Modernism, Steve Reich, and the threat of Minimalism by Nicholas Di Maria December 12, 2012

World War II changed not only the countries and governments of civilization, but also the human outlook and imagination. The war tore apart lands across the globe, and  even through the very souls of the those who witnessed it first hand. Prior to the war, classical music was still governed by European composers. Primarily with German composers, and their ideas were based on a particular conception of how music should be written. The age of Modernism was becoming the predominant form of expression as atonality and total serialism was at the center of classical compositions.  After the war, the experiences and visions of composers from Europe and the United States would contrast from each other. Although in the United States, Modernistic techniques would be heralded and initiated in works, new and different styles of music would emerge. One of the these styles was Minimalism, which would become a contemporary style of music in the United States. Composer Steve Reich said that traditional Modernists saw Minimalism as a threat to music, yet he thought it was, a “great leveler.” “The American experience had been different and demanded a different medium of expression.” Steve Reich was right to recognize and celebrate the fact that Minimalism was different, because it came from a different experience.  American composers could not pretend they were European.

At the end of World War II, the world saw the west divided between the bombed out European continent and the prosperous beacon of the United States. Both lands gave way to two different experiences of life for the baby boomer generation. American musicians created a pro-American spirit that portrayed a self identity different from the Modernist European style, rich with its own sources, genres and themes. The rise of Minimalism would embrace this new identity through exciting, cerebral, and original compositions. Instead of the academics and elitists pushing the music, the counter culture would be the determining factor in the direction of new music. Steve Reich, along with other composers like Terry Riley and Philip Glass, embraced this perspective and directed music that was separated from Europe. These composers felt they could not emulate their European counterparts, nor did they want to, and thus sought to create music of their own.


Part I: America vs. Europe

“A wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy, creepy music.” — Philip Glass


In order to understand the stance taken by Steve Reich and the other Minimalistic composers (and American composers of the same time for that matter), the history of Post War America and the European continent must be addressed.

After the war,  Americans lived in an age of prosperity. Soldiers returned home, were educated and employed,  and began to start families. The country saw the largest surge in births in its history; aptly named the Baby Boomer Generation. A status quo was created. The idea of a loving wife, kids, and a modest house in the suburbs gave way to the notion of the American Dream. It was an unwritten status that every American could, and should do right, making a place for themselves.

The rise of manufacturing, advertisement and commercialization created a society of want versus need. Neighbors competed for front lawn supremacy. Fast food chains, department stores and paved highways added to the growing American image. It was like nothing that had ever been seen.

Starting in the 1950’s television would dominate and become a focal point in the American household. Programming would keep Americans at home after dinner, and away from the night clubs that were packed wall to wall during the 1930’s and 40’s.

The post-war era of the United States created a cultural identity. American pride was strong. The world had been saved from tyranny through the hard work and unification of a people. Many felt that the idea of being American was a truly great thing.


This was the world the Minimalists grew up in.


Europe was far different after the war. After the Allied victory, much of the continent was in ruins. Once again people suffered as they suffered during the first world war. However, action was taken to avoid the mistakes that proceeded after the first war and support was given to those who needed it. America led that support and the people of Europe were able to rebuild. The United States became a beacon of prosperity overseas. A country of great power and wealth that would be idolized, imitated, and valued.




Part II: Music in America and the Impact of Jazz

“You couldn’t dance to ‘Ko-Ko;’ you had to sit back and listen as [Charlie] Parker scribbled lightening in the air.” –Amiri Baraka (Blues People 1963)


Since its inception, European classical form and aesthetic were the common practices of composers in the United States. From Charles Ives, to George Gershwin the insertion of either folk, nationalistic or popular music was the only aspect that separated it from the European style starting from the Romantic era through atonality. American composers studied abroad and continued to do so throughout the 20th century.  It was only a matter of time before American composers urned for a true style of their own. From John Cage to Frank Zappa, Steve Reich to Miles Davis, American musicians and composers mastered the concepts of the European masters and applied their theories to the music they created. It was only a matter of time before they began to realize they could create their own American identity.

