Minimalism: A Peaceful Counter Movement in Contemporary Music

Sophomore science major and guest writer, Ben Johnson, shares his thoughts on the musical genre of minimalism.

One of the defining characteristics of this era is the consistent exposure to many different forms of media and entertainment. With the mass production and distribution of ideas, habits and needs have formed in the minds of the entertained. As a culture, we are impatient. There is an expectance of the immediacy of entertainment. We are no longer willing to wait. This predisposition towards impatience has shaped the way in which we think.

Adversely, it has affected nearly every genre of entertainment, and one of the most obvious instances of this occurs in contemporary music. Most pop/rock songs follow the same formula: verse-bridge-chorus. There is subtle genius in this structure. Of these three parts, the chorus is the most important. The verse and bridge serve as platforms from which the chorus can leap. The chorus serves not only as the lyrical thesis statement of the song, but as the part of the song you are most likely to remember. It is the part we unashamedly belt out in the car. This “sing along” aspect of the modern chorus is what makes it so addictive. It is a universal language. I could sing (or write) “Never mind I’ll find…” and you probably mentally finish with “…someone like you.”

This phenomenon is the result of many decades of song writing experimentation. Why is it that we are so easily able to distinguish between different decades of pop music? It is because song writers are brilliant advertisers. They recognize popular trends and write songs accordingly (this is also true in fashion, film etc.). Because of this prolonged exposure to uniform formatting, we sense incompletion if the pattern isn’t reproduced.

The mass production of template-fitting songs contributes to the disinterest many young people feel towards classical genres of music. This is due to the stark, stylistic contrast between the genres. In no way am I trying to assert that modern music (post 1900s) is of lesser relevance. My goal is to describe a genre known as minimalism that formed as a peaceful protest against the uniform mass production of music.

Minimalism emerged in the Downtown Scene in New York City in the late 1960’s. Tom Johnson, an early minimal composer, defines minimal music as “A non-narrative, non-teleological, and non-representational conception of a work in progress, and represents a new approach to the activity of listening to music by focusing on the internal processes of the music, which lack goals or motion toward those goals” (Johnson, 1994 744). Minimalism doesn’t satisfy the listener with a chorus. Instead, minimal music establishes a simple musical base, and builds upon that base with subtle additions and subtractions of notes and instruments.

The message communicated through this artistic simplicity is poignant. Minimal music teaches the listener to wait. However, this waiting isn’t satisfied through conventional means.  I like to draw a comparison between minimal music and going on a walk; pop music and skydiving. Pop music is about the moment and the memory. The explosion of the chorus is like jumping out of a plane. The moments leading up to the jump serve to build up anticipation and make the actual jump more exciting. Minimal music is focused on the journey on which the composer leads the listener. This journey is comparable to a walk. The listener observes tiny intricacies that build and grow the theme of the work.

If anyone is interested in listening to minimal music, a good place to begin is “Music for 18 Musicians” by Steve Reich and “Glassworks” by Philip Glass. An excellent contemporary minimalist composer is Yann Tiersen (Listen to EUSA).

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The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.

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