Trends and patterns are seen in music, as with any art form. However, one that has escaped the clasps of music critics today is Minimalism. Initially rooted in classical music, the 1970s movement dissipated through disco and then to popular music of the late eighties and onwards. Admittedly the mass production, post-war culture-inspired artistic movement lost its potency as a means by which to create art. Nonetheless, the methodology it inspired resonates heavily throughout music today, you just didn’t notice it.
Parallel to the artistic movement, the aim of Minimalism was to strip down the creative process and make music, encompassed by its title, as minimal as possible. Brought to the fore by La Monte Young and Terry Riley, these classical composers ushered in a new form of creativity. By limiting harmonic range, placing a heavy reduction on use of instruments, and an extensive repetition of ideas, the sounds produced became very difficult to listen to. However, its nature as an artistic movement almost intended it to be so fragmented and hard to digest. Riley’s In C (1968) was composed of 43 repeated and layered melodic fragments, some with different time signatures, all accompanied by a pulsating octave in C.
Minimalism eventually came to adopt slight tonality, as well as listenable features with Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1978). While these were still described as anti-teleological in the eyes of music critics, it showed a progression in the artistic form. Minimalism, acting almost as a revolution in music, sought to respond to the nineteenth-century Romanticism-influenced classical compositions. These modern, classical pieces would be performed for hours at a time, only comprised of very simplistic four-bar loops and limited tonal variation from the base note. While this music seems mundane, almost hypnotic to listen to, its application and influence is where it starts to get interesting.
In an analysis by Robert Fink, the link between the rise of minimalism and disco in the late seventies and early eighties is crucial for understanding the former’s place today. While disco may not have sought to retain the artistic value and ideals of Minimalism, it most certainly adopted its methodology. Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s seventeen-minute Love to Love You Baby (1976) contains heavy minimalist techniques, such as consistent repetition, limited intonation and a reduced number of materials. This almost hypnotic track, along with others, led the way for the emerging dance scene in Europe, as well as America. Its main feature, the four-bar loop, although a common feature in all music, became a keystone of minimalist production.
The emergence of disco, as anyone who grew up in the era would attest to, had an undeniable effect on music and dance culture. With the proliferation of bebop jazz and psychedelic rock in the late sixties, dance was a dying art. Dance never disappeared, it would be foolish to argue so, but the age of the Savoy Ballroom and institutions alike was over. People would sit or sway to music – hip movements were a rare sight.
Disco changed this.
Its power as not only a medium for dance, but also a pseudo-sexual venture in which its anti-teleological nature, seen in Minimalism, invited a ‘climax-defying stasis’ that hooked Western music culture. The non-linear nature of musical influence then spread this minimalist technique like wildfire.
Take a look at CHIC’s Good Times (1979): limited harmonic range, with both the vocals and guitar riffs. Along with this, repeated rhythm and chord sequences throughout every part of the song. While it contains more instruments that one would expect from a typical minimalist piece, this is the perfect example of its modernised interpretation.
Good Times then went on to be sampled in the first recorded major Hip-hop hit, Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight (1980). Hip-hop, as well as RnB and other dance music took much inspiration from disco, especially in its early formations. Listening to artists such as Slick Rick, Grandmaster Flash, or Salt-N-Pepa, it is impossible to dispute that parts of Hip-hop’s lineage to this day remain rooted in disco.
Along with this came the methodological influences.
J Dilla – the Hip-hop producing legend needs no introduction. His pioneering jazz-infused beats inspired generations, and yet he has clearly been influenced by some form of minimalist methodology. His debut tape, Welcome 2 Detroit, features an instrumental version in which the tape’s minimal character is obvious. Dilla was never known for his extravagant flamboyant beats, more the nuances of his sound: his raw, slightly off-beat playing, or niche jazz samples. This characterises the modern adaptation of Minimalism perfectly – by reducing a tune to its bare or minimal parts, more emphasis is placed on the nuance of a song, so that other aspects such as lyricism can come to the fore.
Perhaps this is why he will remain the greatest Hip-hop producer to have ever lived. His stripping down of beats, slowly layering instruments over one another, and strictly adhering to four-bar loops are precisely the same methods used by Glass or Reich. Make no mistake, I am not labelling J Dilla as a minimalist, merely demonstrating the influence of the movement on music today. The Dillatronic producer’s sounds are everywhere today, spreading the influences he, albeit indirectly and subconsciously, inherited from Minimalism.
Minimalism is everywhere. Destiny Child’s Independent Woman Part 1 (2000); Michael Jackon’s They Don’t Care About Us (1996); and Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust (1980) all feature minimalist production techniques one way or another. Admittedly, this could be a too far-reaching argument. You could argue that nothing is still following the minimalist movement and that it is just music for music’s sake, but I implore you to look further into the production of popular songs today with a more critical perspective. Pre-empting any disputes to this viewpoint, I am not saying artists today are minimal artists, nor do they intend to produce records using those techniques. I merely find that, Minimalism’s artistic influence and production methods have proliferated through the years and its presence can be found much of your favourite music today.
For those of you that want a bit more minimalism in your life, this playlist contains the songs mentioned in this article.