Morton Feldman in a very cynical stance on American composers noted:

“He starts out as a romantic, a budding genius overflowing with original ideas, or at least with ideas about originality. Then he goes off to a university and discovers that romanticism is defunct. He studies for six years at Princeton or Yale, learning about twelve-tone writing, total serialism, indeterminacy, and the rest. He goes to Darmstadt and samples the latest wares of the European avant-garde. “”He writes a piece occasionally and it is played occasionally. There is the possibility of a performance on the Gunther Schuller series. His pieces are well made. He is not without talent. The reviews aren’t bad. A few award..– this is the official musical life of America.” (The Rest is Noise p. 532)

Although Mr. Feldman’s stance is quite dramatic, I agree that it had to have felt true enough to motivate the minimalist composers to seek a new direction.

The different experience that Steve Reich mentioned was hugely related to the music that was happening in the United States at the time. For the first time movements in music were being created in the U.S. and exported elsewhere; the opposite of what had been the common practice prior. Through American popular music and with a melting pot culture, musicians shared and blended ideas and styles. This gave way to many genres that originated in America.

American popular music was bursting with creativity. “Jazz, blues, country, and gospel evolved into rhythm and blues, rock n’ roll, soul and funk.” “Hank Williams,  crafted country songs of gem-like beauty; Ray Charles and James Brown fused gospel with blues sensuality; Chuck Berry let loose the stripped down anarchy of rock n’ roll; Elvis Presley repackaged rock for a huge youth public (Ross 518). The counter culture that emerged alongside these musical movements and their standards of thought and behavior encompassed the life of the composers as they entered their college years and continued through their lives. This was extremely obvious when Steve Reich worked in Terry Riley’s band as his piano player, when both were students in San Francisco. They collaborated on the use of static harmonic progressions, reminiscent of Modal Jazz similar to Miles Davis’s So What from the 1959 album Kind of Blue and its dreamlike slowness of the harmonic rhythm (Ross 519).

Jazz, and especially Bebop, had a very distinct effect on the Minimalist composers and the American experience. During the war, with large numbers of musicians serving in the armed forces, the size of the commercial jazz ensemble shrank severely. The music moved its focus away from pleasing the audience into dancing to artistic statements.

Starting with the Bebop movement, you see a breaking down of musical boundaries. According to Alex Ross: “The wall separating classical music from neighboring genres appeared ready to crumble, as it had momentarily in the twenties and thirties, when Copland and Gershwin, and Ellington crossed paths at Carnegie Hall.” (Ross 516) An example and poignant moment in jazz was Charlie Parker quoting The Rite of Spring in his solo on the classic: “Salt Peanuts.”

Bebop was not only a musical movement, but an identity. The Beboppers were proud of their music and saw themselves as serious artists and musicians. Trumpeter and Jazz educator Dizzy Gillespie said “We invented our own way of getting from one place to the next” (Ross p.519). It continued through out the 1950‘s and 60‘s. As Thelonious Monk stated: “You play what you want, and let the public pick up what you are doing” (Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: an Encyclopedia by: Todd Jenkins
Greenwood Press). This mentality would be prominent in the counter culture that produced Minimalism.

As stated before, Steve Reich and the Minimalist composers grew up with Jazz from an early age and it would effect their musical tastes and output: “Two sounds caught the ear of fourteen year old Steve Reich: the punch-drunk rhythm of the Rite of Spring and the blindsiding beat of Kenny Clarke (Ross p. 518). For Terry Riley, it was Bebop and ragtime piano. Philip Glass was an avid listener of jazz. The history of minimalism can’t be written without mention of jazz after World War II.

