Sunday, May 15, 2016


I have talked a lot about Steve Reich on this blog and this year being his 80th birthday, it might be a good time to do a serious evaluation of his work. He is the most important composer of our time, the last half of the 20th century and first half of the 21st. So there you go. Oh, you want to know why I think this? Right, that is the purpose of this post which I envision as being the first of a series of posts.

Quite a while ago I put up a post titled "The Most Audacious Composition of the 20th Century" (which I suggest you read) and the one I chose was a surprise for  a lot of readers. It was not 4'33 by John Cage or something by Stravinsky, Boulez or Webern or Schoenberg or even Messiaen (though he might have been close). No, the piece I chose was by Steve Reich called Drumming and it is so incredibly modest in its means and materials that it begins with one person hitting a little drum with a little stick:

That was just the first part, for small tuned drums. Here is the second part, for marimbas:

You have to imagine the fade from the drums into the marimbas--it is quite magical.

In order to explain why I think this and later pieces by Steve Reich are so important I have to back up and take a broad look at music history. The pre-history of music is nearly everything before about the year 1000. This might seem surprising as history in most senses began a lot earlier than that. History as opposed to pre-history, is that which is written down, recorded. Before the means to do that exist all we have are shadowy events that we glimpse through bones, potshards, carbon-dating, DNA and so on. Until writing was invented, nothing was very clear. The earliest writing, say the Minoan Linear A and B scripts, were highly specialised skills practiced by fewer than 100 people in the whole culture. It was not until Homer and his epic poems (which probably began as oral epics, but from around 800 BC were able to be written down) that writing began to spread throughout a society.

CORRECTION: Through some sort of intellectual myopia, I was just thinking about writing in connection with the Greeks. The true origin of writing was in ancient Sumer around 3200 BC.

But the ability to write down music was still elusive and it wasn't until nearly 2000 years later that the means to do this was invented, largely by a fellow named Guido of Arezzo. I talked about him in this post. What Guido discovered was that by using horizontal lines, it was possible to define exactly the pitch of musical notes. Before then there were only squiggles, a kind of mnemonic that, if you already knew the tune, could help you remember it. I am going to skip all the historical details and get right to the important part: what Guido discovered was the means to write down melodies. In this first stage of musical composition, that was all there was. The plainchant sung in the Catholic church to this day preserves this stage.

Creative musicians being, well, creative, they soon discovered that you could have more than one melodic line at once and invented what we call organum. This was at Notre Dame in Paris around 1200 and the two names to remember are Léonin and Pérotin. Here is a sample:

The development of melody continued for the next four hundred years with more and more contrapuntal sophistication, which is still all about the putting together of different melodies, which often imitate one another. Here is a mass by Tomas Luis de Victoria:

Around 1600 a very important dislocation in music history occurred. The complexity of counterpoint had reached a kind of zenith and composers set out in a new direction. Looking back, we can see that what they did was to, temporarily at least, toss aside all that lovely counterpoint and instead lump the vertical sonorities together into chords. This was essentially the downgrading of counterpoint--melody--in favour of harmony. Along with this came the expressive and dramatic idea of the single voice which was very useful in the newly invented genre of opera. Here is the aria "Possente spirito" from the opera L'Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi where the declamatory solo voice is largely accompanied by chordal harmony:

Of course, the resources of counterpoint were too powerful to be set aside for very long so by the end of the Baroque we have the remarkable contrapuntal achievements of J. S. Bach--but note that they are within the far greater harmonic resources that were discovered after 1600. This is the Contrapunctus I from the Art of Fugue by Bach, played by Glenn Gould:

There was another important dislocation around the mid-18th century and, again, opera was involved. Composers like Joseph Haydn developed an entirely new way of composing that was based on the verve and energy of opera buffa but applied to instrumental music. The fundamental texture was a simplified one of a motoric accompaniment consisting of the notes of a chord arpeggiated. Over this was a tuneful melody. This is Haydn's Sonata for Piano #37 in D major played by Christoph Eschenbach:

Of course Haydn, along with Mozart and Beethoven, availed themselves of some contrapuntal complexity from time to time: resources discovered are never neglected for long. But the point is that the foundation of musical structure was now harmony, articulated in a certain way rhythmically which is why Classical Era music sounds so very different from Baroque Era music even though they are using the same scales and mostly the same harmonies.

