Maarten Beirens

Elusive Redundancy: Minimal Music’s Analytical Challenges Between Pattern, Process and Texture

Minimal music generally confronts the music analyst with a considerable challenge, or better: an apparent lack of challenge. In the overwhelming presence of copious repetition, harmonic stasis, extremely gradual variation and clearly perceptible compositional processes, minimalism may appear to focus on the musical surface. Any traditional view of music analysis as probing for structural and formal devices ‘hidden’ beneath that surface would then seem bound to find very little of interest there. Reclaiming minimal music as a valuable object for music analysis (Bernard 1995, Quinn 2006) thus has to take into account the particular ways in which minimalism’s redundancy operates and how it still may harbor elements which otherwise would remain elusive.
Some recent efforts to apply analytic rigour to the deceptively simple minimalist material stem either from formalist music analysis (Epstein 1986, Cohn 1992, Roeder 2003) which tends to focus on the inherent properties of the material – the patterns, or from theorising minimalism’s particular approach to diatonic pitch content (Tymoczko 2011, Johnson 2011).
While those examples tend to focus on the systematic evaluation of the properties of the basic material, I propose to focus on the larger-scale form instead, evaluating how these basic characteristics of the minimalist material operate within a musical work. Taking examples from such early works as Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion and Steve Reich’s Phase Patterns, this paper will present an approach based on the mapping of textural density as a way of mediating between the theoretical concepts of the properties of the patterns on the one hand and the systems of the process on the other hand. The idiosyncratic use of texture in these and similar pieces reveals a particular approach to large-scale dynamic structure encompassing contrast, expansion, transformation and teleological evolution within an otherwise radically reductive and apparently static musical language.