Modern Jazz borrowed and adapted classical music and in turn influenced these composers in their formidable years. Terry Riley literally played his compositions alongside famed trumpeter Chet Baker in the early 1960‘s. Improvising as an art form would be key to the aesthetics of composers like Reich and Riley. Much of minimalism depends on the collective whole working together. The intricate pieces of a song must fit together precisely in order for the piece to be fully actualized. Gunther Schuller wrote: “which holds that all musics are created equal, coexisting in a beautiful brotherhood of musics that complement and fructify each other “ (

Modern Jazz musicians would be irresistible to the American classical composers who were as Ross put it: “looking for a way out of Schoenberg’s maze.”

Reich and his colleagues didn’t just one day protest European music and decide together they were going to do something new or different. It was a very gradual and detailed development. It began at the university level where Terry Riley and Steve Reich, along with John Cage, Pauline Oliveros were formally or many times, as in Cage’s case, informally students of leading composers like La Monte Young, Edgard Varese, Henry Cowell; also, Arnold Schoenberg. (Holmes)

During their college years, the classical avant-garde was in full swing. Composers were taking pilgrimages to Darmstadt, Germany to consult with Karl Stockhausen and in Paris, France with Pierre Scheafer. The modernistic approach to music with electronic experimentation was a direct pathway to minimalism. For example the application of total serialism was applied in conjunction with electronic  experimentation, music concrete and tape loops. The adventurous along with the forms of the past. (Holmes).


PART III: European Modernism and John Cage 

“There is, thank God, a large segment of our population that never heard        of J.S. Bach.” -Harry Partch (


Post war Europe was a laboratory. Full of academically inspired composers who drafted compositions that were at times, scientific in process.  Electronic innovations led to experimentation that influenced many composers. Historians mark the advent of The Modernist movement in music started after World War I and continued through out the century. Many historians argue what years exactly the movement occurred, others simply label the movement as a mindset that a composer have: “In music, the term “modernism” refers generally to the period of change and development in musical language that occurred at or around the turn of the 20th century, a period of diverse reactions in challenging and reinterpreting older categories of music, innovations that lead to new ways of organizing and approaching harmonic, melodic, sonic, and rhythmic aspects of music, and changes in aesthetic world views in close relation to the larger identifiable period of modernism in the arts of the time” (Metzer, David Joel. 2009. Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Music in the Twentieth Century 26. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press). However, popular music and counter culture that thrived in the United States would be separated from the academic mindset of European composers. The work of jazz artists Coltrane, Monk and Davis, would not effect music on the European continent, nor would Elvis, Chuck Berry or James Brown.

The Modernist approached looked to older forms of music such as structure, narrative, melodic and rhythmic development and applied or advanced those previous writing styles to newer works.  Such is the case with Schoenberg’s serialist music that he developed and applied through the rest of his life.

Total serialism, is the idea of using predetermined notes known as tone rows, harmonies, and rhythms in the creation of a composition, soon the status quo of classical music. The Darmstadt school as it was known, is seen in the work of Olivier Messiaen’s Mode de valeus et d’intensites, written in 1950. In his piece, he created divisions for each chromatic note, dynamic markings and articulations. The piece is remarkable in its systematic aesthetic. [Each division] “containing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, each represented once. In the score each division has a staff to itself” (Oxford 412) Pierre Boulez continued this idea of divisions with his work Structures Ia in 1951 Messiaen’s music advanced the serial concepts of Arnold Schoenberg and  reflects the sounds of Medieval music and as most of his music, was influenced by his deep religious convictions. Messiaen later served as a mentor to other post war composers in Europe in the Darmstadt school.

Soon after, a 24 year old student composer of Messiaen’s would continue in the serialist style and push it even further in the European way, Karlheinz Stockhausen. The composer studied in Germany and France and worked with other Modernist composers.  He experimented with electronic music techniques such as tape loops and voltage oscillation. Although his music would be presented in nontraditional ensembles or lack of an organized ensemble altogether, like in with prerecorded tape, his compositions were in the style of his European mentors. “Stockhausen’s approach to composing [Studie I] is a good example of the application of serial technique to the tape composition and also illustrates the discipline shown by classically trained composers in creating music… (Holmes 63).

