Minimalism in Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Radiohead

Hacker Noon

The minimalist philosophy is rooted in the principle ‘‘less is more’’ and utilizes the most out of the human need. In the mid 20th century, minimalism gained western recognition, and immediately influenced the branches of art and design. We will inspect how minimalism shaped the branch of music by three artists/bands that contributed to western music from the 1960s to today.

According to music analyst Richard E. Rodda, minimalism in music is achieved by digestive repetitions of chord progressions (chords that are diatonic within a key), consistent rhythmic patterns, which are often adjoined by harmonic lyrics. It utilizes the repetitive melodic patters, harmonies, and rhythms through a deliberate and adept search of aural beauty. (Rodda).

The three musicians we will analyze today will be based on chronological order, beginning with the pioneer of 1960’s minimalist music Steve Reich, who music critic Andre Clements describes: ‘‘The succession of utterly distinctive works Reich has composed in the last half century includes some of the most remarkable music of our time, their influence continues to cross continents and almost all musical boundaries.’’ (Clements, The Guardian) Steve Reich introduced the technique of phrasing, which is the quintessence of minimalist experimentation. Following Reich, Phillip Glass emerged as the developer of minimalist music through his emphasis on repetition and structuring rhythm. (Wim Mertens) Glass’ minimalist compositions can be found in film scores, symphonies, and operas, which makes him one of the most influential minimalist musicians of the 20th century. After these founding fathers of minimalism, can one find minimalist impressions in contemporary music? Radiohead provided a fresh lens of 21st century classical music to their dissonant nature through minimalism on harmonies, motifs, and orchestrated arrangements. We will discuss the minimalist applications of Radiohead through their latest single ‘Burn The Witch.’

Steve Reich is commonly associated as ‘the father of minimalist music,’ simply because enormous amount of contemporary musicians from every genre has been influenced by his work. His key contribution to minimalist music was by his invention of the musical concept of phasing and tape looping. Tom Service explains phasing: ‘‘Imagine you have a pattern that consists of 12 quavers. If you keep playing the original but the player next to you starts the same sequence, but beginning one quaver later, you start to phase the rhythm against itself, and you can move through the whole pattern, quaver by quaver, creating a huge diversity of rhythmic possibility from a single cell.’’(Service, The Guardian) We will evaluate the minimalist invention of phasing through his compositions ‘‘Piano Phase.’’ Steve Reich’s composition, ‘‘Piano Phase,’’ is a song played by only two pianos that repeat 12 notes, but manages to achieve a distinct quality by the two pianos phasing. As Chen Alexander describes: ‘‘Two pianists repeat the same twelve note sequence, but one gradually speeds up. Here, the musical patterns are visualized by drawing two lines, one following each pianist.’’(Alexander, Piano Phase) A repetitive 12 note-playing piano would normally create a tedious sound, but Steve Reich manages to create peculiar layers with only two pianos. Great deal of musicians try to create distinct motifs for innovative music, but it was not common to see someone try to change the way we hear the motifs like Steve Reich did. He then implements the same technique of phasing through his composition ‘‘Violin Phase.’’ This time, instead of two pianos, two violins create the phasing. The violins start out playing the same motif, but one of them plays lower and higher notes with lower and higher volumes. Steve Reich comments on his composition: ‘‘The listener thus becomes aware of one pattern in the music that may open his ear to another, and another, all sounding simultaneously in the ongoing overall texture.’’ (Reich, Violin Phase, Boosey) A single violin playing restricted notes could only be this provoking through the melodic patterns. The reason why the philosophy of minimalism was essential for music underlies in how lessening one element can lead to a complete different approach, as demonstrated by Steve Reich. His final work we will analyze is ‘‘It’s Gonna Rain,’’ which is a tape composed in 1965 which uses excerpts Reich recorded from a black preacher orating the deluge. (Wim Mertens) The song is a looped segment of a preacher screaming ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ over and over, but Steve Reich uses phasing to this looped segment by duplicating the loop and making one preacher state ‘‘It’s Gonna’’, while the other recording screams ‘‘Rain’’. The piece develops from unison to an incomprehensible overlapping of texts and fragments. (Wim Mertens) This musical composition might sound haunting for a good deal of people, but professor Kyle Gann emphasizes the significance of phasing and looping to minimalist music: ‘‘you might write a four-minute piece using only seven pitches and no one would notice, but write a 30-minute piece, and the austere limitations become a major phenomenon of the composition.’’ (Gann, NewMusicUSA)

