Thursday, June 16, 2016

Steve Reich's Vocal Style

If I were writing this for an academic journal I would title it "Some Notes on Steve Reich's Vocal Style" because that it is all it will be. The simpler title I am using, in an academic context, would imply some sort of exhaustive thoroughness, which you won't find here! As I have not kept up with music theory in the last couple of decades, for all I know there have been a host of articles on the interesting way that Steve Reich uses the voice. But I just searched with Google Scholar and I don't see much of anything. The two main kinds of writing on Steve Reich are his own essays on "Music as a Gradual Process" and a few articles of the "new" musicology variety, talking about his music from a cultural or semiotic perspective rather than how it is actually put together.

The other day a commentator mentioned how unique Steve Reich's writing is for voice and since I have noticed this myself, I thought it deserved a post.

Here is the basic truth: Steve Reich began as a percussionist and his music in many ways takes percussion as the fundamental element. In contrast, in the history of Western music, percussion has usually been quite peripheral. The voice has been central and it was only in the 18th century that instruments came to have as central a place as the voice in musical structure. Even then, most writing for instruments reflected, closely or remotely, vocal writing. Things like melodic lines that mostly feature movement by step rather than large leaps are typical of instrumental writing influenced by vocal writing. Wide leaps are easy for instruments, but difficult for voices.

But with Steve Reich we have exactly the opposite situation. For the first time in music history, writing for the voice is actually a kind of spinoff for writing for percussion. Here is his own comment on vocal style in the preface to the score to Drumming:

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The idea, clearly stated, was to "sound like the marimbas". The idea came from Steve Reich's experience, while playing percussion, of the tendency to bring out some of the percussion sounds by humming or singing them. In Drumming, the voices don't enter until the second section, in company with the marimbas. Here is the context:

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As you can see, the alto is just doubling or underlining the Marimba 1, Player 3 line. Here is Part 2 in performance. Note that the tempo is very quick; half note = 132 - 144:

But the idea of voices simply doubling a percussion instrument was just the beginning. Here is his note in the preface to Music for 18 Musicians about the voice parts:

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Again, the goal is for the singers to imitate the sounds of the instruments, but now those include strings as well:

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Let's listen to the beginning of Music for 18 Musicians. The tempo is a brisk quarter note equal to 204 - 210 and each measure is repeated anything from six to forty-eight times. I have chosen this performance because the video makes it easy to see when the singers enter:

But eventually Steve Reich began setting texts, which posed a different problem. How does this kind of vocal style work when you have actual words to sing? The intermediary step was Different Trains where Reich took tape recordings of people speaking and turned them directly into melodic motifs. But when he got to Tehillim, he was prepared to simply write directly for voice. Here is his comment in the preface to the score of Tehillim:

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Here is how the beginning of the score looks (showing only the parts sounding):

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And here is how that sounds:

The rhythms come from the rhythm of the spoken words. The obvious things to note are the simple modal quality of the melody and the way the percussion supports the voice throughout. Though this may look like simple music, I know from my own experience that music with a high degree of irregularity, even if written in simple eighth and quarter notes, can be very difficult! It is the easiest thing in the world to add an eighth rest or leave one out! So don't let the simplicity of the score fool you.

By the way, I am able to present these brief excerpts to you because Boosey and Hawkes has an excellent online site where you can view scores very easily:

These are just a few brief notes on the development of vocal style in the music of Steve Reich. One fact to note is that he owes pretty much nothing to any other composer, current or past. His writing for voice has been created pretty much from scratch, which is why it doesn't sound like anyone else. I think, once you get used to it, it is very refreshing and enjoyable.


Jeph said...

Been meaning to thank you for this post. That's an interesting through-line of development in his vocal style. I like the psalm settings.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I was very pleased to finally get around to listening to Tehillim.