Perhaps the most popular genre of classical music within the last century, minimalist music is defined by repetitive melodies, simple harmonies, and accessible rhythms.
What makes minimalism so fascinating is its artistic reach; both audiences in and out of classical music have deemed composers in this genre among the canon of contemporary classical music greatness.
However, deciphering the best minimalist music can be a daunting task; so much great work has been created in this genre.
So, what are the very best works in the minimalist genre?
The following encompasses our picks for the 10 greatest minimalist works. We rank these based on artistic impact, influence, and artistic innovation.
Some of these works are very popular in the canon of classical music, while others deserve greater recognition by audiences.
The genre’s mainstays make the list – Adams, Reich, Glass, and Riley – as well as some other composers you may have yet to discover.
To include as many composers as possible, each listed composer will be recognized just once on this list.
HONORABLE MENTION: Kneeling Dance – Kevin Volans (1993)
One single piano has been the instrument of choice for generations of composers.
But for Volans’ masterpiece 1991 works Kneeling Dance, the composer goes all out, writing an incredibly rhythmic and exciting work for six pianos.
Commissioned by Piano Circus, a once-active ensemble dedicated to performing six-piano pieces by living composers, the work explores two landscapes: the calm and the explosive.
The climax at 7’30’’ (in the recording above) is some of the most impressive multi-piano music perhaps ever written.
10. Mothertongue – Nico Muhly (2008)
Written in 2008 during Muhly’s period of “indie-classical” music – Muhly himself would probably dislike that term – of combining classical and electronic music styles, Mothertongue represents an outstanding achievement in minimalist art sounding like nothing else before it.
Muhly’s approach to mixing and mastering in this recording feels ethereal; sweeping reverbs, pitched percussion, and a vocally processed soprano create an enigmatic yet instantly likeable sound that has not yet been recreated in the minimalist genre.
Muhly himself seemed to, for a time, depart from this genre in favor of more traditional classical music styles hinting at his minimalist roots.
However, he came back to it in the widely-publicized collaboration with Sufjan Stevens Planetarium.
NOTED WORKS BY MUHLY: Keep In Touch, Two Boys
9. Infra – Max Richter (2008)
Conceived as a work for the Royal Ballet in 2008, Infra was released in 2010 by indie label FatCat Records, and again in 2014 on Deutsche Grammophon.
Max Richter’s masterpiece, composed in eight separate parts, follows the structure of an arch, gradually pushing and pulling the listener into the climax of the work’s tenth section, Infra 5.
Similar to Muhly’s Mothertongue, the work combines classical music and electronic music. Unlike Mothertongue, whose ambition and subtle radicalism characterize its four movements, Infra is a work characterized by singular focus and artistic subtlety.
NOTED WORKS BY MAX RICHTER: Recomposed: Four Seasons, On the Nature of Daylight
8. Trance – Michael Gordon (2004)
Perhaps most well-known for his work Gene Takes a Drink – it was featured in an Apple commercial – Michael Gordon has written many masterpieces in the minimalist genre, so it’s difficult to pick out which one is his very best work.
We’ll go with his much underrated Trance, an incredible spectacle of minimalist music donning winds, brass, strings, and even an electric guitar and bass.
Trance’s fourth movement, aptly titled Trance 4, showcases Gordon’s unique compositional skill; a jocular melody exchanged between a few instruments gradually builds into an unforgettable climax fraught with pulsating rhythms and a distorted guitar melody. Listen above to see what I mean.
NOTED WORKS BY MICHAEL GORDON: Gene Takes a Drink, Yo Shakespeare
7. Music for Airports – Brian Eno (1978)
Although this list focuses mostly on classical music, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, a masterwork of the ambient music genre, deserves a nod among the greatest minimalist music pieces of all time.
Music for Airports is perhaps the most artistic rendition of background music ever created.
The first movement, the work’s most well-known, makes its musical mark through repetitive phrases, consonant harmonies, and sustained tones.
The music does not try to move in any direction; rather, it is wholly satisfied staying exactly where it is, compelling the listener to “be in the moment” for its hour-long duration.
It would seem the music was composed not to be listened to, but instead serve as the backdrop for a conversation or meditation.
