Is Minimalism Experimentalism?: Historiographic Notes

In 2006, Steve Reich made a striking comment that “I do my experiments at home, and you don’t hear ’em.” In contrasting experimentalism to the art of composition and implicitly attributing the notion of the unfinished piece to the former, Reich’s comment suggests a few lines inquiry regarding the relationship between experimentalism and minimalism. First, while musical minimalism (at least from Nyman on) has been seen as a stream within U.S.-American (mostly) white experimentalist music, two interrelated perspectives might be added to this particular view of minimalism: first, following Reich, that minimalism (especially for figures like Reich, Glass, and Adams) became a kind of post-experimental music, involving finished works, ambitions of creative greatness tied to those works, and a related revivification of conservative aspects of the Western art tradition (commissioning for established, conventional ensembles and performance modalities); and second, that the minimalist “capture” of a certain proportion of experimentalism in the 1970s and after had as much to do with this anti-experimentalist retrenchment as it did with specific sonic/stylistic choices (the adoption of drones, diatonicism, repetitive groove patterns, etc.).


Sumanth Gopinath is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He is the author of The Ringtone Dialectic: Economy and Cultural Form (MIT Press, 2013), and he co-edited, with Jason Stanyek, The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies (2014). He is co-editing, with Pwyll Ap Siôn, Rethinking Reich, forthcoming in 2018 (Oxford University Press). His writings on Steve Reich, musical minimalism, Marxism and music scholarship, the Nike+ Sport Kit, the ringtone industry, Bob Dylan, Benjamin Britten, and country music have appeared in various scholarly journals and edited collections. Gopinath’s creative projects include serving as the bandleader for the country/bluegrass/Americana band The Gated Community.