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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?

Minimalism: Young, Riley, Reich, Glass; Their European Emulators

CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Removal of context was an important point in the magic of music.1

Brian Eno (1981)

Believe it or not, I have no real interest in music from Haydn to Wagner.2

Steve Reich (1987)

The first identifiable group of composers in the literate tradition whose music not only exemplified but throve on the blurring of sociostylistic categories discussed in the previous chapter were the ones associated with a nebulous stylistic or esthetic category known as minimalism. The term, as usual, was applied to the music ex post facto, and its relevance to the object it purports to describe is debatable. Of the alternatives that have been proposed over the years, “pattern and process music” might be the most neutrally descriptive. But as one of its protagonists, Steve Reich (b. 1936), has observed, “Debussy resented ‘Impressionism.’ Schoenberg preferred ‘pantonal’ to ‘atonal’ or ‘twelve-tone’ or ‘Expressionist.’ Too bad for them.”3

As will become all too clear in what follows, there is no single technical or stylistic feature that unites the music of all the composers to whom the term “minimalist” has been applied, nor is there any technical or stylistic feature that is unique to their music. In some ways, the name is an obvious misnomer, since one of the most conspicuous features of “minimalist” music is extravagant length — length one might be tempted to call “Feldmanian,” except that Morton Feldman (see chapter 2), despite his trademark wispiness, is not normally classified as a minimalist. Minimalist music definitely comes out of what is often (if oxymoronically) called the “avant-garde tradition,” but much of it has been commercially successful beyond the dreams of most classical composers, and beyond the dreams of “traditional” avant-gardists by virtual definition.

That commercial success is one of the factors that have made the music controversial within the world of “classical modernism.” That contradiction is among the factors that have led to the coinage of a new term, “postmodernism,” to describe the most innovative art (not only music) of the last quarter of the twentieth century. The validity of the term, and its possible range of meanings, will be more thoroughly considered in the next chapter; but it should at least be mentioned at this point that among the defining characteristics of postmodernism, as normally understood, is precisely the blurring of sociostylistic categories that gave rise—or at least gave currency—to minimalism.

Minimalism can neither be strictly delimited to the “classical” sphere nor divorced from it. Its practitioners are as often listed and discussed in encyclopedias and dictionaries of popular music as in surveys of “modern music.” Its existence and success have thus been among the strongest challenges to the demarcation between “high” and “popular” culture on which most twentieth-century esthetic theorizing and artistic practice have depended. One of the involuntary spokesmen from whom the epigraphs above were lifted, Brian Eno, is normally classified as a rock musician (albeit a somewhat atypical one), while the other, Steve Reich, is normally classified as a classical composer (albeit a somewhat atypical one).

It would be hard to justify the classification purely on the basis of musical style. The distinction seems rather to be based on the kinds of training they received. Eno had an art-school education and is relatively untutored in traditional music theory, while Reich had a university education and a more formal initiation into the literate tradition of music. But both create music for ensembles of amplified instruments. Both draw eclectically on many musical traditions (literate as well as nonliterate, “Western” as well as “non-Western”) formerly thought to be entirely separate if not incompatible. And both participate as sound-makers in the real-time performance of their own work, though neither is a performing virtuoso or a conductor.

The first and last of these traits, at least, had previously been far more characteristic of pop artists than of classical composers. But if one had to name the single crucial feature that unites all musicians in the minimalist movement and underlies all their attitudes, it would have to do with their relationship to the recording and communications technologies that set the twentieth century apart from all previous centuries. They are the first generation of musicians who grew up taking those technologies and all their implications for granted. They received their formative musical experiences from records and broadcasts, and they founded their idea of the musical world on the full range of experience to which those technologies gave access.

One could fairly say, on these grounds, that the minimalists constitute the first truly and authentically and fundamentally and exclusively twentieth-century generation of musicians. To say this may seem eccentric or even faintly ridiculous, since they arrived on the scene most of the way toward the twenty-first century. But that lag represents the time it took for twentieth-century technology to make its full impact on twentieth-century art. What it also represents, of course, is the fundamental irrelevance of arithmetical fictions like centuries to the march of events, and their capacity for clouding the minds of historians.

But everything that has been said so far about minimalism—the length of its products, its expanded range of cultural reference, its technological advancement—might seem to suggest that “maximalism” would have been a better name for it. Was there really nothing about the movement to justify its actual label? There was something, of course; but to see it one needs to place the origins of minimalism in a historical context. That context can be supplied by recalling the sneering question (already quoted anonymously in chapter 2) with which Charles Wuorinen, the most prominent academic serialist of his generation, tried, in the early sixties, to dismiss the work of the nonacademic avant-garde: “How can you make a revolution when the revolution before last has already said that anything goes?” That was indeed a quandary for those committed to the idea of perpetual innovation, and it reminds us how easily that idea can lead (as seen in chapter 2) to the debasement of the currency of modern art. It is no wonder then that, in implicit answer to Wuorinen's question (which, minus its implied hostility, was their question, too), a new musical avant-garde arose by decade's end, proclaiming the value of “that which is created with a minimum of means,”4 and resolving “to concentrate on and delimit the work to be a single event or object.”5 The obvious answer to “Anything goes!” was “No it doesn't!” The new maxim was “Reduce!”

Calls for radical reduction had been heard before. Mies van der Rohe's “functionalist” battle cry (“Less is more!”) had long since resounded through the halls of architecture; streamlining had long been the established modernist ideal. Neoclassicism had long ago been heralded by its French proponents as the style dépouillé, the “stripped-down style.” But the new strip-down far exceeded the limits of the old. It became, perversely, yet another form of maximalism: a virtual contest, staged throughout the third quarter of the century — first in the visual arts, somewhat later in music — to see who could strip away the most, on the assumption that the barest, most elemental expression was by that very token the most authentic.

