Sunday, May 22, 2016

Who's the Minimalist? Steve Reich or Webern?

I think that this particular meme is fading away naturally, but for the first couple of decades of the careers of both Philip Glass and Steve Reich they were constantly referred to as "minimalists". Reich himself resisted that term, preferring instead to be thought of as someone who wrote "process music", music that consists in the unfolding of a process. If you look up the Wikipedia article titled "Minimal music" you will see the list of composers as including:
In the Western art music tradition the American composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass are credited with being among the first to develop compositional techniques that exploit a minimal approach.
But what does this really mean, "minimal approach"? As the element that seems to stand out most prominently is repetition, wouldn't the style be better called "repetitive music"? But never mind, Reich and Glass were both tarred with the minimal brush for quite a while. As time went on, they both developed their approach to the point that, while certain repetitive elements continue to act as foundational principles, the music has become so much more complex that the term minimal is rarely used to describe their more recent works.

Now let's take a brief look at Anton Webern, whose music is described by Wikipedia in these terms:
Webern's music was the most radical of its milieu in its rigorous and resolute apprehension of twelve-tone technique. His innovations in schematic organization of pitch, rhythm, register, timbre, dynamics, articulation, and melodic contour; his eagerness to redefine imitative contrapuntal techniques such as canon and fugue; and his inclination toward athematicism, abstraction, concision, and lyricism all greatly informed and oriented post-war European, typically serial or avant-garde composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, Henri Pousseur, and Gy├Ârgy Ligeti.
But, if you listen to some of his music with fresh ears, what do you hear? This is the Lasalle Quartet with all of his String Quartet, op. 28, one of Webern's most admired pieces. Total duration, eight minutes:

And here is the score of the first page:

Most analyses of this piece start with the tone row, which has some unique properties.

For one thing, the first four notes are Bach's musical signature as, in German nomenclature, they spell out BACH. The next segment is the first one inverted and the final one is the first one transposed a minor sixth. A property of the whole row is that the inversion is the same as the retrograde. All this, plus the way that the row is presented in the music has long fascinated theorists. They have also pointed out the extensive use of canon which we can see on page one. The first two notes of the viola are canonically imitated in the first violin and later in the cello and second violin. If you look closely, you will see all sorts of canons.

For comparison, let's pick a highly admired piece by Steve Reich (also, I happen to have the score!), the octet titled "Eight Lines" from 1979/1983. This is the original recording from 1979 by Steve Reich and Musicians:

And here is the first page of that score:

So, which piece is the more "minimal"? It really depends on how you look at it, doesn't it? I have talked about the Steve Reich piece in a number of places on this blog, most recently here. In that post I quote an interesting analysis of the piece in which Brent Heisinger points out various ways in which Reich uses different kinds of canons throughout.

Setting aside contrapuntal techniques like canon, which are used extensively in both pieces, where are the big differences? Pitch, obviously. The Webern is structured to create a constant web of dissonance in which no pitch can be perceived as a tonic. The Reich, on the other hand, basically alternates between C# and D# until about two thirds of the way through, when there is a big shift to A flat. But the most salient difference is rhythm, of course. The Reich piece has a constant pulse that drives the piece throughout. The Webern doesn't.

Going back to the question, due to the sparse, transparent texture of the Webern, one could easily argue that, from a listener's point of view, it is more minimal than the Reich. Odd, isn't it? The Webern has long been regarded as a brilliant example of compositional complexity, but in reality, the piece by Steve Reich has quite a bit of complexity as well.

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