For the August edition of the collaborative blog, members of the collective discuss their favorite minimal compositions that prove less is more. The playlist ranges from krautrock, microhouse, doom metal, and beyond.
Song: (the whole thing)
Artist: Steve Reich
Album: Music for 18 Musicians
For me, this is where every conversation about minimal music begins and ends. Along with Philip Glass, Laurie Spiegel, and a handful of others, Steve Reich is one of the great pioneers in minimalism. In this approximately one-hour piece (divided into 14 sections), an array of voices (violin, cello, female voices, piano, maracas, marimbas, xylophones, and clarinets) continuously rise and fall, blend and divide, weaving and unveiling an ecstatic tapestry of music. Each individual part seems to be made up of nothing but the most basic rhythms and melodies. Yet evolving together, these small parts end up amounting to a vast, unrivalled monument in sound.
Artist: The Necks
Want to feel an hour vanish? Listen to this. If they have jazz trios and hotel lounges in heaven, this is what they must sound like: piano, bass, and drums ethereally drifting through time. Somehow, these three musicians repeatedly improvise over the same two bars without sounding repetitive, pretentious, or dull. Neither ambling too slowly nor rushing along, they patiently explore all the possibilities of their humble motif, producing cool jazz every step of the way. The result is “Sex.”
As with “IDM” and “bass music,” “microhouse” is one of those genre names that seems too silly to be real. A humble kind of deep house assembled with glitchy percussion and vocal samples, microhouse often resembles minimal techno with an extra dose of soul or funk. With Luomo’s 2000 microhouse classic, let’s call it a few extra doses. Every track is a winner, but “Tessio” is the centerpiece, a 12-minute jam that spends the first two oozing a detached melancholy. Then the beat drops, and from there to the end melancholy shakes her hips at a brisk 124 BPM. It’s a song about heartbreak sadder than any country ballad because somehow all its components, from the lyrics to the bass to the kick, suggest the same tone: I’ll survive, but life won’t be the same without you.
Song: “An Even Sun”
Artist: My Disco
Out of all my choices, this is the most robotic. For nine minutes, you must suspend your disbelief: this is not machine-perfected rhythm but rather a wild example of human limbs pushed to the extreme. Drums, guitar, bass, and the occasional vocal plow ahead for eight straight minutes, repeating over and over and over and over again the exact same two bars, over and over and over and over again. Is it mad? Or meditative? Maybe a bit of both—mechanical math rock that throws fancy functions and integrals out the window in favor of simple addition.
Song: “Leave It”
Artist: The Field
Album: Yesterday and Today
It’s worthing listening to the two tracks that open up the album before getting to this minimalist masterpiece. The opener (“I Have the Moon, You Have the Internet”) is a long ambient jam that, after slowly building up a beat with vibrating synths, never reaches a climax. Similarly, track two (“Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime”) is a is a beautiful and lush but subdued cover of a lesser-known hit by British pop band The Korgis. Sweet release—after 15 minutes of anticipation—comes in the first moment of “Leave It.” It comes in the form of a massive, sparkling sonic boom, cradling your mind like a pillow. And then it just goes on and on. Somewhere in the middle of the song (you’ll hardly notice it) a simple but delicious bassline emerges and carries you blissfully through the end of the song.
For a doom metal band with a cheeky obscene name, this album length song is incredibly restrained. It’s really only one riff for about 48 minutes. And the riff is honestly one note in two octaves. But, a little over ten minutes in, all the screeching feedback and delay cut to silence and the vocals come in for the first time. Ten minutes of a dense layer of abrasive textures cuts to an isolated vocal track and it’s honestly one of my favorite moments in any doom metal ever. The restraint it took to hold off that long makes the payoff amazing. This album squeezes a whole lot out of something that seems simple on paper.
Song: ”Dagian Duske”
Artist: Laura Cannell
Album: Quick Sparrows Over the Black Earth
Cannell plays the fiddle, often unaccompanied. She studies medieval and renaissance music, and the stark, barren, melodies move her compositions forward. The magic comes from her bowing. She strings the horsehair bow over the fiddle, meaning she plays all four strings in unison. The thick chords that meander around, finding spaciousness in the resonance of the fiddles body, conjure images of fog and mist and fields of grass. The video is worth watching for her technique alone. I come back to her music again and again, and I’m bowled over by the atmosphere she creates with a single instruments. She also occasionally plays two recorders at once and that is very cool.
Artist: Marhaug /Asheim
Album: Grand Mutation
This album is a collab between a noise/experimental musician and an organist. It’s lovely. There’s potential for the grandiose parts of both disciplines to take up space, but the album is understated, restrained, and careful through and through. They are some beautiful sounds pieces that sound much fresher and newer than 2004.
Song: "IÎle re-sonante"
Artist: Éliane Radigue
Album: L'Île Re-Snante
Radigue is a master of ambient, having spent nearly 40 years working with an ARP 2500 synthesizer, capable of playing only one note at a time, mixing tracks with long tape loops to create harmonies. This piece is her last before she began working with acoustic instruments primarily. It’s everything you could want from the early style of minimal electronic composition- restraint, flow, movement and technical skill. It’s perfect, and stands as a testament to Radigue’s work, her mastery of a single synthesizer, and to the innovations of artists and engineers in the 60’s and 70’s that changed how we think about electronic music forever.
Leave it to krautrock to be able to combine together psychedelic, funk, jazz-improv, world music influence, and avant-garde electronica and still maintain a completely minimal sound. Unlike the highly glam and flamboyant stylings of progressive rock in the 70s, krautrock pioneers NEU! (featuring ex-members of legendary German electronic group Kraftwerk) aimed to create similar rock ‘n roll energy but basing their influence on minimal German composers, like Karlheinz Stockhasuen, rather than US blues origins. NEU!’s music was still constructed around a 4/4 rhythm, but innovated a style called “motorik” where the bass drum creates a pulsing, forward-flowing groove. This allows for songs, like “Hallogallo”, to go on these spacey, ten-minute improvised minimal jams and still be rooted in this ultra groovy, rock ‘n roll sound.
Some recommended artists to check out if you’re just introducing yourself to krautrock and related-genres:
Pre-krautrock avant-guarde minimalism: Terry Riley, Steve Reich (see Ronny's pick above)
Krautrock pioneers: NEU!, Can, Faust, Tangerine Dream
Post-1970s artists with heavy krautrock influence: Gary Numan, Stereolab, Tortoise, Föllakzoid, Suuns
Collaborative Blogs & Playlists