Composition Study #10

Posted by PH on June 01, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students

This week: Minimalism continued. Having focussed on Steve Reich with the last study, and having had an intermediate lecture where we looked at the cultural context of the form, we concentrated this week on Philip Glass.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the compositional techniques of Reich and Glass are quite dissimilar. Reich’s fundamental technique is canonic “phase shifting” (notching parts in time against each other), whereas Glass’s basic technique is additive composition, an idea he derived from Indian classical music. A quick look at one of his early scores will clearly show how this works:


Figure 1 on the score is the “basic unit”. In Figure 2 the three middle quavers are repeated giving us an 8-quaver pattern. In Figure 3 the two first notes of the basic unit are added onto the end of Figure 2 twice, now giving us a 15-quaver pattern. Etcetera. Hence additive composition. Although this seems ridiculously simplistic it has some interesting consequences.

Firstly, the piece has no given time signature as such. It may have a basic pulse but effectively the additive process “automatically” changes the time signature as we move between figures: 5/8 to 8/8 to 15/8 and so on.

Secondly, if there is a “minimalism” at work here it is in the extremely limited amount of musical material being manipulated: in short, we’re not using many notes. There is no sense of any “teleological” harmonic progression towards some musical climax or cadence, and in fact in his early pieces (up to and including Music in 12 Parts) it is not uncommon for Glass to fashion a compelling and sometimes very beautiful 20-minute piece out of four or five notes.

Thirdly, Glass’s meticulous planning of the development of the Figures give his work that incredible sensation of rhythmic “wheels-within-wheels”. In fact it is exactly because he uses so few notes that this mechanism works so effectively: note how in Figure 4 the G-Bflat-C triplet in the top line changes position from the previous pattern, how the partial repeat of the next descending triplet creates a little rhythmic hiccup, and how the repetition of the opening two-note figure now closes the pattern. It is almost as if using the same notes over and over again in different combinations forces us to concentrate on their rhythmic interplay.

Finally, although you can’t see it from the example I’ve included here, even when you’re limiting yourself to just a handful of notes the patterns cycling against each other in their dizzying permutations generates the harmonic structure of the piece. In other words, as the parts layer up you effectively create a harmonic “stack” that changes configuration as the additive elements modulate against each other.

So it’s all very clever and incredibly hard to do well (and just how hard I found out for myself of course). This week’s composition specification read something like this:

Create a piece that has at least two distinct rhythmic streams:

  1. Fixed.
  2. Uses additive composition to produce polyrhythmic effects against (1).
  3. With a coherent harmonic scheme developed between them.

I decided to create a (synthetic) vocal piece, inspired by “Part 1” of Music in 12 Parts and the “Vessels” section of the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. Here it is:


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