Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Pulse

For some reason I rarely watch interviews with composers, especially composers I think are important. I think the main reason is the interviewers: they almost always pose the wrong questions because they understand so little about what composers do and how they do it. But last night I came across an interview with Steve Reich and watched most of it. One interesting thing came out that I was completely unaware of: the repeated eighth note pulse in Terry Riley's seminal minimal piece "In C" (written in 1964) was contributed by Steve Reich, who was playing on the original recording. It was his creative contribution, which I had never heard said before. The witness here being Steve Reich himself.

Here is the first part of the original recording:


Yep, that surely sounds like Steve Reich. As he says in the interview, without that pulse it is a very different piece.

Another thing I learned from the Reich interview was the importance of the influence of John Coltrane, especially this piece, which is nearly seventeen minutes on an E chord:


In the interview he talks about the increasing tension that comes from the fact that the longer the music sits on the same chord, the more the tension of the expectation that the harmony will change. Of course, I suspect this is a whole lot less true these days as everyone from John Luther Adams to Nico Muhly is doing drones, drones, drones.

But it seems clear that the guy we need to credit with the return of the pulse to music is Steve Reich. Unless perhaps Philip Glass was doing the pulse back in 1964? It seems not, as from 1964 to 1966 he was in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, who had a fairly traditional approach to composition.

This sort of thing, claims as to who was the first to return the pulse (and harmony) to music or who was the first to do cubism in painting (Pablo Picasso with his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 apparently, just edging out Georges Braque's Houses at L'Estaque of 1908) seems odd to me, but obviously of great importance to the artists involved. My feeling is more "who was it who really developed the idea?" It was certainly Steve Reich as Terry Riley seems to have done nothing else of any significance since "In C".

It is interesting to contemplate how Steve Reich was able to take the simplest of musical ideas, repeated eighth-note octave Cs, and use that as a foundation to reinvent music. But that seems to have been what happened. The path leads directly from there to this:


4 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

An unhappy coincidence that an entirely different 'Pulse' is in the news this morning. The Desert Music is quite lovely, which up to about the three minute point I hadn't been so sure about.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, what a horrific event.

There are most certainly some lovely pieces by Steve Reich.

Jeph said...

Desert Music is an interesting trip. Quite engaging in texture and harmony throughout. I love the swells in the beginning, and there's a great string riff that emerges in the 14th minute. I'm still trying to get my head around where he's coming from in terms of melody. In the choir, I'm hearing sort of jagged Shoenbergian leaps, clusters reminiscent of Rutter, always sustained notes moving together in big blocks. He's resistant to line in a way that reads European mid-century Modern to me. This paired with the orchestra's billowy pandiatonic texture, there's an odd, not altogether comfortable sensation of being whipped around by these almost robotic turns of melody in the choir. Very interesting indeed.

Bryan Townsend said...

Steve Reich's vocal writing is one of the most interesting and perplexing aspects of his style. It can be traced back to the vocal writing, almost imperceptible, in Drumming where the voices merely highlight certain sounds of the percussion. His vocal style has developed from there. So it is utterly different from the voice writing of any other composer I can think of. Sounds like a good topic for a post.