Music history gets rather more complex as we move into the 19th and 20th centuries as the social context and reception history of music has more and more effect on what composers do and how they do it. I'm not going to belabour those details, but the basic trend was to expand the resources of the late Classical Style while developing the atmospheric materials of orchestration and improved instruments. All the instruments from the piano to the tuba were redesigned during the 19th century for greater range and volume.

The conventional wisdom is that the first half of the 20th century in music was the beginning of a new era as significant as any in music history. The tenets of high modernism were to set aside harmony for the "emancipation of the dissonance" which meant that composers could put together any notes they wanted with no restrictions on dissonant clashes. Along with this went a fragmentation of rhythm. Some early examples were very successful such as the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. The conductor is Jaap van Zweden:

But I think that the fundamental problem was that the foundational idea was negative: the new music was the old music without the old harmony, melody and rhythm. The style was oppositional, not propositional: all it did was oppose the old style. Stravinsky was one of the first, perhaps, to realise this as a few years later, with neo-classicism, he made a partial return to some of the  practices of the old style.

I'm going to say that, in retrospect, a lot of the music of the first half of the century, and even later, was an attempt to ignore the problem that music no longer had a positive foundation, but only a negative one. This was an unsatisfactory situation and the consequence was that audiences were avoiding the most advanced music concerts. This situation was obscured to a large extent by the parallel growth of a huge popular music industry. Classical music, at least the "serious" stuff, was becoming a minority taste.

But then came Steve Reich. He wasn't alone, of course, people like Philip Glass and Terry Riley were making similar strides. But it was and is Steve Reich that really reinvented music when it badly needed it. Let's review: the first major stage of music, since it has been written down, was melodic. This soon became multi-melodic which musicians refer to as counterpoint (note-against-note). There was a big shift around 1600 to music based on chordal harmony, though counterpoint soon returned. Around 1760 a smaller shift was made to rhythmically enliven the chordal harmonies. Skipping ahead a bit, Modernism meant a shift away from harmony and melody altogether with jagged, fragmented rhythms. After fifty or so years of this, another new start was made with pieces like Drumming by Steve Reich. He went back to the very roots of music and said, essentially, let us reestablish the foundations of music on the age-old pulse. Let's clear away everything else, melody, harmony, orchestration, everything and just re-discover the pulse.

I honestly think this was as radical a move as has been made in music history, as significant and as profound as the discovery of counterpoint in 1200 and chordal harmony in 1600, which is where my title comes from.

Steve Reich always thinks in terms of the basis of his music being what he calls the "rhythm section". This might be drums or marimbas or pianos or electric bass and there might be a lot of other stuff over or under it, but the rhythm section, like the arpeggiated chords of the Classical Era is where the music is grounded.

But he has come a long way from there and he has become able to do such traditional things as set the Psalms but doing so entirely within the pulse-based style he has developed. This is part 3 and 4 from Tehillim, his setting of four Psalms:

Music has to have some kind of foundation: melody, harmony, rhythm. Without that, if the foundation is thought of as simply negative: no melody, no harmony, no rhythm, then the possibilities are limited.

Of course, there were undoubtedly historic reasons why Modernism was based on a negative: European civilisation in the two World Wars, was engaged in a kind of suicide attempt and composers, artists of all kinds, were suffering from post-traumatic stress. But that doesn't mean that music didn't need rescuing--quite the contrary.


Anonymous said...

