There are pockets of minimalism in Britain and continental Europe; but it has remained primarily a New York/California phenomenon. Some theorists distinguish between 'static minimalism' (Ligeti, Feldman) and 'pulse minimalism' (Glass, John Adams). Not surprisingly (Riley's background was in jazz, Glass has borrowed rock performance techniques), its reflection in popular and commercial musics is marked.

Although Canadian creative music of the period has generally been little influenced by the New York or Californian avant gardes, minimalism has been espoused by a number of Canadians. Among a group of innovative creative artists associated with the arts and music programs at York University starting in the early 1970s was the composer David Rosenboom. While his work extended beyond the realm of pattern-music minimalism (his research was in bio-feedback music), he nevertheless fostered among his students an awareness of patterns, their repetitions and extended treatments. The addition at York of a program of classical Indian music deepened the students' understanding of basic minimalist elements. Several went on to put these ideas into practice. Jon Siddall and Andrew Timar, both York graduates in music, founded the Evergreen Club Gamelan Ensemble, a creative performance organization whose members in some of their interactive compositions translate the pattern-oriented Javanese concepts into novel musical statements. Pattern music with non-European influences is also found in the works of Miguel Frasconi, Christopher Crawford, and Gayle Young, all York alumni, and of John Celona. One of the most individualistic Canadian proponents of minimalism is Lubomyr Melnyk, who calls his personal style of composition-cum-performance 'continuous music.' He has developed a technique whereby he executes extremely fast patterns (up to 19 notes per second) in two independently performing hands and thus creates piano resonances which accumulate into previously-unheard sonorities.

The composer most closely related to the aesthetics of artistic minimalism in Canada is James Tenney. Not only does he confirm his place in minimalist ranks by having produced a series of one-page pieces each printed on a postcard, but his whole creative philosophy is based on the conviction that music should present sounds in their purest form for direct impact on the listener's perceptive faculties. In its avoidance of dramatic effects and personal projection, Tenney's music closely approaches the attitude considered by many as the spiritual source of North American minimalism - that of the Shakers. Simple ascending glissandi are the sole material of For Ann (rising), a tape work of 1969 (also existing in a version for 12 strings), in which the multi-layered treatment of the glissandi creates an illusion of a continually rising sound. The various canons dedicated to his most influential idols and colleagues - Ives, Varèse, Henry Cowell, and Conlon Nancarrow; three of them scored for drum quartets, the Nancarrow one for 'harmonic player piano' - all have a simple gesture as a basis which, through a logical treatment, develops into a structure where material and form become one.

Other Canadians in whose work minimalism assumes some importance include Michael J. Baker, Tim Brady, José Evangelista, Anthony Genge, Denis Hébert, Udo Kasemets, Rudolf Komorous, Marjan Mozetich, John Rea, Denis Schingh, Ann Southam, and Steven Tittle.