Composition Study #9

Posted by PH on May 25, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students

Picking up the “story” in the late 1950s and early 1960s we moved on to consider Minimalism.

And before we go any further of course we’d need to at least mention in passing the dubious provenance of that moniker and the fact that it’s almost meaningless when one considers the diverse outputs of four composers normally associated with it (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). Admittedly they emerge from a common milieu and share at least one important conceptual frame—a rejection of both the straightjacket of serialism and Cage’s indeterminacy, and a subsequent embracing of the consequences of these rejections—but their solutions are all markedly different. Even the apparent family resemblance between the key Minimalist works (Riley’s In C, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and Glass’s Music in 12 Parts) is deceptive: as compositions and as musical structures they have very little in common. If there is a “minimalism” here it is at the most superficial level.

Steve Reich then. I chose Reich to introduce the subject because—accepting the genre stereotyping—his work seems most typical, and in it we can trace the music’s development most clearly. To start with then we have his early tape pieces (in turn inspired by his work in San Francisco with Terry Riley):

Having “discovered” the phasing process, the next step was to apply this to performances on “real” music instruments:

Experimentation with this limited palette was then developed to embrace his own ensemble and a wider (and by now typically Reichian) tonal palette:

Crucially, this was followed by the realisation that the actual “phase transitions” were unnecessary, and that is was both possible and preferable for parts to simply “jump” to the next beat. This, along with an expanded harmonic language and the introduction of strings and woodwind into the existing mallet-dominated ensemble sound, allowed Reich to produce his only bona fide masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians. This ECM recording remains the definitive version:

Following this piece (in 1976) Reich moved away from Minimalism, firstly by writing for standard orchestral resources and secondly by embarking on a musical investigation into his own Jewish roots (and all that implies). His later major works such as Tehillim and Desert Music are just not very good. Perhaps his most successful “post-Minimalist” piece is Different Trains, but even though this is musically and sonically successful it is hamstrung by the stubbornly undramatic nature of the speech materials that form the central armature the work (which, considering the almost cosmically tragic nature of the subject matter, is difficult to overlook).


Anyway. We created a set of compositional rules for this week’s piece:

  1. Create a modal pattern using quavers in 12/8.
  2. Build up texture and harmony using canonic “phase shifting”.
  3. Use substitution: rests for beats and vice versa.
  4. Try and experiment with dynamics to accentuate rhythmic interplay.
  5. Homophonic instrumental texture.
  6. Produce a ‘B’ section using another mode.
  7. No bass line or downbeat.
  8. Try and keep it under 5 minutes long.

Here’s mine:

This one’s in danger of being a pastiche—and I hate pastiche—but because I’ve had to jam the whole thing into two-and-a-half minutes and because it’s 2013 not 1976 I think I just about get away with it. You may disagree…


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