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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

For many listeners, the most characteristic and style-defining aspect of In C is the constant audible eighth-note pulse that underlies and coordinates all of the looping, and that seems, because it provides a constant pedal of Cs, to be fundamentally bound up with the work's concept. Like much modernist practice since at least Stravinsky, it puts the rhythmic spotlight on the “subtactile” level, accommodating and facilitating the free metamorphosis of the felt beat—for example, from quarters to dotted quarters at the twenty-second module of In C—and allows their multiple presence to be felt as levels within a complex texture. It may be surprising, therefore, to learn that the constant C-pulse was an afterthought, adopted in rehearsal for what seemed at the time a purely utilitarian purpose (simply to keep the group together in lieu of a conductor), and that it was not even Riley's idea. It was Reich's.

Steve Reich came from a background very different from Young's and Riley's. Where they had a rural, working-class upbringing on the West Coast, Reich was born into a wealthy, professional-class family in cosmopolitan New York. Like most children of his economic class, Reich had traditional piano lessons and plenty of exposure to what in later years he mildly derided as the “bourgeois classics.” He had an elite education culminating in a Cornell baccalaureate with a major in philosophy. Then came a year of intense private instruction in composition with Hall Overton (1920–72), a composer who combined classical and jazz idioms in a manner comparable to Gunther Schuller's Third Stream (see chapter 7).

Next, Reich put in three years of graduate study in the Juilliard School's rigorous and traditional (though nonserial) composition program, studying with prominent pedagogues like Vincent Persichetti (1915–87), who had been Overton's teacher, and William Bergsma (1921–94). Finally, lured by the presence of Luciano Berio on the faculty, Reich enrolled at Mills College for a master's degree, which he received in 1963. It was the sort of training that usually led to a career as an elite modernist rather than an avant-gardist.

In interviews, Reich has stated that the impressions that led him to his own personal musical predilections, and eventually to his decision to attempt a career as a composer, date from his fifteenth year, when friends introduced him, in close succession, to recordings of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and bebop, then the most modern form of jazz. The obvious common denominator of what might otherwise seem the three unrelated styles that aroused his enthusiasm is, of course, the presence of a strongly articulated subtactile pulse, the very thing that Reich (who participated in the first performances) contributed to In C. Baroque music has it, a lot of twentieth-century music (including both Stravinsky's “Russian” style and jazz) has it, but the repertoire of “bourgeois classics”—the music “from Haydn to Wagner,” as in this chapter's epigraph—generally lacks it. Rejecting the traditional classical repertoire as a source of inspiration was Reich's first youthful “avant-garde” gesture.

Having discovered that subtactile “rhythmic profile” (as he called it), Reich switched from piano lessons to lessons in drumming. Significantly, though, his first percussion teacher was a “classical” one—who later became the principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic, no less. It was only at Mills College that he discovered, again through recordings, the “non-Western” styles of percussion playing—West African drumming and Balinese gamelan—that effectively liberated his creative thinking from the assumptions of his traditional training. Eventually, he sought out native teachers in these traditions (drumming in Accra, Ghana, in 1970; gamelan in Seattle and Berkeley in 1973–1974) to gain hands-on experience. But the decisive, appetite-inducing exposure came through records. The global or “world music” orientation that Reich's music (like most minimalist music) exemplifies and serves is thus among the most palpable indications of the way recording technology redefined musical transmission in the twentieth century.

