Many different artists have sought to bring instrumentation that is unconventional to the genres they work in, be it metal, the folk music of a certain region, rap or European classical music of a certain period. Oftentimes, these unusual choices in instrumentation are made with the intention of bringing in an element of novelty to the music. In other cases, it has been done because the picture, concept or sound in the artist’s mind can only, to him, be portrayed by making use of an imported medium.
When playing any instrument, though, it is paramount that the sonic qualities of its output, its strengths and weaknesses, are inventoried. This permits us to wield instruments of different kinds with not only efficacy but efficiency. Unusual instrumentation and unusual usage of conventional instrumentation (e.g. the prepared piano) became a trend, almost a hallmark, of post-modernist 20th century music. This way of treating the way each instrument is played and how we focus on using its power rather than forcing it on its weak side, is referred to as playing an instrument idiomatically.
20th Century Minimalism arose as a peaceful revolution against the saturated and purposefully inaccessible music that classical music had become. Now, a lot of very different things are dubbed minimalism so that this term is more of a descriptor than a genre name. The idea is that minimalism reduces instrumentation, technique and expression to the most indispensable by stripping down willingly, rather than by building in its sense of belonging, as Beethoven would have done. This is why minimalism-oriented works can provide us with a most clear visage of how to make use of a musical instrument’s power appropriately.
Although not an official or strictly minimalist work, Olivier Messiaen‘s Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus takes us through a strange spirit-journey attempting to bridge the gap between our everyday selves and our inner souls. Influences on this work range from the evident Debussy, to Machaut and even to Greek metrics.
Contemplation of the child-God of the manger and (others) contemplating Him: from the inexpressible contemplation of God the Father to the manifold contemplations of the Church of Love, passing through the unbelievable contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, through the tender contemplation of the Virgin, then the Angels, the Wise Men, and of the incorporeal or symbolic creatures (time, heights, silence, the star, the cross).
The star and the cross have the same theme because one opens Jesus’ life on earth and the other closes it. The Theme of God clearly returns in the Contemplation of the Father, the Contemplation of the Son Upon the Son, and the Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, in By Him All Has Been Made, in The Kiss of the Infant Jesus; it is present in The First Communion of the Virgin (she carried Jesus in her body), it is rendered glorious in The Contemplation of the Church of Love, which is the body of Christ. This is aside from the songs of birds, carillons, spirals, stalactites, galaxies, photons, and texts by Dom Columba Marmion, Saint Thomas, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Lisieux, and the Gospels and Missal that influenced me. A Theme of Chords circles from one piece to another, fragmented or concentrated into a rainbow; one also sees rhythmic canons, polymodalities, non-retrogradable rhythms amplified in both senses, rhythms progressively accelerated or slowed, asymmetrical enlargements, shifts of register, etc. The writing for piano is quite eclectic: inverted arpeggios, resonances, contrasting features. Dom Columba Marmion (The Christ in His Mysteries) and, after him, Maurice Toesca (The Twelve Contemplations) spoke of the contemplation of the shepherds, the angels, the Virgin, and of the Heavenly Father; I brought back the same idea in a slightly different manner, adding sixteen new contemplations. More than in any of my previous works, I sought a language of mystical love, at once varied, powerful, and tender, sometimes brutal, in multicolored arrangements.
— OLIVIER MESSIAEN
(December 10, 1908 – April 28, 1992)
Erik Satie‘s piano works are also not strictly considered part of minimalism as a movement, but they are a recognized precursor to it, probably in the same way that Debussy’s are. From Gymnopédies and Gnossienne to Satie’s Nocturne and his Sarabande, these piano works are as familiar as they are eerie. Just as the most disturbing images to the human mind involve figures that are almost human but not quite human. There is just enough for you to recognize them, but also just enough for you to find them possibly threatening, but not entirely so. The power of his music lies in the use of emotional uncertainty at focal points. So it is that Satie shows us a world both familiar and alien.