Minimalism began as a reaction to what I call “High Modernism,” music by composers like Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, and Elliott Carter. In the 50s and 60s, when these guys were at the peak of their influence, there was a vague sense that music was almost a scientific pursuit, and the more information you could cram into a score, the better. For example, here’s a Babbitt piece that is actually relatively short and digestible…
Minimalism emerged in the 60s, and it asserted a different agenda – instead of looking to put as much as possible into a piece, composers like Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich wanted to see how simple music could possibly be. There was also a parallel movement in the visual arts – painters and sculptors reacted against messy expressionism by creating works that were defiantly plain. Here’s a piece by Donald Judd, an array of blue boxes attached to the wall.
So, in the beginning, minimalist music was similarly severe. It sought to be challengingly minimal, and as a result achieved a somewhat bad reputation as a kind of anti-music, an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of deal.
Here’s an early Steve Reich piece called Piano Phase, from 1967, which, while cool, is certainly somewhat severe. This clip features lovely and very appropriate choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
In the early 70s Reich and Glass both loosened up, attacking large-scale works with a lot more warmth and generosity. (Critics sometimes split hairs and call this later work “Post-Minimal.”) For Reich, the great breakthrough was Music for 18 Musicians in 1974.
I think that, right away, you hear a great difference in the overall sonority. Here’s a performance from a music festival in Cincinnati:
The pulse continues for 70 minutes, and very slowly evolves into a variety of textures. Here’s a much later section, now in Tokyo:
I find that, listening on recording, it is easy to drift off and lose track of how we get from one section to another – it appears to evolve seamlessly. What’s cool about a live performance is that specific musicians cue changes, so you actually see someone step up to a marimba and start a new detail.
The classic debut recording with Reich’s own group remains beloved, and I really can’t see why you wouldn’t go with it.
However, this recent recording by the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble has also garnered raves.