Independent Repertoire: American Minimalism

Independent Repertoire: American Minimalism

Minimalism is one of the most important musical innovations of the 20th century, and was pioneered by a number of different American composers. Though each of the composers listed here has developed his own personal approach to the idiom, the resonance, pulse, drones, gradual change, and repetition that characterize minimalism all hold enduring appeal today.

Terry Riley, In C (1964)
Terry Riley’s In C is the most significant work of early American minimalism, written for an indefinite number of performers. The score consists of a series of 53 musical cells, which can be repeated any number of times at the discretion of each performer before moving onto the next cell. Players should aim to stay within five cells of each other, and an optional but common feature of the work is a metronomic pulse of eighth notes on the titular pitch. It has been performed by orchestras, modular synthesists, mixed ensembles of instruments from around the world, and solo performers with pre-recorded accompaniment. Called “the most influential work of the last half-century and the most unlikely one” (Los Angeles Times), In C is an enduring, uplifting masterpiece that empowers its performers to democratically make decisions about pacing and text.

Recording session for In C, May 1968, NYC

Recording session for In C, May 1968, NYC; (from left) Margaret Hassell, Terry Riley, Jon Hassell (© Terry Riley Archives, used by permission)

Philip Glass, The Light (1987)
Philip Glass’ trio of “portrait operas” on Einstein, Gandhi, and Akhenaten are among his best-known and most beloved works. In The Light, Glass sketches a similar portrait in symphonic form: that of Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, American physicists who through the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment defined the uniform speed of light and disproved the existence of an “ether” that earlier thinkers had believed to fill space. For Glass, this experiment was a watershed moment, with 19th-century physics standing on one side and modern scientific research on the other. The Light thus also becomes a portrait of a historical point in time, juxtaposing an opening of romantic string writing and a second section that brings in Glass’ signature arpeggiations and repetitions. Here, minimalism signals modernity, innovation, and rigorous scientific inquiry in an energetic symphonic ride.

Nico Muhly, Control (2015)
Nico Muhly is part of a younger generation of American composers who have embraced the stylistic heritage of minimalism as developed by Riley, Glass, and others. His Control engages with the natural environment of Utah. In five episodes that Muhly calls “landscapes,” Control moves through evocations of Utah’s canyons, mountains, dust, petroglyphs, and technological innovations used to control the natural environment. From repeated tone flurries to the “simple, aggressive rhythms of stone carving,” clear harmonic progressions spun into ever-shifting “clouds” to delicate textures interrupted by "landforms” of stabbing brass chords, Control is "suffused with the light” of the Utah’s powerful landscapes (BBC Music Magazine).

Bryce Dessner, Quilting (2014)
The American folk tradition of quilting holds clear attractions for a minimalist composer, given the way that it takes simple materials and stitches them together into a complex and colorful whole. In Quilting, Bryce Dessner draws on this tradition in a range of ways. The piece opens with slow, poignant swells from varying blocks of instruments that evoke the recurring geometric pieces of quilted patterns, then gradually moves into more active textures with fast-moving repeating tones that seem to zoom in on delicate stitchwork. Dessner writes that in composing the piece, he began to consider American quilting as a kind of foil to the “high-art tradition of European orchestral composition,” providing him a creative path through his questions around “what it means to compose symphonic music as a young American in the 21st century.”

Star of Lemoyne Quilt - Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis: Star of Lemoyne Quilt, American ca. 1846 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Explore American Themes in Classical Music

American Cityscapes and Landscapes | American History and Politics | Engaging with American Musical Traditions | Inspired by American Art and Writing | American Minimalism | A Land of Immigrants: Perspectives from Abroad | American Optimism — Grappling with Dark and Light