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Minimalism

Tubular Bells Variations

Year 9 pupils have been making variations of Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. Looking at timbre and structure, pupils were given the notes to use and asked to experiment with different sounds and textures.

Below are three variations from one class and pupils have been asked to comment on the sounds that have been used in each, whether they are a good choice and if so (or not) why not. Finally they have been asked to comment on whether the piece works as a variation of Tubular Bells

Writing a minimalist piece of Music – Philip Glass Style

There are lots of different ways to start writing a piece of minimalist music: you could start with a melodic idea, a chord progression, a bass line or a rhythmic idea. Which ever way to decide to start, the important thing is to know the style of the music you are writing in. A good research project based around a composer is a good way to do that. Your project should not only consider the life and influences of the composer but more importantly the musical features. This not only involves lots of research, but also lots and lots of listening. IN this short post I’ll help you write a piece of music based on the music of minimalist composer, Philip Glass.

Having completed my research I’ve discovered that Philip Glass is known for writing melodically beautiful and simple music. The pieces of music that I listened to where:

  • “The Truman Show” – film score
  • Glassworks
  • Metamorphosis 1-5
  • Koyaanisqatsi

What I discovered from listening to the above pieces of music is that his music contains four or five chords, in a repeating sequence. Each chord contains an anchor note (a note that is common in all of the chords). So, I choose to base my chord sequence around the note A and improvised on a piano to come up with these five chords: (which all contain the note A)

  D, C6, Bm7, Bbmaj7, Am7

Philip Glass take the chords he uses and applies a technique called diminution to sequentially half the note values (i.e. from semi-breves to minims to crotchets to quavers). This will happen over several bars and may include (particularly when it gets to the quavers) arpeggio patterns or alberti bass patterns.

Philip Glass melodies are tonal (they belong to the same key and chords as used) and are fairly uncomplicated. Setting my chords going in a loop I can improvise a simple melody, choosing notes from the chords as a starting point.

Finally, rubato is added to give the piece a fluid feel.

Philip Glass comparison

Here are two pieces of music. One is by world famous minimalist and film composer Philip Glass and the other is a composition from a pupil. It is clear that the pupil piece is based on some of the ideas of augmentation and diminution that are found in the Glass piece.

Philip Glass: Metamorphosis 1

Pupil Piece:

Listen to both of these pieces and make specific comments about how the pupil has used harmony, dynamics and rhythm. Then, give the pupil two very specific, small, achievable targets to help them get to an A* grade.

Minimalist Development

This piece of music is being written in a minimalist style. Make comments about the music to help it get a B grade. Use the Edexcel mark scheme and what you know of Steve Reich’s music to guide your advice.

Minimalist Composers

In America: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young

In Europe: Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman, Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt

Cyclic

The term “cyclic” refers to musical structure. It is where a composer will use sections of music and repeat them over and over again (like a cycle) before moving to the next section. It is common in Gamelan and Indian Music.

Ostinato

The term “ostinato” actually means “stubborn”. It is a musical device that can be either rhythmic or melodic and doesn’t go away. Typically an ostinato will stay the same even though chords are changing underneath it. The ostinato at the beginning of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” lasts for nearly 5 minutes without change.

Cells

The use of Cells is a popular musical composing technique for minimalist composers (as well as some experimental composers). The idea is that instead of using bars, composers use cells. These cells are repeated throughout a piece of music to create different textures, melodies and rhythms. The most famous piece of music that uses cells is called “In C” by Terry Riley. In this piece Riley uses a number of cells and instructs the performers to repeat them as many times as they want to before moving on to the next cell

Here is a performance of “In C”

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Canon

A canon is a device used by composers to create a contrapuntal texture. (contrapuntal just means that the melodies work in contrast to each other). The most famouse canon is probably “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.Composers through the ages have used this device to create textured music and will often apply their own style (or the style of the era). For example, you can hear canons in 18th century Baroque Music as well as 20th century minimalist music.

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