Brian Eno himself went on to write hundreds of masterpieces in the ambient music genre, and his name is synonymous with minimalist art.
NOTED WORKS BY BRIAN ENO: Small Craft on a Milk Sea, Apollo
6. Anthracite Fields – Julia Wolfe (2014)
Well-known by fans of the Netflix television series soundtrack Dark, Julia Wolfe’s seminal work was the recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
This oratorio, praised by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times as “unforgettably haunting,” describes the history of the Northern Pennsylvania Coal Region.
Like other works on this list, Julia Wolfe’s music embodies multiple genres – this particular brand of minimalism is a blend of classical and folk music genres.
The most played movement on Spotify, movement four, is the work’s crowning achievement. Starting off as a simple folk tune, the music evolves into a complex, harrowing spectacle of a composition. One of her finest works.
5. Phrygian Gates – John Adams (1978)
John Coolidge Adams is one of the many composers associated with the minimalist movement; Riley, Reich, Glass, and Adams are perhaps the genre’s four most iconic figures.
Lots of pieces could be chosen by Adams, but we are choosing his quintessential minimalist work, Phrygian Gates, for solo piano.
Throughout its 20+ minute duration, Phrygian Gates takes the listener through a whirlwind of emotions few piano pieces can achieve.
4. In C – Terry Riley (1964)
As revolutionary as it is joyful, no two renditions of In C are ever the same. This is because of Riley’s unique approach to the work, in which players choose to play certain sections of the work as long as they would like.
A piece normally performed between 30 and 60 minutes in duration, the entire score is written on just one page of music. Minimalist indeed!
What makes In C so special is not just the music, but rather its place in history; although technically not the first minimalist work ever created, it is perhaps the oldest minimalist work still frequently performed in the repertoire today.
Steve Reich, who performed in the premiere of the piece, went on to become one of the most legendary minimalist composers of all time. The legacy of this work is one of significant musical influence.
3. The Little Match Girl Passion – David Lang (2008)
Few minimalist compositions have evoked the epic tragedy of David Lang’s Pulitzer-winning The Little Match Girl Passion.
Based on a classic story by Hans Christian Anderson, David Lang wrote and set the text himself for this masterwork about a young girl’s dying dreams and hopes as she sells matches on Christmas to make money for her family.
The work, for just four voices and hand percussion, is as minimalist in its texture as it is in its composition.
NOTABLE WORKS BY DAVID LANG: Pierced
2. Satyagraha – Philip Glass (1980)
There are so many seminal works by Philip Glass that it seems almost unfair to have to pick just one piece.
Einstein On the Beach and Glassworks, for example, are simply among the most iconic works in the minimalist genre, and could easily belong in any spot on a list like this.
However, our pick is for Satyagraha, a work that embodies Philip Glass at the intersection of his greatest minimalism and deepest immersion in Eastern cultures.
Satyagraha, a contemporary opera, is somewhat based on the life of Gandhi, perhaps more in principle than in story; the work is ultimately a declaration promoting peaceful resistance to injustice.
The movement exhibiting Glass’ minimalist tendencies is the final movement, Evening Song. The singer takes us through a journey completing this opera, yet is only singing just one scale the entire time. When many composers believe complexity is the solution for originality, Glass reminds us that simplicity wins when placed into the hands of a skilled craftsman.
1. Music for 18 Musicians – Steve Reich (1976)
One of the greatest compositions ever penned, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians transcends genre, with influences from classical, jazz, trance, and Eastern multicultural music.
In 2003, David Bowie himself listed it among his favorite works, calling it “Balinese Gamelan music cross-dressing as minimalism.” Even Donald Trump amazingly referenced Steve Reich in one of his biographies, calling him a “great example of an innovator.”
Music for 18 Musicians spans 14 sections with a non-stop pulse, characterized by eccentric, non-functional jazz harmonies spread across marimbas, singers, pianos, strings, and a pulsating bass clarinet.
The end result is a work written by someone not in love with minimalism, but rather with craft, form, and gradual transition.
Unlike Brian Eno earlier in this list, Steve Reich is never settled on being in just one place; rather, his music is always heading, deliberately and gradually, in some direction forward. You simply may have been enjoying his music too much to realize it.