10 best pieces of minimalist classical music for ultimate relaxation
24 August 2021, 16:55 | Updated: 27 May 2022, 12:24
From Michael Nyman to Meredith Monk, we bliss out in some of the most mesmerising, hypnotic and calming minimalist music ever written.
The guiding principle of minimalist music, said founding father of the genre Terry Riley, is producing simple, repeated patterns of notes.
“Essentially,” he said, “my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything... just repeated patterns, musical patterns.”
Repetitive patterns can make for a mesmerising and ultimately hypnotising listening experience, perfect for unwinding and taking some time to reflect.
We’ve dug through the minimalist music canon to find some of the very best and most relaxing pieces written in the genre.
Terry Riley: In C (1964)
Want the most simple, happy and hypnotic minimalist music there is? Head to American composer Terry Riley and try his repetitive and relentless minimalist work, In C.
Composed in 1964, it’s scored for an undefined number of performers – although Riley suggests a group of 35 is about right – and consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases that may be repeated by each musician in the ensemble as many times as they like, at their discretion. It sounds like it shouldn’t work but somehow does.
Julius Eastman: Femenine No. 1, Prime (1974)
Eastman was an American composer, pianist, vocalist, and dancer, and his music is characterised by repeating that slowly evolve and eventually dissolve. ‘Prime’ from Femenine is poised and unhurried, a beautiful example of what he called his “organic music” style.
Arvo Pärt: Für Alina (1976)
Arvo Pärt is an Estonian minimalist composer who invented the ‘tintinnabulum’ style of music – ‘tintinnabuli’ meaning ‘bell-like’.
Für Alina makes minimal use of the notes of the piano to portray an evocative and sublime moment of calm.
“Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers, in my life, my music, my work,” the composer says. “In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity.”
Meredith Monk: Ellis Island (1981)
Meredith Monk is an American composer, singer and multimedia creator. She composed Ellis Island, a work for two pianists, for her own film of the same name, in 1981. The film is a series of meditative, thought-provoking scenes that explore the experience of immigrants entering America at the turn of the century.
Philip Glass: Glassworks No. 1, Opening (1982)
One of the fathers of modern minimalism, Glass has composed numerous works for piano, orchestra and film in the genre. His 1982 collection for piano and chamber group, Glassworks, includes textbook examples of the Glass minimalist style, and ‘Opening’ is beautifully graceful and contemplative.
Steve Reich, Different Trains (1988)
American composer Steve Reich composed Different Trains for string quartet and recorded tape – notably tape featuring human voices, produced to form melodies. The three-movement experimental work traces contrasting train journeys in America and Europe around the time of the Second World War – Reich confronting poignantly that, as a Jewish man, his own train journeys during the war would have been very different had he been in Europe at the time.
Michael Nyman: The Heart Asks Pleasure First (1993)
Michael Nyman wrote a melody-led minimalist soundtrack for the 1993 film, The Piano. The melody of the theme music, ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’, is simple, ravishing and reflective, and the repetitive music underneath swirls and churns underneath to create a profound sense of wonderment and hope.
Ludovico Einaudi: I Giorni (2006)
Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi studied in the European modernist tradition with the likes of Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but when he discovered the work of American minimalists, he brought a simplicity and clarity into his composing style. His piano works like ‘I Giorni’ are understated, but powerfully reflective in their simplicity.
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (2014)
American composer John Luther Adams’ 2014 work, Become Ocean, was awarded that year’s music Pulitzer Prize. The composer, who regularly writes music inspired by nature, was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony to compose a work that reflected the stunning waters of the Pacific Northwest.
The work unfurls and expands with a sensation evocative of a solo swim through vast, open water. “My hope,” the composer said, “is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming – sometimes even frightening – landscape, and invites you to get lost in it.” Listening, it’s almost as we if we ourselves do become ocean.
Max Richter: Sleep (2015)
German-British composer Richter’s Sleep is an eight-and-a-half-hour-long piece inspired by the very essence of slumber. His beautiful minimalist music aims to push back against our increasingly mechanised, fast-paced and ‘switched-on’ modern society, and he gave the beautiful music glacially-paced melodies that slide in and out of focus – just like sleep. Sublime.
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