Unreal Nature

February 2, 2018

Different Time at the Same Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:36 am

… Sustaining instruments like strings or the electric organ often move at a very slow rate of change in my pieces while chattering in their midst is a thriving anthill — the metropolis is buzzing, but the clouds overhead are passing calmly over a field.

This is from ‘The Desert MusicSteve Reich in Conversation with Jonathan Cott‘ (1984) found in Writings on Music 1965-2000 by Steve Reich (2002):

Jonathan Cott: All great events, William Blake once stated, start with the pulsation of an artery. It’s almost as if one could say, “In the beginning was the Pulse.” And in the beginning of The Desert Music, one immediately enters the realm of pulsation.

Steve Reich: Purely. And without anything else added. The opening of the piece is a kind of chorale, only instead of individual chords sounding for a given length of held notes, they’re pulsed; instead of a steady tone, you get rapid eighth-notes repeating over and over again, which sets up a kind of rhythmic energy that you’d never get if the notes were sustained. And that energy is maintained in different ways by the mallet instruments throughout the work.

[ … ]

JC: It becomes pulsation again.

SR: Pulsation and vocalise, pure sound. “I am awake / awake. The mind / is listening.” And off you go into pulsation. Words come to an end, and musical communication takes over.

JC: Two of the things that contribute to musical communication in The Desert Music are the amazing ways you use and develop a kind of rhythmic ambiguity that occurs in a good deal of African music, as well as a kind of simultaneous elaboration of simple musical materials at different speeds — something that is at the heart of Balinese music.

SR: Listening to umm-pah-pah, umm-pah-pah over and over again is intolerable and, indeed, a mistake. So if you want to write music that is repetitive in any literal sense, you have to work to keep a lightness and constant ambiguity with regard to where the stresses and where the beginnings and endings are.

[line break added] Very often, I’ll find myself working in 12-beat phrases, which can divide up in very different ways; and that ambiguity as to whether you’re in duple or triple time is, in fact, the rhythmic life-blood of much of my music. In this way, one’s listening mind can shift back and forth within the musical fabric, because the fabric encourages that. But if you don’t build in that flexibility of perspective, then you wind up with something extremely flat-footed and boring.

As for your second point about combining different musical speeds: years ago, someone said rather testily to me, “Don’t you ever write any slow music?” Actually, it was a good question. What I asked that person in response was, “In my Octet, are you going to concentrate on listening to the pianos — that’s the rhythm section of fast eighth-notes that never let up — or to the strings, which are playing much more spaciously?

[line break added] Sustaining instruments like strings or the electric organ often move at a very slow rate of change in my pieces while chattering in their midst is a thriving anthill — the metropolis is buzzing, but the clouds overhead are passing calmly over a field. And that gives the listener the possibility of not necessarily listening just to one thing or the other; it allows them to realize that different things are happening at the same time. What I’m trying to do is to present a slow movement and a fast movement simultaneously in such a way that they make music together.

My most recent previous post from Reich’s book is here.

-Julie

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