Minimalism: Towards a Definition

Adrian Smith

Smith, Adrian. 2008. Minimalism: Towards a definition, in Maynooth Musicology, Brian Carty, Pat O’Connell, Barbara Strahan (eds.) (NUI Maynooth: 2008).


What is minimalism when applied to music? Is it an adequate term to describe this movement or does it have misleading connotations? Does it show parallels with its counterpart in the fine arts? In what context did it arise? These are all questions which I hope to answer in this paper. No single area of 20th century music has provoked more terminological confusion than minimalism. Many of the attempts to define it have only focused on obvious surface features without exploring deeper into its aesthetic raison d’etre. The result of all this is that after thirty years of minimalist scholarship we have a universally accepted term which is still not fully understood.

This paper will be divided into two distinct but nonetheless intrinsically linked sections. The first half focuses on the inadequacy of ‘minimalism’ as a descriptive term when applied to music. I will argue this unsuitability through a number of points namely, that it;

a) is too specific to describe the overall movement

b) it assumes a false aesthetic

c) it has negative connotations when considered against the compositional climate in which it originated.

Ultimately however it is too late for a name change and we must accept what is now a common currency in musicological terms. Since this is the case and we are dealing with a universally accepted term, an understanding of the aesthetic behind the music itself and an awareness of the term’s limitations are necessary. This is the argument which will comprise the second half of this paper. I will examine the fundamental core of this music and put forward a definition based on a-teleological stasis which will adequately describe the music of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the four composers most associated with the movement. This definition of minimalism will place it in a context which also considers the post-Cagian and post-war Serialist movements. Finally, I will define the distinction between ‘classic’ and ‘post’ minimalism which I feel is necessary to cater for the influences of minimalism in more recent composition.