Process Music: Minimalists and beyond.

Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to have the possibility to discover and explore music from quite few angles. The compositional and conceptual possibilities are endless, however few of them come up more often then the others. That is why I have decided to have a closer look at one of them – Process music: Minimalists and beyond.

There are many various ideas, devices and techniques, mostly used by minimalists, to create a piece which form is a process. In addition to its overall shape, the focal points are series of changes happening throughout them. These devices and techniques are used, amongst others, to shift the perception of the listener to a different listening mode; the mode that allows to perceive the music as an ongoing and ever-changing process, in which the composer, as well as performer play a great part in creating, preparing and realizing.

The term process music is very often used synonymously with minimalism and was coined by a minimalist composer Steve Reich in his 1968 manifesto entitled Music as a Gradual Process. He not only controls everything that happens in the compositional process, but he also ‘accepts everything that results without further modification’ (Mertens 2006: 309). This means that once the piece began, there can be no modifications implemented by the performer. An example is Reich’s Pendulum Music; a piece that involves suspended microphones, which when moving over the speakers create a feedback tones. Once the whole setup is put into motion the process begins, and because every time the variables of the performance are different (various microphones, amplifiers and speakers) the resulting process is different as well.

Some other ideas and techniques used in process music are amongst others: repetition, additive process, phase-shifting, static instrumentation and metamusic. Within the most notable examples of process music using repetition is In C written by Terry Riley in 1964. The piece can be played by any number of people and it incorporates a repetition of 53 short musical phrases. Though the piece begins on a C major chord, the overall process is derived from very slow progressions to other chords, often in different moments of the performance, as the players can choose which phrase to play and how long to play it for. In contrast to Reich’s music, Riley’s piece can effect in a different experience every time it is performed.

Apart from Pendulum Music, one of the most notable Reich’s pieces involving repetition, additive processes and instrumentation is his Music for 18 Musicians created between 1974 and 1976. The piece is based around a cycle of eleven chords, and a small piece of music evolves around each of that chords. After the progression of the chords completed the cycle, the piece comes to an end. When writing this piece Reich wanted to develop the notion of psycho-acoustic effects, which emerge from the music when played using a larger group of people (Reich advised to use more than 18 musicians, due to doubling of the parts). The ideas, which interested Reich the most in these processes were:

… sub-melodies heard within repeated melodic patterns stereophonic effects due to listener location, slight irregularities in performance, harmonics, difference tones, and so on. (Reich 1968: 305)

All of these processes can happen at any time during the piece, and every other listener will experience these occurrences differently. Additionally the difference in perception is their useful  byproduct, as it forces the listener to focus more carefully on the constant changes happening throughout the sounding music. Reich describes that kind of perception in his work: ‘To facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process should happen extremely gradually’ (Reich 1968: 304)

In the above-mentioned pieces, to hear the processes one has to become the listener or receiver of the music. The compositional process in not extremely different from the listener’s experience, as the minimalist composers at work often restrict their compositional aims to a list of rules, concentrating on resulting music, which they find much more interesting than the notations or directions standing behind them. In his article Basic Concepts of Minimal Music Wim Mertens notes that composers like Reich and Glass reject any structure existing outside the musical process; instead the processes have to generate their own structure. He quotes Philip Glass: ‘My music has no overall structure but generates itself at each moment’ (Mertens 2006: 309). Edgard Varese also described his pieces’ forms as a result of a process: 

The misunderstanding has come from thinking as form as a point of departure, a pattern to be followed, a mold to be filled. Form is a result – the result of a process. Each of my works discovers its own form’ (Varese 1936).

Varese used this approach widely in his pieces, often describing them as ‘crystal forms’, which are a resultant and a: ‘consequence of the interaction of attractive and repulsive forces and the ordered packing of the atom’ (Varese 1936).

We notice that the notion of form resulting from the process was nurturing composers long before the minimalist movement; and it does not have to be strictly connected with it. In fact Philip Glass in his favorability towards repetition tries to distance himself from the minimalist label describing himself as a composer of music with repetitive structures. Mertens explains that ‘in repetitive music the concept of work has been replaced by the notion of process’ and within this process ‘no sound had any greater importance than any other’ (Mertens 2006: 309). Additionally he quotes composer Ernst Albrecht Stiebler: ‘It is characteristic of repetitive music that nothing is being expressed: it stands only for itself’ (Mertens 2006: 309). Glass agrees with the above saying that music has lost it’s mediative function, but it rather exists for itself without any outside mediations. Here we come back to the different modes of perception, when the listener needs to approach the music differently, without ‘any traditional concepts of recollection and anticipation. Music must be listened to as a pure sound-event, an act without any dramatic structure’ (Glass in Mertens 2006: 309). Terry Riley described this kind of experience as a kind of mantra when, through accident, he listened to a tape loop over and over again. According to Riley: ‘the way time passes and the way the mind works when it focuses on an object, it’s like a meditation’ (Riley 2008). Indeed a lot of devices and techniques used by minimalist derived directly, or indirectly from eastern-rooted music, notably Asia and Polynesia. Their distinguishable repetitive rhythms, lack of big harmonic shifts and absence of a strict form proves that the process music has been in use for quite a long time.