Philip Glass emerged as the next influential minimalist following Reich. His influence from minimalism emerges in his process defined as additive process, which is explained by Kirsten Lodal: ‘‘The basic idea is that the technique takes a bar of music containing a certain group of notes and repeats it several times. To this group is then added an additional note, and then another, and so on.’’ According to author Wim Mertens, Glass’ method of structuring is his principle feature. By bringing smaller units together in a piece, a grandiose larger unit is formed. (68) We will analyze Glass’ compositions starting with ‘Two Pages’, ‘Opening’ from the album Glassworks, and his Oscar nominated work ‘Einstein on the Beach’. Glass’ Two Pages presents one of the most iconic and peculiar works of minimalism, since there are only five pitches in the entire song. As music critic Rob Haskins analyzes: ‘‘Each module is related to the other by an additive process, described by the composer as a technique in which a simple melodic figure is altered after a number of repetitions by the addition or subtraction of one or a group of related notes.’’(Haskins, Waitrose) The repetitive pitch choices are the minimalistic method that characterizes the composition of Glass. The additive pitch choices in Two Pages creates an aural atmosphere to his minimalist works, which ‘‘gives the listener the feeling that he or she only hears a fragment in a permanent musical continuum.’’ (Mertens 71) His most famous song, ‘‘Opening,’’ is probably the most commercially successful minimalist song. The song was played more than 34 million times on the music-streaming app Spotify, which is more than any of his songs. Author Kirsten Lodel claims that this was the first attempt by Glass to introduce minimalist music into a wider audience. What makes this song special is the fast tempo of the solo piano. It represents the features of minimalist music in an action-packed style: ‘‘motor rhythm, repetitive structures, chord progressions, electro- acoustic voice doublings and a constant stream of arpeggios.’’ (PrimePhonic) The additive process kicks in through the piano arpeggios, and establishes the maverick mood of the song. Glass’ final song we will analyze is ‘‘Einstein on the Beach.’’ Glass composed this piece in the form of an opera for a theatrical play. Operas are usually composed with great deal of instruments; Glass ‘‘utilize[d] a cast of two females and one malechild… bass clarinet and piccolo, tenor saxophone, a solo violin, and two synthesizers.’’(Casey Robertson) The limited instruments and orchestral elements would be considered as a resource crisis for many composers, but we can see the minimalist philosophy in the works for this opera. The work is relatable for the audience because typical operas can feel overwhelming, considering the haunting diversity that the composition offers. ‘‘Simple rhythmic patterns, short melodic motives that are infinitely repeated and simple harmonic progressions are the most typical features.’’ (Wim Mertens) The minimalist music by Glass carried a diverse influence varying from pop to opera.

So, how was minimalism utilized in the 21st century? Radiohead carried the tradition with their 2016 single ‘‘Burn the Witch.’’ The band manages to deliver a blend of minimalist and classical music. Keep in mind that the band Radiohead has always been heavily focused on guitar, and has never included a string instrument. ‘‘Burn The Witch,’’ however, consists entirely of strings. The minimalism in this song comes from the repetitive chord progression, ‘col legno’ style strumming from the string section, and harmonic lyrics.

In the verse, there is a constant repeat of three diatonic chords: F Major, E# Major, and B. Through the constant repeat of these three chords to start the song, Radiohead demonstrate that they are taking a minimalist approach, because Radiohead is unanimously known for their varying and complex chord progressions. So how does Radiohead make the most out of this minimalist chord progression? As a band that is heavily focused on guitars, they manage to achieve a remarkable balance of music by making a purely string-instrumented, classical music song. A reporter at Classic FM states: ‘‘If you want to stretch the interpretation, using col legno (bashing the strings with the back of the bow) produces a sound recognizable as strings, but played in a strange, icky and disturbing way. And what could fit the song better?’’(Classic FM) Just as Reich used phasing and Glass used the additive process, it is the col legno technique that makes Burn The Witch a notable minimalist piece. As music journalist Trendell states: ‘‘It remains menacingly playful while dripping with dread, warning of the ‘low-flying panic attack’ that comes from groupthink propaganda from on high — bedded atop a soundtrack that’s sumptuous but dark all at once.’’ (Trendell, Gigwise) Minimalism forces the musicians to explore their creativity through unconventional methods. The relationship between the string composition and the lyrics are another factor that contributes to the depth of Burn The Witch. As singer Thom Yorke sings ‘‘Abandon all reason’’, a persistent cello exactly reflects his melody. (Classic FM)

The lyrics are as follows: ‘‘Avoid all eye contact, Do not react. Shoot the messenger.’’ (Genius, Lyrics) Music critic Courtney Lindley describes the lyrics as: ‘‘The ideas of abandoning reason, avoiding eye contact, and not reacting by shooting the messenger all once again point to systemic injustices in society, namely in the form of unfair prosecutions. Or, as Radiohead might call them, modern day witch hunts.’’ (Bustle, Lindley) A song that starts with three progressions managed critical acclaim through the guidance of minimalism.

Minimalist compositions took a new direction through the efforts of western musicians, and a great number of modern musicians have been influenced from Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The phrasing technique by Reich played a crucial role in defining minimalist music by his foundation of repetitive and overlapping sounds. Glass’ influenced a variety of industrial compositions, such as film scores, symphonies and operas, which demonstrate the long-lasting impact of minimalist music. Radiohead’s ‘Burn The Witch’ is a distinct piece that offered an unfamiliar take on minimalism through their orchestral arrangements, and it is too early to say how widely influential Radiohead’ minimalist works will be. The minimalist approach in music increased the value of utilizing with limited supplies and established a whole new appreciation of sound.


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