A recent article has drawn attention to the ways in which the minimalist movement in music redefined boundaries and drew on popular culture and the modern world. Charles Hazlewood, describing minimalism as the “dark side” of classical music, argues that this groundbreaking genre which came about in the 1960s incorporated not only the rules and rigour of the classical tradition but also reflected the “rebel spirit” of the 20th century rock ‘n’ roll tradition; a brave new world of sound to accompany the brave new world of space exploration. This was done by refuting the narrative nature of Western classical music and basing itself instead on sequence and repetition to produce a meditative, almost trance-inducing soundscape.
In the context of the post-war period, this style also represented a move away from the jarring dissonance of European classical music of that time, reflective of the trauma of the 20th century—“music by creeps, maniacs” according to the minimalist Philip Glass. Alien though it may seem to a contemporary audience, therefore, Hazlewood argues that in many ways the minimalists brought the hope and the harmony back to Western music. This new style was by no means universally welcomed. At the first performance of Steve Reich’s Four Organs in Carnegie Hall, the audience were so distressed that they rushed up and banged the stage, with one person shouting “stop, stop, I confess!”
As intimately connected as minimalism was to the modern world, it also may have had much more ancient influences. Some of Reich’s works incorporated elements from his Jewish culture and faith, while others such as Glass, Riley and La Monte Young were inspired by Buddhism, with its cyclical, concentric images of rebirth. In 1952, the avant-garde composer John Cage wrote his famous work 4’33”, notable for containing no notes at all—a full score of silence. The intention of the piece was to draw the audience’s attention to the ordinary sounds around them, and thereby to suggest that any sound may constitute music. This experimental work reflected Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, of which he was a student.
Applicants for Music should familiarise themselves with the minimalist movement as a key turning point in the classical tradition, and should think about how minimalist music differs from and resembles other styles in the Western canon. They should also reflect on the very definition of ‘music’, and how far it can or should be pushed. Those wishing to study History of Art might want to consider the minimalist movement in the visual arts and compare it to musical minimalism. Along with students applying for History, they may wish to give some thought to how developments in the arts reflect historical developments, and what we can learn from artists and composers about their era. Theology applicants interested in music would do well to consider the relationship between music and religion through the centuries.