Exploring Music's Complexities

Stravinsky’s Road to Minimalism

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”                                                                                                                 T.S. Eliot


It all started with Igor Stravinsky, the Picasso of music. His philosophy embraced the notion that works of art could only be created through revolutionary activity. Following Schoenberg’s lead he proceeded to make his own rules: He felt free to express anything, even the ugly things. Sounds he created in his performance in 1913 of “Rite of Spring” were new and electrifying. After a negative introduction the piece was praised and acclaimed primarily for its rhythmic innovation and asymmetry.

From the perspective of neurologist Jonah Lehrer, the modernist vision of this piece is a syntax of violated patterns and that it doesn’t become better over time. It just becomes different (1) .


Because Stravinsky believed that music demanded continuous upheaval, he spent his career reinventing himself. His influence is noted in modernism, satirizing of baroque, and finally setting the stage for minimalism (1).  Nothing would ever be the same.

So what minimalism in music? Dictionary .Com defines it as “an avant-garde movement in music characterized by the repetition of very short phrases that change gradually, producing a hypnotic effect.” (2). Compositions of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams are examples. The term is thought to have arisen from the friendships of composers with Minimalist artists Steve Reich and Philip Glass (3). While John Adams is associated with Minimalism his music does not strictly follow minimalist techniques. Rather, he describes his music as “post-minimalistic”. Adams’s compositions are more directional and climactic with a touch of Romanticism (4).

Minimalist compositions are not simple. The technique builds on exploring a single chord or scale to determine its many harmonic variations. Modulation may happen gradually to provide a smooth transition from one harmony to the other. The piece may also be rhythmic or draw influences from polyrhythms of traditional African percussion music. Minimal music in electronic dance music is an example with repeating dance forms and gradual shifts in harmony (4).


Use of these techniques symphonically can be noted in Terry Riley’s In C (4).


Steve Reich, “Music for 18 Musicians”  builds on the layers of blinding colors and hypnotic rhythms (4).


John Adams, Harmonielehre(1985) plays with vocal timbre, straight forward with a kind of baroque fullness (4).


Minimal music’s influence can be noted in experimental rock pieces such as Velvet Underground (1965-19730), A Rainbow in Curved Air (1967-1968), and Smiley Smile (1967).


  1. Lehrer, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. “Igor Stravinsky”. pp. 140-143. 2007. A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  1. Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/minimalism. Retrieved 03/08/2017.
  1. New York Times. Just Don’t Call It Minimalism. Aug 10, 2007. http://www.wytimes.com/2007/08//10/arts/music/10mini.html. Retrieved 01/08/2017.
  1. Minimal Music-John Adams Composer. http://johnadamscomposer.com/minimalist-music/. Retrieved 03/08/2017

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Categorised in: History, Music Theory, Performers

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