When Terry Riley composed In C, a repetitive piece comprising 53 interlocking patterns, he inadvertently invented disco. The audience of avant-garde classical fans attending the debut performance at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1964 probably had no idea that the minimalist composer was laying the foundation for the dance music explosion that was to come a decade later. Along with Steve Reich and La Monte Young, he helped introduce non-Western ideas about rhythm and tone to the music of Europe and North America. The Who named "Baba O'Riley" from Who's Next after him and underscored Roger Daltrey's cries of "It's only teenage wasteland" with the sort of keyboard lines that are a signature of minimalist composition. Riley's influence is more noticeable in the music of lesser-known artists such as psychedelic Japanese noise-rockers Acid Mothers Temple and German ambient artists Tangerine Dream, but his focused groove is also an unmistakable ancestor of disco and its contemporary descendants.
Of course there's plenty of funk, soul, musique concrète, and jazz in disco too. But the electronic beat at the heart of dance music -- the unrelenting 4/4, boom-chick/boom-chick time signature -- was pioneered in large part by the minimalist movement. And of all the many forms of contemporary dance music, none is more repetitive than minimal techno: sparse, insistent grooves reduced to tightly edited snare tics and bass drops, clattering and warping through the tangibly quiet spaces at their edges. Minimal techno was patented in the Nineties by Basic Channel, a German duo that fused the pristine lines of Detroit techno with the warm echoes of Jamaican dub. Artists such as Richie Hawtin, Wolfgang Voigt, and Surgeon operate in similar territory. All of them take the phase-shifting percussion from Reich's "Clapping Music"; crib sine wave drones from Young's "Drift Study"; and above all, repeat the single-minded patterns of Riley's In C.
"I kind of have a lot of problems with the word 'minimalism,'" says San Francisco-based electronic music producer Seth Horvitz, who records under the name Sutekh. He also runs his own label called Context, releasing music that "hovers around dance music" but is generally "pretty abstract." "People use the word to describe anything that is completely stripped down but I think just stripping something down is not good enough to make it minimal," he adds.
Horvitz's debut album for the avant-garde dance label Force Inc., Periods Make Sense, was as good an example as any of the genre. Conceptual track titles, crisp percussion, and lots of quiet, open space. "Minimalism is a combination of taking into consideration the space between the elements and paying very close attention to the function of each element," he says. "But it's a really hard thing to pin down."
The 29-year-old's followup appeared on the conspicuously experimental Orthlorng Musork label in 2002 and was a marked departure from stratified dance music into more unusual territory. Fell is a swirling murk of distorted field recordings, super-slow rhythms, and metallic clangs. And herein lies the paradoxical achievement of minimal techno: It's clean, introspective music for sweaty, extroverted parties. Hawtin spins techno for European spring-breakers in Ibiza and releases albums as Plastikman that repackage the same music for careful at-home examination. Voigt makes intricate beats under the name Mike Ink, and revisits the same sounds with an organic ambient edge as Gas. Horvitz released Incest Live -- a micro-edited mix CD meant to represent his dance club sets -- last year, but he's currently recording a beatless composition for a sound installation that involves custom-designed furniture. "A lot of artists will have separate names for techno and one for 'art music,'" he says. "I try and combine those things as much as possible in everything."
Matthew Dear, an up-and-coming 24-year-old producer from Detroit, isn't interested in cultivating his arty side. "I couldn't play in an art gallery in front of a Rothko painting," he says. Dear's only been producing tracks for the past two years, but he's already released singles on such labels as Hawtin's Plus 8 and Berlin-based Perlon, and a self-titled full-length under the alias False. His debut album under his own name, Leave Luck to Heaven, is scheduled for release on the Ghostly International label in November. He grew up in Texas and first started making music using equipment left around the house by his father, a folk musician. His tastes ran toward his older brother's collection of Ministry, Nitzer Ebb, and Depeche Mode records, so he wanted to make some kind of electronic music. It wasn't until he came across minimal techno that he hit his stride. "This whole door opened up into what you could do with so little but still get somebody into it," he says. "I was just floored by the idea of the crisp little minimal thing. It moved me, man. I had found my style." Dear's records take a bit from the melancholy soul of the Detroit techno of his adopted home, but retain the elemental efficiency that defines the minimal techno tag. "It allowed me to think differently," he says. "It showed me you don't need to use the whole 'stisssh' snare drum. Just the 'tis.'"
In C is a magnificent piece of trance-inducing minimalism, but its complex drone does not immediately sound much like most minimal techno. Riley and his peers made difficult music deceptively simple through repetition, and in doing so suggested that the variation of sound found in mainstream classical composition did not always equal density of thought or quality of art. Today producers such as Dear and Horvitz have appropriated the minimalist prefix by taking that proposition to an interesting conclusion, using stripped-down, repetitive structures to create challenging music that also operates as a carefree club soundtrack. "I want people to be dancing," says Dear, "while they're trying to figure my music out."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.