Minimalist music is more than repeating a few notes by Siavash

Guest Post by Siavash Saadlou:  Creative Writing Non-Fiction MA Student at City University London

A friend of mine recently told me about his view towards minimalist music, believing that it is nothing but playing the same notes over and over again. But there is more to minimalist music than meets the eye.

Minimalist music was introduced to the world of tunes as the biggest phenomenon of the 20th century. At the time, some considered it a blessing and some others regarded it as heresy, and yet minimalism found its way into becoming integrated with some fundamental music genres, most notably rock and pop.

  • The art of imagination

Minimalism has never been immune from harsh criticism. The British music critic Alan McDonald once described minimalist music as ‘sexless’ and ‘passionless’. But is that what minimalism is all about? The answer is a firm no.

The American author and composer David Cope believes that minimalist music has five certain characteristics including ‘silence’, ‘concept’, ‘brevity’, ‘continuity’, and ‘pattern’ (which braces repetition in itself). It also has to be said that you barely find dramatic shifts in contemporary minimalist music. Still, what differentiates minimalism from other genres of music is none of what you’ve read so far. The most important factor you need while listening to minimalist music is a great sense of imagination that roses from within. You can get your kicks out of listening to rock and pop music with the words and the concept being unbeknownst to you, but minimalist music is a horse of another color. In other words, you can listen to a song by someone like Lady Gaga and enjoy its beat and tempo, but there is no way you can enjoy listening to a piece of minimalist music without the cognizance of, what I would call, ‘ambiance’ of the work. Here below, I have shed light on minimalist music through three clear examples. I have to point out though that, at the end of the day, music is of course a matter of taste. As they say, different folks, different strokes!

·      Yann Tiersen – Déjà Loin

The multi-instrumentalist French artist Yann Tiersen, nicknamed as ‘new Chopin’, is indeed one of the best minimalist composers ever lived. He released C’etait ici in 2002, a live compilation album that includes his best tour performances throughout the year. Among the tracks, the song Déjà Loin is one of many which has a deep concept despite its simplicity. It starts with a mellow melody, a childish one, reflecting on a newly born child. The mellow start continues for a short while, just like the way life, for most people, is beautiful and pain-free in its initial stages. Then there is a shift in both beat and pace, a metaphor for the vicissitudes of life. Just like the raging beat of the song, life never gets any easier too. The continuation of the piece involves repetition, the part and parcel of minimalist music, but there are tiny sounds to be heard as well, reflecting on a ray of hope amid all the difficulties. Déjà Loin ends with a sudden and deep silence, a metaphor for death. It is a brilliantly composed piece of music by Yann Tiersen, only to testify to the truthfulness of what Michael Nyman once said, that ‘minimalist music often does not sound as simple as it looks’.

  • Øystein Sevåg – Based on a True Story

The Norwegian composer Øystein Sevåg is more of a contemporary classical composer, but with his 2005 album entitled Based on a True Story, he decided to chance his arm and produce some minimalist music. Based on a True Story is a piano-focused album that takes you through a journey of self-discovery started by Sevåg himself, exploring his personal life after he and his wife go their separate ways. The album requires a great sense of curiosity and imagination, as every track follows the Sevåg’s story in an amusing way. With Based on a True Story, Sevåg proved that it is possible to tell a brutally honest story, even a personal one, without using any words. Sevåg leaves the right of judgment to the listener, even when it comes to deciding about the points where there is a twist in the story.

  • Ludovico Einaudi – Oltremare

The Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi has always shied away from labeling his music, but he recently confessed to his love for minimalism, saying that he would prefer to be called a ‘minimalist’ than something else.

Einaudi’s 2007 album Divenire (means ‘to become’ in Italian) is his most critically acclaimed work that really captivates the soul with its enormous variety and marvelous simplicity. There are light tracks such as Monday and Ritormare where Einaudi proves how simplicity and beauty are not mutually exclusive in minimalist music. Then there are tracks like Primavera or Divenire where a touch of symphonic music is to be heard. The best piece of work in Divenire, in my opinion, is Oltremare (means ‘overseas’ in Italian). Oltremare is arguably Einaudi’s best piece of solo piano work, as one user comment for Oltremare on YouTube video uploading website reads, ‘I bet this song is on God’s iPod’.

Indeed Oltremare is a tune everyone would like to hear when attending an Einaudi concert. It starts with a soft melody that is perpetuated throughout the piece, one that finds its way into your mind and stays there forever. The repetition might make the piece sound boring, but the ending is dramatic and perfectly matches the whole melody.


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