Minimalism began in a number of ways. Some say it is a reaction to the intense complexity of the serialist schools, others say it was developed as an extension of Cage's view of the acceptance of all sounds: in this case influences from rock, jazz and world musics. Suffice it to say, minimalism struck a chord with listeners and has become one of the most popular art musics for the populace.
People look to the pioneering work of Terry Riley whose In C followed through on the dictum that there was still plenty of good music to be written in C Major. Comprised of fifty-someodd melodic fragments in C Major, In C calls on the performers, an unspecified amount on any melodic instruments, to play through them all over changing to another when the individual player wishes. Consequently the work is open-form and with a duration and sonic result that can change with each performance. An interpretation of In C can be heard here.
Other composers, such as LaMonte Young began experimenting with simple sonorities, say a simple two note interval B-F#, played for extended durations. In effect suggesting to the listener that over time they will hear new things or new dimensions.
Many early minimalst composers developed their own ensembles to play their music, This both reflected the outsider quality of the music as well as the desire of the composers to control all aspects of its dissemination. Glass played everywhere and a loft culture developed which eventually led to the "Downtown" scene in New York new music.
The stereotypical qualities of minimalism are apparent on first listening: a simple harmonic framework and a strong rhythmic drive with numerous repetitions. Deeper listening will reveal interesting additive structures in the music: for example one piece might continually add new elements with each repetitions such as: A, AB, ABC, ABCD, ABCDE and so on ad infinitum.
With the acceptance of minimalism into the orchestral scene, minimalist composers began working more subtly. Incorporating more astringent harmonies and even in some cases, twelve-tone rows into a minimalist concept.

John Adams: Nixon in China (1985-7)
Essay on Adams

Essay on Nixon in China

You can see photographs from Nixon's visit and learn more about it here.

You can access a real audio sample from the opera, including the full aria, "News Has a Kind of Mystery" at Boosey and Hawkes, Adams' publisher's, webpage devoted to him.

John Adams's opera Nixon in China, set to a libretto in rhyming couplets by Alice Goodman, began as an idea of the theater director Peter Sellars. The idea was to have an opera that reflected the groundbreaking visit of Richard Nixon to China in the 1970s. After many back-channel negotiations by Henry Kissenger, Nixon was able to visit the closed state and meet Chairman Mao in hopes, of course, of finding new markets for American goods in the context of a cultural rapprochement. Such a cultural breakthrough was an enormous one for the Americans akin to when Commodore Matthew Perry forced open the Japanese market in the 1850s.
Adams's opera is unique in that it dealt with living people and a contemporary political situtation in the context of high art. Nixon is treated as a paranoid, eternally concerned with his image. This becomes increasingly apparent as the aria, "News Has a Kind of Mystery" moves to its conclusion.
Adams has continued his interest of viewing contemorary events through the lens of opera in his operas, The Death of Klinghoffer about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, and I was looking at the ceiling when I saw the sky about the San Francisco Earthquake.
Musically, Adams is considered one of the more "refined" of the minimalists and has been seeking to expand the vocabulary of the style. He has spoken about using different types of scales and scalar materials, including some derived by the late conductor, composer and musicologist, Nicholas Slonimsky, within the context of the minimalist techniques.

John Adams (1947- )
as photographed by William Clift

Act 1:
US President Richard Nixon arrives at the airfield outside Beijing. He meets Premier Chou En-lai and shakes hands with him. Nixon sings of his excitement and fears. An hour later, Nixon meets Chairman Mao, who disarms Nixon with his wit, philosophy and poticial observations. Alice Goodman's synopsis says: "It is not easy for a Westerner to hold his own in such a dialogue." After the meeting with Chairman Mao, a banquet is held which is full of toasting into the evening.

Act 2:
Snow has fallen and Mrs. Nixon is escorted to various locations in Beijing finishing at the Ming tombs. In the evening the Nixons attend a performance of "The Red Detachment of Women" a ballet devised by Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing.

Act 3:
The last evening in Beijing,.A banquet, everyone is tired save for Chairman Mao. The two couples reminisce about the second War.

News has a kind of mystery:
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the world was listening.
May I-
      Though we spoke quietly
The eyes and ears of history
Caught every gesture -
          - introduce -
And every word, transforming us
As we, transfixed, -
          - the Deputy
Minister of Security.
Made history.
          - May I -
On our flight over from Shanghai
The Minister -
          the countryside
Looked drab and grey. "Brueghel," Pat said.         
"We came in peace for all mankind"
I said, and I was put in mind
Of our Apollo astronauts
Simply -
          - of the United States
Acheiving a great human dream.
We live in an unsettled time.
Who are our enemies? Who are
Our friends? The Eastern Hemisphere
Beckoned to us, and we have flown
East of the sun, west of the moon
Across an ocean of distrust
Filled with the bodies of our lost;
The Earth's Sea of Tranquility.
It's prime time in the U.S.A.
Yestersday night. They watch us now;
The three main networks' colors glow
Livid through drapes onto the lawn.
Dishes are washed and homework done,
The dog and grandma fall asleep,
A car roars past playing loud pop,
Is gone. As I look down the road
I know America is good
At heart. An old cold warrior
Piloting toward an unknown shore
Through shoals. The rats begin to chew
The sheets. There's murmuring below.
Now there's ingratitude! My hand
Is steady as a rock. A sound
Like mourning doves reaches my ears,
Nobody is a friend of ours.
The nations' heartland skips a beat
As our hands shield the spinning globe
From the flame-throwers of the mob.
We must press on. We know we want -
What? - Oh yes -
     Mr. President -

Libretto by Alice Goodman

The Actual Scene alluded to in the aria
(top to bottom) Air Force One arrives in Beijing;
Nixon greets Chou en-Lai
Nixon meets Chairman Mao

All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.