Minimalism and the Machine

Rebecca M. Doran Eaton, Texas State University

From the seductive siren sax solo of the femme fatale, to the low bass megadrone of impending disaster, to the 4/4 drumbeats of Indian territory, film music depends on musical codes: motifs or musical styles that through repeated use in multimedia have acquired specific meanings. Minimalism, introduced to the film score in the 1960s and increasingly popular after Koyaanisqatsi, has now been a part of film music long enough to become a sign. After analyzing more than fifty feature films, documentaries, television shows, and commercials featuring the musical technique -- especially those that use minimalism for only part of their scores -- it is evident that minimalism has acquired several meanings since the 1980s, meanings often contingent upon its difference from the conventional Hollywood scoring style. This paper will explore one of the most common, minimalism as signifier of machine, demonstrating how this meaning is afforded by minimalism's musical characteristics, its prior use in film, and its reception history. I will also detail how it relates to the meanings for minimalism proposed by Robert Fink and Rebecca Leydon. This encoding of minimalism will be discussed in the context of Koyaanisqatsi (1982, music by Philip Glass), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001, music by John Williams), and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, music by Danny Elfman).