Monday, October 3, 2011

Party with Steve

Steve Reich is 75 today! (Why is there no Google doodle?) It seems his birthday has been celebrated for a whole year at this point, but why not celebrate for so long if it's an excuse to listen to his music?

My Reich nerdiness has been well-established on this blog. So it should come as no surprise that there will be much celebration here this week too. Last year, I wrote a paper on Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal College of Music. I talked about the evolution of the piece from its original conception to eventual score to later recordings and how using the score affects performance.

I'll be posting bits of the essay here each day, so come back to here the story behind this monumental piece of music.

The music of Steve Reich is simple only in that it can be played in one of two ways: it can be either played well, or, to put it lightly, not so well.   The reason for this stark dichotomy in performance quality is due to the peculiar facets of Reich’s music such as the importance of pulse and the relative harmonic stasis.  The insistence of his music, particularly in works like Drumming and Music for Eighteen Musicians, leave almost no room for a performer’s (re)interpretation, resulting in the one good way to play the piece and the many poor ways.  What is ironic about this dichotomy is that one would expect that a piece with little room for interpretation to have very detailed written directions about how to perform it: a thick score filled with articulations on each note, and many text directions above the articulations.  Instead, many of Reich’s pieces were conceived and first performed without a formal written score.  In the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians, Reich worked on the piece for the better part of three years and little by little taught the piece to the musicians in, for the lack of a better word, his band.[1]  Though the composition was premiered in 1976 and recorded two years later, no full score existed until the year 1997.  Instead, Reich’s musicians would perform the piece with maybe a couple of pages of hand-written, taped-up cheat sheets.[2] Indeed, the original 1978 recording of Music for Eighteen Musicians on the ECM label was the piece’s score, as the musicians on it had internalized the music through rote rehearsal and presented what the piece should sound like.  

Now that a full score exists, does using the score to learn the piece affect the performance?  And considering the piece was written for a particular group of musicians of particular talents, why would someone go through the trouble of making a formal score?  The score for Music for Eighteen Musicians is a product of the piece’s power and success, as many musicians who would want to perform the piece would have previously been unable to unless they learned it from Steve Reich himself or from a devoted regimen of listening to the work. In that way, the score is not all that different than a transcription of a Duke Ellington big band chart: it provides a framework for new musicians to learn the piece, but a faithful and successful recreation must refer to the nuances of the original recorded performances that cannot be adequately expressed with notation. 

Much of Steve Reich’s oeuvre can be described as process music, a term he coined in a 1968 manifesto of sorts titled “Music as a Gradual Process.”  For Reich, process music is not just about using an impersonal method of determining pitches, rhythms, and other salient musical features, but creating a piece in which the compositional method is actually audible to the listener.[3]  While J.S. Bach’s crab canon in “A Musical Offering,” Milton Babbit’s manipulation of a tone row, and John Cage’s I Ching coin-flipping are all impersonal compositional processes where particular rules dictate the written music rather than composerly taste, no listener can actually recognize these processes while listening to the music.  From a cognitive standpoint, these patterns require more computing power to understand than the human brain has.[4] Reich’s own music from this time satisfies these stringent requirements, resulting in austere, yet stimulating pieces.  Reich’s early tape pieces like It’s Gonna’ Rain and Come Out feature the same short audio clip played at different speeds, creating a spine-tingling build in rhythmic tension.  Four Organs on the other hand is made up of a single dominant chord played repeatedly for gradually longer amounts of time over a simple maraca pulse.  The listening experience can be sublimely trance-inducing or viscerally painful, depending on the listener.[5]

However, Reich’s early music is both potent and memorable, not because the listener recognizes the inner processes in real time, rather because those processes yield novel and arresting sound worlds.  In an interview with Jonathan Cott, Reich notes that the first time he created phase shifting (by accident while working on the tape for It’s Gonna’ Rain), he had an intense emotional reaction to the ensuing sound.
The sensation I had in my head was that the sound moved over to my left ear, moved down to my left shoulder, down my left arm, down my leg, out across the floor to the left, and finally began to reverberate and shake.[6]
Reich’s compositions after “Music as a Gradual Process” were still driven by the development of simple processes, like phase shifting and augmentation, but were much richer sonically.  Reich’s phasing magnum opus Drumming from 1971 ends with bongos, marimbas, glockenspiels, piccolo, and voices playing thickly-layered rhythmic canons.  1973’s Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ expanded on the sonic palette of Drumming’s finale, replacing the earlier piece’s total harmonic stasis with a series of lush chord sequences that changed at specific points throughout the piece.

***Next, hear about Reich's compositional process and 18's first performance***

[1] K. Robert Schwarz, “Steve Reich: Music as a Gradual Process Part II,” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 20, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1981 - Summer, 1982), pp. 225-286.
[2] Interview with Russell Hartenberger by Daniel Tones.  Percussive Notes August 2007.

[3] Steve Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process,” in Writings on Music: 1965-2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
[4] For example, humans can only carry 7+/- 2 bits of information in their short term memory at a given time.  Because a tone row has 12 notes in it, it is impossible for a listener to keep track of all the notes at a given time, and therefore cannot recognize when the pattern is inverted or played around with. In terms of Cage’s processes, a simple experiment regarding predictions of coin flipping performed by Benjamin Cosman illustrates that humans are not good at predicting the behavior of a random event – humans predict more heads and tails run than what actually occur.  See
[5] After a performance of the piece with the Boston Symphony in 1971, the divided audience responded with “loud cheers, loud boos, and whistles.”  The audience at a later Carnegie Hall performance reacted even more violently, booing during the piece. Strickland, Edward (1993). Minimalism: Origins. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, pp. 221.
[6] Interview with Steve Reich by Jonathan Cott, Jonathan_Cott_interview.html

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