Poster Detail from the cover of "Glassworks"
Detail from the cover of Philip Glass's "Glassworks"

Minimalism: Relaxing - or maddening?

"In a civilized society things don't need to be said more than three times," Elliott Carter famously remarked.

A staunch critic of minimalism, Carter argued that the repetitive structures characteristic of works by composers such as Philip Glass—like the repetitive nature of political and commercial propaganda—were dangerous. Certainly, minimalist music can seem static when compared to Carter's fast-paced serialism or to the antecedent-and-consequent phrase structures of sonata-form works. But minimalism is hardly malevolent, and once you adjust your expectations, repeats that initially seem maddening become soothing.

Over the past few years, meditation and mindfulness have entered mainstream culture, with apps like Headspace guiding laymen in brief meditation sessions. Music lovers might turn to minimalist drone works in order to achieve a sense of calm. For example, each movement of 20th-century composer Giacinto Scelsi's Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola (1959) consists of just one pitch class that undergoes transformations in voicing, timbre, and dynamic.

Similarly, La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #7 simply notates a B and F-sharp in treble clef with the instruction, "to be held for a long time." Whether you find the concepts gimmicky or refreshing, these pieces have yielded a diverse range of interpretations, many—if not all—of which are worth a listen.

Scelsi's and Young's works might induce a soporific state in one listener, but engross the next—either way, they're excellent pieces for quieting the mind's idle chatter.

Take this meditative listening to the next level with the works of Pauline Oliveros, a proponent of sonic awareness, or active involvement with the kind of environmental noise people routinely tune out. Oliveros has listened to and described the sounds of refrigerators, radiators, and traffic; her subtly changing drone music is ideal for relaxation.

Often, minimalist music makes up for what it lacks in melodic interest through rhythmic complexity. The constant but gradual shifting of rhythmic patterns in Steve Reich's music provides plenty of opportunities to lose—and find—oneself. The fun lies in noticing the changes in a piece like Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), whose additive patterns create a hypnotic effect.

Though his style has since departed from pure minimalism, John Adams's early works—such as Common Tones in Simple Time (1979)—feature vibrant rhythmic currents that inspire productivity without frenzy.

Genre distinctions are rarely foolproof, and minimalism is an umbrella that reluctantly encompasses everything from Frederic Rzewski to Yann Tiersen. Because such variety exists within a highly repetitive genre, though, chances are there's a minimalist work for you.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her Master's degree in violin from University of California—Santa Cruz. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of Bay Area ensembles, and writes about classical music for several publications.

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