Tuesday, March 8, 2016


I was listening to some Steve Reich the other day and I either noticed something for the first time, or rediscovered something I noticed decades ago: one of the techniques he uses is something you might call "polymeter" though it doesn't really fit into either of the categories described in the Wikipedia article.

Polymeter, very simply, is when you have more than one meter at the same time. In the way it is used by Steve Reich it is a kind of development of the age-old technique of hemiola that I talked about in this post. As you can see in that post, it was often used in the Baroque to signal a cadence or the end of a section. It is also a feature of Spanish music to this day. You can hear it in the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo and in genres like the zapateado. It is a particularly powerful element in the flamenco form called bulerĂ­as, described in this article from Wikipedia which very usefully has a sound clip illustrating the effect. They don't describe it as a polymeter, though that is really what it is as what gives the music its impetus is the tension between 3/4 and 6/8 which we hear simultaneously:

It is traditionally counted in 12 with the top part as either two bars of 6/8 or one bar of 12/8. The lower part is in 12/8 or 6/8 for the first half of the bar and shifts to 3/4 in the second half. What makes this pattern sound odd to our ears is that metric groups in flamenco don't begin with a downbeat as they ordinarily do in Western music, but rather end with the downbeat. The strongest beat here is actually the twelfth.

Steve Reich has used a similar effect to create impetus in a number of pieces including Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians. Here is what he does:

I haven't looked to see if this is how he notates it, but it might be different in different pieces. I just discovered last night that you can view various scores by Steve Reich on the Boosey and Hawkes website, so I will be able to examine them in some detail in the future. But for now, this is what I hear happening. The top part can be heard in various meters: 2/4, 4/4 or any multiple, but it is really a two-beat package. The tension comes from the other part being in either 3/4 or 6/4 depending on how you hear it. And, of course, he is constantly shifting everything around, so you hear it in different ways in different places. But the basic idea is the same as the bulerĂ­as: tension and impetus created through the layering of two different meters on top of one another. The sensation is hard to describe, but it is a kind of rolling over feeling as the meters interact with one another.

This might seem a simple kind of technique, but I think that the strength of it in both flamenco and especially in Steve Reich's music is that he finds ways to make you feel it very clearly. Frankly, there are piles and stacks of music that use every kind of complicated effect there is and the final result is a jumble of confusion. The important thing is to get the listener to hear what you are doing and Steve Reich is the master of that. Here are the first two parts of Drumming, which uses this technique and a bunch of others. The second clip begins with a passage using a pattern similar to the one I show above:


Jeph said...

I dig Reich, and no doubt he's a breath of fresh air. I think he asks us to radically reconsider what "melody" is, and also how we listen to music. The static qualities force the listener to look inside the music, specifically at middle voices to perceive the various changes going on there. Strikes me a similar to listening to renaissance polyphony, where you're listening for the bones of the music, what it's built on. Not so much the top-down, hear the high part, feel the bass way of listening. Would you say that there is "melody" in this music as you understand it? Is he denying us melody? As I listen, my mind is asking for more contour, more direction, more intention. Part of that is conditioning, but that doesn't negate the feeling. My only reservation is that it all takes so long to unfold. That sounds pretty shallow, but I wonder why its necessary. I should think I'd really be blown away by this piece if the changes were compressed and it were half the length. Maybe I ought to seek out some later stuff, and see how he evolves.

Bryan Townsend said...

The great radical step Reich took in 1970 was, basically, to throw out every element EXCEPT rhythm and see what he could do with it. The result was Drumming. And no, there really is no melody as we usually understand it, even though there are vocal parts. They are just highlighting elements of the rhythm. But if you listen to the Octet, for example, about 2 minutes in there is a really cool melody for flute. And I think there are melodies, of a sort, in Tehillim and Different Trains to name just a couple.

As for the length, yes, I get your point, but somehow they seem to need that kind of space.