“Minimalist music” has its own largely rigid definition in modern classical music (a genre that Steve Reich, Philip Glass and La Monte Young have contributed to), but we want to highlight how contemporary artists are taking these compositional techniques and applying them in their own music across all genres—be it ambient, pop, folk or electronic. These reductionist albums speak out to us because amid all the new tricks and twists of expensive recording studios brimming with expensive gear and excessive arrangements from eager producers, it’s the stripped-back rawness of human touch and soul that stirs—what emerges from what is not said or seen.
Jonny Nash + Suzanne Kraft: Passive Aggressive
Oftentimes when two people collaborate the result is dramatic, with both sides wanting to leave their mark. Passive Aggressive, however, by Jonny Nash and Suzanne Kraft (the latter is actually a pseudonym for Diego Herrera) seem to play Jenga to each other’s work, stripping it down as far as it can go while preserving the structure. The tantalizing piano chords in “Inside,” spaced out to the point of causing agony, exert complete control of pacing. Within such tranquility and spaciousness—for once, this is music that bends to your mood, rather than the other way around.
Felicita: Ecce Homo
The most surprising aspect of the album Ecce Homo is knowing what enigmatic London-based producer Felicita’s other songs have sounded like. In stark contrast to previous-released tracks like “A New Family,” (where cranked up, riotous synths seem to smash each other into oblivion), the intensity knob has conspicuously been cranked in the opposite direction, and it’s like Felicita has agreed to an artistic challenge where he creates music with restricted arsenal. Ecce Homo holds some of the most gentle contemporary piano compositions we’ve heard today. But within the peaceful echoes of the piano drifting higher and higher into the infinite ceilings, there’s an off-guardness, never knowing when the music might turn dark and twisted—and it does for the bizarrely not-out-of-place noise track “Shook”—that makes this paranoia seep into the folds of simple piano music.
Colin Stetson: All This I Do for Glory
With every album, Montreal-based improvisational saxophonist Colin Stetson uncovers even more techniques to wield his instrument—continuously rupturing our expectations of what a saxophone is supposed to sound like. But more importantly: how powerful and moving work can be created with very little. In All This I Do for Glory, the experimental musician shows off what he’s mastered, from multiphonics to singing while blowing to percussive hits on the keypads, for a whirlwind of strangely urgent, at times violent, meditation. Each song was recorded live (with no overdubs or loops, nearly unheard of in this day and age), and you can see this in his videos for “Spindrift” and “In The Clinches.” You get a close-to-claustrophobic point-of-view from multiple cameras stationed on, and even in, his saxophone. No flashy light tricks, no distracting video projections, no costumes or makeup—just Stetson and his instrument. And thus his “dogmatically” stripped down approach to composition, performance and recording pushes the listener into a rare, bewildering state of wonder that’s almost child-like.
Within the choir of pop divas who find comfort in higher ranges and belting out, Sophie Payten’s husky, low voice—sounding far beyond her 24 years—stands out and hooks you into not forgetting. The Australian first floored us with an a cappella cover for Bon Iver’s “00000 Million,” and the vocal-leading “So Here We Are.” Under the moniker Gordi, she released the even more affecting Reservoir—an emotionally anchoring album for listeners tired of radio-friendly indie pop tropes. Exploring the overlap between acoustic and electronic music production, three of the album’s songs, including the endearing “Bitter End,” were co-produced by Sigur Ros collaborator Alex Somers in Reykjavik. But Payten notes, despite the expansive and at times dramatic production that Somers has popularized, the core of her songwriting in this Stereogum interview: “I really try to focus on just the song because I want the songs I write to be able to be played just on guitar and sung or just on key and sung. Because I think at the end of the day that’s what makes a good song, like when it can be stripped back, you know, it’s still all there.”
Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked at Me
Humans have used song and music to come to terms with death since the beginning of civilization, from near-theatrical requiem Masses in the Catholic Church to the brawl of bagpipes at funerals. Rather than cloaking grief with loud instruments, however, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum addresses the elephant in the room directly and straightforwardly just armed with his guitar. His wife Geneviève Gosselin passed away from inoperable pancreatic cancer in 2016, and A Crow Looked at Me is Elverum’s unique way of processing of her death and absence. The pure, unembellished exchanges—rather than “songs,” as they stop and start like one recalls fleeting memories—let Elverum’s unusually open lyrics hit listeners like a sledgehammer, despite the lightness he tries to hold in his voice, oft singing directly to her. “When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb,” he sings. “I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.” Simple, powerful—you’ll collapse alongside him at the end.
Bing and Ruth: No Home of the Mind
We first saw David Moore perform in a not-so-typical venue: cliffside in the Arizona desert, as a group of listeners sat beside the grand piano—his improvisations seemed to swirl and rise to the clouds. The unusual setting, of seeing a piano outside of its safe place (be it a living room, music studio or concert hall) and out in the rough, unmanufactured terrain of nature, transforms a familiar instrument into something celestial. He induces a similar kind of awakening trance in his third album as Bing and Ruth, and his first for label 4AD. In songs like “Form Takes,” he utilizes the piano to create an endless droning sound; Moore lightens his touch elsewhere, like in “The How of It Sped,” finding understanding in repetition. Essentially, Moore’s singular approach to minimalist composition allows for a duet between song and space—one we rarely get to hear these days.
Image courtesy of Jonny Nash + Suzanne Kraft