Late-twentieth-century transmission, in a word, was “horizontal.” All musics past and present, nearby and far away, were, thanks to recording and communications technology, simultaneously and equally accessible to any musician in the world. The way in which this horizontal transmission supplanted the “vertical” transmission of styles in chronological single file (the assumption on which all historicist thinking depends) was the genuine musical revolution of the late twentieth century, the full implications of which will be realized only in the twenty-first and beyond. Its immediate effect on Reich, and the many composers his work has stimulated, was to convince him—to quote one of those composers, John Adams (b. 1947)—that a truly valid twentieth-century music would be “a music that is essentially percussive and pulse-generated rather than melodic and phrase-generated.”19

After finishing the master's course at Mills, Reich stayed in the San Francisco Bay Area for a while and was associated, like many avant-gardists there, with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. (That was where he met and befriended Riley.) The earliest pieces of his to achieve wide notice were a pair of tape-loop compositions inspired directly by In C. The first, It's Gonna Rain (1965; originally titled “It's Gonna Rain; or, Meet Brother Walter in Union Square after Listening to Terry Riley”), was based on just the three titular words, spliced out of a recording of a gospel sermon delivered by Brother Walter, a San Francisco street preacher, in November 1964. The sermon was about Noah and the Flood. The implied warning of the title phrase, in the context of the scariest phases of the cold war like the still recent Cuban missile crisis, was timely and topical.

The other tape-loop piece, Come Out (1966), had a political subtext related to the civil-rights struggles of the sixties. It became Reich's breakthrough to recognition, thanks to its inclusion in one of David Behrman's Columbia records (New Sounds in Electronic Music, 1967). The composer's original program note described both the occasion that inspired the piece and the distinctive technical process that made it a milestone in the emergence of minimalism:

Come Out was composed as part of a benefit, presented at [New York's] Town Hall in April, 1966, for the re-trial, with lawyers of their own choosing, of the six boys arrested for murder during the Harlem riots of 1964. The [recorded] voice is that of Danniel Hamm, then nineteen, describing a beating he took in the Harlem 28th precinct. The police were about to take the boys out to be “cleaned up” and were only taking those that were visibly bleeding. Since Hamm had no actual open bleeding, he proceeded to squeeze open a bruise on his leg so that he would be taken to the hospital—“I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”

The phrase “come out to show them” was recorded in both channels, first in unison and then with channel 2 slowly beginning to move ahead. As the phase begins to shift, a gradually increasing reverberation is heard which slowly passes into a sort of canon or round. Eventually the two voices divide into four and then into eight.

By restricting oneself to a small amount of material organized by a single uninterrupted process, one's attention can become focused on details that usually slip by. A single repeated and gradually changing figure may well be heard as a composite of several figures. Finally, at any given moment, it is open to the listener as to which pattern within the pattern he hears.20

After becoming a famous and much-interviewed figure, Reich tended to romanticize as serendipity, a happy accident, the discovery of the “phasing” process, through which identical tape loops feeding into two speakers or headphones go in and out of phase with one another (or more precisely, out and back into phase). According to one version of this much-repeated account, he intended the two channels through which he played It's Gonna Rain to remain synchronized, but on the cheap equipment he was using, one unexpectedly began to gain on the other. “The sensation I had in my head,” as they played into the composer's earphones, “was that the sound moved over to my left ear, moved down to my left shoulder, down my left arm, down my leg, out across the floor to the left, and finally began to reverberate and shake” before it eventually “came back together in the center of my head.”21

The point of the story as told and retold in retrospect is that the composer, in defiance of his modernist upbringing, was willing to decide that the phase phenomenon itself was more interesting than anything he might do with it, so he simply allowed it to play itself out. In its provocative modesty it was a genuinely avant-garde, shock-the-bourgeois gesture, and it was amply repaid with abuse from the relevant bourgeoisie, the academic modernists from whose ranks Reich had defected. They represented the status quo, he a force for change—hence a true avant-garde movement, neither conservative nor nostalgic, even though it renounced complexity and social alienation.

The controversies that swirled around minimalism when it began to have an impact confirmed the basic truth of the situation Reich's parable symbolized, but the parable as such was just a story. In fact, It's Gonna Rain and Come Out were planned from the start to exploit the “phasing” process, which Terry Riley had already discovered in a couple of tape pieces from 1964–65 that used another feedback device (somewhat more sophisticated than the echoplex), which Riley had christened the “time-lag accumulator.” Reich employed a more rudimentary technology: he merely applied his thumb to the supply reel feeding the second channel to slow it slightly and allow the first to gain time. Then he rerecorded the mix of the two channels and repeated the process to produce a four-part phase texture, and then doubled it again so that eventually the sound texture consisted of eight parts in a very complex ratio of speeds. That was no serendipity: it took a great deal of premeditated labor.