Stockhausen became a figurehead and authority on the electronic classical music scene through out the 50’s and into the 60’s. American composers traveled to discuss music with him (and few received any honest or welcoming attention from the composer). Stockhausen, an elder of the minimalists, did not experience the lifestyle of popular music bombarding the music he was seriously studying and what was on the radio. His music is very different from the Americans’. Unlike his counterparts, after class he did not sneak off in the night in search of jazz or rock n’ roll in a club. He would influence both classical and popular artists, but in turn not from younger composers.


The composer who connected the two continents during the post war era was John Cage. Cage dabbled, experimented, sought and strived in almost every musical technique conducted in the 20th century. During the 1950‘s he visited Europe to learn for himself what Modernist composers were creating first hand, especially on the more experimental level. He is known as a chaotic composer, one who used noises as a means of arguing new music. He incorporated African musical concepts and worked with Chance Operations. His on the cuff attitude and use of improvisation in performances would echo with the minimalists that came up after him. Presently his music is still debated with strong opinions about his work heavily divided between artistic to absurd. He was however, quite the opposite and added to the experience of the young American composers. “Although some of Cage’s music might certainly be described as lacking conventional musical structure and harmony, much of the composer’s music for conventional instruments is much the opposite. The bottom line is that composing by chance operations doesn’t necessarily imply that the outcome is chaotic (Holmes 87).

Cage was an elder to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and other American composers after the war, through his west coast studies with Henry Cowell, took his knowledge east where his influence spread. His compositions in magnetic tape and experiments with musique concrete  for instance, served as a palette for the younger musicians to explore. He hovered over the “radical end of of American music as a liberating spirit” according to Alex Ross, and was once quoted as saying “Beethoven was wrong!!” at a lecture in 1952. Cage took what he had learned from classical composition and sought a new direction. Steve Reich’s magnetic tape composition Its Gonna Rain is reminiscent of Cage’s work, The Roaratorio and Fontana Mix. John Cage bridged the European and the American.






PART IV: Minimalism

“To be a tonal composer in the 60’s and 70’s was a deeply dispiriting experience. One was shunned as the last teenaged virgin.”–William Mayer (Ross 533)


Minimalism began in the underground music scene of New York City’s downtown lofts and the clubs of San Francisco. Based on consonant harmony and the repetition and development of short motivic devices and/or phrases, the music became very popular amongst composers and experimentalists.

Minimalism is said to have started with composer La Monte Young who credits growing up in the dairy lands of Idaho as the source for his spaciousness in his music. He listened to bebop and twelve tone music (which Gunther Schuller liked to say “often sounded the same”) (Ross 536). He dissected the tone rows of Webern, a student of Schoenberg, and saw connections between the notes. Young extended the notes of the rows into long tones as he put it. He wrote and experimented with drone-based sounds through out the 60’s. He joined the counter culture movement, interacting with artists like Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono. He included eastern philosophy such as Tai Chi into his composing techniques; he even experimented with drugs.

Terry Riley met Young in 1958 and was introduced to the older composer’s teachings. “What La Monte introduced me to was this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest,” said Riley (Ross 539). This was part of the experience Reich was referring to. Riley experimented with marijuana and LSD along with the compositional techniques with tape loops by Cage and Stockhausen. His first tape piece was named Mescalin Mix. 

Riley’s work continued with the experimentation and integration of drones, loops and improvisation. He was attracted to hippie culture, and attracted throngs of tie-dyed fans with all-night improvisations on electronically enhanced saxophone and organ (Ross 541). His most famous work, In C, is held together by two pulsing high C’s played on the piano. It consists of 53 short, musical phrases played at the discretion of the performers (in a Cagian style) in a particular order. In true hippie attitude the pulse (eighth note C’s) is maintained by “a beautiful girl,” noted in the score, and has no specific duration. The most separating aspect of the piece from the European style is the focus on E, the major third of the C major chord, again the focus on diatonic harmony.

