Monday, May 9, 2016

Steve Reich: Eight Lines, a brief sketch

I'm going to call this a "sketch" and not an analysis because analysis implies something much more thorough. I'm just going to take a glance at the piece and point out a few things. If you are looking for an analysis, here is one by Brent Heisinger. His discussion is more aimed at musicians and specifically ones with background in music theory. Mine is going to be rather more informal.

I have put up this piece a number of times before because I think it is one of the strongest pieces by Steve Reich and I believe the first to use an actual melody, though not one easy to hum. Here it is with the score:

The melody, in the flute at the top of the score, appears 2:05 into the performance in this clip, at rehearsal number 11 in the score.

Now let's take a look at the beginning and how Steve Reich launches this piece with one of his characteristic rhythmic patterns:

click to enlarge
The only other element at the beginning are two-note chords in the violin 1. Basics first: this is in C# Dorian mode in a very quick (quarter note around 180 per minute or about three beats per second) 5/4 (meaning that the pulses are in groups of five). You should be able to count a quick one, two, three, four, five with the one falling on the beginning of the arpeggio starting on the low note in the piano 1.  I would recommend trying to count while the music plays and seeing if you can follow the score.

The tricky thing is that this isn't just a simple C# Dorian arpeggio. If you look at piano 1, the left hand is mirrored a fifth above in the right hand and both hands play a block chord on the fifth beat consisting of the notes D, E, A, B, F# [Correction, that's D#, E, A#, B, F#. Sorry!] which is anyone's guess as to harmonic function. It's neither a dominant nor a tonic. But something else is going on here: this is what Heisinger calls a "canon-ostinato". An ostinato is simply a motif or fairly brief idea that is repeated over and over, usually with something else going on over top. The Baroque passacaglia is an example as is the last movement of the Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius. Canon is another very old musical technique where one voice, the dux or leader, leads and another voice, the comes or follower, follows. The nursery school tune "Row, row, row your boat" is a simple example. If you go back and look at my example you will see the left hand of the piano 1, beginning on the first beat, is repeated in the left hand of the piano 2 beginning on the third beat and overlapping the barline. Later on this is filled out more and the right hand of the piano 2 begins to follow the right hand of piano 1, but this time ten beats later (or one beat before, depending on your point of view. Here is the example from Heisinger's analysis:

As Heisinger points out, the dux remains the same throughout, but the comes changes with each section making for subtle changes in sonority.

But this isn't the only canonic element going on in the piece. The strings contribute another, entirely different kind of canon that Heisinger calls a "drone-canon" because the strings, holding long sustained notes create a kind of drone effect. It is only when you look closely at what they are playing do you see the canon:

Click to enlarge
Here, the second violin is following the first two full measures later. Heisinger also points out that the drone-canons are often presented incrementally and not in the same note values, i.e. in diminution.

These techniques are age-old: the last time in music history they were used with this degree of intensity was probably the 15th century in the music of Ockeghem and Josquin! So why doesn't this music sound old? Probably the principal reason is that the rhythmic surface resembles more than anything else the bebop syncopations of jazz:

When you think of it, this is the kind of thing that only a really creative "classical" composer can accomplish: the renewal of musical structure and expression through the synthesis of the very old and the very new: the bare, angular harmonies of organum (12th century) with the canonic structures of early Renaissance counterpoint (15th century) with the syncopations of jazz (20th century).

A little footnote: the excellent analytical paper by Brent Heisinger came out of him being asked to conduct, at the last minute, a performance of Eight Lines in 1982 in San Jose as part of the series New Sounds San Jose. New indeed! The organisers had scheduled two two-hour rehearsals to prepare the piece. This is actually quite typical of orchestral performances. At most they might have three rehearsals before the performance. But you can bet that no ad hoc ensemble outside of Steve Reich's own could possibly put together this piece in two rehearsals. Or twenty, for that matter. As Heisinger says in a footnote: "After the scheduled two two-hour rehearsals, it was mutually agreed the piece was not ready for performance, consequently, it was dropped from the concert program." This is why the first thing Steve Reich (and Philip Glass) had to do when he started writing this kind of music was create his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, to play it. The kinds of demands, especially rhythmic, it makes were entirely new. Nowadays, pretty much any university percussion ensemble can play his music, but back then, the skills were as yet undeveloped.


Anonymous said...

i really like your analysis of Steve Reich's music.
i think he is a genuine classical great,in that he takes ideas & structures of the past and has forged an distinctive idiom of his own with forward looking music.a true composer without the need for gimmicks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jack. But it is more Brent Heisinger's than mine. Still, I suppose I contributed a musicological take on it, by tracing the various elements to their origins. Steve Reich is one of the very few composers to have changed the course of music history. Others might be Monteverdi and Haydn.