As early as 1948 the abstract expressionist Barnett Newman (1905–70) exhibited an oil painting, Onement 1, that consisted of a single field of uniform red-brown color with a single stripe of red-orange, about an inch wide, running down the middle. Newman's best-known work, Stations of the Cross (1958–66), is a series of seven canvases divided vertically at intervals by black or white bands of various uniform widths. Mark Rothko (1903–70) won his greatest fame for enormous canvases divided into two or three floating rectangles of luminous color. Such pictures, with their insistence on stasis, were widely regarded as a reaction or an antithesis — or at least an alternative — to the wild, flamboyantly turbulent “action paintings” of Jackson Pollock, which had dominated the New York art scene in the decade preceding Pollock's violent death in an automobile crash. In place of Pollock's emotional turmoil, Newman and Rothko offered refuge in impersonal (Newman called it heroic) sublimity.

Younger artists went further. In 1951, John Cage's friend Robert Rauschenberg produced a series of paintings consisting of nothing but panels of white house-paint on unprimed canvas. A few years later, Ad (Adolph) Reinhardt (1913–67) did it in black. By 1965, “Minimal Art,” or “Minimalism,” had been officially christened by the philosopher and critic Richard Wollheim in an influential magazine article, and entered the standard parlance of the art world.6 Like “Impressionism,” the term was coined with hostile intent; the critic was protesting what he saw as minimal (that is, insufficient) artistic content in the work of some recently exhibited painters. But like the older term, it was apt enough to fill a gap in terminology, and eventually lost its sting. It became a neutral term of reference and was even adopted by some artists as the name of a self-conscious esthetic program.

It spawned theorists. Ad Reinhardt “maximized” Mies van der Rohe's old functionalist dictum into a minimalist credo: “Less in art is not less. More in art is not more. Too little in art is not too little. Too much in art is too much.”7 And he issued a set of “Rules for a New Academy” that began with “The Six General Canons or Six Noes” (yes, there are really seven)—

  • No realism or existentialism

  • No impressionism

  • No expressionism or surrealism

  • No fauvism, primitivism, or brute art

  • No constructivism, sculpture, plasticism, or graphic arts

  • No collage, paste, paper, sand, or string

  • No “trompe-l'oeil,” interior decoration, or architecture

—and ended with “Twelve Technical Rules” (yes, there are really sixteen):

  • No texture

  • No brushwork or calligraphy

  • No sketching or drawing

  • No forms

  • No design

  • No colors

  • No light

  • No space

  • No time

  • No size or scale

  • No movement

  • No object, no subject, no matter

  • No symbols, images, or signs

  • Neither pleasure nor paint

  • No mindless working or mindless non-working

  • No chess-playing8

The last rule was a waggish allusion to Marcel Duchamp, the venerable Dadaist, who had given up painting for chess. And surely Reinhardt's spoofy list, like Duchamp's “ready-mades” or Cage's “silent” pieces, was in part a Dada-inspired test of the limits of the “art” concept. Just as surely, though, it was a sign of the times as well—times that again called for irony, coolness, and detachment in the face of the public turbulence described in the preceding chapter. Minimalism in art was related to the counterculture, if not exactly (or directly) its product. It was a way of “tuning in and dropping out.” Under close scrutiny, Rauschenberg's white paintings or Reinhardt's black ones revealed tiny variations in hue and brushwork. To pay such anomalously pure artistic values such anomalously close attention was a way of ostentatiously not paying attention to what was so loudly claiming attention in the world outside.

The term “minimal” entered the vocabulary of music criticism in 1968, in an article by the English composer and critic Michael Nyman (b. 1944) about Cornelius Cardew. We met Cardew in chapter 2 as the quintessential “anything goes” man, so obviously the term has undergone some change in its musical applications since Nyman first used it. What struck Nyman as minimal about Cardew was the process of composition rather than the result. The same goes even more emphatically for Cage's 433″, sometimes called the ne plus ultra of minimal (if not “minimalist”) music, since the composer contributes so little to what happens during its specified duration. But again, the content, being unspecified, might as well be maximal as minimal. In any case, neither Cardew's Scratch Music nor Cage's 433″, nor any piece of indeterminate or purely conceptual art, can fulfill the terms of musical minimalism, for such works are not “created with a minimum of means,” nor do they “concentrate on and delimit the work to be a single event or object.”

But chapter 2, the same chapter that described the work of Cardew, also included a description (and even the complete “score”) of a work that did conform to those specifications. That work was La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #7 (see Fig. 2-8a), consisting in its entirety of a notated perfect fifth (B-F) and the direction “hold for a long time.” And La Monte Young was the author of the two defining phrases requoted in the foregoing paragraph. The early date of both Composition and the definitions entitles Young to recognition, at least in books like this, as the conceptual founder of the American “minimalist school,” even if he contributed relatively little to the eventual path it took.


(1) Jim Aiken, “Brian Eno,” Keyboard 7 (July 1981); quoted in Eric Tamm, Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), p. 17.

(2) Edward Strickland, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 47.

(3) Ibid., p. 45.

(4) La Monte Young, quoted in K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon, 1996), p. 9.

(5) La Monte Young, quoted in Keith Potter, Four Musical Minimalists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 48.

(6) Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art,” Arts Magazine, January 1965, pp. 26–32.

(7) Lucy Lippard, Ad Reinhardt: Paintings (New York: Jewish Museum, 1966), p. 23.

(8) Quoted in Edward Strickland, Minimalism: Origins (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 44–45.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-008.xml