The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Music since 1960: Reich: It's Gonna Rain 

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Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

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I once wrote a deliberately provocative essay, called 'Steve Reich is a Modernist, Brian Ferneyhough is a Postmodernist'. In this I tried to show, by deliberately inverting the labels lazy thinkers attach to these two composers, the ultimate meaninglessness of such labels. I still stick to that conclusion, but perhaps the way I went about demonstrating it wasn't the best advised. The Reich piece I wrote about was Piano Phase, of 1967, and I set out to compare it with the epitome of high modernist musical abstraction, Pierre Boulez's Structures, 1a. Reich, I argued, had taken a short musical unit, and through rigorous milling had ground all content from it, until the music became about the process, and not the point-by-point detail. Boulez, in his carefully worked-out serial schemes for Structures, 1a was doing pretty much the same thing. And both, I argued, could have written very similar pieces with entirely different musical units to begin with. The actual content of those units, through the process of the pieces themselves, became pretty irrelevant.

Needless to say, I didn't get the greatest mark ever, but not because my tutor disliked my juxtaposition of Boulez and Reich - in actual fact, I think Reich may actually acknowledge the influence. A number of the early minimalists wrote serial works as students, in which - in a simplified analogy to Boulez's own work - the 12-note rows just kept repeating, unchanging. Boulez allowed himself to mix them up a bit, but the methods were not dissimilar. The problem was that if Reich himself did compose as I suggested he might, we could assume that he gave very little thought at all to the composition of his initial musical unit, the element that would undergo all the repetitions and phases. Of course this is not true. One only need consider It's Gonna Rain (recording), one of the forerunners to Piano Phase to appreciate this.

The compositional method of It's Gonna Rain, and the phase pieces that followed is well known, but for those that don’t know it, it goes roughly as follows. Reich recorded on tape a sermon on Noah and the Flood, given by one Brother Walter, a Harlem street preacher. From this, he cut various tape loops, including 'It's gonna rain', and ran them on two tape recorders, simlutaneously. Reich noticed that because of imperfections in the machines, one loop ran very slightly faster than the other. As a result, the two loops, which had begun in synchrony, moved slowly out of phase, creating a gradually shifting pattern of sounds until they eventually shifted back into phase, one loop behind one another. In the piece itself, Reich draws on this discovery, using different loops and edits, and in the second part of the piece he expands the number of simultaneous loops to a Babel-like eight. After further experiments with his second tape piece Come Out, Reich moved into instrumental composition, beginning with pieces that included notated systems for creating these phase patterns.

There's a good interview with Reich by Jason Gross, in which Reich talks about the importance of the semantic content of his material. It's Gonna Rain was composed at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the apocalyptic words of the preacher's Noah sermon fit the mood of the moment. There's little doubt that the two 'phase' pieces that use spoken word tape loops (It's Gonna Rain and Come Out) are far more difficult emotionally than the anaesthetised intellectualism of the instrumental phase pieces (eg. Piano Phase and Violin Phase). Even a cursory glance at the Amazon reviews will give you an indication of that. A couple of years ago I heard an outstanding paper by Sumanth Gopinath titled 'The Strange Career of Come Out: the problems of "race" in the reception of minimalism', in which the Gopinath went so far as to analyse the sonic disintegration of Come Out in terms of racial violence. It was a pretty convincing argument; what is certainly remarkable about both tape pieces is the range of emotion Reich discovers through such a simple process. I see now that this can only have come as a result of such strong content in the first place, and from such a sensitive approach to the nuances and inflections of that content.

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