The piece, which uses such techniques as repetition and metamusic, but no strictly acoustic or even electronic instruments is Gyorgy Ligeti’s 1962 work Poeme Symphonique for 100 metronomes. The piece requires 100 metronomes based on a performance platform, and once they are set up and started the piece begins. At the beginning, the listener hears all of the metronomes, which sound a bit chaotic, but after some of them stopped the rhythm shifts that appear become the focal point of the piece. Because initially the metronomes are all set to different tempos, the phase-shifting does not occur, instead one can notice a constant change; a process that happens all the time. Ligeti wrote this piece during his brief interest with the Fluxus movement – an international network of artists, composers and designers, which blended various disciplines in their work. Many of their ideas came from the concepts of the exploration of chance by John Cage in his experimental music. 

Ligeti’s as well as other composer’s music presented in my work are all conceptual pieces. In his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art Sol Lewitt mentions that: ‘Art that is meant for the sensation of the eye primarily would be called perceptual than conceptual’  (Lewitt 1967). The same stands for the examples of music presented above; as they are not for the sensation of the ear. They rather develop the underlying rules made by their creators in the composing stage, building up a shifting form based on a static change. Lewitt underlines, that usually the conceptual art develops from strongly rooted ideas, on which they are based; additionally the artist rejects subjective judgement in his creation. Lewitt writes:

Since the function of conception and perception are contradictory (one pre-, the other postfact) the artist would mitigate his idea by applying subjective judgment to it. If the artist wishes to explore his idea thoroughly, then arbitrary or chance decisions would be kept to a minimum, while caprice, taste and others whimsies would be eliminated from the making of the art. (Lewitt 1967)

The compositional stage should have a small number of decisions made, otherwise the artifacts that can result from a wider range of decisions become more interesting than the resulting work. Lewitt also notes, that complex basic forms used to create a work only ‘disrupts the unity of the whole’ (Lewitt 1967). But of course these kinds of judgement depend on the point of view, even when the listener is not aware of the basic concepts behind the piece, he understands it through his own experiences (taking into account that no concepts of recollection and anticipation are though of). The listener perceives the music in that one particular moment as it unfolds in front of him. 

Two pieces of music based on the opposite poles of perception are: Steve Reich’s Piano Phase (1967) and Kerlheinz Stockhausen’s Plus Minus (1963). The first one is a piano piece based around a simple concept of repeating phrases, including a phase-shifting between them. This means, that one of the pianos is played at a slightly different tempo than the other, what causes a constant shift of a focal point, which wanders between the rhythms and phrases created. In this case the listener is aware of the changes, as they occur during the performance of the piece. The latter work consists of several pages of instructions, describing exactly the relations between the score (a set of boxes with signs) and the way they should be performed. Once the performer understood the instructions, established the instrumentation and the choices he will make, the piece creates its own form every time is is performed. This processes take the lead during the compositional and performing stage, however if the listener is not acquainted with the score ad the underlying ideas, he does not have to hear the processes taking place; instead all he can hear are the events happening one after another. Yet still the process music, during any of the stages of the piece is apparent.

What have drawn various composers towards process music over the years is its notion of discovering new things over and over again. Their repetitive, pulse-like structures bring out the unconscious voice of ancestral and ritual rhythms, that through so many years of history in music excited the listeners with the journey to the roots, the inner voice of pulsating heart and the cycle of life. Lewitt states that the viewer, or listener does not have to understand the concepts of the artist, because once the piece is created the artist has no control over the way a viewer will perceive it. As many changes occur in the process music as many different people will experience them, and different people will understand the same thing in a different way. That is what makes process music so interesting.





Lewitt, S. (1967) Paragraphs on Conceptual Art in Artforum.

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Mertens, W. (2006) ‘Basic concepts of minimal music’ in Audio Culture. Cox, C., D. Warner, eds. (2006). The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. New York.


Riley, T. (2008) Terry Riley article in Magnet Magazine.

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Reich, S. (1968) ‘Music as a Gradual Process’ in Audio Culture. Cox, C., D. Warner, eds. (2006). The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. New York.


Schwartz, Childs, eds., (1998)  Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, New York: Da Capo Press


Varese,  E. (1936) The Liberation of Sound

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