Monday, July 2, 2012

Steve Reich: Early Works

Here is another entry in the continuing series of albums the calls into question how music is defined.  Steve Reich is considered one of the foremost practitioners of "minimalism" in classical music, though the extremely modern sense of his work seems counter to any notion of "classical." The Nonesuch album, Early Works, released in 1987 explores Reich's novel ideas of composition and instrumentation.

At any rate, in January 1965, Reich recorded a street Pentecostal preacher who styled himself "Brother Walter" pontificating at San Francisco's Union Square.  Reich then worked at home on what became "It's Gonna Rain," developing tape loops on Walter's voice and stumbled upon the proces of having a pair of identical loops move out of phase in a very gradual way.  Then, the two voices are edited to four and the pairs of voices are manipulated to move out of phase.  Then, the four voices become eight and, in the liners, Reich described this as "a kind of controlled chaos," though those not inclined to this type of "music," might find it all chaotic!  Still, the composer suggests that this "may be appropriate to the subject matter—the end of the world," which is an interesting way to approach the piece.

A follow-up piece of sorts is "Come Out," which was created in 1966 and has a very timely context.  As explained by Reich, the piece was for a New York City benefit to assist in the retrial of six young men arrested for murder during civil unrest in Harlem a couple of years before.  The voice in the piece was that of one of the six, Daniel Hamm, describing a pummeling he received from police at the station and refers to where he opened a bruise on his leg so it would bleed and he could be taken to a hospital and away from the terror at the precinct station.  "Come Out" consists of one loop on two channels, starting in unison and then going out of phase as a reverberation arises.  Subsequently, there are two, four and, again, eight voices.

Reich noted that his technique in these two works, referred to as "vocal music," shows "the original emotional power that speech has while intensifying its melody and meaning through repetition and rhythm."

Having completed these two landmark pieces, Reich turned to instrumental music with 1967's "Piano Phase," in which phase shifting was employed with a musical notation form that Reich devised with "a small number of repeating patterns which may be learned and memorized in a few minutes."  Two pianists play together repeating the same pattern in unison, until one remains in the same tempo while the others increases theirs to one beat ahead.  The work continues with the playing in unison and then back to the "phasing process" described above.   What Reich identifies as essential in this is a careful listening "in order to hear if you've moved one beat ahead, or moved two by mistake, or instead drifted back to where you started."  For the two musicians to perform the piece well involves, not improvised elements, but a "psychology of performance" in a complete sense immersion in the sound.

The last track is "Clapping Music" from 1971, developed when Reich and an ensemble traveled in Europe.  Although they had an enormous amount of instruments and equipment, the composer wanted "to create a piece of music that would need no instruments beyond the human body."  In a variation of phase shifting, Reich organized the piece so that one performer kept a fixed rhythm, while another moved quickly from unison to a beat ahead and then back to unison and repeating these patterns.  With concentration, it can be discerned that both performers are playing identical patterns, but starting differently.

While "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out" are the original 1960s recordings, the other two pieces were recorded in 1986 and 1987 for the album: Reich teaming with Russ Hartenberger for "Clapping Music" and the keyboard duo "Double Edge" of Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann performing "Piano Phase."

If the listener accepts the idea the music is organized sound, which this blog views as the base definition, then the use of the spoken voice and the clapping of hands, not traditionally seen as instruments, as well as a use of the piano in a non-traditional fashion, are musical.  This is especially seen rhythmically, but also in a variation of what constitutes melody.  In the tumult and ferment of the Sixties, these early pieces of Reich's are landmarks, though certainly not for those who are drawn towards more orthodox approaches towards music and composition.

Steve Reich:  Early Works (Nonesuch, 1987)

1.  Come Out  12:54
2.  Piano Phase  20:26
3.  Clapping Music  4:39
4.  It's Gonna Rain  17:31

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