In the early 1980s, many young composers began writing music within the static confines of minimalism, but using greater rhythmic complexity, often with two or more tempos (or implied tempos) audible at once. The style acquired a name around 1990, when it became evident to composers working in New York City that a number of them, including John Luther Adams, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Kyle Gann, Michael Gordon, Arthur Jarvinen, Diana Meckley, Ben Neill, Larry Polansky, Mikel Rouse, Evan Ziporyn, were employing similar types of global tempo structures in their music.
The term totalist refers to the aims of the music, in trying to have enough surface rhythmic energy, but also to contain enough background complexity. There is also an echo in the term of serialism's "total organization," here drawn not from the 12-tone row, but from Henry Cowell's theories about using the same structuring devices for rhythm that have been traditionally used for pitch. For instance, the traditional ratio between frequencies of a major second interval is 9:8, and 9-against-8 is an important tempo contrast in many totalist pieces, achieved by having some instruments play dotted eighth-notes while others play triplet half-notes. In practice, totalist music can either be consonant, dissonant, or both, but generally restricts itself to a small number of sonorities within a given piece.
Examples of works in the totalist idiom include:
- Mikel Rouse: Quick Thrust, Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland (a talk-show opera), The End of Cinematics
- Michael Gordon: Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!, Acid Rain, Four Kings Fight Five, Van Gogh Video Opera, Trance
- Rhys Chatham: An Angel Moves Too Fast to See
- John Luther Adams: Dream in White on White, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, The White Silence
- Kyle Gann: Long Night, Custer and Sitting Bull, Unquiet Night
- Ben Neill: 678 Streams, ITSOFOMO
- Arthur Jarvinen: Murhpy-Nights, The Paces of Yu (see Yubu)
- Dominic Thurgood: Én Skikk, Én Sorg, Sonnets-Actualities, Remx>s/tape/
- Edward Rothstein, "Minimalism Pumped Up to the Max," New York Times, July 18, 1993
- Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 355–56.
- Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, pp. 13-14; Kyle Gann, "Minimal Music, Maximal Impact: Minimalism Gets Complex: Totalism; Kyle Gann, "Tyrannize Me," VIllage Voice, Vol. XXXIX No. 13 (March 29, 1994), p. 86).
- Kyle Gann, "Totally Ismic," Village Voice, Vol. XXXVIII No. 29 (July 20, 1993), p. 69, reprinted in Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, pp. 127–29.
- Gann, Kyle, American Music in the Twentieth Century, 1997, Schirmer ISBN 0-02-864655-X
- Gann, Kyle, Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice, 2006, University of California Press ISBN 0-520-22982-7
- Minimal Music, Maximal Impact by Kyle Gann © 2001 NewMusicBox
- A Discography of Postminimal, Totalist, and Rare Minimalist Music by Kyle Gann