Fabulous post!
This is the kind of content that makes me visit your blog every day to see if you put any new post;For those of us keen to know about the history of music and how techniques evolved,this is of great help.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jack! Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

An excellent read. I definitely agree that music has to have some kind of foundation, and that Reich was/is incredibly important in this regard. But (and there's always a 'but') I wonder if maybe there's a non-musical foundation that many of the best modern composers have clung to. (And I'm working this out as I write it, so bear with me.) I was listening yesterday to James MacMillan on the radio talking about the 20th and 21st century composers who never stopped searching for the sacred even in an increasingly secular world. He listed Messiaen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg's later works (he referenced Moses und Aron), and a couple of others I can't recall. You can add to that list Sofia Gubaidulina, Macmillan himself, Penderecki, and indeed even Steve Reich's exploration of his Judaism, and many more (including Charles Ives, an obsession of mine). This is all to say that it struck me that my favourite modern composers have religion as a strong influence, and that in reference to your post, composers can clear away everything -- melody, harmony, as you say, but also rhythm -- in search of the sacred instead, and it seems to work.

I don't want to ignite a debate on religion, just to suggest that a religious impulse, whatever that is, is something the best modern composers have perhaps re-discovered, or clung to. The war had a devastating effect on religious belief too, and many great modern composers have arguably rescued it. Perhaps, even, it speaks more broadly to the philosophy behind modernism.

Your argument that modernism is based on a negative does compel me in another regard, when I think about. I don't know where I read it, but someone wiser than myself made the observation that when modernist music tries to be more complex it always sounds more random, and when it tries to be meticulously logical it always sounds more illogical. A lack of a musical foundation would explain this.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very sage observations, sluggingvampire! I did neglect the spiritual dimension, which, as you point out, seems to be an important one. One composer you didn't mention that would support the case is Arvo Pärt.

Anonymous said...

Ah, how could I forget Arvo Part! I was in love with his music long before I was into classical.

Ken F. said...

Thank you, Bryan, for that golden nugget! You put the current music compositional situation in its millenium-wide context in just a few paragraphs!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Ken! I have my moments.

Christine Lacroix said...

Lucky for us you get bored!

Marc said...

MacMillan is giving a lecture the day after tomorrow which certain elements in the media have been hyping, perhaps because it just seems so anti- everything the mainstream Guardian folks like to obsess about; the bits of text I saw weren't all that earth-shattering but.... The address is titled "A Sober Composer Looks at Some Thistles".

Marc said...

Was thinking about this post when I stumbled into Simeon ten Holt's Canto Ostinato yesterday. "... (I)f the foundation is thought of as simply negative: no melody, no harmony, no rhythm, then the possibilities are limited": as should be obvious, I only know what few bits of fact I learned from his web site &c ('consonant, tonal materials', 'post-modernist and organic in nature') and while I listened for fifteen minutes & had it on 'in the background' for almost ninety minutes, I reached a point where I had rather abruptly to turn it off-- it was becoming uncomfortable in my ears. Huit clos is the phrase that occurred to me; while one listens & perceives a certain beauty in the pianos' playing, in the patterned arrangement of the notes, it none the less seems sterile, in spite of the minimal rhythm &c. And the combining of the cells by each performer in each successive performance, eh, spectacle that is useful for nothing beyond providing 'difference' (although the performer's point of view is maybe other), & I don't require hours in a theatre to experience 'difference'. Today, am luxuriating in Mendelssohn's version of Handel's Acis and Galatea as an antidote. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

@Marc: Ay, if we were only in Glasgow we could take in the lecture and after, over a wee dram of single malt, discuss the issues!

Re your other comment: this is an extremely interesting observation! Funnily enough, a few weeks ago I listened to some music--it may even have been the same piece--by Simeon ten Holt and had precisely the same reaction. It was pleasant enough, though a bit dull, but as time went on it became, as you say, a Huit clos! I think that what this indicates is that Simeon ten Holt is what we might call a lesser composer in a similar genre to a great composer. Like Steve Reich, he uses consonant harmonies and repeated rhythms. But that alone does not make a good piece of music. In nearly all of Steve Reich's pieces there is a driving intensity, what he calls the "rhythm section" that is constantly providing the ground and context to everything else. ten Holt's music lacks this. It is a bit like having the icing without the cake. ten Holt is like Hummel to Steve Reich's Beethoven.