Monday, February 29, 2016

Music by Steve Reich

I was talking to my ex-composition teacher in Montreal a while back who seemed to think that the important figure for contemporary music was Pierre Boulez, and I said, well, my baseline for influence in contemporary music is really Steve Reich! Which rather dampened that conversation.

I think that one of the most important awakenings in my musical odyssey was the first time I heard Drumming, composed in 1970/71. As an undergraduate in music performance at McGill in the mid-70s I liked to go to the listening library if I had a spare period and no urgent need to hit the practice rooms. This was in the days of vinyl and I would go to the stacks and just grab whatever looked interesting. On this occasion I had some pieces by Stockhausen for multiple orchestras, one of which I think was Carré, some Ligeti, maybe some Luigi Nono and so on. I would grab ten or so discs and if nothing grabbed me in the first couple of minutes, it was on to the next one.

Here is Carré, for example:


And here, from Wikipedia, is a description of the structure:
Carré unfolds 101 "moments" with durations varying from 1.5 to 90 seconds, each of which is characterised by one or several notes and chords (Rigoni 1998, 189). However, Stockhausen originally planned 252 sections in his draft form scheme, where eight basic categories of sound are arrayed, each with four levels (Toop 2005, 172):

Type: the four solo instruments used to furnish each of the four orchestras with a characteristic timbre: cimbalom, vibraphone, piano, and harp
Attack: four "attack transient" percussion instruments, also used to differentiate the four orchestras: Indian bells, drums, Alpine cowbells, and cymbals
Gestalt variation: four parameters within which transformations are to occur: rhythm, "height", timbre, and dynamics
Density: number of notes present, from one to four
Register: four principal octave registers
Duration: four generic values from "short" to "as long as possible"
Amplitude: four basic dynamic levels, notated in the sketch (but not the score) with numerals
Colour: four basic timbres: voices, strings, woodwinds, and brass
In contrast to the complex interrelationships of these eight sound categories, the underlying pitch structure of Carré is so simple that Stockhausen was able to write it out on a single sheet of music paper (Toop 2005, 172). The basic pitch series used throughout the work is
E♭ D E C♯ F C F♯ B G B♭ A♭ A.
So, pretty complex. After listening to a few minutes of it, I moved on to some other discs and ended up with Drumming by Steve Reich, which begins like this:


Here is an excerpt from the notes to the recording:


If you are in a context where the complexity of Stockhausen is the norm (or ideal at least), then hearing the astonishing simplicity of the opening of Drumming is, well, very impressive. The basic aesthetic principle of Reich's music is the opposite of that of Stockhausen. What is going on in Stockhausen is anything but evident, no matter how much you listen. But Reich has said that he has no interest in concealing anything from the listener. He wants you to hear exactly what is going on through the whole piece. At the beginning of Drumming, for example, what is going on is that that single beat you hear is NOT the downbeat, which only arrives later. When it does, you have to reorient your whole perception. The whole piece is about your perception of rhythm.

Slowly filling in or reducing the elements of a basic rhythmic pattern is only one of Reich's techniques. He began by working with tape loops and constructing layers that move at slightly different speeds resulting in a phenomenon he calls "phasing". Here is an early example titled "Come Out" from 1966:


He decided that this would only be musically interesting if he could do it with live musicians on acoustic instruments so he wrote a whole series of "phase" pieces such as Piano Phase from 1967:


This takes a remarkably fine control of tempo as what happens is one piano preserves exactly the opening rhythmic pattern at exactly the same tempo while the other piano initially duplicates it and then, very gradually speeds up just enough to move one sixteenth note ahead. Then the process stabilizes before moving on to another sixteenth note ahead and so on for the whole piece. You can hear this process beginning about one and a half minutes into the piece.

So already in the first few years of his career, Steve Reich made use of two rhythmic ideas that, while perhaps not absolutely novel, certainly were fresh in the context of Western music. But he was far from finished. Another idea, also rhythmically oriented, was to add string and wind instruments that hold long notes underneath the quick-moving percussion instruments. This might remind you of the techniques used in the organum of the 12th century. Yet another was to develop subtle contrapuntal ideas within his characteristic syncopated texture such as in the piece Six Pianos from 1973:


I'll leave you with that to listen to and will continue in a later post with where he went from here.

2 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

What a coincidence! was going to draw this 'Riot in Cologne!!!' to your attention on the Friday Miscellanea post (the poor harpsichordist was heckled while he tried to perform Reich's... Piano Phase) [http://slippedisc.com/2016/02/noisy-dissent-disrupts-a-harpsichord-recital/] but I'm guessing you've already seen it.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, I hadn't seen it! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention. It is gratifying for two reasons: first, it shows that people can still get very emotionally involved with classical music and second, that music by Steve Reich is capable of eliciting such strong reactions. Piano Phase is, to my mind, a rather innocuous piece at that...