Early on in the Seinfeld episode “The Tape”, Kramer tells Jerry about a friend of his who is becoming a minimalist and is giving away all of his possessions. “Is that the guy who likes fat women?” interjects George, to which Jerry quips, “Doesn’t the fat fetish conflict with the minimalism?” It’s a throwaway joke, a short detour before getting down to the business of the plot, but it encapsulates how pop culture understands minimalism: as space rather than substance, as emptiness only occasionally interrupted by the simplest of forms.
But while that perception certainly applies to certain manifestations of minimalism, it’s far from the whole picture. In the world of visual art, many minimalist works take the idea of negative space to the extreme, but in music it’s often a kind of density that takes center stage. If you asked someone with only a passing familiarity with the term what minimalist music sounds like, they would probably imagine long stretches of silence, broken at intervals by a single, seemingly random strike of a piano key. While silence does factor in to some works, minimalist music as a whole is not stingy with sound, not totally obsessed with sparseness, but rather boasts a fullness and complexity that would surprise many ears with just how listenable it is.
What is minimal about minimalist music, then, isn’t the amount of chronological space that is filled, but only the sonic palette used to fill it. Restricting themselves to short motifs and small bits of melody and rhythm, or in some cases spoken words, referred to as cells, minimalist composers rely on repetition to extrapolate these tiny bits into hypnotic wholes. Again, on paper this sounds incredibly boring; who in their right mind would want to listen to the same small passage repeated ad infinitum? But strange and wonderful things start to happen when this repetition ramps up. Phasing, an effect generated when the same cell is played simultaneously with slight variations in starting point and tempo, sets in and spins simple fragments into a dizzying array of permutations.
Steve Reich, who along with Philip Glass and La Monte Young, grew out of New York’s mid-sixties Downtown Music scene to become the driving forces behind the development of minimalist music, became interested in phasing as a compositional technique through his 1960s experiments with tape loops. Using a shotgun microphone and portable tape recorder (which, incidentally, he bought with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead), Reich went down to record audio of a San Francisco street preacher, whose apocalyptic ravings had made him well known locally. Making identical loops from snippets of his tape and playing them both back through the separate channels of a pair of stereo headphones, Reich was fascinated by the peculiar effect they generated.
“I pushed the two start buttons and, by sheer chance, they stared in unison. The odds are not too good for that to happen, but they did,” explains Reich of his serendipitous discovery. “I had the stereo phones on and it felt like the sound was in the middle of my head. It seemed like it went from the left side of my head and down my arm and across the floor and then it began to reverberate,” says Reich, “And finally I got this relationship that – in my mind – was what I wanted to do.”
The resulting piece, 1965’s “It’s Gonna Rain” was a paranoid, and thoroughly absorbing, expression of Cold War nuclear anxiety, and by the next year, Reich had the opportunity to put his theories into practice once again with “ Come Out”, this time as part of a benefit for the Harlem 6, a group of young black men wrongly charged with murder. “Come Out”, built around a momentary sample of taped interviews with the accused and their families, reaffirmed Reich’s belief that he had stumbled upon something effective and expressive, and he set about putting the same ideas to work with musical instruments, from which some of his most notable works, including “Piano Phase”, “Violin Phase” and “Drumming” were born.
After a time, phasing held less attraction for Reich and he made a conscious move away from using the technique, but given the nature of his work, it’s after effects were still audible. Even a project like “Music for 18 Musicians”, which doesn’t explicitly use phasing, still relies heavily on the doubling of certain instruments and voices, and, as Reich himself explored so fruitfully, even when two musicians are doing their best to stay in time with each other, no human being has the precision to do so perfectly, and though it may be less explicit or planned than his previous experiments, it can’t help but create a similar off-kilter feeling of simplicity multiplying into infinity.
While it may not suit all tastes, you certainly don’t need a degree in musicology to appreciate minimalism in general, and the work of Steve Reich in particular, in fact it’s probably one of the most accessible strains of experimental music. “Prejudice puts minimalism close to the top of the pretentiousness charts; a philosophy that passes off next to nothing as if it was something, a creed that sells new clothes to emperors” says The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, and once that prejudice is dispelled by familiarity it’s a genre that’s easy to embrace, especially given its acknowledged influence on music ranging from Brian Eno to Techno. Despite what the name may imply, minimalism offers a lot to appreciate.