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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

Like Cage (and like the Dadaists before him), Reich proposed a limit case to test his theory to a logical extreme: a composition called Pendulum Music, composed (or more precisely, conceived of) in 1968, the same year as the manifesto. It was first performed at the university of Colorado–Boulder and repeated at the first all-Reich concert, which took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on 27 May 1969. Scored for “three or more microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers,” it is as close a musical analogue to the three ordinary process-experiences described in the manifesto (watching the swing, watching the hourglass, burying one's feet) as he could devise.

Secrets of Structure

fig. 8-3 New York premiere of Steve Reich's Pendulum Music, 27 May 1969.

According to the “score” (actually just a verbal instruction or “algorithm”), the microphones are “suspended from the ceiling or from microphone boom stands by their cables so that they all hang the same distance from the floor and are all free to swing with a pendular motion.” Loudspeakers are positioned under the microphones face upward, so that they will produce feedback noise when the microphones are directly above them. Then the microphones are pulled back and released. As they swing like pendulums over the loudspeakers, they produce a series of feedback pulses that will inevitably go out of phase as the pendulums, gradually coming to rest, slow down. Having released the mike-pendulums, the score specifies, “the performers then sit down to watch and listen to this process along with the rest of the audience.” What makes the music, then, is not the composer, not the performer, but it (call it the force of gravity).

In concept, Reich's Pendulum Music is virtually a duplicate of György Ligeti's notorious Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes of 1962 (see chapter 3). The difference is that the earlier piece was at least partly meant as a spoof, while Reich's was meant in deadly earnest—and also, taking far less time to unfold, makes a reasonable rather than comically preposterous demand on the listener's attention. Pendulum Music is the conceptual paradigm or limit-case to which all of Reich's early works for conventional performing forces can be meaningfully related.

But it does not require musicians for its performance. It often provided background music at exhibitions of “minimal” art, with the artists, or museum staff, doing the “performing.” As “furniture music,” it hardly fulfilled the composer's intention of providing a focus of close attention. That role was accomplished much more significantly, and with far greater impact, by Reich's “phase” compositions for pianos, violins, and log drums, composed between 1967 and 1969. Virtuoso pieces in their way, they were responses to the same impulse that motivated Riley's In C: the need to apply techniques first discovered in the realm of tape music to standard vocal and instrumental media.

But where Riley deliberately kept things easy, Reich's phase pieces can be arduous to execute with the required precision. It seems that he considered not only the back-transfer from tape to live music making itself but also the effort and the arduousness to be necessary if the product was to be effectively “humanized” and rendered communicative. The difficulty of his music, requiring skilled professionals for its performance and thereby satisfying a traditional elite modernist criterion, has made Reich, of all the composers who inhabit this chapter, the most academically acceptable. He has enjoyed far greater respect than the others among “uptown” musicians and “mainstream” critics.

Piano Phase (1967) is a three-part composition for two pianos, with each major section consisting of a one-measure diatonic or pentatonic module (or “basic unit” in Reich's terminology) that is subjected to the same phase process that Reich first achieved by retarding the turning of a tape reel. The first basic unit is shown in Ex. 8-4. It is an elusively complex rhythmic construction in its own right, a melody that emerges as a composite of two rhythmic figures in a hemiola relationship: the right hand plays three repetitions of the two-note group F♯-C♯ while the left plays two repetitions of the three-note group E-B-D. The interaction of patterns between the two hands is subtly complicated (or contradicted) by the differently patterned interaction of two distinct registers, E-F♯ and B-C♯-D, conjunct scale segments separated by a skip of a fourth.

Secrets of Structure

ex. 8-4 Steve Reich, Piano Phase, first “basic unit”

The two pianos begin by playing the figure in unison, the way the two tape recorders had begun in Come Out. While one pianist holds the tempo steady, the other very gradually gains on it, producing at first an enhanced resonance as the parts go slightly out of phase; then a kind of hocket, with the second piano playing on the “off thirty-seconds.” Finally, after another resonant blur, the second piano will be one sixteenth-note ahead of the first; here the two pianists are instructed to lock into the same tempo again, producing a sort of canon at the sixteenth-note which establishes a new point of departure for the next phasing process. After twelve such processes, the original unison is regained.

What is curious, and somewhat ironic given the premises of the “Gradual Process” manifesto, is the ambiguity of the overall structure. Listeners are normally aware only of the steady progress toward the goal of regained unison. According to the terms of the manifesto, that is exactly what the composer intended. But the manifesto contained an interesting escape clause: “Even when all the cards are on the table and everyone hears what is gradually happening in a musical process, there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all.”27 And indeed, there is a mysterious corollary to this or any other strict phase process: as a moment's reflection will confirm, its second half is (and must be) automatically the retrograde of the first half, with the relationship between the two players reversed. So, is the process a single linear gesture or a double, out-and-back trajectory like so much Western classical music?

This ambiguity was first pointed out by Paul Epstein, a music theorist on the faculty of Temple University, in an article of 1986, more than two decades after the piece was written.28 It turned out that, in seeming contradiction of Reich's manifesto, there was after all a “secret of structure” in Piano Phase that listeners did not know. But if, as seems likely, the composer himself was unaware of (or did not envision) the retrograde, which was irrelevant to his purpose in composing the piece, then his famous maxim—“I don't know any secrets of structure that you can't hear”—remains literally true. (Of course, the last three words of the maxim are another escape clause, since—exactly as Milton Babbitt has always argued—once anything has been pointed out and conceptualized, it can be heard.) Nothing, it turns out, not even a minimalist structure, is ever devoid of ambiguity.

