'On Minimalism' unearths a hypnotic music's untold stories : Deceptive Cadence In their new book On Minimalism, musicologists William Robin and Kerry O'Brien capture the lesser-known stories of the musical movement and its development, era by era.

Minimalism: a story told in 8 pulses

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ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

On November 4, 1964, an ensemble of musicians took the stage at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

WILLIAM ROBIN: The first thing you hear is this constant reiterating eighth notes played on the piano - Cs - this pulse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY RILEY'S "IN C")

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

William Robin is a musicologist at the University of Maryland. That night was the debut of an experimental composition. It was written by a young composer named Terry Riley, but it was the musicians who were in control of the performance.

FLORIDO: They could each choose from 53 musical phrases, all of them revolving around the note C, to play for as long or as short as they wanted before moving on to the next one. It was called "In C."

ROBIN: It was unusually reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle. A music critic went and saw it and said, like, this is music like none other on Earth.

CHANG: Around the same time, similar experiments in avant-garde music were being performed in lofts in New York City. A new genre of music was emerging.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Vocalizing).

KERRY O'BRIEN: Some people called it hypnotic. People who didn't like it called it needle-stuck-in-the-groove music. A lot of people called it trance music.

CHANG: Kerry O'Brien is another musicologist. She teaches at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

O'BRIEN: Once the music eventually was described as minimalist, the composers weren't a fan because it can have connotations of simplicity. So they rejected the title, but, you know, it stuck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: Minimalism - by the end of the '60s, minimalism had not only solidified, it had produced a quartet of founding fathers credited with bringing the genre to life - Terry Riley, Steve Reich, La Monte Young and Philip Glass.

ROBIN: But there are limitations to a story that relies on the founding fathers. There were so many other folks creating minimalist music in this period, and that includes women and people of color and LGBTQ+ musicians.

CHANG: So O'Brien and Robbins set out to write the lesser-known story of minimalism. Their book, called "On Minimalism," is out now. It begins with the artistic and cultural influences that set the stage for the early minimalists, including music that came from the other side of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBIN: They were very profoundly influenced by the first recordings of Indian music that were reaching the West at this time in the late '50s and early '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: A number of things changed in the 1960s. The lifting of the Asian Immigration Act changed the ability of musicians from India to come to the U.S. So all of a sudden, musicians were able to study firsthand with gurus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Vocalizing).

ROBIN: You have these musicians who are sustaining a single note for hours on ends and trying to hear all of the complexity that comes out of just sustaining a single drone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Vocalizing).

O'BRIEN: There's also - an important part of early minimalism is through modal jazz. There's a case to be made that Miles Davis was one of our first minimalists. You could also call John Coltrane one of our first minimalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "INDIA")

O'BRIEN: In pieces or albums like "Africa Brass," tracks like "India," he, like Reich and Riley, were significantly influenced by North Indian music, West African music and incorporated those influences into their music, which resulted in an attraction to drones, an attraction to repetition.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "INDIA")

ROBIN: One of the reasons this music has endured is because it has this continued engagement with pop music and especially with rock music. So in the early '70s, The Who pay overt homage to minimalism in the opening of their song "Baba O'Riley," which is named for Terry Riley.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHO SONG, "BABA O'RILEY")

ROBIN: A few years later, you have Brian Eno and David Bowie collaborating on a series of albums that are very much influenced by the fact that they're listening to a ton of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in this period.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: There's also figures like the composer Pauline Oliveros. She was really drawn to drones that she found in the environment, like the droning of highway noise or like buzzing electricity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: She once spent an entire year dedicated to droning on a single note - an A - on her accordion and using her voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: And she went so far as to say that, like, music wasn't necessarily the whole point. Music was a byproduct of her practice that was really a tuning of the mind and body.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAULINE OLIVEROS: (Vocalizing).

ROBIN: So another important figure in this period is Julius Eastman, whose work is undergoing this really important revival after it was largely neglected in the years around his early and untimely death.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS EASTMAN'S "GAY GUERILLA")

ROBIN: He was part of this next generation of composers who were engaging with minimalism in the '70s and '80s who were thinking less about the kind of abstraction of the music and instead engaging with it as a part of his identity, in this case, as a queer Black man.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS EASTMAN'S "GAY GUERILLA")

O'BRIEN: One piece, "Gay Guerrilla" - he explains in a pre-concert talk that he intended it the way that you talk about Afghani guerrillas or PLO guerrillas - people who are in a fight. And he said, you know, if he was called upon to be one, he would want to be a gay guerrilla. You know, this is 10 years after Stonewall on kind of the cusp of the AIDS epidemic, so this piece, "Gay Guerrilla," it's minimalist in multiple ways. For one thing, it begins with just single notes on the piano, and it builds and builds over about 20 or 30 minutes. And through repetition and through accumulation, it offers this kind of spiritual and a kind of musical fortress.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS EASTMAN'S "GAY GUERILLA")

ROBIN: This music has this way of coming back again and again. And you look forward into the 1990s, and there are British techno musicians who are playing and sampling Steve Reich at raves and in pop singles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) Fire in the clouds would catch the colors everywhere...

ROBIN: And this continues into the 21st century, where you have indie rock acts like Bon Iver and the National and Sufjan Stevens who are very strongly influenced by minimalism. You have composers in the classical world, someone like Nico Muhly or Missy Mazzoli, who are bringing, you know, the pulses that were developed in the '60s into orchestral music, but you also have a drone or doom metal band like Sunn O))) that is playing this, like, ecstatically dark drone music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNN O)))'S "FROST (C)")

ROBIN: So both the techniques and, I think, also the kind of loftier metaphysical ideas are ones that are continually appealing to musicians in many different genres.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: You know, music aside, composer names aside, there's a number of kind of lessons within minimalism - ways that minimalism really can change a listener, the ways that minimalism kind of cultivates your attention. There's a lot of different things that are kind of vying for our attention. And the ability to, like, stay with something - stay with a drone, stay with a pattern, stay with yourself - I think is just, like, such a valuable thing that minimalist music can teach you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: That was Kerry O'Brien and William Robin, musicologists and authors of the new book "On Minimalism."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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