If Terry Riley was the west coast hippie of minimalism, Steve Reich was the New York street version. He grew up between living in New York and California while his mother pursued an acting career. “If I had been in Europe during this period, I would have rode on very different trains,” he once said (Ross 541).

Reich was a teenager in the 1950’s and listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring along with the Bebop records of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. In college, he was attracted to Modernist Lucian Berio and the serialist method. However, tonality kept slipping into his compositions where Berio said “If you want to write tonal music, why don’t you write tonal music?” (Ross 542)He was influenced by fellow minimalists and his early compositions  were experimental. His first major work It’s Gonna Rain is a result of tape looping and echo effect. Reich’s early forays into composition involved experimentation with twelve-tone composition, but he found the rhythmic aspects of the twelve-tone series more interesting than the melodic aspects (


Outside of his college studies he spent time and performed with other, similarly thinking musicians and eventually decided to leave the academic life for the counter culture one. He didn’t quite accept the psychedelic lifestyle of his collaborators and moved back to New York.  The events of the 1960‘s would always be prevalent in his tone. Like many Americans, the turbulent decade wore at him.

On the east coast he continued to experiment with the phasing that he learned with tape looping. He was influenced by John Cage’s openminded approach to musical opportunities. His piece It’s Gonna Rain relied on the phasing effect that was created by the tape loop; in the mid 60‘s he wanted to apply that to instrumental music. He assembled a performing group for his music that acted more like a jazz group than a classical ensemble. “I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.” The result would be a blend of modal jazz, psychedelic trance, rage of protest music and the sexy bounce of rock n’ roll (Ross 545).


Steve Reich said: “Since the Schoenberg revolution began, audiences has been pleading for contemporary composers to return to plain old major and minor chords” (Ross 547). The post war era created a whole different environment for American composers and their music is a conscience proof of their rejection of European styles. For years American composers sought to create an original style of music and be accepted as serious classical composers. It took the effort of protesting the very academic school of thought and embrace the rebellious counter culture. American musicians grew up listening to American popular music, the domestic history happening before their eyes and the need to experiment freely. The advent of the underground music scene, similar to its rock and jazz contemporaries helped the experimentation grow. Steve Reich, along with his cohorts, were correct to protest a style that did not reflect their own experience. In music, composers and players will often find a reactionary movement threatening. In most cases, with out rebellion, change and progress can not occur.




Accessed 12/12/12



Metzer, David Joel. 2009. Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Music in the Twentieth Century 26. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

Oxford Anthology of Western Music. Volume III Oxford Press. New York. Print 2013

Baraka, Amiri, Blues People 1963

Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise. Picador. New York. Print 2007

Holmes, Thom, Electronic and Experimental Music. Third Edition. Routledge. New York. Print 2002

Woody Shaw… you beautiful dude

Woody Shaw never ceases to torment my thoughts.

He’s an enigmatic player, who changed the way the trumpet can be played. I’m always interested in his solos, but because of his complex, angular style, I tend to get over whelmed, throw my hands up in the air, and cry out in pain.

Here’s the deal:

I’m drawn to Woody’s individualistic approach and attitude, his creative sensibility, and his take no prisoners energy. But, I don’t play like him. Shit, I don’t even hear music the way he does. I often call Woody’s style “Space Music.” Woody has been known to mention his application to improvisation based on the stylings of John Coltrane. Especially the execution of extreme intervallic movement and expansion of harmony. This, in short, creates large leaps that seem almost impossible on the trumpet. Not only do you need to have a strong theoretical understanding, you have to have the chops in order to do it.

So like most trumpet players, I tend to relate to Freddie Hubbard’s equally original, yet far more linear style to playing the trumpet.

I don’t know why it seems like you have to to devote to one style or the other, but I find myself conflicted with how much of each I should try to incorporate into my own playing. It’s puzzling when you think about, what little pieces of a player’s style you incorporate into your own.

In the mean time, I’m just going to turn the volume to 11, and enjoy this cat’s beautiful work.


Miles once said, “Everybody’s a thief.”