Reich's phase compositions did differ considerably from Riley's, however. As Keith Potter, a historian of minimalism, emphasizes, “while Riley always allowed his patterns to accumulate into a psychedelic wash of sound, Reich generally stressed the audibility of his gradually shifting phase relations.”22 It was the process—inexorable and systematic—that mattered to him, because it gave the music a sense of purpose, or what Kant (as a former philosophy major like Reich would surely have remembered) called Zweckmässigkeit, the likeness of a purpose. For Kant that was the essence of art, and so it was for Reich.

Anything that goes back to Kant goes back to the very dawn of esthetics. But Reich's stripped-down purposiveness differed to such a degree from the conventional expressive or formal purposes of art (to say nothing of the crasser purposes of pop) as to seem new in kind. He expounded his philosophy in a forbiddingly grim (and rather prim) essay of 1968 called “Music as a Gradual Process.” “I do not mean the process of composition, but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes,” the manifesto began, and then continued in short explosive paragraphs like planks in a political platform. Here are a few:

The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the overall form simultaneously.

I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.

To facilitate closely detailed listening, a musical process should happen extremely gradually. Performing and listening to a gradual musical process resembles:

pulling back a swing, releasing it, and observing it gradually come to rest; turning over an hourglass and watching the sand slowly run through to the bottom; placing your feet in the sand by the ocean's edge and watching, feeling, and listening to the waves gradually bury them.

Though I may have the pleasure of discovering musical processes and composing the musical material to run through them, once the process is set up and loaded, it runs by itself.

What I'm interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing. While performing and listening to gradual musical processes, one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outward toward it.23

The italicized it and the implied overcoming of self described in the last paragraph have a Zen Buddhist ring, which brings John Cage to mind. But although he acknowledged the influence of Cage on his thinking, Reich nevertheless rejected Cage's music, because “the processes he used were compositional ones that could not be heard when the piece was performed; the process of using the I Ching or imperfections in a sheet of paper to determine musical parameters can't be heard when listening to music composed that way.”24 In other words, Cageian indeterminacy had the same fatal flaw as academic serialism: “the compositional processes and the sounding music have no audible connection,” and therefore, for Reich, are devoid of listening (as opposed to analytical or historical) interest.

More explicitly than most musicians at the time, Reich made a political point of this. Citing the complaint of another composer that in the kind of musical process he envisioned “the composer isn't privy to anything,”25 Reich insisted that that is just the way things ought to be. The next sentence was Reich's most outspoken challenge to the reigning modernist aesthetic: “I don't know any secrets of structure that you can't hear.”26 The composer's implicit ascendancy over the listener was overthrown. Reich deliberately cast himself, like Schoenberg before him, as a Great Emancipator. But whereas Schoenberg (like Cage) purported to liberate sounds, Reich (like a sixties agitator) was out to liberate people.


(19) John Adams, “Reich, Steve [Stephen] (Michael),” in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. IV (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 23.

(20) Liner note to Odyssey Stereo 32 16 0160 (1967).

(21) Jonathan Cott, “Interview with Steve Reich,” in Steve Reich: Works 1965–1995, booklet accompanying Nonesuch Records 79451-2 (set of 10 compact discs), p. 28.

(22) Potter, Four Musical Minimalists, p. 165.

(23) “Music as a Gradual Process” (1968), in Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 34–36, condensed.

(24) Ibid., p. 35.

(25) James Tenney, quoted in Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process,” Writing on Music, p. 35.

(26) “Music as a Gradual Process,” Writings on Music, p. 35.

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. 26 Feb. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008006.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 26 Feb. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008006.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 26 Feb. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008006.xml