Dissertation Index

Author: Shelley, Peter J

Title: Rethinking Minimalism: At the Intersection of Art and Music

Institution: University of Washington

Begun: September 2008

Completed: June 2013


By now most scholars are fairly sure of what minimalism is. Even if they may be reluctant to offer a precise theory, and even if they may distrust canon formation, members of the informed public have a clear idea of who the central canonical minimalist composers were or are. Sitting front and center are always four white male Americans: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. This dissertation negotiates with this received wisdom, challenging the stylistic coherence among these composers implied by the term minimalism and scrutinizing the presumed neutrality of their music.

This dissertation is based in the acceptance of the aesthetic similarities between minimalist sculpture and music. Michael Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood,” which occupies a central role in the history of minimalist sculptural criticism, serves as the point of departure for three excursions into minimalist music. The first excursion deals with the question of time in minimalism, arguing that, contrary to received wisdom, minimalist music is not always well understood as static or, in Jonathan Kramer’s terminology, vertical. The second excursion addresses anthropomorphism in minimalist music, borrowing from Fried’s concept of (bodily) presence. Relying heavily on Adriana Cavarero’s philosophy of vocality, differences in bodily expression are explored within and between the music of Young and Reich. The final excursion deals with objecthood itself, disrupting the commonplace that minimalism makes no political or cultural statements. Following art critic Anna Chave, I argue that tropes of masculinity have been disguised in minimalist music by the presumption of neutrality. Masculinity, however, must be redefined with the onset of the 1960s. Following Peter Stearns and Michael Kimmel, I argue for an austere, isolationist masculinity, whose presumed omnipotence produces an immanent fragility. Reich’s minimalism in particular can be distinguished from that of Riley and Young on account of its recontextualization of American masculinity.

Overall this dissertation is a dissertation of difference. By attending to time, corporeality, and masculinity — subjects too often subordinated within the field of music theory — I would undermine the stabilizing and homogenizing claims implicit in the stylistic heading of “minimalism.”

Keywords: Minimalism, Sculpture, critical theory, gender, Reich, Glass, Young, Riley, Cavarero, Kramer


Chapter 1: Defining Minimalism in Music
Chapter 2: Minimalism and Postmodernism
Chapter 3: The Time of Minimalism
Chapter 4: Space, Interest, and Uniqueness
Chapter 5: Minimalism Matters



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