Playlist: Let’s get minimal!

Gramophone Mon 26th September 2016

Jed Distler traces the path of minimalism, from Purcell to Reich

Minimalism in music extends far beyond, well, ‘minimalism’. In fact, minimal and repetitious elements in music have been with us for centuries, long before they became an ‘-ism’. Think of Purcell’s haunting Fantasy Upon One Note; the rumbling E flat chord that opens Wagner’s Ring; the static whole-tone harmony seemingly going nowhere in Debussy’s ‘Voiles’; the ‘one note’ and ‘one chord’ sections of Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy; the obsessive left-hand ostinato in Chopin’s Berceuse; the tolling B flats in Ravel’s ‘Le gibet’.

A terse little piece like Satie’s Vexations may not be minimal but it recedes into minimalism when played 840 times in a row, as the composer suggests. By contrast, half an hour is all you need for John Tavener’s Pratirupa to reiterate its three basic components again and again. Stockhausen’s Stimmung for six amplified voices systemically parses one chord and its overtones for about 75 minutes. Should you want minimal notes and maximal length but more dissonance, try Morton Feldman’s five-plus hour String Quartet No 2. And for a work that transcends its classic minimalist reputation, a happy 40th-birthday year to Steve Reich’s joyously flowing, cannily crafted and spiritually generous Music for 18 Musicians.

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