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Film Independent Mon 5.20.2019

Know The Score: Minimalism Meets Film Music

Each month in Know the Score, writer and composer Aaron Gilmartin will step out of the scoring stage and explore, in detail, some important aspect of movie music. After all, film is as much about what you hear as what you can see.


Even if you don’t know much about “minimalism” as a genre of music, you’ve certainly already been swept away in its hypnotically churning repetitions in film scores like American Beauty, The Hours, The Piano or even, a long time ago, in Psycho.

Minimalism began in the early 1960s as a rejection by modern composers of complexity and a search for spirituality in music. Minimalism incorporated endlessly repeating phrases and non-instrumental sounds (either produced or found recordings), including small snippets of spoken dialogue. Although Minimalism in its purest early form had a very brief pop culture reign, its offshoot—post-Minimalism—has come to be incorporated into every area of our media landscape, from film scores, to TV commercials, trailers and video games.

In early Minimalism, short samples of audio were often used to create repetitive soundscapes. These snippets were called loops; they could be used to create disorienting effects with multiple copies of the same audio that would play slightly out of sync. These kinds of techniques worked well with the avant-garde and psychedelic films in the ‘60s.

For a quintessential example of this kind of Minimalism, check out Steve Reich’s 1965 composition “It’s Gonna Rain,” featuring a loop of a San Francisco street preacher:

Sometimes the loops contained only background noises like street sounds or nature sounds or perhaps the clatter and conversation of the inside of a restaurant or airport. These kinds of loops can appear in the background of film scores, adding depth to the sound design with this nonmusical material. This is one way Minimalism enriched the available sounds for composing.

For a more recent example of tape loops being used effectively in a film score, check out this scene from director Rick Alverson’s 2012 indie The Comedy, using William Basinski’s haunting 2002 and 2003 works, The Disintegration Loops:

As a term, “Minimalism” accurately described the style of music: it was minimal, using a minimal amount of musical material and minimal changes of texture and volume. Compare this to the relatively complex modern music of the first half of the 20th century and late Romantic Period—eg, the music that has largely been the basis of mainstream film scores since early Hollywood.

I turned to film composer Natasa Paulberg to get her take on the state of post-Minimalism in Hollywood. She mentioned Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano more than once as particularly effective in its use of post-Minimalist sounds.

Paulberg notes that although simplicity is one hallmark of the style of Minimalism, modern scores are more complex and usually called post-Minimal. A good example would be the score for 1978’s Halloween, written by the film’s director John Carpenter.

Carpenter recorded the score in three days, but his use of simple recurring themes is hauntingly effective in supporting the horror in the film. Halloween is one of the earliest examples of a post-Minimalist score in the commercial horror genre.

Paulberg paraphrased composer Chris Young (Drag Me To Hell, Spider-Man 3), who observed that it takes 30 years for innovation in music to reach Hollywood. Indeed, three decades after the first Avant-garde shows and films appeared with Minimalist music, the effects of minimalism became part of mainstream film scores, and is part of every film composer’s language.

Many of the earliest Minimalist composers were on a search for spirituality and meaning in music. Some immersed themselves in Eastern mysticism and borrowed some of the sounds from that tradition. As a result, early Minimalism often used long drone notes instead of elaborate melodies and harmonies.

The Romantic music of earlier Hollywood composers from Max Steiner to Bernard Hermann to John Williams was filled with melodic and harmonic material. Even so, in later work—take Williams’ Minority Report score, for example—we can find audible aspects of post-Minimalism:

Although in Minimalism the general trend is toward a less-is-more approach, it nevertheless produces a wide set of emotions. Oberlin Music Theory Professor Rebecca Leydon’s list of Minimalist traits rings true, pointing to six distinct feelings or tropes that are created by Minimalist music:

  • Feeling of an infantile state
  • Invoking a mystical state of mind
  • Desire to dance to the repeating phrases
  • Feeling trapped by the repeating phrase
  • Feeling of being trapped by a machine-like repetition
  • Feeling insane

Such disparate emotions and states of mind are connected with the repeating phrases of Minimalism. It seems that an ocean of sound that murmurs with less musical ideas and whispers with less changes of volume is open to many different interpretations. And this may be why it makes sense that post-Minimalism has become so important for today’s storytellers who tell their stories in film.

“What’s happening now is post-Minimalism. For instance, Hans Zimmer’s post-Minimalism is either neo-classical Minimalism or romantic Minimalism,” says Paulberg. She continues, “The current composers are using those simplifying principles of reduced dynamics, reduced material, drones etc. and adding other styles. The starting place is often Minimalist with Romantic or neo-Classical influences.” For example:

In fact, a parallel trend with the rise of post-Minimalist influence is the integration of film score with sound design. Sound design is the art of creating the ambient sounds of a film that are neither the dialogue nor the music. Beginning with film scores of the 1940s, the orchestra has been used to imitate non-musical sounds. This helps augment and support sound design. To score chase and thriller scenes, the percussion section can swell to as many as 50 musicians and be used exclusively without melody or harmony.

As electronic sounds have become available to the composer, a wide variety of non-musical elements have been integrated with the score. They might intimate a scream when no one has yet screamed, or the impression from the percussion section of shots fired before any shooting takes place. A modern example of a completely non-musical score is from the surreal 2017 horror film Mother. After a year of composing the score, Jóhann Jóhannsson and director Darren Aronofsky decided to use only sound design, and no score at all. This kind of non-orchestral score has its roots in Minimalist music and in its predecessor, musique concrete.

Minimalism changed the way we listen and the way we hear, adding common ambient sounds to what we expect from a piece of film music. The source of a sound is less important today, and composers are set free to create in any medium, orchestral or electronic. Paulberg says, “Mica Levi is one brilliant composer today who uses the orchestra to create textures that emulate electronic sounds, again inverting our expectations.”

We now have a group of composers who are going back to what sounds like true Minimalist aesthetics. Paulberg points to composers Ben Frost, Mica Levi and Daniel Hart as using early minimalist textural sounds, long drones and stretched out sounds. In Ben Frost’s music for the Netflix show Dark, we get the very textural and atmospheric type of early Minimalism sounds. Here the electronic comes to the fore as the sound is stretched and suspended, creating what Paulberg calls “a sonic suspension in sound.”

We now find Minimalist and post-Minimalist infusions in the music of many films. These waves of music made up of small repeated phrases and borrowed sounds have become part of what we expect to find in the language of our film scores.


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