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Minimal music: six key composers

Discover the musical heroes of the year-long Minimalism Unwrapped festival

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Born in ’60s America, with a healthy influence from jazz and world music, minimal music was a groundbreaking movement that explored the very idea of music itself. Having mutated over the ’70s and ’80s, today the sounds (though maybe not the theory) are everywhere: in film soundtracks, dance music and radio-friendly pop.

That seismic musical shift is the subject of the year-long Minimalism Unwrapped festival at Kings Place. Here are six composers whose work you’ll hear at the festival, from the founding fathers of minimalism to the new generation who’ve seized their legacy.

Moondog
© Peter Martens / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Moondog

Literally the most interesting composer ever

Why the fuss?
Born Louis Hardin, Moondog was blinded by a dynamite explosion at the age of 16. He taught himself music by ear, moved to New York and busked on the street for 20 years dressed in a cloak and Viking helmet. He also performed at Native American sun dances in Idaho, built an altar to Thor in his house, and spent the last years of his life living with a family in Germany, writing hundreds of compositions in Braille. Basically, he makes Keith Richards look like John Major. A film about his life, ‘The Viking of 6th Avenue’, was successfully crowdfunded last year.

What’s the performance?
A selection of key Moondog pieces, rearranged by glitchy French electronic duo Ubunoir, on April 17.

Steve Reich
© Jeffrey Harman

Steve Reich

The big daddy of the scene

Why the fuss?
Any discussion of minimalism would be incomplete without one of the world’s most influential living composers, a New Yorker to the bone and a man not seen without a baseball cap since the late ’80s. Reich’s passion for rhythm has manifested itself in such seminal works such as ‘Drumming’, ‘Clapping Music’ and the life-affirming, passion-igniting ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. Fact: Time Out once saw two grown men have a fight after a London performance of ‘18 Musicians’, such are the passions it ignites.

What’s the performance?
The London Sinfonietta delves into 40 years of Reich on February 14.

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Terry Riley
© Christopher Felver

Terry Riley

The globetrotting Gandalf of minimalism

Why the fuss?
In 1964, while working in San Francisco with Reich, Riley wrote his masterpiece ‘In C’: an unfolding series of musical phrases that can be played by any number of musicians on any kind of instruments. It’s since been recorded dozens of times, including an incredible rendition last year by Malian musicians for the Africa Express project. Riley turns 80 this year, but he’s still an active pianist and Indian raga singer, and sports a seriously impressive beard.

What’s the performance?
‘In C’ performed by the Aurora Orchestra on December 20, as the grand finale to Minimalism Unwrapped.

Nico Muhly
© Matthew Murphy

Nico Muhly

A minimalist prodigy with a thing for organs

Why the fuss?
Muhly is a serial collaborator who’s worked with with a dizzying range of top musicians: everyone from Björk to The National to Philip Glass. He even wrote the string arrangements for ‘Climax’ by Usher. His minimalist opera ‘Two Boys’ (2011) hauntingly probed online identities and communities, and later this month at the Union Chapel he’s joining electronic music maestro Oneohtrix Point Never to perform a new piece for pipes and synths called ‘Twitchy Organs’. We’re a long way from boring here.

What’s the performance?
A new Muhly piece is performed by Fretwork on February 5.

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Gavin Bryars
© Gautier Deblonde

Gavin Bryars

The conceptual master

Why the fuss?
Yorkshire-born Bryars took minimalism forward from the late ’60s with a brace of truly dazzling conceptual pieces. His most well-known work is ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’: a truly tearful masterpiece that begins with a faint sampled loop of a tramp singing from a hymn, to which Bryars adds heroic orchestral strings that build glacially slowly. It was re-recorded in the ’90s, with Tom Waits duetting with the tramp on the last ten minutes. Rather sweetly, the tramp comes off as the better singer.

What’s the performance?
The Gavin Bryars Ensemble and the Addison Chamber Choir perform a range of Bryars’s work on October 24.

A Winged Victory For The Sullen
© Mehdi Zollo

A Winged Victory For The Sullen

Ambient drones that get into your bones

Why the fuss?
After meeting in Italy in 2007, composers Adam Wiltzie (of Stars Of The Lid) and Dustin O’Halloran decided to make a record. They convened in a church in Berlin with a collection of massive pianos, classical instruments and electric guitars, and created an incredible album called ‘A Winged Victory For The Sullen’: a series of soaring, melancholy pieces which range from two to 12 minutes in length. It’s a sublime experience of total immersion – like transcendental meditation, except you can listen to it on Spotify.

What’s the performance?
AWVFTS perform their music for Wayne McGregor’s ballet ‘Atomos’ on February 6.

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