Reich's last strict, if somewhat simplified, phase composition took the minimalist ideal to another sort of limit. Clapping Music (1972) is instrumental music without instruments, or rather, percussion music made with the body alone. Two performers begin in unison, clapping a simple riff that one of them will maintain unchanged throughout the piece. As in Piano Phase, the riff contains twelve subtactile pulses. The other player, skipping the gradual speedup, jumps to the second “phase,” in which the pattern is rendered as a canon at an interval of one pulse. After a while, a similar jump extends the canon to an interval of two pulses, then three, and so on until unison is regained. All the notation that is needed to perform this or any other algorithmic composition is the basic unit, plus instructions for permuting it. Nevertheless, Ex. 8-5 shows all the permutations so as to make all the resulting hockets and syncopations scannable at a glance.

Secrets of Structure

ex. 8-5 Steve Reich, Clapping Music

Comparing the unison rests in the thirteen modules will bring the palindrome effect easily into view. Nos. 1 and 13, of course, are identical. Nos. 2, 7 (the midpoint), and 12 are also identical: they are the ones without any unison rests. Nos. 3 and 11 each have one unison rest. If you scan no. 3 beginning at the rest from left to right, and no. 11 beginning at the rest from right to left, they will match. Nos. 4 and 10 have two unison rests. Scan no. 4 from left to right beginning at its first unison rest, and no. 10 from right to left beginning at its second unison rest, and they will match. Nos. 5 and 9, with one unison rest, will match if scanned the way 3 and 11 were scanned. Nos. 6 and 8 have two unison rests. Scan them the way nos. 4 and 10 were scanned, and they too will match. None of this will be obvious to a casual listener; this piece, too, has its “secret structure.”

Clapping Music was written for the road, when the ensemble known as Steve Reich and Musicians began touring. (“Hands,” Reich drily explained, “are easy to transport.”) It was used as an introductory piece, to give the audience an instant grasp of what “gradual process” meant. By then, however, having laid his conceptual foundation with a manifesto (“Music as Gradual Process”), a limit piece (Pendulum Music), and various strict phase exercises for tape and live performers, Reich had somewhat relaxed the rigor of his procedures. On the model of the African and Indonesian musics he was learning, he began experimenting with patterned processes that were less predictable than the “pure” phase pieces with which he had found his voice. But even if less predictable, they remained just as inexorable.

The work that really showed the possibilities of Reichian minimalism was Four Organs (1970). The small and relatively inexpensive electric organs for which the piece is scored, called Farfisas, were a staple of rock bands. The very necessary accompaniment was provided by a pair of maracas, which provide a constant subtactile pulse against which the gradually unfolding structural process could be precisely measured. That new process was the gradual filling of the available sound-space within the basic unit. Ex. 8-6 shows the beginning of the process, and the end.

Secrets of StructureSecrets of Structure

ex. 8-6 Steve Reich, Four Organs, beginning (figs. 1–8) and end (last two figures)

At the outset, the available space is measured out by the maracas with eleven pulses. For minimalist purposes that is a magic number, because it is a prime number. Divisible neither by two nor by three, it remains always subtactile; it cannot be grouped mentally into a regular tactus or felt beat. In practice, the eleven is subdivided into 3 + 8, as established by the basic unit, which consists simply of two identical chords that fall on the first and fourth pulse of each measure. The process that governs the entire piece, while unrelated to “phasing,” was similarly systematic and rigorous. It consists of a single “rhythmic construction” (Reich's term) that gradually replaces the rests in the basic unit with notes, as shown in Ex. 8-6.

Once the basic unit has been filled—or as Keith Potter nicely puts it, once “the original pairs of irregularly pulsing chords have silted up into a continuous sound”29 —the unit begins to lengthen, eventually expanding to a gargantuan 265 measures of held-out but internally fluctuating harmony that reminds many listeners (including Reich, who claimed to have been inspired by it) of Perotin's late twelfth-century organa quadrupla for the Cathedral of Notre Dame—another remote yet direct influence, this one collapsing more than seven centuries of historical time, made possible by recordings. The held-out chord is one often described by jazz musicians as a “dominant eleventh,” in which an extra pair of thirds is stacked on top of a dominant seventh built on E, thus: E-G♯-B-D-F♯-A. In practice, since the top A is sounded during the early stages of the piece only on the first and fourth eighths, it seems to resolve like an appoggiatura to the held-over G♯, the first alteration to the basic unit.

That impression of resolution is confirmed by the way in which Four Organs comes to an end. Unlike Reich's phase pieces, it neither comes full circle nor reaches a saturation point. Instead, the low E and its doublings are filtered out of the last sustained chord, followed very slowly by the remaining notes one by one, until the piece finally comes to an end, somewhat surprisingly, on the two highest pitches, the fourth E-A. The fact that this ending takes listeners by surprise belies Reich's semifacetious contention that all that Four Organs comes down to, finally, is a single, enormously slowed and sustained V–I cadence in A major. The experience of listening to it should be enough to convince anyone that functional harmony is as much a function of rhythm as it is of pitch relations; distend the former enough and you dissolve the latter. But Four Organs does signal a new (or revived) interest in harmonic progression and voice leading, and does return pitch to a position of significance, if not primacy, in the articulation of musical shape.


(27) Ibid.

(28) Paul Epstein, “Pattern Structure and Process in Steve Reich's Piano Phase,” Musical Quarterly LXXII (1986): 146–77.

(29) Potter, Four Musical Minimalists, p. 201.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008007.xml