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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:
- Uses additive composition to produce polyrhythmic effects against (1).
- 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:
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:
- Create a modal pattern using quavers in 12/8.
- Build up texture and harmony using canonic “phase shifting”.
- Use substitution: rests for beats and vice versa.
- Try and experiment with dynamics to accentuate rhythmic interplay.
- Homophonic instrumental texture.
- Produce a ‘B’ section using another mode.
- No bass line or downbeat.
- Try and keep it under 5 minutes long.
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…